In a 1989 interview on the Public Radio Book Show, Stephen King, the renowned author of horror and supernatural fiction, opened up about his fascination with the one thing we must all give up eventually – our childhood. His interpretation of it ranged from a secret world ruled by its own culture, to a dream state that opens the gates for all that is paranormal. The painful aspect of it, as he pointed out, is that as adults, we are banned from existing in a world that was once so familiar to us. A prime example of this is the difference in how we perceive a child lost in an imaginary world, and an adult. And why? Well, because children and adults are expected to think in different ways.
That growth from one state to the other is what Stephen King attributes horror to. More precisely, to a sense of futurity that inflates furiously as we grow older. The awareness of our inevitable end is something we are never able to truly grasp on an emotional level, as King states. That very inability causes a disparity between our mental and emotional states, often causing internal conflict that cannot be extinguished with reason. And in that state of ravenous gloom, we look beyond the blinding spotlight – to the fears huffing away in the shadows.
But is Stephen King right about the construct of fear in children’s minds? According to Eleonora Gullone’s 1999 assessment of normal fear in children and adolescents, it’s true that the idea of it exists more obviously among young children. Interestingly, a spike in fear has been observed toward the end of the first year of life. That’s when the external environment becomes vivid and foreboding, concealing the dark unknown. In a way, that’s when our abstract thinking experiences its most memorable growing pains. Older children are capable of “faking” their emotional states, but fear can still be drawn back to a private, emotional experience. This is also when the abstract sneakily causes more trepidation, shifting older adolescents’ fears to economic and political concerns.
What is most notable, however, is that our very characteristic fear of death exists even in early childhood. We don’t learn to fear peril, but rather its source. When we touch a hot pan as a child, we learn not to do it again, averse to the danger and pain it causes. Similarly, other danger-related fears exist from the very beginning.
Perhaps the appealing quality of childhood, which Stephen King was referring to – and which we all share – lies buried in its very definition. James and Prout (1997) came up with a model for the reconstruction of childhood, in which they highlighted the importance of understanding it as a social construction and “a variable of social analysis”. What it all comes down to is innocence, whether it’s defined as emotional, physical or sexual, as Mary Jane Kehily states in her work on the themes and issues of childhood.
In many ways, Stephen King was right when he called childhood a dream-like state. Its innocence causes us to romanticize its fickle frame. And so, we are left pining for a world devoid of the thwartingly abstract ideas plaguing our minds – letting fear rip into the calm we remember.