Is there really a monster underneath the bed?
June 12, 2021 6:50 PM   Subscribe

My four-year-old frequently claims to see things in his room in the nighttime. I am curious as to what the psychology behind this is. Does he actually understand on some level that it isn’t real? Or does he really think that there is a ‘baboon man who comes to watch me in my bed when Mommy leaves’?

Examples of things he has discussed previously include ‘the man who lives in our hallway in the nighttime’ and also a man who ‘sometimes has a cat with him, but not today.’ So, what is this, really? If we assume that there is not actually a man living in our hallway, is this his half-asleep little brain playing mental gymnastics? Is he just trying to stall bedtime and is making it up with full awareness that it isn’t real? Is there at least some awareness that technically it isn’t real even if it seems that way? Or does he actually think he’s really seeing it for real?
posted by ficbot to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
when I was about that age, I believed there were vampires living in the living room fireplace, and there was no way I was going in there by myself with the lights off. I may have had a dream of it; or just imagined it; but I was sure they were there and they were terrifying.

It wasn't exactly the same kind of "knowing" that I do now as an adult; but it wasn't all that different, really. It was like... it was plausible, that scary terrible things were there in the dark fireplace, and there was no evidence to disprove it, because they were only going to be there when it was dark and I was alone, so seeing the fireplace empty in the light was no assurance.

(That said I of course don't know your kid, so can't speak to whether he could just be stalling. But in any event I'd let him keep whatever lights on that he wants to, at least until he's fallen asleep.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:01 PM on June 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

I am not a parent and I am not a child psychologist. But I do remember VERY clearly what those nighttime fear-of-the-dark moments were like, well into when I was older grade-school age. It's not a conscious thing - it was never a conscious "If I say I am afraid of this I might get to stay up later" tactic. And at some level I did understand that the Big Scary Thing lurking in the dark for me couldn't possibly be there (especially since for me, and I'm not kidding about this, the Big Scary Thing I was convinced was waiting for me in the dark was a mushroom cloud from a nuclear blast).

I think that kids' imaginations are just so vivid that the "what-if" takes over sometimes, even when their rational brains "know" that the thing they're afraid of isn't really there. And when the kid is too young to have such a developed rational brain in the first place, the imagination is even more vivid. So my money is on "mental gymnastics" - he saw a picture of a "baboon man" or something in passing once, it creeped him out a little, and that image has lingered in his brain and he remembers it when it's already dark at night and he can't quite see what really is there around him in his room, so his brain offers up the what-if that "what if that creepy baboon thing you saw is lurking there" and the imagination takes over and he starts to believe it might be there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:47 PM on June 12, 2021 [12 favorites]

A distinction between inside and outside forms gradually as children mature, and this applies to the psychological dimension. So it is much more difficult for kids that age (and even older) to differentiate between the things of the world and the things of imagination. That he says this at night, half-asleep, would make the distinction even blurrier (even as adults we sometimes need a second to realize that a particularly vivid dream was only a dream). I can only speak generically here, since I don’t know your son. Each kid advances at different rates in terms of making this inside/outside distinction - and of learning how to get their way with their parents!
posted by obliterati at 7:53 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Many times I have woken up in the dark and have seen scary things that appeared 100% real even though I was thinking like "Dr. Who is a fictional tv show and I ASSURE YOU he is not standing over there in your closet" and then like "Yeah ok but I'm seeing what I'm seeing here." I think it's a symptom of waking up out of a stress dream and not every part of your brain waking up at the same time, things you're half-seeing without enough light in your eyes are interpreted poorly and with dream logic. Plus he has barely been here long enough to know what "real" means in the first place.
posted by bleep at 8:16 PM on June 12, 2021 [9 favorites]

When I was about that age, four years old, I believed a plush doll came to life at night and chatted with me before I fell asleep. I am (relatively) normal, as far as it goes. Your kid is almost certainly normal. We all have vibrant imaginations as children. Let kids enjoy their imaginations until they turn into boring adults. Don't stress it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:48 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

My 4 year old is ALWAYS talking about the man who did this and this, or the boy who did this (usually when he does something bad, he says the man or the boy did it). It's always during the day and not at night, and he confirms the imaginary man is right there next to us.. and he's never actually been around any men other than his dad since he was 2.5 (thanks covid).
posted by at 8:51 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

As a kid around that age I was certain a skeleton lived under my dresser. Oh, and I had an imaginary friend who I truly thought was real and saw/played with, named "Super Cat."
posted by coffeecat at 8:52 PM on June 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

I am by no means an expert on any subject involved. I do suggest that humans tend to see faces in everything and that I wouldn't be surprised if that's at play in children's fears that early. At one point I imagine it was a survival trait: those who could perceive the tiger's face among the leaves survived, those who couldn't died.
posted by metabaroque at 9:00 PM on June 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

Little kids are not, in general, engaged in Machiavellian schemes to manipulate parental behaviour. They haven't had time to develop theories of mind or society anywhere near accurate enough to make that work.

What they are doing, every single one of them, the whole time they're awake, is tripping.

This is why it's so vitally important to be kind to them. Bad trips cause bad flashbacks.
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 PM on June 12, 2021 [53 favorites]

The are types of sleep patterns that can cause the brain to do weird things just at the edge of consciousness. I’ve seen all sorts of creatures in rooms with me as I am falling asleep. It has taken a lot of work and effort and terrifying dreams to get to a point where I can avoid triggers that contribute to it happening and have slowly trained myself not to panic when I wake up and see a mini flying saucer flying across my room, or a giant spider lurking in the corner, or a fully realistic demon in the doorway.

I would recommend a medical evaluation to see if there’s anything neurological going on, if there is, it will be so much healthier in the long run to understand it sooner rather than later.
posted by HMSSM at 10:29 PM on June 12, 2021

When I was a small kid, I had a phase where I was recurrently afraid that I'd wake up one morning, go into my parents' room, and find out that they'd been replaced either by a swarm of evil bees or by goats with glowing red demonic eyes (my parents also misheard "goats" as "ghosts" the first time I tried to communicate this fear, and were then surprised when my actual fear turned out to be much weirder than ghosts, for extra hilarity).

Does he actually understand on some level that it isn’t real?

I can still remember the weird mental state of that age, where I knew rationally on some level that those things happening were so improbable as to be functionally impossible (every single time I'd ever gone into their room, they'd been sleeping people, not evil goats or bees), but I was still very scared of both the image and the concept. I don't recall consuming any media around that age that would have planted those images for me - my best guess is that my brain invented them, found its own invention scary, invented a scenario in which I might be exposed to those images and found that invention scary too, while still knowing on some rational level (insofar as 4yos can be considered rational) that those images weren't real and the actual risk of my parents being turned into evil goats or bees was almost zero. So, yes, I did actually understand on some level that it wasn't real, but that didn't stop the images my brain was capable of generating from being vivid and frightening in a way that was pretty detached from any rational fear of the vivid, frightening thing happening in reality.
posted by terretu at 2:04 AM on June 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

When I was around that age, I was nervous about the fact that there was a boy with long fingers and claws who lived under the bed and who would grab my foot if I dangled it off the edge. The boy wasn't there during the day and wasn't there until I settled down to sleep. I was aware on some level that this wasn't real but my little brain could also hold the idea that it was somewhat likely to happen anyway. I didn't ever tell my parents about it as I recall, so it was never an excuse to not go to bed / sleep.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 2:28 AM on June 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think when I was that age I believed the monsters were genuine and dangerous, but understood (not in these terms) that their ontological status was not the same as that of ordinary things. They subsisted rather than existed but had causal powers. Or as I would have said before studying philosophy, they’re real but ghosty.
posted by Phanx at 4:20 AM on June 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yes, there IS a monster under the bed.

Your child is now at an age where there is substantial independence. Two years ago if he woke up in the middle of the night he was almost certain to either let you know by calling or crying, or by going to you. And you in turn were much more likely to check up on him and not to leave him unsupervised for more than a few moments.

But now you are more likely to assume he will sleep through the night and to not be aware of what he might be doing while you are sleeping. Your two year old was unlikely to be able to move a chair to the front door and stand on it to unlock it. Your four year old is old enough to conceptualize ideas like, "I'm thirsty, I want pink soda, I'm going to the store to get pink soda," of "I want to play dolls with Michael from day care, so I am going to Michael's house" and act on it. Your four year old is much likelier to have longer legs and get farther than you two year old would. And while you want to foster independence and mastery at this age, you want it oh, so much, you do not want to wake up to discover that your four year old has gotten all the way to the local marsh, or the freeway, or the neighbour two blocks down that keeps a badly underfed doggie on a rope in the backyard to discourage interruptions in there business of selling crystal meth.

But you can't explain to your four year old what all the hazards out there are, and expect them to remember and resolve firmly to avoid getting stuck in the crawl space behind the garbage chute in the basement of your building, or going into the apartment to accept a cookie from the nice lady you always wave to, two doors down, who has been silently building a spurious case of child neglect in her mind to report to child welfare, and not to play hide and seek in the parking garage with the unsupervised seven and eight year old that the nice lady more properly should be focusing her concerns on. There are way too many potential hazards for you to have even a remote chance of naming them, describing them and impressing them on your little guy as critically important. In fact if you DO manage to impress even a tenth of them on your little guy the nice lady two doors down will be justified in doubting your parenting skills because you will have a terrified, paralyzed traumatized four year old.

Happily a kindly nature has seen fit to create the boogy man. You don't even have to mention the boggy man to induce a nervous awareness that it is much safer to stay in bed, and if you wake up pull the covers over your head so he can't see you, and never, never go wandering into dark corridors in strange places and never, never go down to the woods today unless you are firmly holding the hand of a parent or at least keep looking behind to make sure they are staying close enough to protect you.

This feeling of dread that there is a monster out there is a human universal, which springs up spontaneously in kids of an age to start wandering, whether or not they are cautioned against the Mahaha who lies in wait in the snow, or the Qallupilluit who snatches children who go out on the sea ice, or Kappa who lurks in the river, or Boney the giant as tall as Rouen steeple who will come for children who are naughty and don't do as they are told, let alone the whole host of supernatural creatures that tell us that it is not a good idea to be in the vicinity of someone who had died unless the body has been carefully and kindly dealt with in a way that ensures we won't catch smallpox or be killed by the same coyotes, or fall down the same well or have our blood sucked, or be eaten or whatever the vengeful ghosts and undead in our area do. If you see a dead person, the instinct goes, and you are not the authority in charge of investigation and if you are not gathered together in a group ritual of mourning, get the hell out.

The form this very real terror takes will depend on the person whose heart starts thumping madly when they are alone. A glimpse of a commercial or a video game, a moment seeing an undisguised expression, an instant of vertigo at the top of the stairs, rage when a soft toy comes apart, the sliminess of a dogs tongue when it greeted us exuberantly... The coalize into the shape of your personal monster. The edges remain a bit blurry as you gather more information to give the bloated predator shape. The man that lives in the hallway may turn into a healthy fear of strangers who might be pedophiles, or an unhealthy fear of people who don't wear the same brand of clothes or listen to the same kind of music we do. It might turn into a fear of electricians that don't attempt to comply to code, or to anyone who asserts the right to shoot anyone who frightens them.

If you feel inchoate fear you will be paralyzed. You need to have an idea who and what the monsters are so that some movement is safe. The boogy man is under the bed, or in the closet, or in the marsh. If you mumble 'MathewMarkLukeanJohnWickedcreaturesallbegone!" the one under the bed can't grab your foot, if you turn on the light at three in morning the vampire in the closet will turn into ash, if you never go down to the marsh at twilight you will never see the willo-the-wisp and be lured to your doom, and if you never ever stick anything into an electric outlet the monster that lives inside the wall will not zap you, if you go straight to the doctor if you find a lump under the skin the crab that lives within will never grow tentacles.

Of course it's real. Believing in monsters and the rituals that protect us is the only reason so many of us ever survive.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:26 AM on June 13, 2021 [93 favorites]

^ is an absolutely gorgeous comment; thank you!

What I remember about this stage as a kid was my inability to generalize. That is, I was absolutely terrified of tornadoes thanks to an extraordinarily cruel elementary-school teacher who showed us a tornado documentary. The innocuous movement of tree-branch shadows on the ceiling of my bedroom made me worry about tornadoes for many months afterward, because I couldn't make the logical leap "it's been harmless for the last n nights, so chances are it's fine."
posted by humbug at 5:40 AM on June 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have been afraid of ghosts since I was a little kid. Of course I don’t believe they exist in reality, and I didn’t back then, either. But to me that’s the whole point, that’s why they’re scary….people think they don’t exist, but maybe they do.
posted by 8603 at 5:56 AM on June 13, 2021

When you mention "baboon man" I think of Chewbacca from Star Wars. One of my friends took her child to see some Star Wars iteration with a Sith Lord in it. Her child loved Star Wars, but as the theater darkened and the movie showed the Sith Lord, he completely panicked to the point that they had to leave. He thought the Sith was actually present. Children are shown a lot of fantasy stuff during the day, and it can make a deep impression that returns at night. Maybe his fears are an echo of something that made a deep impression on him from a movie or book or video game.
posted by effluvia at 6:58 AM on June 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think it’s useful to remember that kids have started out in the world knowing nothing and every day before breakfast we grown-ups tell them things that are utterly fantastical, where they can’t comprehend the explanation, so we just expect them to believe it.

This shiny, smooth cylinder? Mummy’s hands are so clever and strong, and so different from yours, that she’s going to twist the top of it in just the right way, and it’ll open, in a way that would be impossible for you, with your tiny, uncoordinated hands. And then - look inside! This hard shiny object has delicious breakfast-tasting goo hidden inside it! I’m not going to explain the process of baby food manufacture to you, little one, so you’ll just have to believe me that this is the way the world is. And so on. Every single thing a tiny child sees is inexplicable to them and we just expect them to believe us when we tell them that’s the way it is.

So I think, even at 4, their sense of what’s real and explicable, and what’s not, is so much more flexible and permeable than ours. It has to be, in order to learn the massive amount they have to learn about the world. They have to be open to so many possibilities and just trust that they’re true even when they don’t understand them. They’ve not yet reached the point where they’ve had the chance to run through most human experiences and set up the boundaries that adults use to divide them into “explicable and therefore probably real” or “inexplicable and therefore probably not real”, or to have the background knowledge of processes and practices, that would enable them when they encounter something novel, to deduct which category it falls into and rely on their deduction.

Combine that with things like inchoate fear or half wake/dreamy states, that even adults find hard to parse out, and suddenly it seems kind of reasonable that if you think there might be a monster under your bed, it might be true.

Add in the fact that grown-ups, who know everything, are in the habit of sitting them down, and reading them stories about bears that talk and monsters that live in the woods, and it’s no wonder they believe in the monster under the bed!
posted by penguin pie at 7:32 AM on June 13, 2021 [8 favorites]

Children's minds are more pliable, and shadows and darkness are full of shapes. Penguin pie explains it nicely. There was a closet, usually open, a few feet from my bed as a child; I always saw things in that dark frame, and imagined things under the bed. Get a nightlight if there isn't one, though they do create shadows. Explain to your child that as we get near sleep, our imaginations are active, and always reassure your child that they are safe, that you will protect them.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on June 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Explain to your child that as we get near sleep, our imaginations are active, and always reassure your child that they are safe, that you will protect them.

Seconding this - this can be a powerful message. Especially if it gets their active imaginations working towards a comforting image - another thing I remember from being a child is one night when I was awake in the middle of the night, suddenly irrationally afraid of vampires or something coming to attack the house - and suddenly I remembered that "wait, Mom and Dad would wake up and hear a vampire if it tried to come in, and would get up and stand in the way of the door to my room." And I went on to also remember that they'd probably also call the police on the way to come help. And maybe a fireman if they could help. And maybe the Army. And other neighbors would probably also see and come help....

And as I lay there thinking about that, the image popped into my head of my parents standing guard in front of my door, with the police standing in front of them, and firemen standing in front of THEM, and a whole platoon of people about ten-deep filling our kitchen by now, and gradually more and more neighbors joining this crowd standing around our house, all of them angrily staring down a vampire that was suddenly changing its mind about whether it was going to come up our driveway. helped. It still took me a little while to fall asleep, but any time the dark started wigging me out I pictured all those people standing between me and the monsters outside and it settled me down.

Your little one has an active imagination, and triggering that to cough up soothing and comforting images can help here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:49 PM on June 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

the book Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff has a section on the universality of the monster myths of childhood (it's mainly about parenting methods; it's just that one section I think is relevant here); and an old classic called The Magic Years on child psychology talks about how growing children have to learn, by trial and error, EVERYTHING - what penguin pie is talking about above. (It's from the 50s and very Freudian but I found the parts comparing babies first to magicians - summoning food or comfort apparently by thinking about it -- and then to scientists - figuring out the world through trial and error - were really interesting and cool.)
posted by acantha at 4:02 PM on June 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I still very vividly remember one night when I was a teen babysitting for a preschooler who was not very good about bedtimes. He was being kind of a pain in the ass and kept waking up and yelling for me and one of the times I went up he said, “I can’t sleep because there’s a bad man in the room,” and he was visibly distressed, and I was all, “There’s no bad man, you don’t need to worry!” and I asked, “Where’s the bad man?” thinking he would say, “In the closet,” or whatever and I would go over and open the closet and show it to be free from Bad Men, but instead he looked and pointed at a spot behind me, in a part of the room I really hadn’t even looked at, and he said, “He’s right there,” and he clearly 100% was seeing a bad man just over my shoulder and it was probably the scariest thing that happened to me that year.

Anyway, presumably he was having some kind of night terror. I myself very occasionally wake up believing something that isn’t true, like that owls have been nesting in my bedroom for the past several weeks (took me about 5 minutes to realize that this was extremely implausible) or that my cousin is getting divorced (didn’t figure out that that was a dream until the next day when I was like, “Wait, who told me that? How would I even know?”). We all think weird things when we’re sleepy and little kids have much less context to help them understand what’s likely vs. what’s basically impossible.
posted by mskyle at 6:08 PM on June 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have a neurological quirk where I still occasionally experience these things, often at bedtime. (Using the singular a little loosely here.) Anyways, yes, for sure it's real to the child - I don't actually have a required bedtime nor any parents to manipulate and yet, still sometimes have nights like that.

With my kids we either had a go-away magic phrase (ours was...ahem... 'So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, adieu, adieu, adieu, to yeu and yeu and yeu' or any of the other parts of that song) or monster spray (a bit of eau de toilette.) As parents we kind of walked a fine line...we dealt with the belief but in a kind of slightly detached way that also conveyed that it was a bit pretend for us - hard to describe but kind of 'oh, really? well that's nice dear, if that happened to me I would..." undercurrent. They seem to have turned out ok so far.

To add to the 'weird stories of bedtime beliefs,' my parents took me to the drive in believing I would fall asleep and instead, there was this very repetitive musical motif that would keep waking me up and so I would pop my head up from the back seat...and that is how a) I developed a belief until my 20s that Jaws was exclusively shot from the point of view of the shark and b) I developed a fear which I entirely knew was absolutely irrational that there was a shark under the bed that would graphically bite me.

I recently read the Outside Online Bite Club article during a bout of insomnia and almost got that fear back even though I've actually gotten over it enough to sit with a shark on my lap at a tourist thing.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:34 PM on June 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just to say, what your four-year-old describes seeing at bedtime made the hairs stand up on my arms and neck, and I'm in my mid-50's! I'm relieved to not be the only person at home tonight or I might be delaying bedtime myself. My imagination is strong and as a kid it was off the charts. It's in his head, and it's real as can be. "Sometimes has a cat with him, but not today..." ohno ohno
posted by hiker U. at 8:05 PM on June 13, 2021

Kids have wild imaginations, and they take things they don't understand and fit them into things they do understand. Doesn't even have to be scary. My mom asked my young sister to explain the radio once when she was 3 or 4. Hilarious explanation.

I used to live across the street from a windmill that screeched at night when it turned. My brother and I were scared of that thing until one day my dad took me out in the middle of the night and showed me the windmill making the noise. I wasn't scared of the dark anymore after that and am still not.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:39 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

One of my friends took her child to see some Star Wars iteration with a Sith Lord in it. Her child loved Star Wars, but as the theater darkened and the movie showed the Sith Lord, he completely panicked to the point that they had to leave.

I saw this happen, most probably to a different child, at a 1985 rerelease of Star Wars. A father had brought his five-ish-year-old son, and the kid was an authority on the Star Wars universe, based I guess entirely on the toys. He described to his dad all the characters and explained the story in great and correct detail, despite never having seen the movie. And just as effluvia described: the lights went down, the film started, the big ship caught the little ship, the stormtroopers burst in, and I could hear the kid get more and more upset as the tension ratcheted up... and when Darth Vader appeared through the smoke, he started screaming uncontrollably. Dad had to take him out, and he certainly didn't get to see the movie that day.

I wonder if it changed his relationship to some of the toys.
posted by Devoidoid at 12:14 PM on June 14, 2021

My own monster under the bed was The Blob. I saw maybe 30 seconds of it on TV when I was 4 (I want to say it was the doctor's office scene but can't be 100% sure), and the feeling that it was under my bed just waiting for a dangling limb stayed with me long past the point that I knew it wasn't be real, and had even seen the movie understanding it as a movie.
posted by Devoidoid at 12:17 PM on June 14, 2021

I have a neurological quirk where I still occasionally experience these things, often at bedtime.

Hell, I don't have any neurological quirks that I'm aware and I also still occasionally experience this kind of thing. If you have an active imagination and you've seen something that creeps you out, and you're by yourself on a dark night, your brain can fill in the gaps....

anyone who plays me the song "I Got Five On It" after about 10 pm is guaranteed to have a very nervous EC on their hands
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:00 PM on June 14, 2021

This reminds me of a recent email I got from a friend who had just moved into an old house in England where odd things started happening. She asked the former tenants if they had experienced anything and they replied:

Our middle child, who stayed in that room, would often tell us of a "pink angel lady" that would come visit her and a "yellow bird" that would often fly around her room. She also told us that she could see colors around us when we slept.

Our oldest daughter would often also tell us of a boy and girl child that she would play with and speak to in the flat. At first we thought that these were imaginary friends. However, our daughter never mentioned this boy and girl when we were away from our flat. We went to visit my wife's parents in America, and our daughter never mentioned them. As soon as we returned to the flat holding our suitcases our daughter stated to us "oh good, boy and girl are here.

So, maybe ghosts, maybe kids' imagination. Maybe both.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:16 AM on June 16, 2021

« Older Not car camping   |   Why won’t the alarm on this iPad sound? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.