I'm not usually extravagant, but last October I spent $25 on big wiggly rubber creatures. My 4-year-old, Wendy, was having trouble with things of a spooky nature, and I figured these costly Halloween gifts might help. The cornucopia of creepiness included a lanky rubber skeleton, a flappy bat and a black rat that must've weighed two pounds. They were all made of that fleshy kind of rubber that always feels moist.
When I pulled the red-eyed rat out of the bag, Wendy yelled, "Hey!" and backed away.
"These are your Halloween pets," I told her, emptying the bag. "They're just rubber creatures for you to play with. They won't hurt you, and they're fun."
Inside of 10 minutes, she had developed a game in which the skeleton was her child (named Skeletee) and the other two – Battum and Princess the Rat – were Skeletee's cousins. The toys enjoyed a long season as her favorite playthings. Princess and Battum eventually sank out of sight and out of mind to the bottom of the toy box, Skeletee's spinal column parted, and their season passed. But whenever Wendy is about to be scared by bones or bats or rats, she is reminded of her old friends.
Watching the skeleton dancers in an old DVD of Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," Wendy said to her mom: "Look! It's Skeletee's family!"
In the past year, Wendy has taken charge of her own fears.
The other night, I was telling her a bedtime story, stealing freely from any source I could think of: "....and suddenly, just as the witch was about to—"
"DON'T SAY THAT WORD!" Wendy objected.
"Oh! Sorry," I said. "Just as the WHANGDOODLE was about to lock Hansel in a cage, a house came falling out of the sky and landed on her."
"That's better," said Wendy, in the prim tone of someone who has forced a rude child to say "please." Wendy does not allow her attendants to use any of these words: witch, ghost, bat, monster or wolf. We are under orders to substitute the word "whangdoodle." The silly word takes the edge off the scariness, and she can cope. She is good at knowing just how scared she needs to be.
When Wendy and her big sisters wanted me to rent "The Wizard of Oz," I resisted, remembering how much the witch had frightened me. (Also, I knew the disc would expose a major source of my bedtime-story plagiarism.)
Back in the olden days when that movie would be broadcast once a year, my brothers and I never missed it. Whenever the witch came on, we'd run up into the far end of the living-room of our split-level house and watch the TV from a safe 50 feet away. The screen was little more than a flickering spot, and even the monumental scariness of Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch was brought down to manageable proportions.
That technique wouldn't work for my kids, because our house is not built that way, and a terrified Munchkin couldn't retreat more than 20 feet from the TV set. But my wife said, "Go ahead and rent the movie. Wendy can handle it. You'll see."
And when the Wicked Witch appeared, Wendy yelled, "Quick! Cover my eyes!"
She has an ornate fear-management system. At night, the candlepower requirements she has for her bedroom are as specific as those the state department of education has for classrooms. Besides her nightlight, a 25-watt lamp must also be left burning.
I've read a theory that girls in industrialized nations are reaching puberty early, because it's triggered by exposure to a certain number of hours of illumination, and their bodies don't differentiate between sunlight and electric light. I see sleeping Wendy basking in all that light, and I'm afraid that by morning, she'll be wanting her tongue pierced.
Besides the lights, she requires that her closet door be secured, so that nothing bad can emerge. The door to her room must be open, so that in case of trouble, she can escape.
The effectiveness of Wendy's fear-management system depends upon constant vigilance and strict enforcement. But Wendy never eases up, because she knows what could happen. A forbidden word is spoken, a lamp is turned off, the wrong door is left open – and somebody gets eaten. "Sorry" won't help THEN, will it?