Things That Go Bump in the Night

(This was first published in Le News 28 August 2014)

Every time I read an article about someone who swears they saw the face of Elvis in a piece of toast, I’m reminded of how good we humans are at putting random shapes into patterns, and trying to make sense of them. It’s what makes cloud-watching so much fun; it’s also what gave us the evolutionary edge over animals that peered into prehistoric forests and couldn’t mentally organise the shadows well enough to tell a sabre-toothed tiger from a hole in the ground.

I just wish my children wouldn’t practice their pattern-making late at night, because it’s creepy.

For example, one dark evening when I was alone in our Johannesburg house with my then two-year-old, she looked out of the window and said, ‘Mommy, there’s a man in the garden.’

There are few words that will galvanise a Joburg-dweller into action faster, so, with the  panic button in one hand and the telephone in the other, I turned off all the lights and peered outside.

‘There’s no one out there,’ I said, after a while.

My daughter agreed. ‘No. He’s in here now,’ she told me, pointing to a completely empty corner of the room.

It took several strong cups of tea before I’d let go of that panic button.

Another human skill – although perhaps one with less evolutionary benefit – is the ability to manufacture drama from absolutely nothing. Here, the best example I can think of is a reality TV show I once watched, about ghost hunters. (Yes, I know, but there was nothing else on). The presenter had, for some reason, to walk across a courtyard in the dark while her co-presenter, who was in radio contact with her, kept saying things like, ‘You’re a quarter of the way across and you’ve seen no sign of the terrifying ghost that haunts this hotel? No? Nothing? I hope you make it all the way without meeting the terrifying ghost …’ .

Nothing happened and she made it across safely, but the poor woman had worked herself into such a state that, by the time she reached the other side, she was a gibbering, sobbing wreck.

The reason I mention all of this is that I saw both of these things – pattern-making and drama-mongering – at work last night, in our hotel room, with my children. 

It started when I moved a bag and cast a shadow on the carpet. But the bigger child thought it was something else.

‘I saw something running across the floor,’ she told me. ‘It went under the bed.’

We checked and found nothing, but she was insistent. ‘It looked like a mouse. I thought I saw ears.’

What colour was it?’ asked her little sister, ever supportive.

‘It was whitish brownish blackish.’

By the time the children had finished discussing it, it had grown a puffy tail and whiskers, and was the size of a cat.

‘Mommy!’ the smaller child screamed five minutes later, pointing out the window. ‘I saw it on that tree-branch! It was glowing!’

This went on for some time, until the innocent shadow cast by my bag had taken on the properties of some sort of radioactive tree-dwelling vampire badger. Sleep did not come easily last night, to any of us.

Anyway, I offer this as a cautionary tale to parents: don’t bother planning an action-packed holiday for your children, filled with visits to science museums, boat rides and days on the beach. If your children are anything like mine, it’s very likely that the most memorable part of their trip will be the one thing that they didn’t actually see.

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