Many kids love reading and telling scary stories, a fact best illustrated by the overwhelming popularity of the chilling Goosebumps series. But are frightening tales a good idea for children?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” but with definite conditions, according to psychologists and children’s literature specialists.
“Scary stories are a fantastic idea on a child-by-child, book-by-book basis,” says Steven Herb, president of the Association for Library Services for Children and a professor of language and literacy education at Penn State University. “A story may be very appropriate for a fourth-grader, but inappropriate for a first-grader. And while scary stories are terrific, they shouldn’t be forced on a child who doesn’t want to read them.”
Herb also points out that there are at least three different types of fiction that belong under the umbrella term of “scary stories” and cautions parents to understand each type’s appropriateness.
• Delightfully Scary Stories – “First there are stories that produce pleasurable anxiety, like the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, and the Alvin Schwartz collections of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” says Janie Hydrick, Ph.D., who has taught kindergartners through fifth-graders during her 35 years’ teaching. These stories are an entertaining escape. This is the campfire-type story that is meant to send chills down a child’s spine, make her scream and clutch her friend’s arm – and then laugh about it later as the kids scare themselves again. This type of story also provides a sense of detachment, Hydrick explains. Children can reassure themselves that “it’s not happening to me, it’s happening to the character.”
• Fairy Tales – Sometimes scary stories are not only entertaining, but also serve an important purpose by helping children deal with their fears. Fairy tales are a good example of this.
“When children read fairy tales, they unconsciously project their good parts onto the hero or heroine of the story, and the bad parts onto the opposite, usually the witch,” says Sheldon Cashdan, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology at UMass-Amherst and author of The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales. The struggle between the good and the bad gets played out in fairy tales and every time the witch dies (which usually happens at the end of such tales), the child gains faith in his ability to conquer all the bad parts of himself. Different fairy tales deal with different bad impulses: With Snow White it’s vanity; Cinderella faces envy; and for Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, it’s greed.
These stories may also help children deal with such worries as not being loved, of starting school or of being lost. By reading Hansel and Gretel, for instance, children can explore their terror of being abandoned, while experiencing the thrill of taking care of themselves and finally emerging triumphant. Far from instilling new fears in children, fairy tales can actually help kids face the fears they already have, and vanquish them.
• Scary Stories That Explore Serious Issues – A third type of literature that your child may find frightening is the story that takes on serious issues such as divorce, death or family violence. While the spine-tingling tales around the campfire are mostly to entertain, these stories help children be prepared for the world.
“Take There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer. It’s delightful,” Hydrick says. “The child has an absolutely terrifying fear of a monster and, in the end, they become friends and he sees that the monster is just as frightened as he is.”
In Bernard Waber’s Ira Sleeps Over, a child wants to spend the night but then discovers he’s really afraid of doing it. Ira has an experience that children can identify with.
What if the horror is real?
For some children, reading a story may be the only way they can deal with a particular fear. “No matter how much we talk to kids about issues we think may be bothering them, there’s always the secret part, the fears they have that they know are a little bit crazy and they don’t want to say out loud,” says Herb. That’s where reading stories is tremendously important.
“Parents may be able to get kids to talk about issues they are concerned about through story,” notes Gerry Oglan, Ph.D., co-author of Parent to Parent: Our Children, Their Literacy. Oglan explains that children can take the position of a character, and respond through the character, so they are not accountable. Sarah Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan, is a wonderful story through which kids can deal with divorce and death.
Whether it’s for fun or to provoke a serious discussion, why not gather in the dark with your family and enjoy reading a scary story together by flashlight? It’s a great way to spend a thrilling evening!
American Library Association – offers a wonderful resource for kids and parents: The Seven Hundred Amazing, Spectacular, Mysterious, Wonderful Web Sites for Kids.
National Education Association – offers excellent advice for parents on how to choose books for kids by age and reading level.
The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales, by Sheldon Cashdan, Basic Books, 2000. Explores the hidden meanings of fairy tales and why they endure.
Parent to Parent: Our Children, Their Literacy, by Gerald R. Oglan and Averil Elcombe, National Council for the Teachers of English, 2001. This guide for parents on reading with their children contains an annotated bibliography of children’s literature.
Suggested Books for Children
Ira Sleeps Over, by Bernard Waber, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Sarah Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan, HarperTrophy, 1987.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz, HarperTrophy, 1986.
There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer, Dutton, 1992.
Welcome to Dead House, by R.L. Stine, Scholastic, 1995. The first in the Goosebumps series, this books has since been followed by 58 others.
Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications.