Children’s responses to things can often be surprising.  My son, for example, would sit cheerfully through the most alarming scenes of Doctor Who but then was kept awake for night after night after a particular episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Recently on Twitter I ran a ‘contest’ to establish which Ladybird villain had proved the scariest in childhood.  I ran the contest as a knock-out challenge, presenting people with the villains two by two, eliminating one at a time. Feelings ran high – everyone seemed convinced that the character that scared them most MUST have awakened a similar response in everyone else.  Almost everyone who ‘voted’ ended their message with something like: ‘obviously’ ‘naturally’ or ‘no contest’.  There WAS a contest;  almost all these ‘knock-out rounds’ were extremely close.

Here’s a poll so you can register your vote too.  This time it’s an open, 8-way choice.  It will be interesting to see if an ‘open’ vote reaches the same conclusion as did the ‘knock-out’ vote.

Click here to vote

So what themes emerged from this about the nature of childhood fears (she says, trying to clothe this utterly pointless but pretty enjoyable exercise in a thin layer of psychological analysis)?

1) Fear of the wolf, especially of wolves that lie deep in a dark forest and that disguise themselves as people we love.  I’ll leave further analysis of this one to the grown-ups.

2) The pointy, waspiness of Rumpelstiltskin seemed to trouble people.  His skinny little legs and pointy features in those stripy tights.  Is that about getting a wasp sting in early life?

3) Things that lie under bridges.  The Bridge Troll seemed to be many people’s big fear.  Even though he had big, soft round eyes and a rather daft expression many people said that they still feel uncomfortable crossing bridges even today.  Maybe another manifestation of the fear of the creature lurking under the bed?

4) Anger.  People seemed to be very troubled by the furious anger of some characters, even when those characters didn’t seem to have any particular power to do harm.  There was the pointy finger of the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty, the furious stamping of Rumpelstiltskin. But the most notable example of this was the angry dwarf in Snow White and Rose Red.  When I put him into the contest I didn’t really expect him to put up much of a challenge – but the response to him surprised me.  He lost his particular round (to the eventual overall winner) but those people who voted for him responded very badly to his elimination: there was much sulking and verbal huffing, (all very unLadybird).  By eliminating the angry dwarf, it was tantamount to deriding his power over our emotions  – and to some, that mattered.

I had to think about this one.  Why did that ill-tempered but pretty useless little hominid provoke such a strong reaction in so many?  I wonder if it’s got something to do with the powerlessness a child feels when confronted with (what seems like) irrational and uncontrolled anger in adults; ie from the people we expect to be rational and controlled?

Enough!  I don’t mean to give you nightmares. Here is a soothing picture to end on.  

It’s from many people’s favourite childhood book: Tootles the Taxi. Illustrations by John Kenney, who also illustrated Thomas the … Tank … Engi.. …