Children’s stories have always been dark and scary. Think of Hansel and Gretel, lured to their death by an evil witch, or Cinderella forced into domestic slavery by her stepmother.
A quarter of parents feel fairytales are too scary for their kids according to a recent survey, and prefer to make them more palatable. The wolf wants to befriend the three pigs, not eat them. The Gingerbread man doesn’t get devoured by a fox; he escapes to a tropical island.
The world is dark and frightening enough – so why not give children happy stories to read? While I understand the desire to protect children, I would argue that sanitising a child’s reading experiences is doing them a disservice. Kids need scary stories.
Explore fears in a safe context
There’s one thing that stalks the pages of children’s books more than ravenous wolves, murderous witches and evil stepmothers – and that’s death. A great number of stories feature orphaned children, from James and the Giant Peach and Harry Potter, to Disney’s The Lion King and Frozen.
While the notion of what’s scary differs between individuals, some fears - such as that of death and losing the ones we love, are an inescapable part of the human experience.
Like it or not, children will be exposed to death at some point – losing a pet or grandparent, or watching the evening news. Is it kinder to insist that nothing ‘bad’ will even happen – or more helpful to explore scary concepts through the safe confines of a story?
Develops empathy and resilience
Neuroscience shows that reading fiction helps children to develop empathy and understand how other people feel and think. That’s because fiction tricks our brains into thinking we are part of the story, say researchers at Emory University. The empathy we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people.
When reading a scary book, children know that it’s not real – but at the same time, it allows them to emotionally rehearse how they might feel or behave in a similar situation.
There’s evidence to suggest that reading stories about ‘overcoming the monster’ helps children to build resilience.
Marshall Duke, Professor of Psychology at Emory University, says many parents fear telling their children so-called “bad stories” in which awful things happen to good people. “However, bad stories do more to immunize children and build resilience than happy ones.” As he points out, stories about defeating a monster help children to realise that when they come upon their own “monsters,” they will be able to overcome them as well.
While some scary books explore themes of loss and death, many also contain a sense of hope – and it’s this that often differentiates scary books for kids and teenagers from those aimed at adults.
It’s fun to be scared
Whether it’s a ghost story that sets the heart pounding or a dark and twisty thriller, books that make us fear for the main character are always the most exciting.
Scary stories, in particular, can be hugely bonding – who doesn’t recall the thrill of huddling together to tell ghost stories by the light of a torch? For parents of reluctant readers, scary books can be one of the best ways to foster a joy of reading.
Not only that, stories which elicit a strong emotional response move us; they change us and teach us something about ourselves. Personally, I will never forget finishing Watership Down and feeling somehow ‘changed,’ as if life would never be the same again. (Hearing Bright Eyes still brings a tear to my eye.)
Choose age-appropriate stories
Of course, every child is different and will have their own sensitivities and you know best what they are able to handle. There’s a difference between being thrilled and having nightmares for a week! If you’re unsure, choose age-appropriate books and read them together – pausing to see if your child wants to continue.
Whether it’s Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully creepy Coraline, or The Goosebump series aimed at children aged eight to 12, you’re sure to find a scary book that your kids will love.
Stories offer children (and grown-ups) so much. Parents who don’t allow their kids to read anything dark or scary aren’t just taking away an opportunity for them to explore their fears in a safe context – they’re denying them one of the greatest reading pleasures!
Rachel Burge is an author. Her debut novel ‘The TwistedTree’ is out now. Suitable for ages 12+