My Greatest Fear #43: My Greatest Childhood Fear

Monsters-University-20131Today I saw Monsters University, which was WAY better than World War Z and not quite as good as Monsters Inc (which is probably my second favorite Pixar movie after The Incredibles). Unlike the original, it delves much deeper into how different children are afraid of different things, and sometimes those things can be very specific.

I’m curious about what you were afraid of as a child and why (if there was a reason–I think a lot of childhood fears aren’t necessarily rooted in a reason). After seeing the movie Arachnophobia when I was too young, I was quite afraid of spiders for many years, but that’s not my greatest childhood fear. (Warning: This not cute or amusing like my other “greatest fears.”)

As a child, I was quite frequently petrified that robbers had broken into the house with the intention of murdering my entire family and then me.

This fear wasn’t grounded in anything realistic. We lived in a nice suburb, and our house was never broken into. And yet the fear persisted.

Your mind can play tricks with you, and sometimes while lying in bed, my mind would convince me that I could hear the sound of feet trying not to make any sound in the carpet. I told myself that I wasn’t actually hearing anything, but a small part of me played the “what if” game: “I know there’s no one out there, but…what if there is?”

As I listened to the footsteps, I would prepare to act if anyone came into the room (or if I suspected they were about to enter the room). The options were as follows:

  1. Hide under the bed. (I did this several times.)
  2. Hide under my desk. (I spent one Christmas morning there.)
  3. Lie perfectly still under the sheets and hope that the robbers would think that the lumps in the bed were stuffed animals, not a boy. (I did this many, many times.)
  4. Open the window in my room that led out onto the front porch, jump off the porch, run into the woods, and cover myself with leaves. (Fortunately I never did this. But I spent many nights looking at the window, ready to enact that plan.)

I think the most drastic action I ever took wasn’t at night, but rather the first time my parents left me alone at home for any length of time. I think my mom had an errand to run, and my brother and sister were out of the house. I was going to be alone for about an hour in broad daylight. I was eleven years old.

I was up in my room studying when I heard something downstairs. It sounded like clothes hangers clanging against one another. Unlike the footsteps in the carpet, I think I heard a real sound. In hindsight it was probably caused by a piece of clothing that slipped off a hanger. But at the time, my mind went right to the robber-murderer scenario.

I leaped up from my desk, ran down the stairs, ran out the nearest door, and didn’t stop running until I reached the entrance to the neighborhood. I remained there until my mom returned from the errand. Ironically, that was a far more dangerous place  for an 11-year-old to hang out for an hour. Like I’ve said, these “greatest fears” don’t make a lot of sense.

As silly as it sounds to write about this now, I must admit that the fear carries over today. I have alarms on my balcony doors so I could hear someone break in, and I’m sure my cats would let me know (or quickly shift their allegiances to the robber if he had cat treats).

I will say, though, that the one time I legitimately thought there was a robber in the house (my live-in girlfriend at the time had a hanging shoe rack that came crashing down in the middle of the night), my instinct wasn’t to run or hide or bury myself in leaves. Rather, it was to jump out of bed and shield my girlfriend from the “robber.”

After we realized the true source of the sound and my adrenaline dropped back down to normal levels, it felt good to know that (a)  my instinct was to be brave, not cowardly, and (b) I cared enough about someone to put their needs before my own. Sometimes it takes a provocation like that to realize the depth of your feelings.

What was your greatest childhood fear, why do you think you had it, and does it persist in any form today?

21 thoughts on “My Greatest Fear #43: My Greatest Childhood Fear”

  1. Can a person have more than one?
    1) Clowns – I was super sheltered when it came to TV as a child…The Cosby Show and SeaQuest made the cut, but The Simpsons and anything remotely scary did not. Thus, while at my friend’s house watching Attack of the Killer Clowns From Outer Space, I discovered a fear that literally freezes me…to this day, I hate clowns and will close my eyes and pray that they disappear.
    2) my feet or arms hanging over the edge of the bed/not being under the covers – I have no idea where I got this fear, but I was always scared that someone or something would “get” me. For some reason, being curled up in a fetal position in the middle of a twin bed was the safest place to sleep….or the closet, which I did quite often.
    3) a snake would come up through the toilet and bite my bottom – My brother told me this would happen. I still check before I pee.

    • I never had the fear of snakes in the toilet…until I spent 10 days in Guam and found out that it actually happens there. Ever since then, I can’t help checking before I sit, even though I know that such an occurrence is highly unlikely in Denver.

      • Ansley–I was about to post that the snake thing scared me a bit, but I was glad that something like that never happens…and then Cara chimed it to say it does actually happen!!!!

  2. I was 10 years old the year the movie “The Exorcist” was released. I never saw it, but it was such a pop phenomenon that by the time I was 11, I convinced my grandmother to tell me what the big deal was. She gave me a synopsis and claimed it was based on a true story. I was horrified by the notion that a 12-year-old girl, someone close to my own age, might be possessed by the devil. For the next year, I was terrified that the devil would come get me at night. I insisted in keeping a hall light on, and sometimes in the middle of the night, I walked to my grandparents room and slept outside their door, just so I could hear them breathing. When I was 12 my grandparents divorced. I wonder if I sensed tension in the house and latched onto the idea of Satan to explain it. As an adult, I don’t fear the devil, which I now see as a symbolic personification of human evils such as violence, cruelty, or hatred – though I suppose I do fear those now and then…

  3. As a kid I remember being afraid of snakes and clowns, but also had a crippling fear of talking to strangers (I wasn’t even able to order for myself at restaurants without it feeling like a panic attack until I was a teenager).

    I think my greatest fear was probably a weird thing that often happened while I was trying to fall asleep at night. I’m not sure where/how it started, but when I closed my eyes I would often “see” monsters or scary things, and knew that unless I opened my eyes, shook my head (to get rid of the “monsters”), and tried to fall asleep again (this time with happy images of kittens, puppies, etc) that I would be stuck dreaming of awful things all night, and that there was the possibility of one of those things attacking me for real if I dreamed about it. I try to avoid scary tv shows/movies if possible, as I know that they can be triggers for the bad dreams, and when “Signs” came out (I was in high school) I had nightmares about the alien for weeks and started keeping a full glass of water next to my bed because I was certain that it was real and was going to attack me in my sleep so I needed some sort of defense on hand. Even as an adult I still sometimes catch myself going through the motions to ensure that my dreams will be pleasant.

    • Katy–That’s interesting that you were so afraid of talking to strangers. Why do you think that was?

      It’s also interesting that you have that much control over your dreams. I wish I could do that (for good dreams).

      • Jamey- I think my fear of talking to strangers was in part due to my being an introvert, but also just a general feeling of social anxiety that I’ve had to deal with my entire life (I think going to therapy has helped out a bunch in lessening my anxiety in social situations, but I doubt it will ever go away completely).

        Eventually I’d like to be able to say I’ve mastered the art of lucid dreaming, because I think it would be really cool to be able to say “I’d like to dream about “X” tonight,” and then have it actually happen.

  4. I think Ansley and I are on the same page. I totally agree about the clowns – I’ve always feared them, but Killer Clowns from Outer Space really did it for me. Do you remember the cotton candy cocoons? Eek! I also had a fear about something coming up out of the toilet and biting me … not a snake, but Freddie Krueger. I happened to find Nightmare on Elm Street on TV when I was little, so that’s where that fear comes from … that, plus we had a big two story house, and the bathroom was waaaay up there at the top of the steps in the dark hallway. So, I would hurry and flush the toilet very quickly, furiously wash my hands, and run back down the steps before Freddie could come out and get me!

    • Colleen–Yikes, I am VERY glad I didn’t watch any Freddie Krueger movies when I was young. Isn’t his thing that he gets into your dreams?

  5. As a kid my worst fear was that one day my parents would decide they didn’t want me anymore, and I’d be kicked out of the house. I actually have found “I’m sorry” notes that I’d written my parents when I was 5 or 6, telling them not only how sorry I was for watching TV after they told me to turn it off, or not making my bed, but also that I would pack up my things and be out of the house by the next morning. I never did run away, of course, and years later therapists told me that I had an irrational fear of abandonment stemming, quite likely, from my parents’ divorce when I was 2. It’s a fear that persists today, 30 years later – I still have a hard time taking people’s friendship to be sincere. For this reason, I don’t have many close friends, and it takes a long time for me to really feel like I can trust someone.

    • JT – Thank you for sharing that, and it does sound like the divorce could be a major source of the abandonment issue. It’s both cute and sad to think of a kid packing his bags and heading out into the world because of an unmade bed, but I’m sure it made perfect sense to your young mind.

  6. So many of these are true for me too! I saw this movie when I was little where a monster comes up out of the toilet, and I was never the same after that:

    I also saw a TV show where the main character washed a bug down the drain, and it grew bigger and came back. I’m still halfway scared of that happening!

    Katy, I can totally relate to the dream thing! I used to sleepwalk all the time, and it was very bad in junior high, high school and college. I’d often think I was on the bus coming back from an away game, or at work once I got older. After many years of being exhausted from sleepwalking all night, I could almost tell if it was likely to happen when I laid down. So I’d repeat over and over that I was at home in bed and not on the bus. It usually worked pretty well!

    Ansley, I watched the beginning of “IT” when I was little, specifically the part where the little boy is playing with his sailboat after the storm and it goes down into the sewer. After talking to the clown, he reaches his hand out to get it and…well, it’s bad. I slept with my legs crossed Indian style for nights after that because I was certain if I stretched them out, the clown would be there to bite them off!

    I also had half curtains at the bottom of my window, and the top of the curtain had little ruffles. When I was younger and going to bed when it was still a little light out during the summer, the silhouette
    of the ruffles looked like little shark fins. And I was irrationally scared by this, but grew out of it pretty quickly.

    My grandmother collected the creepiest porcelain dolls when I was growing up, and she kept them all in the guest room where I always slept. I don’t know if anyone ever heard the porcelain doll horror story where she came to life at night and killed the whole family, but I started making them move the dolls to another room when I stayed there!

    Lastly, I saw this movie where a tiny troll comes out of the wall at to steal little Drew Barrymore’s breath (?) as she sleeps. Nightmares. All. The. Time.

    • Oh gosh … Katie, I forgot about creepy porcelain dolls. My dad had various things, including a porcelain doll, that had belonged to his mother before she passed away. He had the doll, along with a bunch of other random stuff, way in the back of his closet. (My parents each had their own walk-in closet.) When I was little, sometimes I would catch glimpses of the doll in the back of the closet, and it was very creepy. It even had the eyelids that opened and closed. It became somewhat of a joke in my family as I got older, but I could not stand that doll!

    • Katie- I’m really glad that I never heard the story about the porcelain doll coming to life as a kid, because I’m sure it would have permanently scarred me as I had a collection of those dolls growing up and prominently on display above my bed. And as always, I think your comment wins the award for “longest comment/mini blog post.” which makes me wonder what ever happened to the Best of the Blog awards… 🙂

  7. I have always had, and still have, a great and somewhat founded fear of wasps and other stinging beasts. As a child and then a teen, I did have a few instances in which I was stung multiple times. However, my fear predates those experiences and, as a child, was highly irrational. There was a time when I was afraid to get under the covers of my bed for fear that bees and/or wasps would be swarming under the covers, waiting to sting me. I once sat in the corner in the hallway all night, unable to take the plunge and get under the covers. In addition to the robber/murderer fear, I also had an irrational fear of a bull bursting into the room and spearing me with its horns as I lay in bed. I have no idea where that came from, but I was more than happy to sacrifice my sister by taking the top bunk during a time when we had bunk beds.

  8. You guys are naming my childhood nightmares. They mostly from movies like “IT” and “Puppetmaster” series. I hate dolls, even Barbie dolls. I don’t know why clowns are consider funny when they are definitely not. And spiders. I can now kill them with a slipper or catch them in a clear plastic cup and slide a paper underneath to pick it up and release.

  9. One of my greatest fears as a child (and somewhat now) was being kidnapped, raped and then murdered. I saw the movie “An Eye for an Eye” with Kiefer Sutherland when I was about 10 or 11 and there is an absolutely traumatizing scene of him raping a girl about the same age as I was on her birthday and then smashing her face in with the ice sculpture that her parents got her. It is still the worst thing (besides The Exorcism of Emily Rose) that I’ve ever watched in my life. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. Then I saw “Freeway” about a year later also starring Kiefer as another sadistic rapist murderer. That’s also the reason I hate him as an actor and can’t watch anything he’s in.

    To top it off, I was chased by a truck with 2 men on the way home from school when I was about 12. I ran from them and hid behind some bushes for about 2 hours before I felt safe enough to finish walking home. That did not help the manifestation of this fear.

    I still fight it almost daily in my life, especially if I’m home alone, or out late at night by myself. I’m constantly checking my surroundings and locking my car door as soon as I get into it. I know I have little to no chance of defending myself from an attacker being 5’3 and 115 lbs. My husband and I talk often about how I want to have a gun in the house so that I feel safer, but he leans towards no because we have young children. We’ll see who wins that debate! 😉

    Also, I’m deathly afraid of spiders. I don’t think that will ever go away.

    • Leandra, I empathize with you. Although I don’t experience the fear in quite the same way, I too think about sexual assault often, as many women do. I believe it can be positive to be aware and have a plan. When I was a journalist, I did a story about a unique women’s self-defense course called Model Mugging. In the class, women of all sizes learn to deliver knock-out blows to an assailant while in an adrenalized state. The guy wears a special padded suit so he can take it. Women have used the method in real-life situations, and it works! I’ve not yet taken the course myself, but your story has convinced me to put it on my to-do list. Classes are only offered regularly in California, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and Washington, but if you don’t live in one of those states you might find it worthwhile to travel. I believe the course takes three days. Some women go because they’ve already been assaulted, and their transformation after the course is inspiring! Here’s a link:

  10. Sorry for the necro comment but I was scrolling through the fears list after the thunder one tonight. The murderer in your house fear is completely legitimate. There are bad people in the world and one of them is in someones house right now.

    Between the “Ring” doorbell going off for insects at 3 am, the wife waking me up for a “very real” nightmare that involves noises or people in the house, to me waking up not sure if I heard something or if it was part of a dream I’ve done the wander around the house dazed night security check more times than I care to. More often than I care to, it is followed up with me walking the exterior perimeter half naked with a handgun and flashlight just in case. No matter the initial cause or final extent of investigation, I’m always too awake to sleep for the rest of the night so my fear robs me of at least a day of reasonable productivity.


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