Can children’s horror literature be too scary?
Editorial Note: This is an opinion piece by David Bare, the teen librarian at Asheboro Public Library.
The world is a scary place. The horror of human cruelty and indifference to the suffering we cause within our own species (and without), sooner or later becomes obvious to young people. Isn't that enough? Should children also be free to read scary books with monsters, ghosts and other creeping lurking things?
Writers and storytellers have been scaring children with stories since well before Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were out of their swaddlings. The Bible has a number of morality tales that are aimed at little people. In I Kings, when children make fun of Elisha’s baldness he calls down a curse on them and they are devoured by ‘she-bears’. A bit harsh, perhaps, but then, it was an era of violence, bloodletting, scapegoating and dread fear of the unknown. There was no literature specifically for children.
Early American horror, by contrast, usually deals with ghosts and phantasmal beings or with monsters. Such stories are a social commentary on the truly horrifying human psyche, where otherwise trustworthy humans have darkness lurking in their hearts. Edgar Poe captured this well in his (at the time) unpopular Gothic writing, as he brought the keen light of literature to bear on madness, fear, paranoia, and other mental plagues of the human spirit.
Other than those tales within Scripture, the first truly scary story I remember hearing was Washington Irving’s Yankee classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The headless spectre on its rearing black horse, prowling shadowy winter roads left me shivering.
Current "horror” literature is most assuredly not for children. Although young people are likely to discover it soon enough, these books aren’t written with children in mind, at least as readers. Nevertheless, Stephen King’s true brilliance, (in my humble opinion) is his ability to capture and give character to those fears that plague all children. That said, few people would read a King book to a little person and hope for good results.
Children’s (and teen) literature has an inherent responsibility to inform, educate and widen the perspectives of young people and to help them deal with their natural fears.
Today’s children are perhaps more exposed to the realities of current events thanks to the Internet and cable TV, but that doesn’t mean that they are less easily frightened. So, what about those books that are written for children but that are also intentionally scary?
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz were a focal point of my formative years. Along with their gruesome (and drippy) illustrations, these stories were designed with children in mind and the books were always checked out of our school and public libraries. R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series also deals with those natural and popular culture icons of terror in pieces easily digestible for the developing reader. They are forever popular among younger readers. Schools require the reading of Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, among many other frightening tales.
There is nothing inherently wrong with horror lit for kids, so long as every reader is increasingly challenged to read what they like. Scary books—along with being a hallmark of American literature on par with Steinbeck and Hemingway—are perfectly appropriate with the right adult participation and commentary. Most do not sink to the level of children being mauled by bears or planet-wide genocides or the terrors of reality, which have far more difficult topics to explain to little ones than the Boogeyman or Dracula and the Mummy or the Headless Horseman.
In the long run, engaging books, regardless of their genre and topics, are likely to make fine foundations for engaged, lifelong readers so long as parents play an active part in helping little ones learn to be fearless in their reading and in their lives.