When we read fairy tales and legends we tend to think of them as archaic beliefs that our modern, intellectual society has left far behind. Yet even in this scientific and technological age, there are supernatural characters that are still presented to children as real. Especially at this time of year, I’m fascinated by this holiday season in which we celebrate fear.
Certain folkloric characters are still used to scare children into good behavior. In a conversation a while back, I was surprised to hear one friend say that his mom used to threaten himself and his brother with the Boogeyman if they didn’t behave. I didn’t think that people my age would have been raised to fear him — to be honest I only have vague notions of who he is (and those perceptions mainly came from the Veggie Tales song “God is Bigger than the Boogeyman” and the Oogey-Boogey Man from “Nightmare Before Christmas.”) But the Boogeyman or related monsters are pretty universal – just check out this list of Boogeyman variants and beliefs around the world! Whether children have trouble with eating their food, not staying out after dark, or sucking their thumbs, most cultures have a grotesque monster who might kidnap them and often will try to cook and eat them.
Alongside these male monster figures, we are familiar with related the female version, witches who might lure children in and even try to eat them as well. Another friend, who grew up in Poland, said that as a child she was regularly threatened with Baba Yaga! Though not so well known in America in general, Baba Yaga is definitely well known in fairy tale circles. The witch was a common figure in folk tales in Russia and countries like Poland as well. Agnieszka recalls, “I was definitely threatened about Baba Yaga coming to get me if I misbehaved, that she would take me back to her house on a chicken foot. I definitely believed it and it scared the heebie-jeebies out of me so I behaved! “
I don’t know how I feel about the idea of parents scaring their children with monsters and villains if they don’t behave. Not only does it sound a little cruel to give them such terrifying lies, but it seems like parents are avoiding the blame for disciplining their children themselves.
And yet, we do see the opposite happening with supernatural characters who get the credit for rewarding good behaviors — most notably Santa Claus (although I recently overheard one mother say, “No way am I going to let Santa get the credit for all my hard work!”). I imagine it would be a little frustrating for parents not to receive thank yous from their children for all the time spend shopping and wrapping and often sacrificing to make Christmas morning wonderful for their kids…
Although not quite as popular, one more character I think most people grew up believing in (at least in America) is theTooth Fairy. And although getting money in place of a tooth would seem like a win-win for children (I used to get quarters, but the Tooth Fairy, from what I hear, has gone up in her giving to keep up with inflation, my students get a dollar for each tooth…) there are some children who are legitimately afraid to imagine some woman entering their room while asleep and taking something that used to be a part of their bodies. It is kind of gross to imagine the Tooth Fairy’s large stash of teeth somewhere and what purpose she has for collecting them all…
I heard one cute story involving the Tooth Fairy. A student of my mom’s didn’t want the Tooth Fairy to come and take his tooth, so he set up his Lego men around the tooth to guard it. When he woke up in the morning, the tooth was still gone, and his Lego men were tied up-with floss 🙂
While that has humor for the adults hearing it, I imagine it might have been somewhat terrifying for that little boy. I admire his creativity in thinking of a way to keep his tooth safe, and yet I would think he felt somewhat helpless when seeing his best efforts thwarted. The fact that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus only come at night, when we’re asleep, not only gives adults ammunition for getting their kids to actually go to bed on exciting nights, but also is a reminder that we humans, even the strongest and bravest of us, are pretty helpless and weak for that third of our lives when we sleep.
But really, especially with Halloween approaching, those of us of all ages tend to find enjoyment in trying to scare ourselves and others. Although it may seem like a strange tradition, when people decorate their lawns with skeletons and other scenes that are violent and morbid, each time we watch horror movies, go to haunted houses, or participate in Halloween activities and emerge victorious, we are symbolically conquering our fears. Scary movies are like a personal challenge-will this movie terrify me or will I defeat it? Maybe creatures like the Tooth Fairy, even the Boogeyman and Baba Yaga, provide children with the important rite of passage of realizing they don’t believe/aren’t afraid any more. I didn’t get the sense that my friends who spoke of being threatened as children were upset with their parents or traumatized — it was seen as more of a cultural myth than their parents being cruel.
Did your parents threaten you with a dangerous character when you misbehaved? What lengths did they go to to convince you that those creatures were real? And is it all right for parents to frighten their children unnecessarily?
Kristin is a Chicago-based blogger who writes about fairy tales on Tales of Faerie.