Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Children Love Scary Stories, But Why?

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We all have an idea in our heads about what is a story that’s appropriate for a child, and what isn’t. Sex is, generally, off the table. But there are many instances in which children’s books go that are, frankly, downright terrifying.

Take the classic Roald Dahl novel, The BFG, recently portrayed in a film on the big screen. The major themes of the BFG are murder and kidnapping. The BFG is the kidnapper, and the other giants, including the lucidly-named Bloodbottler, are the murderers. Worse still, only children are the targets of the giants’ malice - not grownups.

The story of the BFG follows the antics of a little six-year-old girl Sophie who lives in an orphanage under the tyranny of matron. One night, Sophie is trying to get to sleep and so spends some time watching the city at night. All of a sudden, she sees the BFG - the big friendly giant - who grabs her in the palm of his hand and whisks her off to “Giant Country” - some other-dimensional land where the giants live. Sophie must then contend with the fact that the other giants, besides the BFG, are “gobbling up” children every night - a terrifying prospect.

On face value, the story of the BFG is not a pleasant one. In fact, the horror of it is gratuitous: there are no giant monsters eating children during the night in reality. And yet, the story is one among countless, which depicts children in truly terrifying fantasized positions where their lives are in danger. What’s driving this? And why are these books so popular among children?

Children Have A Fascination With Danger


One of the most controversial theories why children love these horrifyingly scary books is that they are morbidly fascinated with danger.

When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Children should want to learn about danger - and its limits - because they are much weaker than the adults around them. Children have a greater incentive to know what is dangerous and what isn’t, simply because they are much more susceptible to danger than a grown person.

Adults, for instance, would have had a good chance of surviving by themselves in our evolutionary past. At the very least, they would have been able to find food for a few days, collect water, and fashion a weapon. Children, on the other hand, would not be able to survive for a long time in the forest by themselves and are much more dependent on the people around them for support and sustenance. They’re not independent.

Scary stories attract children, therefore, because kids want to learn as much as they can about danger so that they can avoid it. Stories about danger and peril teach kids about their precarious existence and, possibly, the steps that they need to take to protect it.

Children Want To Understand Their Place In The World

Another theory holds that children are attracted to scary stories because they help them understand their place in the world.

Young kids are often fascinated by dinosaurs. At first blush, it might seem that scary stories and dinosaurs are unrelated to each other, but both are examples of situations in which the child must confront their own total lack of power.

Learning all about writing for kids is a challenge because children see the world in a fundamentally different way from adults. For a child, scary stories help to induce an adaptive response. Children need to understand how feeble they are so that they can survive until adulthood to have a family of their own. The ever-present dangers in their environment, real or imagined, remind them that they need to prioritize their safety. It’s a matter of personal survival.

Scary Stories Help Children Process The Difficult Realities Of The World

Scary stories serve a final purpose: to help children prepare for life as an adult, fully exposed to the daily horrors of reality. In adult life, there are no age filters: you have to take it as it comes. A scary story allows a child to explore something scary in a safe environment before having to deal with something in reality when they get older.

Again, from the point of view of socialization, this makes a lot of sense. Civilization requires people who can confront and deal with the difficulties of regular adult life: betrayal, bereavement, and fear. Without scary stories, children might be unprepared for what adult life risks inflicting on them. That’s why the work of child writers is so important.


*This is a collaboratively written post*

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