People have designed some downright terrifying things with the misguided belief that they’ll be enjoyed by children and well-meaning parents have purchased them, blissfully unaware of how their child might respond. Indeed, there are several unsettling toys and books from my childhood that have left their imprint on my psyche and cemented my status as “the practice child,” the affectionate nickname my father bestowed upon the oldest of his four children.
The first terrifying toy I can remember is a plush Gizmo, the original mogwai in the dark comedy “Gremlins.” I thought Gizmo was adorable until I found out that if you got him wet, he could spawn other mogwais, who would then turn into horrifying monsters if you fed them after midnight. Not exactly what a four-year-old is looking for in a cuddly bedtime companion.
Speaking of which, I’m a little fuzzy on how a four-year-old managed to find out these details about the movie. Perhaps Dad made some sort of joke about banning Gizmo from my tea parties.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time one of his jokes backfired. At age 3, I asked my freshly-shaven father where his mustache went. He cheerfully informed me that he had put it in the closet. I refused to go near the closet until he proved his mustache wasn’t really in there.
You can therefore understand why, when Gizmo was deemed too scary to remain in my bedroom, I put him in the closet. Not my closet, of course – Mom and Dad’s.
Dad’s father worked for a book publishing company and often gave us books and book-related items that were lingering in the stockroom, including a set of four plush toys based on the characters from “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.
The only one I found remotely tolerable was Max, the protagonist, who was clad in a wolf costume. The other three creatures were, as best as my young eyes could discern, a bull/gorilla hybrid, a bumblebee/lion hybrid and a cross between a chicken and a terrifying elderly aunt. I wanted nothing to do with them.
“But they’re so unique!” my parents protested. “They’ll be collector’s items someday!”
That’s nice. Someone else can collect them, then. Into the closet they went. By this time, Oldest Younger Brother was on the scene, so I put them in his closet.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure if Oldest Younger Brother ever knew I did this. Either way, I apologize for turning your closet into a chamber of childhood horrors.
Another of Grandpa’s more questionable bestowals was “Fever Dream,” a glow-in-the-dark picture book. I remembered the title from my childhood but not the author. As soon as Google revealed that the story was penned by esteemed sci-fi and horror writer Ray Bradbury, I questioned the sanity of my grandfather and my parents.
Here’s how Amazon summarizes the book: “A young boy’s illness comes alive, taking over his body bit by bit until he dies – but the virus remains alive in his body. A portion of each illustration glows in the dark.” What better bedtime reading material for your eight-year-old daughter?
Such a story is obviously ripe for interpretation and analysis, but my prevailing memory of it is the protagonist crying to his mother that he no longer has hands, just stumps, and his mother telling him it’s just his imagination and he’s overreacting.
My guess is that neither my grandfather nor my parents took the time to read the book before giving it to me. The fact that it came in a set with glow-in-the-dark versions of “The Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and “The Golden Touch,” a retelling of the tale of King Midas by Nathaniel Hawthorne, may have given them a false sense of security. My parents have always been big on the classics.
None of these stories appealed to my eight-year-old self as bedtime reading material, especially after I encountered the illustration in “Fever Dream” that depicted the young boy being entirely consumed by glow-in-the-dark flames. All three books were speedily relocated to Oldest Younger Brother’s closet.
And last but not least, there was Teddy Ruxpin, who ended up being an unintentional source of terror. Essentially a teddy bear with a cassette player inside, Teddy Ruxpin’s eyes would move and his mouth would open and close in time with the narration on the cassette so that he appeared to be telling the story. He had his own storybooks and even a cartoon show that chronicled his magical adventures in the land of Grundo.
Everything was sunshiney and pleasant until his mechanical innerworkings began to break down. It started off as a slight distortion of the voices on the cassette and devolved into a metallic grinding, making it look like Teddy Ruxpin was gnashing his teeth and rolling his eyes in fury.
I’m just relieved my parents didn’t buy any of the cassettes on which Teddy Ruxpin sang lullabies – I already had plenty of fuel for nightmares. He too took up residence in Oldest Younger Brother’s closet.
The unintentional receipt of creepy toys and books from well-meaning adults is a part of childhood and one that continues to resonate with us as grown-ups. Horror movies like the “Child’s Play” series are popular for a reason. They allow us to revisit those scary memories at a safe distance, secure in the knowledge that these things can’t really hurt us.
Just don’t go in the closet.
– Teresa Santoski