By Dea Birkett
Is it okay to terrify your children? I hope so. I’ve made mine scream, shrink and press their hands over their squeezed-shut eyes. We were on the Children’s Spooky Underground Tour in Edinburgh and, despite my parental fears and their screams, the 10-year-old twins seemed to be enjoying themselves.
'Lucy explained how a decapitator was something used to chop off heads, adding a whole new word to the twins’ vocabulary. Did River know that, in those times, you could be tried as an adult from the age of seven? He shuddered.'
Before descending, our guide Lucy had given us a warning: ‘It’s quite dark, it’s quite damp and it’s quite haunted.’ Then she’d turned to my son River and asked, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ He answered, ‘I try not to.’
Sensing his nervousness, she gave us instructions in how to calm our fears. If we saw, heard or sensed anything scary, we just had to make a shape like a lion roaring – arms raised, fingers spread out as claws, mouth a gaping scream – and chase those silly thoughts away.
Then Lucy lit her lamp and we made our way down the dark, slippery stone stairs into Niddry Wynd, a labyrinth of tunnels underneath the cobbles of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile used as a both homes and hiding places for more than 500 years. Now the sun-deprived passages are part ghost tour and part museum. There’s even an area still used by a local coven of witches for their weekly candlelit gatherings.
One room is reserved for medieval instruments of incarceration. We tried on a ball and chain to see how heavy it was, and climbed inside a metal man-trap. Lucy explained how a decapitator was something used to chop off heads, adding a whole new word to the twins’ vocabulary. Did River know that, in those times, you could be tried as an adult from the age of 7? He shuddered. These instruments could have been used on him.
We toured the vault by torchlight, past empty rooms with brick walls dripping with cold water, as if a ghostly steam room with the temperature turned right down. The chill made my bones ache. Lucy was a wonderful storyteller, with tales of small boys and wicked men who had been trapped in these tunnels, and whose ghosts were said to still wander them.
When we reached the end and emerged in the Edinburgh light, I was relieved. Not because we hadn’t seen any ghosts – like River, I try not to believe in them. But because the twins didn’t seem to have been too scared. Then, later on that night, as River was pulling on his pyjamas, he drew me close and whispered, ‘I’m right aren’t I, Mum? There’s no ghosts. Not even that wee boy Lucy talked about.’
So I’m not so sure it’s fine to frighten children. Fear isn’t something that surfaces straightaway. It lies underneath, buried, then many days later crawls up upon you like a nasty surprise, haunting your daydreams, inhabiting your nightmares. I don’t want to stop my children ever being scared. But I do want to think of ways to help them face down their fear, other than making the shape of a roaring lion.
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