Childhood Horrors

chockKen & Robin have an interesting discussion in the most recent episode of their podcast, on childhood fears. Specifically, they talk about childhood responses to horror stories and movies. I was inspired to write about my own childhood horrors.

Luckily there were no actual horrors in my childhood. Nobody around me was violent or insane or very ill or destitute or hooked on drugs. The years of low-intensity schoolyard bullying were painful but nowhere near my breaking point. Still, I was really scared of some stuff, starting with Selma Lagerlöf.

Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf is one of the giants of Swedish literature. The first big book I read on my own at age five was her delightful 1906-07 tome The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a tattered copy passed down for school use to my mother from her older sibs (I still have it). The book was originally commissioned to teach children Swedish history and geography. It does so by means of a fantasy conceit: the boy Nils gets shrunk to tiny size by the spell of a gnome and goes travelling across the country on the back of a migrant goose. But, having read Nils, I then unsuspectingly turned to other books by Lagerlöf.

The Löwensköld Ring (1925) is a ghost story about a nobleman who rises from the grave to reclaim a finger ring stolen from him at the time of burial. This really freaked me out, and not in a good way. But I moved on to The Treasure / Herr Arne’s Hoard (1904), and found to my dismay that this book starts with a gory description of a family getting killed by mercenaries. I never finished it and I’ve never read Lagerlöf since. A few years later a similar but even more graphically described massacre prevented me from finishing The Last Letter Home (1959), Vilhelm Moberg’s fourth novel about Swedish migrant farmers in Minnesota.

Another source of scares was comics. I read a graphic version of Dracula, and for years afterwards I didn’t like to look out of dark windows because I was afraid that the Count’s pale leering face would greet me. Particularly if it was on an upper floor, where of course only a vampire could peek inside. I wasn’t afraid of getting grabbed and blood-sucked by a vampire – just afraid that I’d see one. I did try sleeping with garlic over my bed once, but I made the mistake of peeling the clove and piercing it for a string, and the smell got too strong.

Then there was my buddy’s copy of the Swedish 70s horror comic book Chock. (I now find that it ran translations of Warren Comics from the 60s, apparently mainly out of Creepy and Eerie.) This particular issue contained Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and a story about an escaped convict manacled to a corpse in a desert, and it scared me silly at age ten or eleven. But the really silly bit was the soundtrack. While I read that comic book at my buddy’s house, he played me what must count as the lamest Swedish pop tune of the 80s, the 1983 Vikingarna cover of F.R. David’s 1982 hit “Words”. For years afterwards I couldn’t hear either version of that damn song without a serious chill running down my spine.

Round about this time I was also afraid that dead bodies might be hidden in the walls of our house. I think I understood that the walls were too thin for that, but still I kept thinking about it and shuddering. I was horrified when I came across P.V. Glob’s book on Iron Age bog bodies, The Bog People (1965) with its many ghastly photographs. Little did I know how desensitised to human remains my work would make me as an adult, or that I would be quite happy to excavate people’s graves.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

40 thoughts on “Childhood Horrors”

  1. Herr Arne’s Hoard was made into a very early silent movie by Swedish film pioneers. But the budding film industry never had the financial backing of their American colleagues.
    Dracula (the book) was pretty lame. And what were the gypsies getting out of the arrangement?
    Generally, comic book horror was scarier than books because of the illustrations.
    Growing up on a farm, I was afraid of critters sneaking up from the Woods*.
    * (Tiger Woods` parents had a place near the forest)

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  2. Intelligent dogs with their superior senses dispel fear of darkness and imagining, and as semi-domesticates at best, dingoes are more intelligent than most, though not the easiest dogs to keep as part of the “home pack”.

    Bullying is actually a far more serious issue, and one that has been consistently down-played. I had to suffer permanent physical damage at the hands of gangs of older boys before my father would take any action at all – then he did the smartest thing he could, and sent me to a good boxing coach. Not a big burly boxing coach, a little skinny old boxing coach who knew everything there was to know about counter-punching.

    Slightly changing tack, I am surprised that the 2005 sci-fi movie “Serenity” has not become a cult classic. Berger, any thoughts?

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  3. Usually it isn’t the story that gets you afraid but rather the visuals and mostly the music. As Martin stated: the song gave him the chills. According to Derbyshire, D. the harsh, unexpected and discordant chords imitates the screams of frightened animals. After hearing a song in a horror movie we then associate that song with scary and it can haunt you for a long time. the same applies to reading and music playing in the background.

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  4. Yes, good one – Summer Glau starred as the psychotic River Tam in both the TV series and the movie. I just never got to hear about the TV series.

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  5. As a kid I had a a great big illustrated book about gnomes (the Scandinavian kind, friendly with red pointy caps) that I absolutely loved. And then I found the ‘matching’ book about fairies. Except these weren’t cute little flower fairies, no they were all the most terrifying supernatural creatures of northern Europe; red caps and banshees and the Night Mare. All the illustrations were filled with slime and snot.

    *shudder*

    I ended up hiding the book behind some of my dad’s business books just to get it away.

    And then someone gave me a copy of The Hobbit with illustrations from the animated movie, which are deeply creepy in an accidental way. I’m amazed I ever read another fairy tale or fantasy novel after that.

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    1. Ah, the Huygen & Poortvliet gnome books! I loved those. Particularly their conceit that they were just reporting on real gnomes. Who wrote the scary fairy book you mention?

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  6. Martin @10: I’m not 100% sure, but I think it was “Fairies” by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. The cover looks fine, and the illustrations are very well done, but some of the stories are very creepy.

    I had no idea that there was more than one book about the gnomes; I’ll have to look it up!

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  7. The soul-sucking critters from the far side have taken over the body of one of our party leaders. She goes on about how we should not hurt trade relations with country X by talking about human rights..
    (not China this time. Lots of sand and guys with swords lopping off hands.)

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  8. I remember one story in Chock with a bar that served blod from dead people hanging upside down from the roof with a tap in their throats.

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  9. Well, I can’t buy the one and only (and uncompleted) season of “Firefly” on DVD from Amazon due to “geographical restrictions”.

    Bugger me dead – I’ve bought Kumi Adachi’s albums and DVD from Amazon Japan and had them shipped to me by a company her husband found for me in Tokyo, and got them in about 3 days.

    But from America? No.

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  10. Incidentally, I recently watched the 2014 film “Dracula Untold” and it wasn’t too bad. Not hugely scary, because in this version, Vlad the Impaler is a good guy. Well, for someone who impales people, he’s a good guy – at least, better than the Turks, who are obviously real bastards.

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  11. I don’t really have any childhood horror memories, except for one real one – when I was about 10 or 11, there was a mass-murderer going around Perth, randomly shooting people in their homes, and for a long time the cops couldn’t catch him. My bedroom was detached from the rest of the house, so I was out there on my own, as it were – I used to lie there at night listening for any sound that might suggest he was creeping towards my window.

    More than once I made a flying dash for the dingo’s sleeping quarters and troubled her to get grumpily out of bed and come and bunk down on my bedroom floor rug – which she didn’t really like, because she had to wake me up to let her out when she needed a piss.

    But the cops finally caught him, and the horror past, and I could leave my dingo in peace in her doll’s cot that she used as a bed. He was the last person executed for murder in Western Australia, by hanging.

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  12. I make a point of not watching horror films. I don’t see the point; reality is horrifying enough.

    But one film I do recommend that, while being in the sci fi genre and not a horror film, gets pretty horrifying is the 2009 film “Moon”. Good film (depressing but good).

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  13. I liked “Moon”.
    And, no I do not doubt the conclusions of the link. History is full of language transfers. Even now, Swedish kids that swear use ca. 50% English swear words. People adopt high-status forms of speech, and English has displaced German.

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  14. Finless porpoises frequent the waters around Hong Kong. They are shy, secretive and very hard to spot, but I am close to certain a small number of them are hunting in the tidal inlet that I live next to – at least, some smallish cetacean is active in there, and they are the only plausible candidate. Labelling them endangered as a species would be an exaggeration, although no doubt the Yangtze River subspecies is endangered.

    Click to access 24-03_Parsons.pdf

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  15. It is possible, even likely, that small bull sharks are also coming into the inlet, but sharks don’t make the kinds of acoustic emissions I have been picking up.

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  16. When I first came to Hong Kong, I was assured by everyone that “there are no sharks in Hong Kong – the Chinese eat them all.” In fact, we are well frequented by very large tiger sharks and bull sharks, and in recent history the reverse has been true – the sharks have been eating the Chinese.

    We are also visited by a surprising range and number of cetaceans.

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  17. IBagcinile,
    It certainly seems that a lot of Americans spent their childhoods being scared of poorzs people, gay people and POC.
    One good effect of Star Trek is that merely looking odd is no longer a reason to be seen as a “monster” on film.

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  18. Crime rates in the US peaked in the early 1990s and have gone down quite a bit since then. Neighborhoods that were considered dangerous 20 years ago, like SoMa in San Francisco or Cambridgeport in Cambridge/Boston, are now quite safe. Even the still-sketcy areas, like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and inland parts of Boston’s Dorchester, can be safely traversed as long as you keep your wits about you.

    The bigger worry in the US is white people with guns. These are people who have guns because of imaginary fears, and cause real damage in the process. But these are people who don’t look that different from me, whereas the sort of criminals people worried about in the 1980s and 1990s had much darker skin colors.

    OTOH, perceptions of danger from crime have gotten worse. I grew up in Miami during the era of the cocaine cowboys, when Miami was the murder capital of the US–but people generally understood that if you weren’t a drug dealer or a Mariel refugee, and you weren’t part of a family that settled domestic disputes with guns, your chances of being murdered were small (and generally involved being in the wrong place at the wrong time). Americans these days seem much more afraid of random violence.

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  19. Eric, I was comparing total crime rate in America (similar to Mainland China) (and Australia and Sweden, which are actually close to each other) with Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan – and there is just no comparison.

    Basically, there is almost nowhere in urban Hong Kong where my daughter would be afraid to walk alone, 24 hours/day. There are not many places in the world that you can say that about – Singapore is one; Tokyo, Kyoto…not too many others.

    She would have reservations about going alone into the country parks at night, but so should any rational person – they are large dangerous wild areas due to terrain, vegetation, venomous snakes and packs of feral dogs.

    But urban areas – the worst hazard, aside from some illegal Nigerian and Punjabi immigrants over-staying their tourist visas, is so-called pro-democracy protestors making total arseholes of themselves.

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  20. Meanwhile, not wanting to feed paranoia, but farmers in Tasmania are reporting that, due to a massive proliferation of feral cats (domestic cats gone wild), each sheep farmer may be losing as many as 500 new lambs each season. Why? The sheep are accidentally ingesting cat faeces when feeding and becoming infested with toxoplasmosis, and are aborting mid-pregnancy, just as humans do. It is estimated that 80 to 90% of the feral cats are infested.

    This is also impacting native fauna.

    One interesting question might be – what happens if a sheep is infested, but doesn’t abort – is the Toxo infestation passed into the lamb, and if so, what happens when people eat the lamb? Answer – if it is cooked enough, nothing. But one source of Toxo infestation in humans is the consumption is raw or insufficiently cooked meat. One explanation given for the high rate of Toxo infestation of people in Brazil is the habit of eating raw beef.

    Meanwhile, it is estimated that feral cats in Australia kill 20 billion native animals per year – that’s kill outright by predation, not indirectly by Toxo infestation. Recently, someone managed to get footage from a remotely triggered infrared camera of a feral cat attacking and killing a 4 kg adult wallaby.

    Nice kitty.

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  21. Childhood horror can build us and break us. A child that is being abused a home will bully others at school if they do not get professional help.

    u15098398

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  22. I believe childhood horrors are the worst. Those horrors are usually what define us as adults. Trauma as a child has its long term effects that sometimes restrict us from reaching our full potential, they just hold us back.

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  23. Never was afraid of books. I adore Dracula, he is so much more lovable than these dull thickheaded harkers and westenras.
    However, I had a fear of darkness until recently. I hated my childhood because childhood meant being small & not able to reach the button and switch the lights on. What did I expect to meet in the darkness? Not vampires, sure. Vampires are human, after all. There certainly was a horrible inhuman Something.
    This fear suddenly dissolved when I was 27. I still don’t know what created it and what removed it.

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  24. Growing up, I never lived any real horrors but I’ve always had this huge irrational fear of snakes. It is the weirdest thing but I would have nightmares of pythons coming to attack me in the middle of the night even though I lived in the middle of the city.

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