SCARY FOR KIDS
I spend a lot of time thinking about scary stories. I write a lot of scary stories. And over the years I’ve done a lot of talks and lectures on scary stories - how they work, where they come from, and why they matter.
Suffice to say I’ve watched, read, and played a lot of scary stories. And now that I have a kid of my own I’m increasingly sharing my love of scary stories with her. We’re working our way through the back catalog of great horror films (Misery is on the TV right now) and she’s quickly finding her own scary novels to absorb (Dan Pobloki’s ShadowHouse was a big hit, and Stephen King is starting to make an appearance on her shelf) .
I do periodically get strange looks or questions from other parents - “you let your kid read/watch that...?”
Yes I do.
I grew up loving these kinds a stories from a young age, so my daughter’s enthusiasm is no surprise. And yet... if I am honest, I was scared a lot as a kid in ways that she is not. I seemed to spend much of my childhood in various states of fear and worry. Was I afraid of ghosts, demons, devils, killers, and monsters because I read books and watched movies about ghosts, demons, devils, killers, and monsters? Or, did I read books and watch movies about these things to help cope with the things I was really afraid of...? If any parental figure had noticed they might have assumed they former, but the older I get the more I realise it was the later...
Once I was older and a writer myself, the well known Neil Gaiman quote about fairy tales (the original horror stories) struck me as holding a sharp truth.... “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten”. Perhaps that was the appeal for me of horror stories and dark stories, and tales that dealt with dark and scary things - that they were processing, a way to make abstract emotions with no pressure valve into tangible stories that by nature were an active vent.
I watch my daughter embrace scary stories with relish yet she appears to possess none of the fears and anxieties that I had. Is she watching for different reasons? Does she crave creepy stuff with different emotions to me? She gets excited by scary stories but never genuinely fearful of their constructs. There’s no nightmares or post-viewing come-down as there always was for me.
But... her generation lives in a different world. The nightly news is more scary than any ghost story I ever read, Donald Trump is more terrifying than any horror movie I watched. And while the content is scary the messenger is often more so... Just this week has see the blatantly constructed outright lie of ‘rampaging African crime gangs’ - a lie so bald even the police have denied it, and so obvious in its socio-political intent to demonise and scare that it’s implications are more terrifying that any dystopian movie I can think of.
I watch my daughter watching this and wonder what purpose a scary story serves? In hindsight I know what scary stories meant to me, how they shaped me, and why I was drawn to them. But in the world of today is there a different impetus?
Children’s author Matt de la Peña has penned a thoughtful piece for Time magazine entitled ‘Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children From Darkness’. Matt’s scope is less about the supernatural tales of my childhood and more about the broader issue of dark subject matter, of stories for children that don’t shy from dark themes.
“I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book... and the story I’m working on alone in a room, day after day, might one day give some kid out there an opportunity to ‘feel’.”
Many horror films that gave me chills as a kid have not aged well. And some of the films I’ve enthusiastically extolled to my daughter have received the complaint that they aren’t scary enough. And yet Ironically I think her world is more afraid now than mine ever was. We’re scared of everything. We vote, buy, sell, move, and act based on what we’re told to be afraid of. And so we - particularly parents - act defensively in all things; preempting any danger, mitigating any threat, obscuring any darkness with a blinding light.
But I fear this all serves only to make us weak and vulnerable and emotionally fragile. In this world I’m inclined to think we need scary stories now more than ever. Not to make us more scared but to give us a touchstone for fear - a rational way to narrativise it away from reality. Scary stories give us a way to see in the dark and I genuinely fear for a world without tales of ghosts and monsters and stories for kids that deal with dark subject matter and real emotions. If we don’t process fear we become ruled by it. If we don’t turn fears into stories they become our inescapable demons.