What are you afraid of?
(Photo courtesy of Tejas Prajapati via Pexels)
All of the above (and more!) have terrified the marrow out of my bones at some point or another. In this, I know I’m not alone: hundreds of millions have shed their money at theaters over the decades to both gawk at and be horrified by the anthologies of ‘the Hallowed Four’.
And who wouldn’t? The threat of something unseen lurking just beyond the bonfire has a certain allure — as long as we’re safe at home, taking in the slaughter of know-nothing teens and befuddled, inept police officers (who for some reason never ask for enough back-up when responding to a mad-man’s carnage) on a screen in HD. It’s even fun, sort of. We’ve all played the game of ‘who’s going to die first?’ with our popcorn and Pepsi — Coke for me — while the adrenaline toys with our ganglia.
In the world of slashers and murderous societal rejects, no place is safe. Not idyllic summer camps; not cool lakes with ironic, falsely-reassuring names like ‘Crystal’; not our homes, cars, or even the abattoirs. With horror-protagonist Freddy in particular, we can’t find solace even in our dreams. And just when we think we’re safe, having planted that axe squarely in the center of the cannibal’s forehead and stumbled through a mile of dark, wet forest, we find out that we aren’t… not really. In fact, we were never safe, because the cannibal or mad-man always gets back up, no matter how many times he’s been shot, stabbed, electrocuted, run over, or drowned.(Photo courtesy of Sankavi via Unsplash)
He can’t be stopped, trapped, out-smarted, buried. He has the form of a man, but only roughly so, with rags for clothes and a favorite weapon dragging through the dank mud behind him. He works alone, rarely speaking, and while there is a face, it is concealed more often than not. But most frighteningly, he can’t be killed. He can’t be killed because in that hunched form of what looks like a man, there never really was a ‘soul’ to begin with.
That man is the Boogey-man.(Photo courtesy of Myat Lone via Unsplash)
Don’t laugh: it’s really easy for most people to reiterate the whole ‘it’s just a movie’ thing. In real life, regardless of how depraved they are, serial-killers have limits, boundaries. They grow old, weaken, and then they die just like anyone else. The reliability of human mortality assuages us. So we bed down comfortably, shelving our cinema horror experience for the night. Confident that there are no monsters under our children’s beds, we remind ourselves that we locked the front door and Thunder is curled up at the bottom of the stairs with his bone. Cheek meets pillow, and all is well with the world.
Yet for a lot of us paranormal-folk, horror doesn’t end when the credits roll. For us, there aren’t any limitations to the possibilities the universe offers. For us, the spirits, demons, and boogey-men that entertain us at the movies are all too real. Many of us have had experiences with Bigfoot, dog-men, and UFOs, to say nothing of all the other supernatural phenomena we sometimes come into contact with. Because we know there are no limits to the cosmos, we’ll stick by those tales, even while our neighbors and colleagues smirk beneath their hands.
Who is the Boogey-man, really?
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To early human beings, the instinct to survive would have been stronger than any other trait people had before the common era. Without the amenities that modern man is used to, pre-historical mothers needed to make double-sure their babies were protected. Clan patriarchs used spears, traps, and sophisticated sling-shots to bring down such lurking terrors as saber-toothed tigers, heavy mammoths, and savage boar the size of small ponies. Most of the time they won, until they didn’t. Human casualties were inevitable in the early struggle for survival. What terrified communities even more were those killings and disappearances of clan members by enemies unseen, for what could possibly be done to defeat that which could never be identified?
Hence, the matter of darkness: of night, the full moon, and conspicuous shadows skulking just beyond the periphery.
Early mothers noted these things, hugging their children closer and tucking their newborns into thick fur wraps to keep them safe from those things that lurked. When babies succumbed to fevers and disease, desperate families huddled together to see what could be done.(Photo courtesy of Vincent Foret via Unsplash)
That is when the Boogey-Man was born. Quite literally, he was ‘thought’ into existence, as much a product of early mothers’ imaginations as well as other Things that lurked… Things that remained unseen and yet existed all the same, relishing the hunt for young flesh and taunting entire clans in the form of ragged spirits in the dusk.
In a bid to see their children live, families across campgrounds began to spread the lore of the Boogey-man: a dark, hunched figure with a twisted face and a large sack held over one shoulder, into which toddlers and wandering children were to be stuffed if they did not obey their mothers and stay close to camp.
And it worked, sometimes. More mothers were able to see their kids into their older years. To teens back then, who speared raging bison as a rite of passage and knew countless dangers from their earliest days, the Boogey-man was not something to laugh at. He was all to real.
They would be reminded of this when typical teen bravado over-came common sense and a member of the clan wandered away from the fire, just out of reach. There might have been a growl and a terrified yelp — and then, maybe nothing. Just quiet stillness, with a moon smiling down on the wailing, grieving mother who would never see that child again. Not a trace would be left for traditional shamanic burial. No bone, no flesh, no scattered bits of sandal or clothing. Just — nothing.(Photo courtesy of Ali Kazal via Unsplash)
Legends of the Boogey-man became instrumental in keeping kids close to home. Protective mothers did their part by ‘threatening’ their children at bed-time. The Boogey-man, simply by existing in the twilight periphery, did his. But by virtue of who and what the Boogey-man actually is (the absence of all that is ‘safe’ and ‘good’), he would not have been able to survive without occasionally snatching that which was ‘his’.
Hundreds of thousands of years into the present, people continue to enjoy Boogey-man-type stories at campfires around the world. They scare us, titillate us, and give us delightful chills.
But on a more primitive level, we may have forgotten why we really tell these stories. Hollywood has spun the Boogey-man into characters like Mike Meyers and Jason, some of the most widely-recognized horror movie villains across the globe. We fawn over them at the same time that we shrink away, devouring novellas, comics, fan-fiction, and anthologies. Via the screens on our gadgets, we invite the Boogey-man into our very homes. After all, we tell ourselves, there’s nothing to worry about in the technological age.
Man has more dominion over the creatures of the earth than perhaps any time in human history, and few places on the planet have gone un-explored. There are no Boogey-men, we say. Only the same tired trope of faceless, mask-wielding psychopaths, their lust for the kill exaggerated by movie producers eager to make awards and earn their golden star in Hollywood.
For the paranormal community, which seeks with all seriousness to dig to the root of that which terrifies, the Boogey-man is not so easily dismissed. We have largely forgotten the dark roots of what we are afraid of.
The Boogey-man, I believe, is still out there. Only when we recognize him for who he really is — the embodiment of our own worst horrors — will we be in any position to lock the door with peace.
Until then, he will lurk, and continue to take what is ‘his’.(Photo courtesy of Nathan Wright via Unsplash)
An Ode to the Boogey-Man was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.