Children’s TV – The Stuff of Nightmares

I wrote this a month or so ago, before we all entered the current COVID-19 nightmare. I can’t help but worry about the lingering effect this will have on today’s kids, long after the immediate emergency is over.

Anyway, I wrote this in response to a Twitter CfP from @horrifyingbook who are looking to compile ‘Horrifying Children: television, literature and popular culture from 1966-1998′. I knew that what I had in mind didn’t have the legs to make it to a full-length article as per their call, so I used it as a jumping off point instead, to look at one of my very earliest memories.


Dreams retain a lucidity different from that of ordinary memories. Their immediacy can persist, and there is a timelessness about them: that is, they are temporally un-anchored. They don’t age like waking memories can.

By that I mean that conscious memories get older and lose their freshness, but also that they’re more easily placed (however approximately) in time. I’ve had dreams which I’ve remembered later but struggled to recall whether they were from last night or last year.

We all have nightmares that we remember, and mine is no different from yours. I make no special pleading.

My Mum and Dad divorced when I was about three. For the next few years Mum and I lived in my Gran’s house (a flat, really), a place which because Gran moved out not long after we did, I haven’t seen in almost forty years. But that house’s dimensions I remember vividly – or rather, the bits I remember, I do so vividly. There are blank areas that the mind scoots over, unable to fill in but unwilling or unable to acknowledge the missing information. The result is a plastic memory of a space which, if I were to draw or build it would have impossible, Lovecraftian dimensions.

These blank areas are partly the result of a child’s (in)attention. I was rarely in my Gran’s bedroom, and other than the position of door, window and bed I could tell you little of that room’s detail other than the inevitable copy of People’s Friend on the bedside table, and the slippers with the hole cut out to give her bunions room.

The circumstances of us coming to live there must inevitably mean that the house signified, in my mind, a place of refuge after a period of upheaval (of which I remember almost nothing). But it’s also a place of nightmare. The dream – of all the dreams I’ve ever had in my forty-five years – that I’ve remembered for the longest, in the most detail, is shaped by the very plastic dimensions of that house

The elements of the dream are simple. I am in the hallway, outside the living room door. I am unable to open the door, which has grown to gargantuan proportions. The rest of my family – Mum, Gran, Aunt, Uncle and cousins – are on the other side, in the warmth and the light of the living room. But I cannot reach them. And from the far end of the corridor, in the room that I stayed with my Mum, and out of sight behind the open door, comes the threatening voice of a TV puppet.

Which puppet? I realise now that it was a dream-hybrid of two. One was You & Me‘s Duncan the Dragon, and the other was Gnasher (with a hard “G”) the Pterodactyl from Oscar the Rabbit [top], a show even the internet struggles to recall. Both have the rough-around-the-edges wrongness (and consequent menace) of a thing made at home that’s been thrust into the glare of studio lights.

Duncan the Dragon (shudder)

What he says in the dream, I can no longer recall. I can hear the sound his wooden jaws make as they open and close. Chok. Chok. He is going to come closer, and he is going to – what? I’m not sure the threat was ever defined, but I knew it would be the worst thing that could happen to a person. The house’s architecture is now in the realm of dream physics. The threat escalates; he’s coming closer all the time even though the corridor’s length has not shortened, nor has he come into view around the door. I can no longer look; sobbing, I turn my face to the vast white expanse of the door…

And wake up.


Why these particular characters? I don’t know that I was frightened of them (beforehand – I’m pretty sure Gnasher terrified me afterwards). For Freud, all dreams are wish-fulfillment, but he was cagey on anxiety dreams, which this certainly is. I can only assume my unconscious moulded them into a form which embodied the trauma of the divorce. The fact that the thrust of the dream was ‘separation’ would appear to substantiate this.

There’s a detail, easily lost, but which I’ve always thought was significant. If I looked along the corridor, I could see the bedroom: it was dim, but the wall, blanket box, and dresser were all there. However, at the same time I could also “see” the dragon, even though he was hidden around the corner, and when I “saw” him he was against an entirely black background. In dreams, as in psychedelics, the mere suggestion of a thing is enough to make it manifest. Although he was in the room, the room had vanished. This blackness, for me, doesn’t signify night or simply a lack of illumination. It comes directly from Oscar the Rabbit: the puppets acted against a background dark enough (I assume) to hide the puppeteers’ hands. But this small, practical contingency has haunted me for forty years. I still find the use of bold blocks of colours on a black background particularly beguiling. For me, that darkness is the unknown, it is lost time.

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