The Truth about Scary Stories for Kids

"Scaring and disturbing children is essential—but it has to be done right."


Studying children's literature was one of my favorite parts of undergraduate, and for reasons beyond the immediate - sure, the stories were limitless and illustrations gorgeous and capacity for meaning exceptional; but the business behind it is almost equally fascinating.  

The Atlantic just published a short article about the imperative of some children's books to be...scary.  To expose a fantastical realm necessary for children to acceptably reason with right and wrong and the ambiguities inherent within those poles is one charge that many of these authors take on, and with gusto. As Maurice Sendak said, it's "an awful fact of childhood… The fact of vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction."

The article is a quick read and reminded me of all the ways I loved to be scared as a kid - by reading Scary Stories collections, being an early adopter of Goosebumps and, when those lost the thrill for me, quickly moving on to Christopher Pike and the Remember Me series, soon thereafter, Stephen King.   

But these creepy childrens books discussed in the article are from an even earlier period in childhood literacy development - recalling even the Grimm fairy tales, which have much darker and more sinister endings than the Disney-fied versions we're more familiar with. There is a benefit to scaring children, and vitally - there is an art to it, and a benefit, and a balance.

To return to fairy tales for a moment...although we might be compelled to love the happy endings, the romance of Prince Charmings and Fairy Godmothers and magic, the truly dark twists that the original legends and fables told always held a special hold on me. That's why fairy tales (and God narratives) retold remain some of my favorite books to read. Books including The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block and American Gods by Neil Gaiman appeal to this love of fantasy turned fear that I love.  I also love scary movies. I don't know if that's connected. Probably?