Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monsters


I met the little girl on a public beach in the Adirondacks--my parents had taken me there to break up the monotony. She was just my age, lived right there in town, and we got along famously, so my mother asked her mother whether she might not come with us for a couple of hours to play at my house.

I looked forward to that playdate, almost (do I remember it correctly?) counting down the hours. She didn't disappoint. We ran in the woods, swam off my dock, splashed and shouted in the sunshine, concocted water fairy games. In the afternoon, when we were hungry, my mother sent us for peanut butter sandwiches. Walking companionably up the country lane to my cabin, she turned to me, and in her sweet, soft voice, asked,

"Do you believe in God?"

I was not in the least taken aback--even at a young age, I had a formed idea of my belief system, and loved to discuss it.

"Yes," I said. "I do."

"Me too." I smiled at her, and she continued her questioning.

"Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?" she asked, kindly. Not wanting to offend her, but feeling the truth was the right thing to offer, I carefully delivered my default statement, taught me by my mother.

"I'm Jewish, and we don't believe that Jesus was God, but he was a good man who really did exist."

I thought that was a nice compromise, but immediately her face fell. She looked genuinely frightened.

"Then you're going to hell," she said, so sadly. "You're going to burn there. In the flames. It's going to be horribly painful, and it will last forever, the burning."

"That isn't true!" I said, already blinking back tears.

"It is. You're going to burn in hell, if you don't believe in Jesus."

We argued back and forth for a few more moments, and then gave up at the impasse. We both managed not to cry, but the playdate was over. We spent the rest of it in silence, trying to choke down the peanut butter sandwiches. Her parents picked her up, and we said goodbye. I never saw her again, after I confessed that night to my mother the conversation that had passed between us. I know now just how furious mom was, but she didn't let on, not entirely. She reassured me that God was good, and that hell was a made up story to frighten people into behaving. That made sense, and it helped, but the image of the burning hellfires, and me, a little girl screaming helplessly in the middle of the inferno, had stamped itself indelibly on my subconscious...

I think now about what mom said--hell is a story made up to scare people into behaving.

I believe that interpretation, with all my heart and soul, and I question the merit of such a threat. It might work--temporarily--but does a tale of terror, in the end, really nurture and sustain the moral development, the strong superego, that restrains bad behavior?

Hedgehog came home this week from her indigenous camp with two books, written by the camp director, full of Native American monsters. These were passed down through the generations, truly frightening stories of howling murderous hideous creatures of the natural world...told explicitly to frighten children into "being good."

The threat of monsters, of supernatural punishment, is a tradition that crosses all boundaries of time and culture. I clearly remember being threatened with a visit from the Boogeyman--just once, by my paternal grandmother, who was roundly chastised by my parents. She never pulled that one on me, or my sister, again. But like the cruel hellfires that light one's psyche with flickering fear, the Boogeyman will be with me forever--scaring me, but also delivering a tiny frisson of delight. Mightn't we tempt him to visit, just once, to see what he's really like? Or will we be satisfied with the awful stories of others whose bad behavior invited him in?

Motives and morality aren't so clearly drawn as they would have us believe. Simplistic terror texts are met with all the complex range of human reaction--fear, yes, of course--but also fascination, desire, and a welling up of natural wicked curiousity...







note: I would be very interested to hear whether you were, in your childhood, threatened with any sort of fictional monster in order to get you to behave. I imagine the Monster takes many forms, depending on one's background.

26 comments:

Ponita in Real Life said...

No monsters in my childhood... and no religion either, of any kind. Perhaps you need one to have the other?

xl said...

My family are fundamentalist Southern Baptists wackos. We were taught as children that even other Christian denominations, especially Catholics, are on the road to Hell and damnation! :(

just bob said...

Does Count Chocula count as a monster?

Martin H. said...

On the one hand, monsters are an essential ingredient in the lives of children. Most fairytales and nursery rhymes have a villain in the mix. However, children should be allowed to see that monsters nearly always have weaknesses which make them vulnerable.

Threatening a child with monsters to keep them in line, is another matter. This would seem to be the last resort of someone with little or no imagination.

Martin H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hunter said...

Oh, yes. I was told there was an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. They whispered secrets in accordance with their allegiances.

Took this very literally as a small child, and it terrified me.

Brian Miller said...

delicious post...i was raised in a conservative church and was deathly afraid fo the hell they presented....these days it makes me sick...my parents church does this thing each year where they follow someones story (live drama) and it invariably inclides a visit to hell the room is stifling and ironically the devl was a woman this last year in a white suit that spoke very demonically...i dont know wether to laugh or cry...i really could go on and on about this so i will just say happy sunday..smiles.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

I know this was not the intent of the post but I really, really dislike (hate?) organized religion. All of them. They push my buttons like nothing else. They use fear and call it righteousness. They do horrible things to children. And, no, I was never threatened as a child by visitations from creatures. I was routinely ignored, which is just as scary.

I had dinner at Henry's End last week and thought of you.

mapstew said...

In 1960's catholic Ireland we didn't need to invent monsters, they were the ones who actually threatened us. What a wonderful education system we had. It's a wonder most uf us survived at all. :¬)

xxx

Liza said...

I remember going to Midnight Mass when I was in grade 10 with my Mom. It was PAINFUL! I had been to church maybe 3 other times in my life. I think my Mom thought she would give the church thing one last try with me.
I remember squirming in that pew, and my sense of disgust must have taken over my Mom, because she told me my soul was going straight to the fiery pits of hell.
I still laugh about that today.
I love you Mom!

Baino said...

What an interesting post. I was raised Church of England liberal protestant but no longer am I a believer. We've always used monsters, religious or otherwise to force good behaviour in children and adults. Crazy. I was never 'threatened' although my grandma used to tell me the devil would jump out of the mirror if I looked long enough. What's wrong with a kid prancing in front of a mirror I ask? Crazy stuff.

nick said...

I was never threatened with monsters when I was a kid, and my parents had little interest in religion. But my father's foul temper was enough to make me behave, at least until I got older and decided being my true self was more important than mollifying my father.

63mago said...

... I would not call them fictional monsters. Some evil spirits, creatures of the wood, the river. No soft St.Nikolaus. Not too christian all this.

See how reality is made. I like what Martin H. saied.

kylie said...

one of my honorary aunts used to tell us (my brother mostly) that there was a devil on our shoulder.it was a metaphor meant to teach us about disregarding the internal voices of....well, bad stuff. it wasnt scary but maybe not the best strategy.

on a different note but related in my mind (and i might have said this before) i find the insistence on the existence of santa abhorrant. i get even more annoyed when people think i'm some kind of bad parent for refusing to uphold the myth. i wont break the news to other people's children but nor would i lie to my own when they started to think it was a strange story

Pat said...

I was brought up as a Unitarian and this:

"I'm Jewish, and we don't believe that Jesus was God, but he was a good man who really did exist."

reminds me of what we were taught. But then there was my naughty Grandma who secretly used to take me to her Roman Catholic Church until my father caught us outside the church - me with my shiny white prayer book. That was the end of my 'nervous breakdown.'

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Merely Me said...

Your response was fantastic. How anyone could be upset...their loss!

Monsters? No. but dreams of falling out of bed and nutcrackers all marching out and putting me back into bed...scary for some reason...like I had to pretend I was sleeping in my dream...

Life is terribly busy...still reading you. Don't comment often though...be thankful! ;)

Karen ^..^ said...

This just made me so sad... As a child I remember being fascinated with the Jewish religion... I was threatened with the fiery pits of hell more often than not. I grew up a very scared little girl. Into a very neurotic woman. Organized religion is a very destructive thing for children, and I truly feel that to threaten children with hell, and the devil, amounts to child abuse. I feel sorry for that little girl. She had a lovely time with you, and that time was then tainted because of the brainwashing her parents gave her. She was afraid to associate with you after that. She was actually afraid for you. So sad. Such abuse and destruction of a young child's psyche. I never did that to my kids, but there are some aspects of religion that I think are good for kids, too, on the other hand.

I'll never forget the fear I always felt though. I'd never wish that on my child.

JeffScape said...

All I got is the sock zombie, which was used to convince my nephew not to sleep with socks on. Hah!

He actually gets rather upset when he leaves piles of socks out and they're not eaten in the morning. It's like he's already figured out Santa Claus isn't real.

Tracey said...

As a currently practicing Christian I find it strange that so many sects have focused on hell. It does not come up terribly often in the Bible, and, as I am not a child, the threat of Hell is not what keeps me faithful to my beliefs. There is so much more too it than that.

Your friend was young, and I am sure believed strongly, as young people do. She liked you, and did not want bad things to happen to you. What a traumatic experience for you both.

As for monsters, my uncles always told me that there were alligators on the floor to keep me in bed for nap time.

Princess said...

Hi Leah,
As a small child in the 60's I was terrified by a "Child Safety" Advertising campaign from the State Electricity Commission.
It was based on the line "Shocko" will get you...

"Shocko" was a horrible little clown like thing with a maniacal laugh and huge saw like teeth that would jump out of the power socket and bite curious little children that ventured near the outlet.

I would try to avoid power outlets by closing my eyes when having to go past one... which was often...

To this day, I still find myself repremanding my young nieces and nephews with the line "Shocko will get you" when they start to explore the power switches within reach. They look at me oddly until I explain the history of the statement.
I guess it taught me to be careful around electricity but also left me scarred for life!

Megan said...

Oh my god. Where to START?!?!?

Snowbrush said...

I was regularly threatened with hellfire. If God exists, one might hope he would make himself known in his fullness, as opposed to keeping silent so that people might make up stories about him.

Leah said...

Thanks for these interesting and in many cases poignant comments...I am in a brief internet pocket so don't have a chance to respond individually...but I will try to get back here to do so...

xo

63mago said...

...

muralimanohar said...

Well...no made up ones, and not threatened with them, either. But was taught that demons and ghosts and other things we can't explain DO exist, and thanks to personal experiences, even at a young age, I had/have no reason to doubt that. Hence, plenty of time keeping my feet up off the ground and well tucked into covers so nothing will grab my ankles, etc, lol.

I believe in God, and I believe in the existence of hell, but neither one bear much resemblance to the ones so graphically described by the hellfire-and-damnation people. And I do not believe, by a LONG shot, that a sincere, devout lover of the Lord, will not be allowed back home to Him, because they chose a different path to Him from me. And I do not, do NOT believe in eternal damnation. Those ideas make me sick.

Oh..should I mention, if you weren't aware by now, that I am not Christian, by the general definition? :p I consider myself Christian, in that I accept Jesus as the son of God (not GOD...there is a difference), and strive to follow the core principles he taught, but very, very few other people, used to the white steeple, and long hard pews, would. :p