Searching dark recesses

No Go the Bogeyman
December 25, 1998

Nicholas Tucker considers our need for bogeymen - past and present.

Marina Warner is always ambitious in her writing, and particularly so in No Go the Bogeyman. Subtitled "Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock", it sets out to provide "a cultural exploration of fear, its vehicles, and its ambiguous charge of pleasure and pain". Her chief focus is the child, although she frequently broadens her argument to include discussion about community reactions in the past or still surviving today. She relies heavily on literature, anthropology and on the evidence of painting and sculpture, backed up by numerous illustrations. She has less to say about music, another powerful medium for both raising sensations of fear and for dispersing them. Scholarly annotations mingle with asides about the latest film seen or the most recent newspaper article consulted.

The model Warner uses in order to explain our ambiguous attitude towards fear is not always obvious, but basically seems to draw upon psychoanalytic theories of unconscious projection. In this scenario, the changing features of the bogeyman mirror the insecurity and aggression of those who most fear him. Such fear can best be controlled either by transforming it into words or pictures, or else by assuming the imagined face or body of the bogeyman in "popular magical and superstitious practices involving parades and processions, dances and masks and puppet shows". For once externalised, individual and community fear can be better shared and controlled: the particular fear now at least has a name, a shape and, to an extent, can then be exorcised through art, story or ritual. But because the feared object represents an important - if denied - part of its human audience, it is often regarded with an uneasy mixture of repulsion and attraction. Nervous laughter is never far away when the bogeyman finally gets his come-uppance at the hands of the hero or heroine symbolising society's more acceptable, rule-keeping side.

What such common fears consist of, and why they should be there in the first place, is not the subject of this book. Warner herself is more interested in describing different cultural manifestations of fear, but there are hints about her own position. Classic Freudian Oedipal longings, for example, are mentioned in the discussion of Jack and the Beanstalk. This story has always represented a goldmine for psychoanalytic explanation, given that Jack utilises his personal erection in his journey to cut off the giant's head and then steal his most valuable possessions, often with the approval of the giant's human-sized wife. But Warner does not rest her case at this point, since so many other aspects of bogeymen stories defy easy Freudian explanations. To pick one important example, why has there always been so much emphasis upon the bogeyman as a devouring cannibal, ever eager to collect fat little boys and girls in his sack prior to a good meal later that evening?

As a cultural historian, Warner is most interested in the continuing existence of this phenomenon. Going back to the sinister figure of the child-devouring Cronus, she traces a long line of cannibalistic monsters that have existed in the public imagination. She concedes that "issues of authority, procreation, and intergenerational rivalry" may also form part of the cannibalistic metaphor. But there is no real explanation why cannibalism as such plays such an important part here, and why Christianity chose to transmute this theme in its celebration of communion.She agrees that for past generations a ready supply of food was the overriding image of survival, but does not much advance her argument by simply claiming that "consuming it offers contradictory metaphors of life and civilisation as well as barbarism and extinction". Not for the first time in this fascinating but often opaque study, there is a danger of skimming from one example to another without ever quite knowing where the main argument is going.

There are more basic explanations for the fear of cannibalism that Warner is less concerned with, possibly because of their depressingly down-to-earth quality. Babies, for example, commonly develop a fear of strangers during the first years of life. Could this be an evolutionary relic of a time when early man sometimes made off with each other's unattended young in the way that occasionally occurs among primates? Later on, sharing a peasant hearth with domestic animals could have its problems: it was not unknown for pigs to turn into bogeymen by gobbling up small babies left for a moment on their own. In more normal circumstances, children could also become very attached to household animals eventually to be killed and eaten. In some primitive communities, such attachment is recognised by making a formal apology to the animal before despatching it, or by pooling the community meat supply so it is never certain when exactly the loved animal is being consumed. Western societies have been more ruthless here; many children in the past must have felt like cannibals when eating the house pig. Is it surprising they often feared this same potential in others too? There have also been regular famines in Europe up to 200 years ago where genuine cannibalism occurred. At such times, fantasies of eating others, as well as of being eaten oneself, had their basis in the worst reality rather than somewhere in Freudian psychology. Warner also points out that the image of the bogeyman - unbridled appetite, unappeasable desire for gratification, big head, simple-minded - could be said to resemble a baby itself. This takes the argument back again to unconscious projection, with babies - as Melanie Klein predicted - investing others with their own occasional sadistic, cannibalistic fantasies. But the trail need not necessarily end here: at times bogeymen can also resemble other younger members of the family. There are those junior bogeymen who waylay smaller children with appalling threats on their journey to school. Once there, these might organise other incipiently hirsute, noisy ogres into pitiless bullying aimed at the most vulnerable children. In the worst scenarios, the same bogeyman returns home afterwards in the shape of an older, feared brother.

Another unresolved issue in this book concerns what exactly Warner feels about the ancient, psychic processes of projection identified in this study. The medieval investing of bogeymen with the bodies and mannerisms of society's outsiders such as the disabled, the Jew or the black man is of course condemned. Nineteenth-century children's illustrators were often little better, frequently depicting their giants with the flushed, coarse features of the stereotyped drunken Irish navvy. But what sort of appearance should today's bogeymen have where they still exist in literature aimed at the very youngest readers, for example in illustrated fairy-tale or nursery-rhyme collections? This is a question Warner ignores,but it surely lies at the heart of her book. Older children have always enjoyed being scared, up to an extent, and Warner writes about the way they now seek a giggly type of fear for its own sake in various monster cults and feeble horror stories. She does not, however, consider the central issue of whether infants still need any sort of bogeyman at all.

As it is, many of the uses served by traditional bogeymen no longer exist.We do not control small children any more by telling them terrifying stories about the consequences of not staying quietly in bed. When we sing lullabies to babies, most would not wish now to appease a vengeful bogeyman-type of God by seeming to disparage an infant's life chances with those verses that include gloomy forebodings about his or her future. Binding a community together by stressing specific images of the wicked outsider is not acceptable in countries trying to live at peace with themselves and others, (in contrast to Lermontov's A Cossack Lullaby quoted here, with its reference to the "angry Chechen crawling, crawling knife in hand").

Is it instead time to give rationalism a more equal chance when it comes to bringing up small children with ideas of what might be truly dangerous to them in their lives? Today the chief threat to the survival of any British child is the rogue motor car, yet images of automobiles in children's books remain as cosy as they have always been since Kenneth Grahame's Toad first poop-pooped down the high road. Sexual abuse, another constant danger to the young, is also absent from younger children's books as a theme after the Brothers Grimm and other early anthologists decided with a very few exceptions not to include the many folktales involving father-daughter incest (while faithfully retaining numbers of stories concerning evil stepmothers). If it is truly necessary for small children to invest their fears in something, should this object today be more relevant than the still surviving bogeyman of medieval times? The dystopian fantasies currently aimed at older children in their fiction commonly describe scenes of total environmental devastation. Is this a fear that should also be stressed in books for younger children, as one way of ensuring that future generations recognise as early as possible the enemies that really matter?

Warner herself remains silent on these questions while being extremely voluble in other discussions. There was no need for a whole chapter on the banana, and some of her statements seem more destined for Private Eye's "Pseud's Corner" than for The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (for example,"The banana skin, which remains after the fruit has been consumed, presents, in metonymy, an image of the return of the repressed.") The pages on insect mimicry likewise have no obvious place in any of her arguments.

But it would be wrong to criticise this book for its wayward sense of everything goes, since, paradoxically, this fault is also one of its chief virtues. Few scholars can rival Warner's ability to track down the grotesque, memorable and strange. It is impossible not to share some of her own passionate interest for her material, even though this occasionally leads to one fact or speculation too many. Like the late medieval illustrations included in her book, the foreground of her argument operates against a surrounding border so full of odd, curious decoration that it is often difficult for an outsider to achieve a secure sense of focus. But if her main picture is sometimes hazy, the detail is often unsurpassable: the result of the patient quarrying needed to bring back into the full light of day the many obscure, highly stimulating sources she quotes from.

Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in cultural and community studies, University of Sussex.

No Go the Bogeyman

Author - Marina Warner
ISBN - 0 7011 65936
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 435

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