What was your biggest fear as a child? The dark, killer clowns, sharks in the swimming pool? Maybe it was the dentist, or a cult sneaking into your room at night to steal you away and sacrifice you. Maybe it was the creepy painting in your grandma’s house, or the monsters under your bed.
The Simpsons probably doesn’t rank up there with the most common childhood fears. I watched the show religiously as a child and my absolute favourite episodes were always the Treehouse of Horrors, aka the Halloween specials; a precursor to my preference for horror films as an adult, perhaps! Those short segments were so unlike anything else The Simpsons produced and I loved the way nothing was off the table, unlike regular episodes where everything went back to normal at the end. But the standout episode for me – and one which still makes me uneasy today – is Treehouse of Horror X, from season 11, and the segment Life’s a Glitch, Then You Die.
The gist is that every electrical device on Earth has gone haywire. The family discovers an expedition to start a new human society on Mars with the best and brightest of humankind, and though Homer tries to lie his way in, Lisa is accepted as proofreader. The guard on the door tells her she has a difficult choice: she’s only allowed to take one parent with her.
The humour in the situation comes from the guard not even finishing his sentence before Lisa says “Mom”. Clearly, she’s made an easy choice. But that choice always scared me, because you’re supposed to love your parents, fiercely and unconditionally and without preference, just as parents are supposed to love their children. While I understand that the show is a comedy, as a child (my age was in single figures when I saw this episode for the first time) it’s unthinkable to consider choosing one parent over the other.
I’ve grown into an adult who loves horror films and anything that could potentially freak me out. I’ve seen almost every violent and gory film you could mention, as well as most of the creepy content that’s out there, and I lap it up with enthusiasm. But still, there’s something about this Simpsons segment that still haunts me. I can’t see the humour in it as much as I feel the heavy lump in my stomach that comes from contemplating choosing between two of the most important people in my life. Much of this feeling comes from the fact that the things which really frighten us in childhood echo through the years, staying with us even when we can see the lack of logic behind them. (I’m also still scared of I Know What You Diddly-Iddly-Did, after all: I hate they way they run off and leave Homer behind!)
This is a reminder that the fears we had as children were, deep down, valid in their naivety and some of them are carried through into adulthood. If I were faced with choosing between my parents right now, I still would have no way of making a decision, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Kids are scared of the right things, for the most part; we sometimes downplay children’s fears as silly or irrational, but they truly aren’t, most of the time. Being scared of the dark is fear of the unknown or being abandoned, both of which translate absolutely into fears I have as an adult. The imagery in films or TV shows that scares us when we’re young is also used in 18-rated horror films – there’s a reason children find dolls scary, and it’s the same reason the Annabelle series is so popular amongst horror fans. I really recommend this video about why we find things creepy, as I think a lot of it relates to both children and adults. It fascinates me why we find certain things scary, how our fears develop over time, and how media – scary stories, films, even podcasts – can exploit that to get a reaction.
The fear I felt as I watched The Simpsons, that dread of betraying my family by choosing one over the other or leaving one behind, has in adulthood become the fear that someone close to me might become ill, or have an accident, or otherwise disappear from my life. It’s a more grown-up and common thing to worry about. My childhood terror of someone lurking in the shadowy corner of my bedroom has become a very sensible wariness of burglars, and a habit of double-checking that all the doors are locked. (Sadly, my fear of spiders has retained the same level of irrational intensity, but my boyfriend gets rid of them as long as I deal with the wasps.)
It’s not so strange that the fears we had as children stick with us, even when we’ve put away the rest of our childish things. I don’t think the fears we have as children go away; I think they morph into fears that are more grounded in the tangible, whereas kids don’t need more than their imaginations to find something terrifying. I’m not sure which is scarier.