Little kids fear the strangest things.
As a child, my older brother was terrified by the Wicked Witch of the West.
Anytime CBS broadcast the classic film, he'd have to leave the room just before Dorothy and her pals ended up in the Witch's castle. The trauma of dealing with Margaret Hamilton's horrifying visage on our 19-inch black-and-white Zenith was just too much for his 7-year-old brain to handle.
My mom would pull him out of the room right before the (gulp) "How about a little fire, Scarecrow" scene, dragging my sister and I along for good measure.
Melting witches aside, my biggest childhood terror was the nighttime creaks and groans of our 60-year-old house settling. It was easy for a 5-year-old to imagine something lurking in the dark. Maybe in the closet. Maybe up in attic. Or probably under the bed.
But the terror didn't stop with my generation. Each of my kids ended up with their own peculiar phobia.
My daughter Kate woke up one night screaming, "Mommy! Daddy! The walls are crawling!"
Sara and I ran in the room, flipped on the light and tried to figure out what was flipping out our hysterical 4-year-old and her now also-hysterical 3-year-old sister.
"The walls were crawling!" Kate sobbed into my wife's arms.
Puzzled, I examined the walls for structural damage, and found none. After performing a routine monster check inside the closet and under the bed, I pronounced the room safe for child occupancy.
"Nothing's crawling, honey," I said. "Everything's OK, see?"
"OK," she sniffed. "They're not crawling anymore."
Les enfants terrifié now pacified, we shut off the light and left, leaving the door wide open. Within seconds, the screaming started anew.
"They're crawling again! The walls are crawling!"
This went on for several nights. The open door didn't help. Nor did night lights. We ended up letting the kids sleep with us just to get some rest.
Finally, fed up with the phantom of the nursery, I sat up with her one night and waited for the walls to crawl.
"Look! They're crawling, Daddy!"
"What's crawling? I don't see anything."
"Look, Daddy, look!"
So I finally listened to her, and took a close look at the wall next to her bed, the one next to the window. The faint light outside outlined the dim shadows of maple tree branches on her wall. And every time the wind blew, they'd move.
"Is that what's bothering you?" I asked. "Those are just shadows from the trees."
"They're scary," she explained.
The next day I installed light-blocking window shades. And the screaming stopped.
At least until her sister Meg saw a TV commercial a few days later.
It was a commercial for "Child's Play," the 1988 film featuring the demonically-possessed serial killer doll Chucky. You know, that Chucky.
She only saw the commercial for five seconds before we turned it off, but that five seconds was enough.
That night she refused to go to bed without the light on.
"I'm scared, scared Chucky is gonna get me!" she said, a mantra she'd repeat each night for the next several months.
So when it came time to help raise the grandkids 30 years later, I was determined to do things right.
No "Wizard of Oz."
No house noises.
No shadeless windows.
And no scary TV commercials.
I figured we had night terrors licked.
But then came the holidays.
"You girls better clean your plates," I said the other day. "Because Santa's elves are watching to make sure you're being good. Oh look, I think I just saw one out in the yard!"
"What are elves?" Abby asked nervously.
"I'm scared of Santa's elves!" pronounced Zoey, and started crying.
"I'm scared, too!" Abby said, and joined in.
"Grampa, call Santa and tell him not to let the elves come here!" they shrieked.
One fake phone call later, and it was nap time. But we had to walk by the Christmas tree to get to upstairs.
"Grampa, are there any elf decorations on the Christmas tree?" Abby sobbed.
"Grampa, are there any Christmas decorations upstairs?" Zoey whimpered.
I guess I'd better not threaten them with coal in their stockings.
• Bill Wimbiscus, a former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.