So the other night, just about 11:30pm, my older son came out of his room and into my office. He was scared. This is, generally speaking, unusual for him. He's not prone to waking up in the middle of the night, almost always it's because something has been wrong, such as being sick. He has mentioned bad dreams in passing. And of course, I know that for him, as it had been for me as a young child, the time around falling asleep is prone to that zone between wakefulness and dream where you almost occupy both. The imagination runs rampant, and he can't always shut down quickly and just fall to sleep. And in that time, monsters show up. I tried the scientific explanation to him, as usually that is something that well reaches him. How our eyes work, and how our brains impress pattern recognition so that you will see in shadows shapes to be wary of. It's instinctual to do so, a base survival instinct left over from when we lived in times where things routinely hunted us in the dark.
I think that lasted a few weeks. Then we were back to random "monsters" in the room, etc. So it goes. But we deal with those the way I suspect most parents do, calming the kids down, giving them a night light, etc. But, as I said, this is all during the time when the boys first lay down to sleep. My younger son, he's the one prone to waking up in the middle of the night, freaked out, then comes running into our bed. It doesn't happen all that often, but I've been woken up by him on more than one occasion in the morning, snuggled between my wife and I. He's still young, and it happens less and less these days.
So, when the Little Man came into my office and started talking to me about Bloody Mary...and how he'd seen her in the mirror, I was rather astonished. I don't remember that old tale being something talked about in first grade, so I didn't suspect him picking that up from school. Which meant that he most likely picked that up from a book. My suspicion is one of his Worldcraft encyclopedia books that we inherited from my eldest sister. Now, he's hyperlexic, so I'm not exactly surprised that he's able read and process such things. What's interesting in this instance is watching him incorporate that knowledge (likely gained that evening in his reading before bed time...yes, he is exactly the kind of child that will sit and read encyclopedias) and turn it into an experience. Not that I want him to have bad dreams about a ghost, and he hasn't had more dreams or mentioned it since, so I suspect that it has moved on.
Now, it might seem perfectly logical that what he reads before bed has an influence upon his dreams. I always suspected such, and I remember when I would read him something that might be scarey (Well, to and young child at least) such as Holly Black's Spiderwick Chronicles, I was always on alert for him being scared, or having bad dreams/nightmares, etc. That never seemed to happen. So why thien, I wonder, did more overtly scarey story elements fail to invade his thoughts in that manner, whereas simply reading an article about Bloody Mary had such drastic effect? Could it be because one was a story, and in the context of reading a fiction, and knowing it to be fiction, the brain filters it in an appropriate manner, whereas because the account of Bloody Mary was in a source that isn't ostensibly about fictional things, and therefore it made the account, even though perhaps talking about folklore, to be somehow more real?
I don't think I'll ever find the answer to that one for certain. But I can't help thinking about the question. Do we perceive and process information differently when we think it's fiction versus non-fiction, and how does that influence how we make use of that information?