Fear Works – Scary Stories in Children’s Literature

October 30, 2014

This October we examined the difference between terror and horror and what is so scary about when the familiar turns frightening. Kate Bernheimer’s “The Punk’s Bride,” Manuel Gonzales’s “What Happened to Eloise,” and Ben Hoffman’s “Other Dangers” is a crop of fiction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It is all in honor of our favorite month, and with one day left before Halloween, we’re not stopping yet.

fear works

The foundation of scary stories has its roots in children’s literature. Some of the first stories we hear as kids are fairy tales and nursery rhymes, narratives that are traditionally dark. Fear is largely embraced in children’s literature, and for good reason. Because it works. There is a lot to be gained from the scary stories we cherished as kids.

“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.” —  Neil Gaiman

What Gaiman refers to is the idea that reading a scary story becomes safe via the boundaries of a book. He goes on to say: “You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again.” This idea is echoed again and again regarding dark content for children. The fact that it takes place in a story allows kids to exert control over the situation. They can shut the book and turn away. Similarly, children can more easily understand that an event or character is not real or even possible. It allows them to approach horror as an adventure, as opposed to something paralyzing. Sheldon Cashdan, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst says: “Every time the witch dies, it magically restores children’s faith in their ability to conquer their own troublesome emotions.”

Suddenly, the thrill of a scary story becomes more than a fun way to spend a dark evening — it becomes key to development.

“Scary stories play an important role in children’s emotional education, allowing them to identify and control their darker feelings — a good coping mechanism. It’s a chance for them to experience a really potent fantasy and almost live it, without any of the consequences.” — Lindsay Knight, Head of Children’s Books for Random House Australia

Through the journey of a book children can examine terrible circumstances and emerge with a new set of tools, a new way to handle fear. The presence of goblins, ghouls, and ghosts in literature allows for scary stories to act as a vessel into a fantastic land, one where the world has turned a shade darker. In these literary worlds, if kids can’t cope with fear, the consequences are terrible.

The value in facing ones fears through reading about them becomes clear: it is an experience that (one hopes, at least) can’t be gained in the real world. Speaking on the necessity of evil in literature, Neil Gaiman says:“There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.” And perhaps what is most interesting about the bulk of scary stories for children is that this triumph must occur in the absence of “safe” adults—without mothers and fathers. Many villains in children’s literature (the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the “Other Mother” in Coraline, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Miss Trunchbull in Matlida, along with countless others ) are adults. However, in the most effective stories in which kids conquer wickedness, children act alone or with the help of their peers.

“That always seemed to be the most critical test that a child was confronted with — the loss of parents, loss of direction, loss of love. Can you live without a mother and a father?” — Maurice Sendak

Lawrence Sipe, PhD, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education agrees: “Nothing is scarier than the thought of getting separated from your parents or having your parents die.” And what good is running into an evil troll or nefarious spirit in the company of your mother? Who is responsible for the victory then? What lesson is learned? Forcing kids to confront two major sources of fear — the absence of their parents and an evil force — serves as a major area for growth.

But most of us don’t remember the emotional progress scary stories offered. We remember the fun of it, the joy we found in being terrified and terrifying others.

“Kids love to be scared… You can laugh at the fear, walk through the fear.” — R. L. Stine

R. L. Stine has said many times he finds horror funny. “There’s a close connection,” he says, between humor and fright. “When you go hide in a corner and jump up and say, ‘Boo!’ Well, they jump at first, and then they laugh. Or when you go to an amusement park and there’s a roller coaster, you hear people laughing and screaming at the same time. It’s a gut emotion. I just think they’re very close together.”

It is interesting to note the way scary material is often structured for children. R. L. Stine says: “I see Goosebumps books as each chapter having a punchline. It’s sort of like writing a joke.” Scary stories for kids are often very short. In a recent article about the beloved children’s series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, writers Matt Bell and Anne Valente discuss their mutual admiration for the terrorizing tales in Schwartz’s collection. In their first exchange Bell writes: “One of the first things that strikes me now about most of Schwartz’s stories is how short they are… Schwartz’s stories have been cut all the way down to the bare essentials…”

Susan Rich developed the children’s anthology Half-Minute Horrors, which navigates kids through thrills and chills much like a joke book: with a set up that delivers a punch to the gut by the end. In 160 pages over 60 stories by writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman, R. L. Stine, and Margaret Atwood take turns scaring kids as fast as they can. A quick thrill, then onto the next. Short & Shivery by Robert Souci sets out to accomplish a similar task: to scare as much as possible in a small space.

Trying to unearth the fun behind fear is a question psychologists continue to explore. Some believe it is the release of stress that causes us to feel good after we experience something scary. Others think we project our own sense of evil onto the villain and thus associate positively when the terror is defeated. There is another theory that suggests fear is fun because it stimulates similar physiological reactions in the body: increased heart rate, enhanced senses, and rushes of adrenaline.

Whatever the reason, it is clear there is a large benefit to experiencing and interacting with scary material. J. K. Rowling says: “The stories we love best do live in us forever.” And in the case of scary stories perhaps this is because they inform who we are, deeply, and well into adulthood.

Here are some final thoughts on scary children’s literature from the writers who know it best.

“We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.” — Neil Gaiman

“For one thing, kids love me because I write stories that tell them about their capacity for evil.” — Ray Bradbury

“I don’t think there’s any harm at all in allowing a kid to fantasize. In fact, I think to stop people from fantasizing is a very destructive thing indeed.” — J. K. Rowling

“You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them”. — Maurice Sendak

“Well to me it’s just that the world is complicated and you can’t make a really clear rule about it… And every kid kind of knows that. They know that the rule isn’t hardfast and yet we pretend that it is, which is weird.” — Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket

By Kim Winternheimer

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