Scary Stories: In Defense of Horror for Children
Think back to the scariest book of your childhood. Was it the Goosebumps series, by R. L. Stine? Or maybe the eerie Coraline by Neil Gaiman? Or perhaps it was the viscerally-gruesome Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, the spooky story collection with sinister illustrations by Stephen Gammell. If it was the latter, get ready to celebrate: well-renowned horror director Guillermo del Toro is co-writing a live-action take on the books, due to be released in August 2019.
The three-book series, including Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991), has left its mark on a generation of kids who grew up surrounded with dark fantasy and horror abounding in their media. But while nineties-kids might look back on these short story collections with affection, many of their parents might groan. Despite the popularity of the books among youngsters, Scary Stories is one of the most banned book series of all time, ranking at number 7 in the American Library Association’s list of top 100 banned books between 2000 to 2009.
With the new film about to be released, and the children who read them all grown up, it begs the question: are books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark inappropriate for children? Are they better off banned–and saved for adult consumption?
While parents and teachers may hope to protect their children from frightening content, books like Scary Stories serve a dual purpose. Firstly, they expose children to stories that are obviously separate from the stresses and fears of reality. Kids old enough to read and understand these books on their own are also old enough to know that the ghouls, ghosts, and skeletons of Scary Stories aren’t real. Children should get the opportunity to expand their imagination through challenging themes and concepts, especially horror, as long as it is aimed at their age group. Secondly, children old enough to understand horror as fiction also have the capability to find deeper meaning in these stories, consciously or unconsciously. Through horror, kids can learn that fear is natural and necessary, and that overcoming it brings a sense of power and control that won’t be achieved through overprotective parenting or censorship.
Protecting Children, or Censorship?
The Scary Stories collection features stories that you might hear around a campfire: tales about ghosts, zombies, a wolf girl, and even a particularly nasty spider bite. For those unacquainted with the spooky delight of these books, the collections feature brief stories about a variety of urban legends, folktales, and ghost stories. The stories describe an array of horrors, from gore, to hauntings, to cannibalism and murders. On the gory end, there’s stories like The Big Toe and Harold. In The Big Toe, a young boy finds a severed toe on the ground and takes it home, where he and his family eat it for dinner–only to be haunted by its former owner. In Harold, a sentient scarecrow decides to retaliate against abusive owners and skin them alive. But even the tamer stories, like The Wreck–in which a young boy offers a ride to a girl he meets at a dance, only to find out she had died on the way to the event–are just as disconcerting.
The way these tales are told, using vocabulary on about a fifth grader’s level, along with seriously spooky illustrations, has set Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark apart from many other ghost story anthologies. Unfortunately, it has also attracted the ire of many a critical parent, eager to prevent their kids from reading it.
In 2007, the second book in the series, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, was requested to be removed in the Greater Clark County elementary school system in Kentucky for “cannibalism, murder, witchcraft and ghosts”. Despite this, the book was retained in the libraries. More recently, in 2018, one of the books was challenged and removed from the school library at Lake Travis Elementary in Texas for containing “violence or horror.”
These are just a few examples of the reasons why a book might be banned. Racial issues, religious blasphemy or swearing, sexual situations, violence, witchcraft, extreme political viewpoints, encouraging “damaging lifestyles” or even simply “age inappropriate themes” are among the most-cited reasons to challenge a book. In the case of Scary Stories, concerned adults have faced a relatively easy process to initiate a book ban. The first step is a formal challenge, which is essentially a complaint filed with a library or school requesting for the content to be removed. Across the 1990s to late 2000s, the most cited reason for challenging a book was either due to sexually explicit content, offensive language, or simply being “unsuited” for the targeted age group–a claim that can be made relatively easily about almost any story. Statistically, challenges to a book’s appropriateness are usually initiated by an individual, like a parent, or an institution, like a school or school library.
Fortunately for horror-obsessed kids, book banning has largely become a thing of the past. Slate declared that the “there is basically no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015,” meaning that it used to be much more frequent for books to be banned, and nearly impossible to obtain them after the fact. That changed with the internet era, as a book being banned from a particular school or library just means a reader can find it online. Today, book banning in public libraries is relatively much less frequent. Of the 27 public library complaints filed between 2007 and 2012, only four resulted with a book being removed from circulation.
But even if it’s not common now, it certainly sheds a negative light on a book if it’s associated with the controversy of a challenge or ban. And in cases when schools or libraries do manage to ban a book, some critics posit that it could potentially prevent children from expanding their perspectives, and quash diverse authors and topics. Historically, book bans have disproportionately targeted books written by diverse authors and/or containing diverse characters. Among the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009, according to the American Library Association, 52 books included some kind of diversity–that’s more than half–and the majority of these books included diverse content. This diverse content includes addressing issues about race, sexuality and/or disability, or include non-white, LGBTQ and/or disabled characters.
While Scary Stories doesn’t necessarily represent diverse content, its presence as a banned book became a claim to fame, as it was frequently banned due to its themes of body horror and gore, particularly due to its illustrations. Gammell’s illustrations can be noted for their stark use of contrast, abstract forms, and watercolor for an eerie effect of light and shadow. Many of these images left a certain amount of the stories up to the imagination of the reader, offering only a snippet of the plot. Even still, images depict skulls, ghostly forms, a monstrous sewer rat, and plenty of anatomically-odd figures and skulls–and when paired with the stories, create a distinctively shocking, disturbing vibe.
To combat parental outcry, publisher HarperCollins re-released the series in 2011 with new illustrations by Brett Helquist, known for his work on A Series of Unfortunate Events. While the illustrations were less visceral depictions of the stories, the new release was met with criticism and derision. For many fans, many of which were kids who read these books while growing up, the horrific illustrations are quintessential to the experience of the stories themselves. While the stories themselves were not long, the lingering impact of a ghastly figure or warped face contributes to the atmosphere of the stories. After the backlash, HarperCollins re-released the stories in 2017 with the original illustrations in a box set for avid fans, and parents can decide which version they can allow their children to read.
When interviewed about the books and their content, Alan Schwartz claimed that his stories never showed violence, but only implied it. Instead, Schwartz opted for showing gore and suspense, leaving most of the story’s details up to his reader’s imagination. Many of the stories may even sound familiar to parents or children, since they are largely based on folklore, which Schwartz researched using American folklore anthologies and interviews with folklorists. Schwartz wanted to focus on urban legends and word-of-mouth stories rather than just monsters and ghosts. Schwartz particularly avoided real-world problems and horrors, like parental abuse and direct violence, and specifically avoided certain topics, such as self-harm and infanticide, opting for supernatural stories instead.
Learning (and Loving) to Fear
Kids love a good scare. Think about spooky stories told around a campfire, or creepypasta shared on Reddit, or even the infamous Slenderman videos that scared a generation of internet-trolling kids. What attracts children to horror, and should this trend concern parents and teachers?
Regardless of how parents assert their presence to prevent it, every child will face fear. Researchers believe that children are born with certain instinctive fears, while others are cultivated due to social contact. There are innate, or instinctual, fears, and learned fears. While it may feel obvious that everyone should be scared of wild animals, speeding traffic, or creepy spiders, there are actually only two innate fears according to researchers: falling and the fear of loud noises.
Everything else is learned, either through conditioning or experience, and social learning. And while they learn what to fear early on, they don’t develop the complex neural process to interpret these fears until they’re older. Very young kids tend to “freak out” because they’ve fully developed their fight-or-flight response, but their “high road” neural pathways–the ones that allows them to assess a situation before reacting–have not. As a result, young kids will react to a perceived threat, and continue reacting longer than an older child. Take a balloon pop, for example. An adult that hears a loud noise like a balloon pop might be startled, but then recognize it and move on or investigate. A very young child might hear the balloon pop and react by remaining upset for a longer period of time.
As kids get older and their neural pathways develop, they become better able to parse the difference between reality and fiction, real threat and mild fright. Much of their behavior becomes based on what they’ve seen and heard from people around them: parents, teachers, and peers. Parents socialize their children through their words, actions, and reactions, influencing how and when their child might respond to different situations. This is social learning, which combines with innate fears to develop a child’s fight-or-flight response. A parent scared of spooky stories and ghastly illustrations like those in Scary Stories can pass that fright onto their child through contextual and situational learning. Moreover, a child in a class with many peers who are fighting over their school library’s copy of Scary Stories may find the stories to be more exciting than scary.
This research suggests that kids seek out the thrills, and how they react has just as much to do with how their friends, family, and teachers have helped them cope with it.
A Dose of Fright
Research suggests that being scared is actually good for the body and the brain. While scary stimuli incite a physical reaction, repeated scares also help develop the brain by giving us the potential to confront our fears and expand our possibilities. Facing your fears–whether it is riding a scary rollercoaster or walking down a dark hallway–allows us to put our lives in perspective, helping us realize it’s really not that bad at all. Psychologists call this phenomena the development of healthy coping mechanisms, which become tools to help us handle stress in our lives.
Some people may enjoy being scared because it distracts them from other, trivial worries. But other times, feeling scared may also impart a feeling of control in an otherwise uncontrollable world. Assistant Professors of Psychiatry at Wayne State University Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab posit that much of the “thrill” of being scared is also attributed to the sense of self-confidence that follows from emerging from a threat unharmed:
“When we are able to recognize what is and isn’t a real threat, relabel an experience and enjoy the thrill of that moment, we are ultimately at a place where we feel in control. That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial fight or flight rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.”
In the human body, being periodically scared actually has health benefits. Activating your fight-or-flight response helps train the heart and the brain. Fear has a specific neural, hormonal, and motor pathway that allows a frightened person to react and respond. The fear response begins in the amygdala in the brain, which determines the emotional significance of any stimuli. If the brain perceives a stimulus as a threat, it will trigger the release of stress hormones or activate physical, motor reaction. Heart rate and blood pressure will rise, pupils will dilate, and blood flow increases. Scary movies, for example, can “train your heart to pump more blood…your heart becomes more efficient at delivering oxygen and draining metabolic waste products away,” says cardiologist Dr. Michael Castine. In many ways, bodies react very similarly to fear stimuli as they would to something that gets us excited–some of the chemicals involved in the fight or flight response are also used in positive emotional states like happiness and excitement.
In Defense of the Scare
Some literature critics may chafe at the notion that a book’s merit is based exclusively on the lessons it can provide. But from a parent’s perspective, children’s literature should at least attempt to expose their kids to good values and ideas that will aid their development. Despite parental concerns, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark can still be defended. There may still be valuable lessons among the horror–just maybe not in the most obvious or mainstream ways.
Take the story High Beams, for example: a girl is driving home alone late one night when a vehicle driving behind her begins periodically turning their high beams on and off, seemingly without reason. When she arrives home, the vehicle parks behind her, and the driver steps out with a gun. It turns out the driver had seen a killer climb into the back of the girl’s car, and had flashed his high beams every time the killer rose up in the back seat to stab the driving girl. The lesson here? Things are not as they seem, and strangers can be simultaneously dangerous or your saving grace.
Stories like High Beams speak to the fears we have as parents of children: stranger-danger, letting your children grow to have independence, and violence against women and girls. In a strange way, the resolution both confirms and defies these fears, teaching, perhaps, a more nuanced lesson about the world as neither darkness or light. Yes, there are bad people in the world, but there are good ones too.
But what about the stories about random horror, like the quintessential Spider Bite? In this story, a girl gets a spider bite on her face, which grows bigger and bigger until it erupts, birthing dozens of spiders across her face. What lesson is there? What could this story teach impressionable young people, other than that there are endless, terrible possibilities in the future?
Many criticisms of Scary Stories and the horror genre in general for children point to the notion that many horror stories appear as though they really don’t have a moral to be learned. Literature for children tends to focus on applying a “teachable moment” or some kind of lesson to pass on to the child to help support healthy socialization and development. Values are important, and many critics think that horror stories have no place for them. But perhaps it’s something bigger, something more abstract, about the state of the real adult world, that kids will need to learn about eventually. Urban legends and ghosts stories aim to shock and awe, but also remind us that there is a dark, wide world beyond the safety of our childhood. Schultz summarized it succinctly in one interview: “All of these stories, and there are scads of them, are really saying: ‘Watch out. The world’s a dangerous place. You are going out on your own soon. Be careful.’”
Video essayist Zane Whitener posits that horror for kids in the 1990s and early-2000s was never really about the scares themselves, as the images depicted were never about real world threats. Frightening stories about otherworldly monsters and terrible situations can be used to “educate young people about things that normally couldn’t naturally be discussed in a regular story,” Whitener states, citing an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog that acts as a metaphor for major depression. Spooky books like Goosebumps and cartoons like Scooby-Doo and Courage the Cowardly Dog were part of a zeitgeist of creepily disturbing imagery that kids nevertheless adored, not just because it made them feel frightened, but because it made them feel stronger. According to Whitener, horror has one true lesson, one which every child needs to hear:
“Most horror, I think, especially children’s horror, is about overcoming your adversaries and surviving. It’s about saying in the end that there’s something wrong but you can overcome it. It’s about empowerment.”
Famed horror novelist Stephen King echoes a similar sentiment in Why We Crave Horror Movies. “It can be as simple as to show that we can, that we are not afraid, that we can ride this roller coaster” (525). But it can be more nuanced, about establishing a sense of “normalcy” for ourselves, or a point of comparison for our relatively boring lives, knowing “we are still light-years from true ugliness.”
Based on this theory, it holds that kids old enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, reality and story, are old enough to recognize these stories as spooky, but also not a real threat. The real threats are out there, in the world, not between pages. So letting children read a few scary stories, with the hope that they can stare unflinchingly back at the true horrors of the real world, may not be a bad idea at all. As R. L. Stine said of the Goosebumps books, “the real world is much scarier than these books.”
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