It’s something we probably don’t consider, but everyone has been scared that there’s something lurking underneath us as we sleep at some point in their lives. It’s been in episodes of Doctor Who, it’s been in Luther, it’s been all over the place, and it seems to be getting more and more prevalent as time goes on. But why is it that the idea haunts us? I don’t mean to solve the issue, but present a few feelers and ideas as to possible interpretations.
Firstly, of course, we must tackle the dark. In evolutionary terms, we’re scared of the dark because it conceals predators, and as primitive man, we’re not going to last long if a beast comes and eats us. The monsters children believe in may not be the saber-toothed tiger our ancestors feared (although I’m sure some have thought that one is underneath them), but the principle applies. It is a similar story with the cupboard across the room, which I will quickly divert to. Anything might be hiding in there, and isn’t it much scarier when the door is ever so slightly open when we can just about peer into the gloom and convince ourselves that something monstrous is moving around in there?
And now for something completely different (but which will reconnect).
As we grow up, our perception of the world is shaped by past events. In essence, we build up a pattern recognition of what is, based on what has come before, and therefore we can predict what might come later. This is one reason why theorists believe it is more difficult to learn languages when you get older because language is tied to our perception of reality. We understand, for example, what a door is, because we have learned to associate the temporary opening-and-closing of a portal with the word ‘door’. Therefore, whenever we see something similar (even between different cosmic dimensions), we associate the word ‘door’ because it has similar properties to those we have seen before, even though it may not strictly be a ‘door’ as such. Try and substitute the word with something different and our inherent understanding of it changes, and we find it harder to make the connection.
Children, who have had less time to build up such an intimacy with language, are able to apply several terms to a concept more easily than adults. Following that same principle, children are less able to come to terms with the inherent cause and effect of past-present-future, because their brains aren’t as hardwired to associate past with present and with future from previous knowledge, as adults can by their previous knowledge of a door, to use the same concept. When adults know that there was nothing in the wardrobe with the light on and therefore there won’t be with the light off, because there never has been before, children are less able to come to that conclusion because the dark, for them, creates a completely different space. Our inherent understanding of human experience of reality changes as we age and experience the world around us. Children haven’t had the time to build up the understanding that the dark doesn’t change anything, so they believe that even though there was nothing there before, switching it off doesn’t necessarily mean the same holds true.
Now put that concept under the bed. The proximity of the dark place to the child is that much closer, that much more unbearable. When the monster was in the wardrobe at the end of the room, at least we had running distance. Now someone’s put a dark place, where anything could be hiding, where we can’t see, only inches away from us. What’s a child supposed to think, to believe, when the lights are off and the parents are in another room, very close and yet so incredibly far away? This is why the sheets getting pulled off the bed in Shutter, and indeed in Paranormal Activity, is disturbing. Throughout our lives the bed has been the safe place, and now something is able to tamper with that safety net. It can get to us.
There’s also perhaps the element of parent-child separation involved with this as well. For the first years of its life the child is almost constantly in contact with the mother. Now, put in a room on their own where they cannot see or hear their protector for so many years? At an impressionable age when so many images and concepts are being bombarded at them, everything comes at the worst possible time. They’re on their own, and absolutely anything they have seen or experienced could be lurking there.
And yet it is a rite of passage. Conquering this growing-up period is how children understand the dark, how they come to create the pattern-recognition that tells them that, no matter how much they imagine shapes there, logic holds that it can’t be true. It’s part of the mirror-stage, I would say, the Freudian concept of the child recognising that it is independent from the mother. Now that the child is alone, it has to realise that it must protect itself from attack. To do this it must recognise, understand, and parry potential threats, and in today’s world we don’t have tigers hunting us, but instead monsters under the bed. The child must go through the experience long enough to build up past knowledge that there are no monsters under the bed, and so eventually understand that the dark is simply obscuring something which isn’t there.
However, we as adults can look back on the past. And we can remember a time when the dark space underneath us wasn’t just filled with pillows and the odd box of Christmas decorations. We can remember it being a place where the monsters hid, and where they crept out of before we cowered under the covers and waited for it to be over. And sometimes it seems that we haven’t quite conquered our fears completely, and we return to that moment of childhood horror. And that’s when they come for us, at the moment when logic and reasoning breaks down for just a split second and we believe, we know, that there really were, and still are, monsters under the bed.
-Article by Kieran Judge