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Updated on August 3, 2012
Sir John Gilbert: Caliban Dancing
Sir John Gilbert: Caliban Dancing | Source

Monsters of the Id,

no longer staying hid

And terrors of the night

out in broad daylight

Mose Allison (1969)

Bogeymen, ogres, hungry witches in gingerbread houses, Maurice Sendak's ‘Wild Things’, all the terrors of the night—all part of growing up. All are archetypes in the collective unconscious, the mythological substratum of our human experience. By dealing with these phantoms, these ‘monsters of the id’, and emerging intact, children find inner reassurance—uttering the fear becomes the means to tame it. And anyone who fails to integrate their shadow side pays a heavy price, look at what happened to the ambitious scientist in Forbidden Planet!

Whether children or adult, we deliberately scare ourselves to master the experience of being scared. Over time, the changing shapes of our bogeymen reflect our changing insecurities. The Erlking of the forest has turned into the crazy child-abducting child-stealing scientist of The City of Lost Children. Movies have become baroque and bizarre—we have moved from Hitchcock to David Lynch. We lull ourselves, too. Lullabies that tell of violent horrors are murmured in a soothing, singsong voice, and as baby slips to sleep the dreaded disasters seem to fade. Singing is a charm against the dark. And, we make light of our bogeys. Think of the Jabberwock ‘whiffling through the tulgey wood’, Roald Dahl’s BFG or Raymond Brigg’s Fungus the Bogeyman.

One of the most notorious night visitors is the Sandman. In Hoffmann's ‘Sandman’ story (1817), the old nurse explains, ‘Oh! he's a wicked man who comes to little children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody; and he puts them into a bag and takes them to the half-moon as food for his little ones; and they sit there in the nest and have hooked beaks like owls, and they pick naughty little boys' and girls' eyes out with them.’ Freud, influenced by Hoffmann's ‘Sandman’, explored the symbolic substitution of eyes and genitals and used it to refine his theory of the castration complex in his essay on the Uncanny.

Paul: Gavarni: Sandman
Paul: Gavarni: Sandman | Source

Child-stealers, night-raiders, cradle-snatchers, pied pipers have always inspired rich and sinister tales. In one of the oldest stories of child-murder and cannibalism, the Titans’ tempt the infant Dionysus with flashy toys, then dismember, stew and eat him.

After the invention of print, goblins known as `child-guzzlers' (Kinderfresser) and `child-frighteners' (Kinderschrecker), often associated with Carnival celebrations, were depicted on grotesque broadsheets in Germany. In France, ‘Le Grand Lustucru’ (the Big Would-You-Believe-It) carried off children in his knapsack and ate them.

Early literature depicted people's fear of bogs and wetlands near the deep woods. Grendel (in ‘Beowulf’) emerges from the bog at night to eat people—one explanation for the derivation of the word ‘bogeyman’ is it harks back to the evil spirits and demons believed to emerge from bogs after dark. Another is that the word may come from ‘bugis’ (pirates from Indonesia and Malaysia). English and French sailors brought the tales home, telling their children: ‘If you're bad, the bugisman will come and get you!’.

Kinderfresser | Source

Goethe introduced a variation of the bogeyman in his 1782 poem ‘Erlkönig’. The Erlking personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Modern reworkings of this theme are found in Michel Tournier’s novel The Erlking, where children are spirited away to Nazi death camps, and in Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Erlking’, in which a young girl is seduced by the spirit of the forest.

Interestingly, it was a mistranslation of the Danish legend of the Elf-King’s Daughter that inspired the figure of the Erlking (who is generally shown as a gigantic bearded man with a golden crown and trailing garments). In translating, Herder misunderstood the Danish for `king of the elves' and translated ‘elves’ as ‘alders’. This was one of those wondrous culture-enriching errors, for a `King of the Alders' is much more suited to the damp, dark, spooky forests of Germany. The mistake has been perpetuated in both English and French—‘king of the alders’ and ‘un roi des aunes’.

Bernhard Neher: Erlking
Bernhard Neher: Erlking | Source

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