Eight year old Tommy Doyle poses this question to his babysitter Laurie Strode in Halloween. He means it to be casual by slipping it into a discussion about his comics, but he has a genuine need to know. He wants to be prepared in case he bumps into it. And this is perhaps something we can all relate to regardless of where we live or how old we are. This is surely a question we've all wrestled with at some point in our lives and somehow overcome--even if it means as adults that we triple check that the closet door is closed tightly before we finally turn off the lights and get into bed. We believe something is there and believe it should be feared, but what is it? Tommy Doyle never received an answer from Laurie; he's dismissed and reassured that there is nothing to worry about. But what is the Bogeyman?

For Tommy, the Bogeyman was Michael Myers, also aptly known as the Shape for the Bogeyman has no specific form. It can become whatever it needs to be to be most effective in its objective of scaring you straight. The Bogeyman may very well be a universal; some variation is found in almost every culture. It goes by many names: jumbie, bhoot, Krampus, Der Schwarze Mann, Baba Yaga--however named, it's purpose is to steal and/or punish children. We all meet it early in our lives whether by our own imagining or because it is invoked to teach a lesson (e.g., "If you don't eat your vegetables, the --- will come for you.)  Between the ages of two and six many kids develop a fear of the dark. This is the age when the closet becomes frightening and needs to be shut tight, when Monster Spray needs to be employed nightly, and when a nightlight may become a necessity if it wasn't before. This is the age when imaginations are emerging and to the mind of a susceptible child, that bedtime story of a friendly monster can easily translate into a Bogeyman in their closet.

The Bogeyman is there is to ensure that we follow the rules. It shapeless so it can be anywhere at any time, whether that means lurking under the bed or in the closet or behind a tree in the forest. It gets its power from the persistence of folklore. The transmission of these types of tales--those records of beliefs and customs and experiences--generates the guidelines for a lasting social code. This oral exchange educates on and reinforces the expectations for members of the community. Folktales are local to the people who tell them and reveal much about their perceptions of the world around them. They grow and change in their tellings and are adapted for the time in which they are told. The most widely known collection of such tales come from the Brothers Grimm. Theirs is not the only type of this sort of collection, however, their attempts to gather and record the oral tradition of folktales went beyond Germany, and their editing moved the tales from peasant superstitions to popular consumption. In doing so, they set the stage for this type of collecting and packaged the stories for wider consumption.

The tales in the Grimm collection were divided into themes directed at different age groups, different genders, and different occupations. For example, heroine-based stories were popular with spinning girls. For children, a special class of "scare and warning tales" were circulated. These included "Hansel and Gretel" and "Red Riding Hood." These types of stories exposed children to dangerous or critical situations on their own--and the resolution was not always happy. The edits the Grimms made to the tales were meant to remove coarser language from the stories to make them more widely appealing to the upper classes, but the themes of child-eating witches and ogres and giants, and the instances of child abandonment were largely left in place. Fright was, and to some degree is still, employed as a disciplinary measure by parents. These characters were teaching tools; they were designed to maintain the social order.

This is true of our modern film bogeymen as well. Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees dole out punishment for moral and social transgressions of the time (e.g., teenage promiscuity, drinking and smoking, murder). They are called into being by those social infractions, and this is true of bogeymen elsewhere: they come to serve a purpose. The Bogeyman is not accidental; it must be triggered, and because of this, it can be controlled--or rather, it can be overcome. It's great if you never commit a transgression that attracts its attention, but if you do, you'll have to face it alone, and there's a reason for that. Up until the point that we meet the Bogeyman, our parents are a great force in our lives. They typically reconcile most issues for us. But the Bogeyman tends to come when they aren't around--or they are powerless to stop it. That's because this is the moment when we need to stand up and assert ourselves as members of the social order. We need to indicate our wrongdoing. It is only by understanding our missteps and accepting ownership for them can we banish the Bogeyman. It is the first reconciliation that we manage--a danger that we face and conquer.

It may sound like a lot to ask of a two year old, but this a developmental milestone. At the age when they are making sense of the world, the metaphor of the Bogeyman represents fear, anxiety, and danger. And in much the same way folktales empower the Bogeyman, they also empower the listener. When the Bogeyman is encountered in a folktale, it's contained in a space where it can be observed safely. We understand that tales are NOT true. When a child asks if there are witches in the forest and parents say no, they're confirming what is fiction and what isn't. If there was any possibility of a witch in the forest, then we enter the realm of legend, and that generates possible truths that may not be so easily dismissed. Similarly, when a child asks if the Bogeyman is real and parents say no, the child is armed to face her fears. The Bogeyman can be called as a warning but is effective only until we learn to banish it.

So the Bogeyman both is and isn't. In the realm of the folktale, it exists in a storied context where we can learn and observe safely until it is invoked and we find ourselves facing an open closet in the dark at an hour when our parents are surely asleep. Then it is and it will continue to be until we find a way to conquer it and return it to its shapeless form. Movie Bogeymen sometimes seem to break this rule, but there is typically a catch and a reason why. The real terror of the movie Bogeyman is that it often targets more than one person so the horror can be shared in a community rather than being specific to an individual who can then become a folktale lesson. Even so, the movie Bogeyman is only acting in its own interest: the Bogeyman can only serve as a lesson to others if its story is remembered and passed on.

Check your closets tonight.

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References:

Degh, Linda (1979). "Grimm's "household Tales" and Its Place in the Household: The Social Relevance of a Controversial Classic." Western Folklore, Vol. 38(2): 83-103.

Pickering, John and Steve Attridge (1990). "Viewpoints: Metaphor and Monsters: Children's Storytelling." Research in the Teaching of English, Vol 24(4): 45-440.

Shimabukuro, Karra (2014). "The Bogeyman of Your Nightmares: Freddy Krueger's Folkloric Roots" Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 36(2): 45-65.

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Photo Credit: Carlos Henrique