Fear and Other Stories

For obvious reasons, there have been scores of articles published recently about the soaring levels of anxiety among children (see Childhood in an Anxious Age in The Atlantic for one fascinating read). More than ever, the idea of setting out to frighten your kids on purpose feels plain wrong. Broadly, we work hard to minimise and salve childhood fears. In our consumer culture, there has been a very deliberate de-fanging, a cute-ification, of all things mythically scary: monsters, vampires, ghosts, aliens and dinosaurs (see Monsters Inc, Aliens Love Underpants, most sets of little boys’ pyjamas…) We persuade our kids that monsters and bogeymen do not exist, and dispel the dark atmospheres surrounding them.

But in some communities and cultures, there survives a strong – and very practical – tradition of using scary stories of monsters and spirits. These serve as cautionary tales to protect children from the biggest risks to their lives, whether that is the danger of water or of getting separated from your family.

I came across this book in the City of Perth Library: Those That Cause Fear by Neil Christopher, illustrated by Germaine Arnaktauyok. It had caught my eye partly because I had read a few months before about traditional Inuit parenting and how they do not scold or shout at their children (in this NPR report). This was an interesting idea to me, utterly fed up with the sound of my own voice doing its daily nag-a-thon… Instead of yelling their children to stay away from the edge of the ice, they tell stories of truly terrifying monsters. The kind that etch themselves on your mind forever.

Those That Cause Fear re-tells twenty such tales. There’s the Mahahaa, a small being that roams the Arctic with long fingernails, messy hair and a crazy smile “looking for people who are alone and vulnerable”. And the Qallupilluk, a monster with webbed hands and feet which skulks under the breaking ice in the spring. When a child gets too close to the edge, the Qallupilluk will grab them and pull them under. Shudder.

My 4 year old daughter was intrigued and we read the book from cover to cover on the train home, with her absorbed by all the stories and the unsettling images. A day or so later, she asked me to hide it and not to read it again.

Monsters are an important part of Aboriginal “Dreaming” stories, to teach and protect young children. Watching In My Blood It Runs, the stunning documentary filmed with Dujuan, a then 10-year-old Arrernte / Garrwa boy growing up in the Hidden Valley town camp in Alice Springs, we see his Nana Carol often tells him Arrernte stories which serve as a warning about the hazards of their surroundings: “The Rainbow serpent is a snake that lives in the water. It eats people in the water.”  When they visit their Sandy Bore homeland 100km away from Alice Springs, she tells the assembled kids about the Allharreye Amarteye who visits cheeky kids at nighttime: “He comes from that hill, and he has a really long nose… He’ll poke you menacingly around the face, “Get up, get up and play with me.”

These stories warn about the dangers of specific places. An article here by Dr Christine Nicholls, introduces yet more monsters: the pointy-teethed cannibals of the Pilbara, the Ngayurnangalku, who live beneath the salt-lake Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment); the mermaid-like algae-haired Yawk Yawks of Arnhem Land who drown humans in their waterholes and streams. (Don’t have nightmares.)

With our lives lived less connected with nature and the landscape, it may be hard to see how we can use storytelling for this purpose. Covid 19 is an all-too-real, though invisible, menace. The most everyday threat in our environment is the car, and I expect our kids to merrily jump inside one almost daily. NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff, who was behind the original report about Inuit parenting, explored using storytelling with her three year old (article here). She creating a “Yelling monster” who lives in the ceiling and comes down to snatch kids who shout too much; she told her that spiders will grow in her dress if she won’t let it go to be washed.

Do you tell your kids scary stories of made-up monsters – how do they react? 

Have you come across any frightening books which you have shared together? Did they / you enjoy them?

Can you recommend any other books which retell indigenous stories about monsters?

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