Why Little Kids Speak With Ghosts And Angels: The Real-World Explanation
Welcome to Creepy Questions with Obvious Answers, the Cracked essay series about the likely (and mega-mundane) origins of alien abductions, changelings, and professional psychics.
Here we are once again. We really must stop meeting like this – what will the neighbors say? Our liaisons dangereuses, as the continentals say, are going to scandalize the entire salon! Anyway, today's topic is children who seem to speak to ghosts. Or angels. Or demons. Creepy kids, basically.
A Famous Case
Mid-February, 1981. In the small town of Brookfield in Connecticut, things are going pretty normally for the rural Northeast: a group of people are getting drunk on their lunchbreak from a dog kennel. Add in chainsmoking while building a drywall and then relaxing by breaking beer bottles behind the Dunkin' Donuts and you’ve got a perfect New England day. Except for all the murder that’s about to happen.
Arne Johnson decided to visit his girlfriend Debbie Glatzel at the kennel where she worked when Alan Bono, their landlord and also Debbie’s boss, offered to buy them all lunch. They began to daydrink heavily before returning to the kennel. One thing led to another, and Johnson started to get irritated with Bono. He stabbed Bono in the chest several times, killing him.
That’s not a particularly noteworthy murder. (In Northwest Indiana, we just call that “going to the grocery store.”) To quote John Anderson, the man who was at the time Brookfield’s chief of police, “It was not an unusual crime… We couldn't have a simple uncomplicated murder, oh no. Instead, everyone in the whole world converges on Brookfield.” While that’s an oddly gripey tone to strike when a man has just been stabbed to death, he was right: things were getting much weirder after the murder.
What makes this case interesting is the fact that, during the trial, Johnson pled not guilty. Not because he got confused and thought he was stabbing Bono, the famous musician and tax dodger. No, Johnson said he wasn’t culpable for his actions because David Glatzel, Debbie’s younger brother, was possessed by a demon. I guess demon possession is contagious, because Johnson claimed the demon possessed him, making him stab Bono. It was the first time in US history that a defendant claimed they were innocent due to demonic possession. Which is wild, since as I mentioned in an earlier article, people were using the “Fairy Defense” in courts at least as early as 1863.
David Glatzel was said to have night terrors, strange cuts and bruises on his body, and said he spoke to an “old man” no one else could see that threatened to take his soul. There’s a good chance you’ve heard of this case in one form or another. It’s often taught in law school as an example of an ‘unprovable’ defense, it’s the basis of several films including The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and I’ve even obliquely mentioned it on here before when I wrote about the time I saw the Glatzel’s spoooOOOooooky rocking chair at Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum. Horrifying! Gut-churning! A chair without a built-in Big Gulp™ Slurpee® holder? No sane, loving god would ever allow such a thing to exist!
But What is It, Though?
I’m not specifically talking about demonic possession. I’m talking about the weirdly common phenomenon of children seemingly being able to speak to invisible beings. Some adults think their kids speak to angels. Some say ghosts. And while most cases don’t go as far as the Arne Johnson trial, I would wager you’ve heard some variation of the story yourself.
You’ve probably heard in person or read on the internet stories of parents hearing what sounded like speech in the rooms of their children, then going in and discovering they seemed to be having an entire conversation with… something. My best friend tells a story of how, when he was very young, his parents once heard him talking in his sleep. When they came in to listen, they heard him talking about “the Boy Who Draws on All the Walls,” who “wouldn’t stop drawing.” As they listened more, my friend then started saying that “The Boy Who Draws…where’s his face? Where’s his face? He doesn’t have a face!” As he started to get more irritated, his parents tried to wake him up by asking “why doesn’t he have a face?” To which my friend, still completely asleep, responded in a whisper: “he hasn’t finished drawing it yet.”
It goes without saying that that story makes me want to take a meth suppository so I never have to sleep again, just in case. When it comes to kids and the supernatural, we’d be trying to pick apart a whole Gordian Knot of psychology trying to explain how things like demonic possession hysteria operate: folie à deux, pre-existing beliefs, public school lunches putting peyote in the mashed potatoes to keep Cold War-era MK Ultra funding, and so on.
My question is: what’s the primary motivator? What’s the seed? There’s likely one single thing, one explicable phenomenon, that spins out into all of this insanity. And I think I know what it is.
The Obvious Explanation
Crib Speech. It’s a relatively well-known, if little-studied, phenomenon. Children, usually between one and three years old but sometimes older, will speak to themselves when entering a pre-sleep hypnagogic state. Well, talking to themselves might not be entirely accurate: the children aren’t always aware that they’re doing it. As a child develops, the linguistic centers of their brain go into hyperdrive, and crib speech may be a way for their brains to squeeze in a little more practice. It may also help teach children emotional self-regulation, which makes me wonder if it’s more common in Germans.
Crib speech has been known in scientific circles since at least 1962, although it’s been known much longer: A.A. Milne, whom you probably know as the inventor of Winnie the Pooh and his host of pantsless scofflaw companions, wrote a book of poetry about his son in 1927 entitled Now We Are Six, and the poem “In The Dark” has been considered to be a dictation of crib speech. Listen to this lady’s weird tremulous voice reading this and tell me that last stanza doesn’t make you want to make sure your doors are locked or check to ensure there’s not anyone getting high on the freon from you AC unit and bleeding from their face holes outside your window – a thing I once actually saw, because drugs are expensive.
Crib speech is explicable, but it’s also creepy as hell. Upping the creepiness is that in some instances of crib speech children seem to be having conversations with themselves: in one of the earliest scientifically recorded instances of crib speech, the child actually responds to himself in a different, affected falsetto. Crib speech is also incredibly common -- even nonverbal children have been reported to engage in it if they’ve been taught sign language. Some children even sing to themselves, which… just, no thank you. Keep it. Imagine walking down a dark hallway to check on your kid and hearing it goddamn singing in total darkness. Nope. Nuh-uh. Children singing unaccompanied by music is always, ALWAYS creepy, and if you don’t believe me I’d like to introduce to my friend Every Single Horror Movie Trailer Made in the Last Twenty Years.
Some researchers have even proposed a link between crib speech lasting into later years and being “developmentally disturbed” or “psychotic.” So I think, in some of these cases, parents are hearing their children’s crib speech, later tell the child that they were definitely talking to demons, and the child, being a child and therefore exceptionally easy to trick (speaking from bitter experience here, having never forgiven my own uncle for his theft of my nose), believes them. David Glatzel’s earliest signs of ‘demonic possession’ included his family hearing him speaking at night to the evil Old Man. Things spiral from there, children and adults feeding off each other’s craziness, and next thing you know you’re drunk at a dog kennel stabbing your landlord in the chest. We’ve all been there.
Some say children should be seen and not heard. My suggestion is, for all of our safety and peace of mind, children should be neither seen nor heard. It’s for the best.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
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