Shadowy spectre-like figures peeking into the gaps in curtains, conspiring to steal my sister and me away in the night.
Those figures were recurring visitors in some of my most vivid childhood nightmares. They had terrified little me.
I’d deduced that the only way to protect my family was to go to extra efforts to tightly shut the curtains in my house at night. If I made certain that there was not even the slightest gap, then the figures couldn’t peek in to see if we were there, right?
The compulsion developed so much that I kept up with the habit well after the fear of those figures disappeared. There were a number of times my heavy hands broke the clips that held up the living room curtains due to the way I wrapped the tops so tightly around one another, much to my poor mum’s chagrin.
The origin of these shadowy figures? The story being read to my class at school was set during the Great Plague of London, about a family torn apart and hiding away. It had been such a frightening notion. A plague that took away a third of the country’s children, causing everyone to hide in fear, with the plague doctors becoming chilling symbols of death.
I was reminded of the plague doctors, and thus the shadowy spectres and self-made superstitions from my childhood, when reading Hamnet recently:
Hamnet is closest so he goes to answer [a knock on the front door]. As it swings open, he cringes and yelps: on the doorstep is a terrifying sight, a creature from a nightmare, from Hell, from the devil. It is tall, cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird.
‘No,’ Hamnet cries, ‘get away.’ He tries to shut the door but the creature puts out a hand and presses it back, with horrible, preternatural strength. ‘Get away,’ Hamnet screams again, kicking out.
Hamnet, the reimagining of the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, is set in the 1580s. The book was published in 2020 and, in the years of work leading up to its release, Hamnet’s author, Maggie O’Farrell, would never have been able to guess just how much plights of a plague from centuries ago would resonate in today’s world.
In reflections for the Guardian, O’Farrell notes that “the plague, whether we are aware of it or not, is woven into our language, our communication, our very geographies”. It is the reason children sing ring-a-ring-a-roses, it is behind the layouts of our major cities, and it has shaped our lives in many ways I’d never thought about before. O’Farrell goes onto reflect:
We will emerge from this but we will be different, depleted, forced to make ourselves anew. We will never be able to go back to a time before this pandemic, to a time of security and confidence, when we thought we were inviolate, immune. We will carry this with us, always; we will never be able to forget.
I can’t help but wonder what childhood nightmares and superstitions will continue to emerge in future generations, as the centuries roll on.