Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Have you checked the children?

{Photo by Odlandscape.}

Yesterday I used some lines from Michel Tournier's The Mirror of Ideas to describe adult fears. Later in that essay, Tournier notes,
The child walking in the dark comforts himself with a song. Jean Cocteau tells that when he tried this remedy, he ended up being terrified by the words he invented to the song.
Children's fears burgeon that way--kids aren't yet all that good at the sort of denial of unwanted thoughts that most adults master; they're not as good at coaxing their minds away from the things that have scared them. If adult fear is rooted in death, a child's fear is rooted in a more general not-knowing: the world is large and little-understood, even by a perceptive kid. There is much to fear.

Returning once more to the book that kicked off I've Been Reading Lately's ghost and monster week, 'Salem's Lot: Stephen King marks that distinction between children and adults, writing that adult fears are
pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek to jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. . . . with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.
That openness to fear lines up, too, with the position held by many who actually believe in the supernatural that children are more open to and aware of the otherworldly. They haven't yet, the argument goes, set limits on which of their perceptions they're willing to accept, which to dismiss before they even reach the level of consciousness. Rebecca West, in The Fountain Overflows (1957), her somewhat autobiographical novel of growing up in a poor and talented family, allows her young characters some of that perceptiveness. For a few months the children live with--and maybe even psychically generate--a poltergeist. In another particularly striking scene, late at night in a deserted stables, the young narrator's sensitivity is nearly powerful enough to bring to life--even for her mother--the spectral horses she sees stamping and snorting in the stalls:
My mother's eyes moved to my face. The horses in the stalls became luminous shapes. We knew that if we willed it, if we made a movement of the mind comparable with the action of throwing all one's weight on one foot, we could make them visible as ourselves.
All of which returns me to my own story of seeing a ghost, about which I wrote last October:
I have no memory of it, but I've been told by my parents, no wild-eyed new-agers they, that it happened when I was three or four, while our family was being given a tour of a house in Colonial Williamsburg. I turned to my mother and, pointing to the empty corner of a room and said, "Look, Mommy--there's a ghost." The guide blanched and told my parents that the house was rumored to be haunted.

Even though it's not much of a story, and I don't remember a bit of it, that surely has to land me squarely in the large category of "I don't believe in ghosts, but . . . ."

I suppose one could keep far worse company than William James.


  1. Hello, I am really enjoying your whole October series and this post in particular. I wrote about it!
    "Spinster Aunt"

  2. Thanks--I'm glad you're enjoying them! (And I love the spooky woods photo the leads off your post!)