AROUND five million people, all around the country, will don giant nappies this Saturday night. They’ll put huge dummies in their mouths to comfort them, or spoon down mouthfuls of apple sauce from their over-sized baby bowls, as they settle themselves in front of the TV for another episode of The Masked Singer.

At least, that’s how I imagine the viewers of The Masked Singer – oversized infants, gooing and gahing at the pretty colours and the funny noises on the magic box in the corner of the room.

The Masked Singer is the infantilisation of culture encapsulated. If you haven’t seen it then I’ll try to describe it to you – but you know what they say, never try to describe a drug trip or a dream, as the re-telling never really works. You have to experience horror first-hand to appreciate it.

Picture a studio with everything turned up to 11 – lights and noise blazing, a panel of celebrity judges hooting like demons on a sugar high, a squawking rictus host, a crazed studio audience bussed in from the outer limits of reality. That’s before the show even starts.

The format of The Masked Singer is demented. “Celebrities” dress up in elaborate masked costumes, sing a song, and then everyone has to guess who they are. Spoiler alert – in case you’re mad enough to watch this show on catch-up – so far, we’ve had Patsy Palmer (who played Bianca in Eastenders) unmasked as Butterfly. Labour’s Alan Johnson – for shame, man, for shame – was inside the Pharaoh costume. Justin Hawkins, who you may sadly remember as the frontman of the Darkness, was the Chameleon; and footballer Teddy Sheringham was a tree that looked like it belonged in The Wicker Man.

It’s dreadful and ghastly, so stupid and garish and phoney, that it’s hypnotic. It truly is so bad it’s good, like Plan 9 From Outer Space redone by Ant and Dec. It has real people, uttering real thoughts like: “Wow, that Octopus really can sing.”

I get why people watch it. In a miserable world, a bit of silly does you good and all that. I like a bit of silly sometimes myself, which is why I tuned in to The Masked Singer – and then tore the eyeballs out of my head.

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But there’s a much more serious matter raised by the success of the show, now the most watched programme on Saturday night. It represents something quite unsettling in society: the desire by adults to retreat into a world of childish preoccupations. The show began in South Korea in 2015 and has swept the world with TV franchises across the globe.

Adults have always enjoyed some flicker of childhood remaining in their lives. Whether it’s grown men playing with train sets, or families in the 70s watching It’s a Knockout, or women dressing up like pink princesses on a hen night, or Generation Xers like me still playing computer games, the adult world has always contained a memory of childhood. That’s fine and good. We need to retain a little childhood silliness to stave off the calcification of the soul that accompanies being an adult.

But over the last few decades, it’s sometimes seemed as if the adult world is more childlike than fully grown. It may have started with JK Rowling. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s much to admire about Rowling. I adored reading her books to my children. She turned an entire generation into bookworms. God bless her for that, and I applaud her literary success.

But in the late 90s, when I started to look up from my train seat and see grown men and women reading Harry Potter books, I despaired. I wasn’t expecting them all to be reading Crime and Punishment, but a book for an adult might have been nice. What were they doing retreating into a world of boy wizards and spells? If they wanted fantasy, there’s plenty of adult fantasy out there.

But it was cosiness they were craving. That was the key. They wanted comfort and safety – culture, art, literature, which did not challenge or threaten. They wanted childhood’s comfort blanket.

Then came the superhero movies – the endless, repetitive superhero movies. I should like these films. I grew up reading comics. But I hate the sight of superhero films today. Superheroes were for my childhood. I have no more need for superheroes and comics, than I have for a BMX and bunny hops in the park.

That’s not to say there are no decent superhero movies – there are, though many also share the day-glo genetics of The Masked Singer, and are one endless round of jumping, punching, screeching, and bedazzling. I felt 10 percentage points of my IQ drop when I watched Thor.

What I’m going to say next will get me burned as a heretic, but to hell with it, I’ve gone this far. The same goes for Doctor Who. I loved it as a child, but I see no point in it for me as an adult.

It’s not that consuming any of these shows is “wrong” as an adult. If you like to tune into The Masked Singer, or a superhero film, or the Doctor, that’s fine with me. I watch crappy reality shows to switch off and unwind. It’s the proliferation and domination of these infantilising programmes which worries me. Childhood obsessions have moved from the fringes of the adult world to centre stage.

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Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, this shift has accompanied a great easing in what it means to be an adult. Our lives are unimaginably softer and safer than our grandparents’ lives. The best example of this? No-one has to go to war any more – unless they want to.

So as our lives got easier, we got more childish. Is this why the West feels like it’s dying on its feet? Our politics is now one of playground insult; our social media has the cruel narcissism of children; our culture feels more CBeebies than BBC.

The good thing about children is that they want to grow up. Do you remember being desperate for adulthood? Now adults crave a return to the nursery. There is something very dark, and dangerous in that. Like the worst, most scary, childhood fairytale.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year

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