When we try to communicate a message to children, what they receive isn’t always what we might intend. I was reminded of this when I thought back to the ‘Stranger Danger’ message that haunted my youth in the late 70’s and early 80s.
There was a rumour that on Sherburn Hill there was a cave in which a tramp lived who had tortured and killed loads of children. You didn’t use the word paedo then. It was ‘strangers’ then and they were always tramps, or escaped mental patients, or both. Naturally everyone at school set off for Sherburn Hill to find him.
It was an interesting dichotomy. In assembly we were brainwashed with fear into the dreadful inevitability of being kidnapped by a stranger, most likely from outside the school gates that afternoon. The councillor’s daughter was exempt from assembly because she was Jewish so she wasn’t allowed to hear All Things Bright and Beautiful. But she had to come back in when it was time to show the Stranger Film.
The premise of the film was that everyone you knew was good and everyone you didn’t know probably wanted to torture and kill you.
But they were clever, these strangers, tempting kids into their Hillman Avengers with the offer of sweets or to come and look at some puppies or kittens (we all groaned, whoever fell for that lame trick deserved to be tortured and killed).
The latest tactic though was harder to spot. The stranger would approach you and pretended your mother was ill and that he was going to have to pick you up, posing as a neighbour or long lost uncle. To survive this threat we were told to have a password, known only to our mothers and ourselves.
The video said we should use the name of our teddy bears. Mine was called ‘Teddy’ so that wouldn’t be too useful.
I started thinking of some complex riddle that would catch out and reveal such a stranger and then longed for the opportunity to try my method out, but I could never find any suitable strangers.
The other place strangers would lurk was on the merry-go-round in play areas. The video warned that strangers actually looked quite normal, just like ordinary people and not at all like the monsters they really were. To demonstrate this they showed a stranger in a playground. His face morphed into a hideously deformed monstrous face, “if strangers looked like this,” said the video, “you’d know not to talk to them.” A few of the girls burst into tears of mortal fear and had to be led out of the hall for counselling. The rest of us were left scarred and haunted by that sudden reveal of the stranger monster in the playground, and for ever more expecting everyone we didn’t know to pull off their fake human visage to reveal a writhing maggot infested melted monster face like Doctor Who’s Magnus Greel or Scaroth of Jaggaroth (both who, incidentally, kidnapped and tortured people).
The stranger concept was burnt into our psyche. So much so that the most memorable television of the era was produced by children on this very topic. Michael Rodd hosted Screen Test where a bunch of kids were shown film clips and had to answer observation tests on them. The best bit of the show was the bit in the middle where they showed films that ordinary kids had made and sent in. These were the days long before video was a viable tool. All the children’s films were shot on cine film. To be able to do that you had to have money, obviously, but also a lot of dedication which translated into talent and skill. This meant that the films submitted were amazingly good. There were at least two that haunted a generation.
There was one called I Scream which was about a stranger who had disguised himself as an icecream man. When some boys came to buy an icecream they were bundled into the van and driven away to be tortured and killed. The closing eerie music to this two minute masterpiece of horror was the ice-cream van tune blending into a piercing scream.
Another was a black and white cartoon of a man dreaming of a hooded figure walking and walking. The figure was death. It walked and walked through a wilderness up to a house. It went inside. We then saw the man sleeping in a room. The door opened and there was the hooded figure. The man awoke in horror, saw the figure and died. The young audience of the country had nightmares for decades afterwards.
The films sent into Screen Test were of such a high quality that the producers went round to one boy’s house, expecting to find it had really been made by an award winning film-maker. Instead they found a 14 year old genius. Screen Test folded when cheap video cameras became affordable and any old idiot could make a film. The producers must have got bored with having to wade though tape after tape of filmed farting competitions.
So we were terrified of strangers, people about which we knew nothing, but fascinated by stories of weirdos and witches about whom rumours abounded as to where they might be found, ready to be sought out and if possible, knock on their doors and run away, laughing with the childish relish that we’d danced with death but were still alive.
Sean and I found the tramp’s cave on Sherburn Hill. Someone had definitely been there and had lit a fire. There were some dirty clothes and rags in the corner. There was no evidence of any child murders, no blood or bones, not even any evidence of shackles and forced slavery. There were bits of rusty metal scattered about. It looked like far more evidence of a Dalek Invasion of Earth so we went off and imagined that instead until teatime.
The message of ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is a crippling one if you don’t manage to shake it off by adulthood. Many people don’t and therefore aren’t very good at networking. Of course it’s easy to be flippant about this topic, especially when you’ve survived to adulthood when this particular threat is no longer relevant. Until you have children of your own that is.
The Stranger videos were shown less and less in the 1980s as it was realised that a much bigger threat to children came from people they actually did know. It appears successive governments couldn’t think of a public information film to tackle the danger from the school caretaker, care workers or even family members.
I’m surprised the scare tactics haven’t been re-visited to tackle child internet safety which appears to pose a much greater threat to our children than the rare cases of ‘stranger danger’ hysteria of previous decades.
By the way, don’t watch this clip, especially at the 3:06 point.
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