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November 8, 2012

STAWAR: The shunning of Shaun the Sheep

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Halloween may be over and the scary costumes packed away, but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind.

Our 5-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile Shaun the Sheep to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spin-off from the popular “Wallace and Gromit” films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie “Poltergeist.”

I remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus that could have been a scene right out of “Jurassic Park.” Especially in his book, “It,” Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children — even the older ones — disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown makeup is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child, and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frightened of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles.” They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our 3-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child, our middle son Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘6-inch-long flying cockroaches’ we’d all have to move out of the state.”

In elementary school, Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house, we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school. 

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively toward others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypal images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”.

Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence toward the mothering figure, as well as the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother.” As for me, I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Those feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, “ Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.”

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away.” All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted.

It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realize that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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