Well, it's here, my son's first step into the world of fear, phantasms and things that go bump in the night. He has heard his first ghost stories at school. He did not cope well with this. We have had sleepless nights, weeping and frustratingly vague reports of what has actually happened in the playground. I must admit seeing my son genuinely terrified lit fires of pure transcendental rage inside me. I did initially wish to annihilate the child that had caused my son such fear, to leave nothing more than a smear of ectoplasm on the classroom wall. But I realise It's a rite of passage. Fear is part of childhood experience. 

It's impossible to predict what will trigger this creeping Lovecraftian sensation of horror for the first time. For me it was an episode of Fraggle Rock - The Terrible Tunnel. I know, it's preposterous. I place the evidence before you now.


I swear I am not making this up or overstating it. That video terrified me. I remember the throat closing fear whenever I heard that song in my mind, my utter conviction that somewhere out there the terrible tunnel was waiting full of malevolent intent. If I had known the word 'eldritch' I would have used it to describe that tunnel.  I remember that fear with horrible clarity and, thanks to You Tube, I can relive it all over again. I think it's the wafting cobwebs, the purple lights, the terrible stony jaws closing on their victim, on me... I may not sleep tonight. 

But, back to my son's experience. Apparently there are three ghosts in the school. Bloody Mary, Candyman and Charlie. In order to deal with this I have tried a blend of rationalism and chipper, Enid Blyton style blunt-faced fearlessness.  I'm going for "Look, ghosts aren't real... but if they were this is how we'd handle it." My parenting technique for this rite of passage is very much channelling Susan Sto-Helit.

“The children refused to disbelieve in monsters because, frankly, they knew damn well the things were there.

But she’d found that they could, very firmly, also believe in the poker.

— The Hogfather, Terry Pratchett

So these are the ghosts my son has encountered:

Bloody Mary is a vampire with long finger nails who will slit your throat -  I went for fact checking to deal with this. Hopefully my interminably long and detailed exposition about Mary I and her short reign should explain the origin of this one and make her sufficiently dull as to no longer be a threat. Also, an honourable mention to the permanently excellent Horrible Histories team for their song about Mary I which certainly helped lighten the mood.

The Candyman - I can't believe this has permeated down to a primary school playground but there you go. I think it's the ritualism of this one that makes it so thrilling. You have to look in a mirror at midnight and say his name three times. (I saw this film in 1992 and I still won't say his name 3 times, regardless of the where I am or what time it is.) This was dealt with with this simple exchange:

G: You have to look in a mirror at midnight and say his name three times
Me: Are you going to do that?
G: No
Me: Do you think anyone you know is going to do that?
G: No
Me: So I think we’re ok aren’t we?
G: Yup

Charlie - This one is more of a mystery. I'm not clear on who Charlie is, and I don't think my son is either. This is the one that my son thinks has touched him, so he's harder to exorcise than the other two. I'm going to kill this ghost with kindness. If my son is scared I will spend that extra time with him, I will lie on his bed and tell him a story with Shelley the Crab and his other magical friends - like I did when he was 3. I make sure he has every cuddly toy that has ever meant anything to him piled on the bed, like a fuzzy force-field. Charlie's power appears to be fading, but like in every good ghost story I am waiting for him to rear up and terrify us again. And I will be there to knock him back down. 

The thing that struck me about the ghosts my son has encountered are how familiar they are. When discussing this situation at work my husband discovered that all of his workmates has thought their school was haunted.  Three of them had a ghost called Bloody Mary in the school. That's the power of branding.The name just sounds right. It is part of our shared experience to tell ghost stories and feel the thrill of it and learn to cope with that fear.

These stories are part of our oral tradition. They are handed down from one generation to the next.  The playground is the last bastion of our oral history, the space where the unwritten is preserved through play, speech and actions. The kids play the same games in the playground now that I did as a child. I watch them playing Pom Pom (or 40 40 if you're from one of those weird schools), What's the Time Mr Wolf?, Stuck-in-the Mud.  I hear them reciting the same counting rhymes I used with my friends and that my mother used with hers. I am sure that if the Parental Eye of Sauron is ever turned from them they will be gloriously injuring each other playing British Bulldog too. It is in this free, safe space with limited adult supervision where they learn to negotiate, where they learn the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, where they learn how to be human. It's on the playground that our kids learn the light and dark of life and how to handle it.