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Upon The Fear Of Reptilian Creatures

October 30, 2017
by the gentle author

I believe I was born with a medieval imagination. It is the only way I can explain the explicit gothic terrors of my childhood. Even lying in my cradle, I recall observing the monstrous face that emerged from the ceiling lampshade once the light was turned out. This all-seeing creature, peering at me from above, grew more pervasive as years passed, occupying the shadows at the edges of my vision and assuming more concrete manifestations. An unexpected sound in my dark room revealed its presence, causing me to lie still and hold my breath, as if through my petrified silence I could avert the attention of the devil leaning over my bedside.

When I first became aware of gargoyles carved upon churches and illustrated in manuscripts, I recognised these creatures from my own imagination and I made my own paintings of these scaled, clawed, horned, winged beasts, which were as familiar as animals in the natural world. I interpreted any indeterminate sound or movement from the dark as indicating their physical presence in my temporal existence. Consequently, darkness, shadow and gloom were an inescapable source of fear to me on account of the nameless threat they harboured, always lurking there just waiting to pounce. At this time of year, when the dusk glimmers earlier in the day, their power grew as if these creatures of the shades might overrun the earth.

Nothing could have persuaded me to walk into a dark house alone. One teenage summer, I looked after an old cottage while the residents were on their holiday and, returning after work at night, I had to walk a long road that led through a deep wood without street lighting. As I wheeled my bicycle up the steep hill among the trees in dread, it seemed to me they were alive with monsters and any movement of the branches confirmed their teeming presence.

Yet I discovered a love of ghost stories and collected anthologies of tales of the supernatural, which I accepted as real because they extended and explained the uncanny notions of my own imagination. In an attempt to normalise my fears, I made a study of mythical beasts and learnt to distinguish between a griffin and a wyvern. When I discovered the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel, I grew fascinated and strangely reassured that they had seen the apocalyptic visions which haunted the recesses of my own mind.

I made the mistake of going to see Ridley Scott’s The Alien alone and experienced ninety minutes transfixed with terror, unable to move, because – unlike the characters in the drama – I was already familiar with this beast who had been pursuing me my whole life. In retrospect, I recognise the equivocal nature of this experience, because I also sought a screening of The Exorcist with similar results. Perhaps I sought consolation in having my worst fears realised, even if I regretted it too?

Once, walking through a side street at night, I peered into the window of an empty printshop and leapt six feet back when a dark figure rose up from among the machines to confront my face in the glass. My companions found this reaction to my own shadow highly amusing and it was a troubling reminder of the degree to which I was at the mercy of these irrational fears even as an adult.

I woke in the night sometimes, shaking with fear and convinced there were venomous snakes in the foot of my bed. The only solution was to unmake the bed and remake it again before I could climb back in. Imagine my surprise when I visited the aquarium in Berlin and decided to explore the upper floor where I was confronted with glass cases of live tropical snakes. Even as I sprinted away down the street, I felt the need to keep a distance from cars in case a serpent might be lurking underneath. This particular terror reached its nadir when I was walking in the Pyrenees, and stood to bathe beneath a waterfall and cool myself on a hot day. A green snake of several feet in length fell wriggling from above, hit me, bounced off into the pool and swam away, leaving me frozen in shock.

Somewhere all these fears dissolved. I do not know where or when exactly. I no longer read ghost stories or watch horror films and equally I do not seek out dark places or reptile houses. None of these things have purchase upon my psyche or even hold any interest anymore. Those scaly beasts have retreated from the world. For me, the shadows are not inhabited by the spectral and the unfathomable darkness is empty.

Bereavement entered my life and it dispelled these fears which haunted me for so long. My mother and father who used to turn out the light and leave me to sleep in my childhood room at the mercy of medieval phantasms are gone, and I have to live in the knowledge that they can no longer protect me. Once I witnessed the moment of death with my own eyes, it held no mystery for me. The demons became redundant and fled. Now they have lost their power over me, I miss them – or rather, perhaps, I miss the person I used to be – yet I am happy to live a life without supernatural agency.

Fourteenth century carvings from St Katherine’s Chapel, Limehouse

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. October 30, 2017

    ‘From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!’
    Imagination is a wonderful thing! Valerie

  2. Jenni G-L permalink
    October 30, 2017

    I never feared anything alive. Snakes, spiders, rats, lizards -all were visible, could be touched and were part of the daily, physical world. The only living creatures I feared were the dentist and those miserable medics who liked to hold me down and draw blood from my arm.

    However, at night I spent hours, frozen with terror and unable to sleep because of the presence of four early 20th century German dolls that were remnants of my mother’s childhood and the dozens of demons I discerned in the print of my bedroom curtains. All had sharp teeth and evil, staring eyes. No wonder I was a gaunt little girl with dark circles under my eyes.

    Eventually, ‘the cat’ knocked the dolls to the hard, uncarpeted floor resulting in their instant death. A few weeks later valiant St. George, again in the form of my older and understanding brother, set fire to the curtains with an advent candle. He was punished but enjoyed my hero worship for the rest of our childhood. Aged almost eight, I slept properly for the first time since babyhood. My room was monster-free at last.

    The fear of those monsters only I could see remained with me until my own children were born, though. Then I had to face such demons in a literal sense and try to banish them so the little ones could sleep. Through them, I became the next St. George, laying their monsters and banishing my own , permanently, at the same time. Childhood in the 50s could be a lonely, frightening time, especially at night. I wasn’t about to make my own children suffer that thirty years later. It is comforting to know that I was not the only one with what others might call irrational fears that lasted into adulthood.

    As always, your photographs are beautiful. Even as a little child, those lovely carvings of dragons would have seemed benign to me. I have a desire to reach out and pet them!

  3. Peter Brown permalink
    October 30, 2017

    I think you would enjoy the stories of M. R. James, e.g, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” . . .

  4. October 30, 2017

    If you haven’t read it already I suggest you read The Essex Serpent where a whole community is taken with just such fear,

  5. October 30, 2017

    After all this chat and huha I have seen a ghost. I have a lane at the back of my house. On three occasions have seen an old lady walking there. Have tried rapidly to catch her no luck – always missed this spirit person its all true. John a bus pass poet Bristol

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    October 30, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, appropriate reflection now as Halloween approaches. You must have loved Edgar Alan Poe as a youngster, right?

    Glad to hear that you recovered:

    “None of these things have purchase upon my psyche or even hold any interest anymore. Those scaly beasts have retreated from the world. For me, the shadows are no longer inhabited by the spectral and the fathomless darkness is empty.”

    Enjoy this misty season…

  7. Susan permalink
    October 30, 2017

    Wonderful post! While I never shared those exact same fears — though I suspect horror lurks in the shadows for all of us — I found your descriptions of your night terrors illuminating. And your photos of medieval carvings are gorgeous. I’ve always loved such gifts from the past, imagination captured in the warmth of wood, a substance that, like the hands that carved it, once lived.

  8. Gary Arber permalink
    October 30, 2017

    I once went into a dark outside tin shed toilet when serving in the RAF in the far East.
    As I sat down I noticed a 20 ft Python curled up beside me, we looked each other in the eyes and I finished that which I had started and we parted in peace.

  9. Jenny permalink
    October 30, 2017

    How amazing. I loved this post. I’m glad you are not still haunted by these imaginary creatures though.

  10. Russell permalink
    October 30, 2017

    Superb story. I can relate.

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