Children have always liked scary stories – cuddling around their parents at night, while the wind is howling outside, reading or being told a ghost story. But why do children enjoy being frightened?
There are some interesting authors who have started, or have been successful, with scary stories for children. Philip Pullman’s first YA novel, “Count Karlstein”, is about a hunter to whom two young girls are going to be sacrificed for All Soul’s Eve. It’s a fun read, with a good splash of humour, but the key-scenes happen at night in the snow, with otherworldly monsters hunting human flesh.
In the same way, one of Neil Gaiman’s big successes is “Coraline”, where her parents are kidnapped and an evil fairy tries to steal her soul. It’s got some very sinister scenes: the iconic button eyes, humans like larvae growing in cocoons, a copy of Coraline’s father pale like dough, becoming shapeless as he melts away. All of those scenes are frightening to picture, and yet children love them.
Some of these stories fulfil the role of the old cautionary tale: adults can be dangerous, not all of them can be trusted. But rather than explaining the true horrors adults sometimes do to children, it’s easier to keep it in the realm of the imaginary – selling souls, giving away to demons and magical huntsmen, eating (if you’re in a fairy-tale where wolves and witches are always gobbling down imprudent children).
Horror allows children to name their fears, to give them a shape and a face, even only an imaginary one. It can also be cathartic: rather than being frightened of unnamed, uncontrollable things, they can give their dread a shape. It’s a way to learn to control your own fear, by experiencing it in a safe environment, through the medium of a story.
And they can then overcome the monster as the main character does throughout the story, and learn to fight their own fears.