Heinrich Hoffmann wanted to buy his three-year-old son a book for Christmas. After much searching, the German physician came to the conclusion that since there were no such books for a young boy of his son’s tender years, he’d simply have to write one himself.
The result, Funny stories and whimsical pictures with 15 beautifully coloured panels for children aged 3–6 (or Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln für Kinder von 3–6 Jahren, in its original German), is neither really funny nor whimsical. Originally published anonymously in 1845, the collection was an instant success and, by its third edition – with the title amended to the book’s opening story, Der Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter) – exports had reached as far as North America and the desk of Mark Twain, who wrote an English language translation.
Other tales within its pages include the fable of a girl who burns to death after playing with matches, a boy who refuses to eat his soup and subsequently starves to death, and, perhaps most infamously, Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher (the story of the thumbsucker) which a mother warning her son that a ‘great, tall tailor‘ will punish him if dares suck his thumb:
‘He takes his great sharp scissors and cuts their thumbs clean off.’
The boy does not heed her warning and, consequently, the tailor appears, scissors in hand.
The vision of a scissor-wielding bogeyman castigating errant children is an extreme one, but fear is a fuel that powers many fables and fictions. Indeed, every country has its cautionary tales designed to discourage children from acts of disobedience: the Sack Man, and his numerous appellations, carries away misbehaving children from Chile to Algeria. Black Annis, a cannibalistic hag who resides in a cave in the Dane Hills of Leicestershire devouring children venturing outside after dark. And the Mamma of Pakistan, an ape-like creature, who absconds with young girls from nearby villages, licking their palms and soles of their feet and rending them unable to ever flee his cave lair.
While many of these folk tales have passed into obscurity, the stories of our childhood do linger. Many are not the cautionary tales of old, but the images imprinted on our brains in the contemporary world, from books, television or the cinema screen. these are images that continue to reverberate long after the moment, however fleeting, has passed. They feed our imaginations when the lights go off, or when we’re alone. Preying on our youthful insecurities and innate understanding that we’re not yet strong enough to fight back.
The horror film is adept at creating an environment that envelopes the developing mind with its shocking depictions of the world; a world that children are not ready for and have no understanding of how to control. A child’s only defence is to flee the visions set in front them on a television screen, for example. But why is it, then, that the child will still peer through the crack of the door?
The road to an appreciation of the horror film can only be accessed by a dark passage we all must take. For many, the view via the door crack beckons us forth and we either choose to keep watching, to take our first steps along the path, or to turn away forever. Not many do.
These embryonic glimpses of horror often embed themselves in our psyche, like shards of glass, lodged for a lifetime. And they carry through into adulthood. We can watch these passages later in life without fear and yet the echoes of that first shock and the inevitable nightmares that followed never really leave us. Yes, we laugh at our younger selves, dismissing the childish folly of pubescent (or pre-pubescent) terror, but the creature that scared us to our wit’s end laughs back. It knows that we still fear it. Don’t we?
I, like countless others, have experienced that visceral shock of being exposed to the horror film. Of course, it was always something I could avoid. I could stick to the safety of more age-appropriate fare. Like Superman III. So let me tell you the tale of that…
It’s the end of July, 1983 and the start of the summer holidays. I’m very excited at the prospect of the long, hot summer stretched out in front of me (weren’t all summers hot back then?) with nothing more taxing in my youthful schedule than find a little shade when the temperature gets a too high.
I discover by chance that the third instalment of the Superman series is about to hit the cinemas and, being a fan of the Man of Steel, I embark on a campaign of begging my Mother to take me. Tactics include refusing to eat dinner, promising to eat dinner; tidying away my toys, making a complete mess with my toys; whining, pleading, scowling, and feigning tears.
Eventually, after what seems like an eternity, but was probably just one afternoon, she acquiesces to my demands; no doubt dreading the thought of entire summer with a sulking nine-year-old. Bearing in mind that she also had my four younger siblings (two brothers, two sisters) to contend with, she probably just wanted to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of the cinema and catch-up on some sleep.
With my Dad taking charge of the rest of the family, my Mum packed me into the car (we’d made a deal whereby I did indeed finish my dinners and kept my shared bedroom tidy for one week – an undertaking that necessitated ensuring my brother’s mess was also kept in check) and we were off to the hallowed screens of Sutton’s Odeon Cinema.
Inside, I took a seat to the right of the screen, four of five rows back, if memory serves, and prepared for a couple of hours of superhero escapism. Instead, an enduring nightmare awaited…
I’m not sure how I felt as I blindly stepped into the light after the closing credits. I don’t recall anything of that day beyond the moment that Annie Ross’s character, Vera Webster, was dragged into the self-aware supercomputer and violently transmogrified into a cyborg (I’ll call her Robot Lady. It’s how I identified her then and how I’ve always thought of her).
The abject horror that moment haunted me for the rest of the summer and beyond. In fact, for years after, whenever I noticed that Superman III was playing on the television, I’d flee the room. And I most definitely did not peek through the crack in the door – I wanted to, but I wasn’t ready to deal with the abject horror of the Robot Lady again.
Vera’s terrified cries, the computer parts clamping to her face, and that dreadful moment her eyes open to reveal dead, robotic silver eyes. The memory of watching the sequence at high volume on the cinema screen in the dark is forever imprinted on my brain. Nothing has terrified me as much since. And it’s a family film!
You can keep your Child Catcher, The Crow Man, Public Information Films or any other creepy childhood figure. Annie Ross’s Robot Lady trumps them all.