“The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world all to themselves.”
― Roald Dahl, The BFG
Horror is already a controversial genre. Horror for children is doubly so. Children in horror is fine, a staple even. They symbolise the true nature of the threat, the fragility of innocence; they stare at you creepily, but are never in any real danger. After all, children are the thing we are meant to rescue from the horrors. Is it not our job, as adults, to keep children safe? Are we not meant to protect them from the dark things that come out at night?
World Book Day is in March (apparently… I was told by the artist for this article; it’s not so much an international thing as a UK and Ireland thing that’s labelled international, like the World Series of baseball in the United States). Like any celebration of books and literature, it’s suitable for all ages, but clearly targeted at children, at those impressionable enough to need messages like “reading is good for you, and fun.” It conjures images of wholesome kindergarten teachers reading aloud from a picture book to a room of besotted toddlers, of learning the lessons in stories and becoming more clever and kind. In this imagining, books are vegetables, something you’re meant to consume as part of a healthy diet. But what happens when you want to have a slice of chocolate cake?
The thing is, if you’re here, reading this article, you were probably a child who liked horror. It’s not something that came to you as an adult, when you were the right age and maturity to handle it. No, it came in the form of urban legends spread around the playground about a girl whose head was only attached to her neck by a green ribbon. It was reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and going down into the basement even though the shadows glared.
There is something about horror, about being afraid, that draws us in at any age. I remember being eleven and visiting the library with my grandma during the winter holiday. I was picking up a stack of books to keep me entertained for the next two weeks (and it was exciting having such a drastically different selection from the books at my school library). I grabbed some standard fare: Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, The Railway Children. But among stories of little girl detectives and prairie life, I was also reading ghost tales about haunted cars and evil spirits. I was picking up Fear Street and Goosebumps (I owe much of my current love of horror to R.L. Stine, apparently).
There’s a lot that scares children, not all of it even necessarily deliberate. My sister could barely cope with A Bad Case of the Stripes when she was little. And I mean, can you blame her:
Horror as it appears in children’s literature has a wide range, from accidentally terrifying to deliberately creepy. In this article, I’m going to explore children’s horror from across that spectrum, asking myself why children are drawn to it, what about it is scary, and what that tells us about some of our most fundamental fears.
Accidentally Terrifying: A Glimpse at Our Deepest Fears
If Dr. Seuss set out to terrify children when he wrote the silly poem book There’s a Wocket in My Pocket!, he sure succeeded. Most of the book is straightforward. There’s this kid that lives in a house full of strange creatures with wacky names that rhyme with their purpose: the zower in the shower, the findow in the window, the yeps on the steps. It’s Dr. Seuss at his most classic, the text containing about as many invented words as real ones. But it also had what I would consider one of the scariest monsters of my childhood: the Vug under the Rug.
See, Seuss had to know this page would be scary to kids. The kid in the story is, himself, afraid. Of all the oddness in the house, this is the only part he shows trepidation towards. The Vug under the Rug. We don’t even get to see it, just the hint of it, just the knowledge that it’s there. The child sneaks past, his eyes flashing with what is clearly a prayer that the Vug not notice him. That it not notice us. I used to hate getting to this page. I loved the rest of the book. I loved the silly words and the funny situations. I still chose it sometimes as my bedtime story. But when it came to the Vug, I would literally cover my eyes and wait until my parent had moved onto the Quimney up the chimney.
My childhood fear of the Vug points to one of the most primal fears known to humanity: fear of the unknown. We do not get to see the Vug. We are only told we should fear it. If they’d shown us the Vug, made him a horrible monster with fangs and wings and all that, I’m positive it wouldn’t have stuck with me in quite the same way.
There’s a lot unknown to us, even as adults. When we’re children and we encounter something that really scares us, something that wasn’t intended to be ‘baby’s first Babadook’ but still burrows into our minds, we get the chance to practice. Facing the horror provides us our first brush with ideas we can’t quite comprehend. Yes, it’s unsettling, but strap in, because that’s just what the rest of your life is bound to be.
Why do so Many Shows Have a Spooky Halloween Special?
One step up from “oh no we accidentally scared you with this thing that isn’t meant to be scary,” you have “hehe we deliberately scared you with this thing that isn’t usually scary.” It’s all good, though, because it’s in the spirit of Halloween. That’s right; I’m talking about “a very spooky episode.”
“A very spooky episode” is often, but not always, a Halloween episode. When it’s not, it still captures that joyful creepiness of Halloween. It’s that random spooky episode thrown into a non-spooky show to keep you on your toes. The list of examples is bottomless, but to name a few, we have “The Graveyard Shift” in Spongebob and “The Puppet Master” in Avatar the Last Airbender and “The Ghost in Suite 613” in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.” And, pulling from slightly less dated references, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and She-Ra all have a handful of episodes that are clearly designated “the scary one.” Even the recent and very excellent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which is primarily a slapstick comedy, will suddenly do a 180 into the realm of the genuinely terrifying every time Death is on screen (yes this is a movie about the animated cat from Shrek confronting Death; I very strongly recommend it).
I think the prevalence of “the spooky episode” speaks to the same desire that draws children to Halloween. It’s a break from normalcy, a turn towards the darker side with a promise of escape. It’s exciting; it’s fun. It’s what Neil Gaiman refers to as, “horror as a condiment… in the way that you might add salt or ketchup to a meal. You just want to add a little to make it taste a little bit better, but you definitely don’t want a meal that’s all salt and ketchup.” Importantly, almost all these examples lean on humor as much as they do horror. They don’t aim to create eternal tension like a standard piece of horror would. Fear is a balloon that they pop before the credits roll. It’s like a sitcom; when the episode is over, we reset the dial to zero.
“Dark texts are often as funny as they are scary: their mood is frequently one of grotesque humour and jocular tenebrism. The comic dimension is reinforced by elements of theatricality that range from the operatic to the burlesque and hint at Goya’s famous image of human life as a deceptive performance: “The world is a masquerade; face, dress, voice, everything is feigned. Everybody wants to appear what he is not; everybody deceives, and nobody knows anybody.””Dani Cavallaro, Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror and Fear
When you’re a child, there’s a lot about the world that doesn’t make sense. There’re rules you’re meant to follow, places you’re meant to go, places you’re not meant to go, and stressors that affect your parents that you only understand insofar as they affect your parents. It’s a little like being plopped into the middle of a strange country where you don’t speak the language or know the laws, and being expected to navigate it flawlessly. It’s a bit like trying to catch the last bus home in the middle of the night when you don’t know the bus schedule because you’re in a strange country where you don’t speak the language and also you’re really hungry. It’s a bit like season 1, episode 17 of Spongebob, “Rock Bottom.”
Spongebob Squarepants is a show that is definitely 100% for children. When it was first coming out, it almost seemed to have a magical power to make adults hate it. Adult adults. People with mortgages and 401Ks. Not 20-something-year-olds who woke up at noon and are having the very nutrious breakfast of coffee and a bowl of Lucky Charms. Spongebob drove my parents nuts. And it’s very much a lighthearted show. Spongebob gets up to very silly hijinx; the characters are goofy. But every now and then, the show liked to throw in a curveball episode where characters worked the graveyard shift at their restaurant and were scared they were being stalked by a murderer or where someone accidentally travels so far to the future he can’t comprehend the mechanics of how the world now functions. But my favorite, to this day, is “Rock Bottom.”
“Rock Bottom” is as I described it: after a long day of fun, Spongebob and Patrick fall asleep and miss their bus stop home, accidentally ending up in the mysterious Rock Bottom. They have to get the next bus back, but it seems to only arrive when they aren’t waiting for it and the locals are strange, murky, and unhelpful. They are stuck in a way that feels like it will go on forever, something incredibly relatable to what I think of as “kid anxiety”. Kid anxiety is when you encounter a challenge that is just beyond the scope of your ability to process, meaning you are unable to solve it alone. Kid anxiety, like regular anxiety, fries the circuits in your brain, making it impossible for you to make a decision because you cannot see the forest for the trees. You’re in the thick of it and you literally do not know what to do next. You are stuck in the ether. One time, when I was seven-ish, I missed my school bus back home because I got distracted talking to a friend. The logical thing to do would be to go talk to the office, which would call my parents and then they would come get me and all would be well. But I was a dumb kid to whom fifteen minutes felt like an eternity. My solution was to buy a chocolate bar from the shop and cry in a corner until someone found me.
“Kids live in a world of insane giants already. Nothing is the right size. The doorknobs are too high, the chairs too big… They have little agency of their own, and are barely given the power to even choose their own clothes.”Greg Ruth, Horror Is Good For You (And Even Better For Your Kids)
The world is already illogical to me, an adult who’s had a few decades to try to figure it out. I understand the existence of a complex socioeconomic situation that means I now spend most of my days looking at spreadsheets, but that doesn’t mean I get it. Stories like “Rock Bottom” get at what it feels like to be a kid. To feel lost or confused in a world that seems to have a specific yet nebulous order to it.
One of the themes that “horror-streaked” children’s literature can explore is the feeling of being forced to face challenges seemingly alone. It’s that adults, which position themselves as the utmost authority to be trusted, cannot really be relied upon. They are either too cruel or too ineffective. The children in these stories are stuck between a rock and a hard place. For Matilda, it’s the Trunchbull and all the teachers that do nothing to stop her; for the Baudelaire orphans, it’s the wicked Count Olaf and the useless Mr. Poe. Horror lets you into the secret that the rules of the world aren’t fixed, that your experience of injustice and bemusement is perfectly standard. Who wouldn’t be afraid in a world like this? That said, ultimately, “the spooky episode” isn’t trying to traumatize kids; it’s trying to relate to their fears. In the end, Spongebob makes it out of Rock Bottom.
This Makes Me Feel Funny (But I’m Watching it Anyway)
“The Hearse Song
Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next to die.
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Then your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout.
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.
You spread it on a slice of bread,
And that’s what you eat when you’re dead.”Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Remember when you used to go to a friend’s house and you would hole up in the Computer Room and boot up the old PC and just watch YouTube videos for hours? Did you ever find it would sometimes take a really weird turn? Like, not that weird in retrospect, but weird in that it would make you feel uneasy when you were watching it. Salad Fingers. Magic tricks where weedy men in skinny jeans managed to get a coin under their skin. Ghosts making strange shapes in a mirror.
In Horror, Brigid Cherry explains that horror is particularly appealing to younger audiences because it provides a right of passage: “As some sort of cultural ‘other’, horror flourishes thanks to its status as ‘forbidden fruit’.” It’s like the Midnight Club in The Midnight Club. It’s a group of kids brought together by their desire to partake in the forbidden fruit. It’s watching something because you know your parents wouldn’t approve. And, importantly, it’s getting through it, emerging through the fire, terrified but alive.
“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. So vague, yet so immense. He did not want to live with it. Yet he knew that, during this night, unless he lived with it very well, he might have to live with it all the rest of his life.”Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes
One of the most popular horror books for children that was around when I was growing up was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. There was a phase when I was in around third grade that it was always rented out of the library. It swapped from grubby hands to grubby hands, all with the whispers of “did you read the one about the coins?” or “the wolf one was horrible.”
One of the things that makes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark so timeless is that it is an anthology of stories based on folklore. Every tale it tells has these invisible roots in the kinds of stories we’ve been telling since we’ve been telling stories. Folklorist William Bascom once explained the functions of folklore as follows: “First, folklore entertains. Second, it educates. Third, it validates a group’s culture. And fourth, most importantly, folklore builds solidarity—cohesion—amongst group members.” Mapping that to the horror kids are drawn to, it’s about the thrill of reading something naughty, about learning to not trust strangers you meet in darkened alleys, about the fundamental fears we all feel when the lights go out, and about how, in feeling afraid, we confirm our shared humanity.
Just because you’re young, doesn’t mean you’re completely shielded from concepts that you are definitely too young to cope with. Death in particular is one of those gaping wounds in our psyche that we never really close (rather, just learn to live with and, mostly, ignore it). As sociologist Margee Kerr explains, “Death is the ultimate unknown … we can’t imagine what it is like to not be ‘us,’ to not have an inner dialogue and sense of self.” It’s even harder to cope with when you’re still learning lessons like “other people have feelings” and “my actions have consequences.” Kerr continues, “Just when kids are figuring out that they have this whole inner world that is only theirs, they’re also typically being introduced to the idea of the permanence of death.”
Horror provides kids a safe avenue to explore death in. It tackles uncertainty, confronts it. As Kerr concludes, “A story gives our mind something to walk on.” Trying to think of death in the abstract, especially when you’re eight, is like trying to swallow a watermelon whole. Ghosts, zombies, vampires, mummies – they give us an opportunity to approach the idea from a different, safer angle.
“Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.”Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes
Even outside the generic “all of us must die one day” fear, there are true life horrors kids experience every day. Not every childhood is the paragon of innocence suggested by the movies. There’s no age too young to experience trauma, disaster, or insecurity. Sometimes, things go wrong and the sheltered world of traditional kids literature seems at odds with reality. In “Why Kids Love Horror,” Chelsey Roos explains:
“For many kids, the world already feels like a scary, unfair place, and horror doesn’t try to put a big sunny smile over that. Instead, it shows kids how to confront overwhelming, frightening situations where they might feel powerless, frequently through metaphorical plots that connect to real-life situations. In horror stories, the main characters are often going through grief, loneliness or other big feelings.”
Horror with the Training Wheels on
“I was a very fearful kid…[when I] started writing these books, I could draw on it. I could remember that feeling of being a kid and panic…I think [kids] like to be scared if they know they’re safe at the same time. I think they like to have these creepy adventures [where] they’re fighting ghosts and they’re invisible, but they know they’re safe in their room reading. And they know with my books, it’s never gonna go too far and it’s gonna let them off okay.”R.L. Stine
Let’s move past things that use horror as a condiment into the world of art created for kids to scare them. When horror is targeted at children, it often serves a much clearer purpose than the horror targeted at adults. Adults are often left feeling unsettled, with endings that are unhappy, uncertain, ambiguous, or a fun combination of all three. Children’s horror doesn’t usually go full force. It’s got its training wheels on. It will be really scary, but also pretty funny. It will put the characters in dire straits, then end with the monster defeated.
While many of the concepts in Goosebumps are classic horror fare – evil dummies, slime monsters, creatures from dark lagoons – their tone is significantly lighter. Generally, going in, you’re promised a journey that yanks you away from your safe life and returns you when the pages end.
“The point of telling scary stories is inoculation…The thing that [kids] learned from Coraline was that it’s not that you’re not scared, it’s not that you’re not hurt; it’s that you are scared and you are hurt and you keep going.”Neil Gaiman, Why I Write Horror for Children
Horror teaches kids to be brave. It teaches them that they can and will confront that which seems impossible to confront. That they will be scared, but they will make it through. There is something about horror that forces us to delve into the dark, both physically and metaphorically.
“You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones. And through the darkest zones there can be no guide. No guide, that is, but courage.”Adam Gidwitz
The Most Disturbing Thing I’ve Ever Read
For all my talk about horror as a safe space for children, and children’s horror providing a sandbox where they can learn to be brave, I don’t know how much I actually believe it. Or rather, I think it’s true, but I don’t think it’s the complete picture. It’s too neat. It takes the concept of horror as subversive and somehow wraps it back around again to horror as instructive. Because, of course, what’s the point in creating art for kids if it’s not teaching them a lesson?
The single most disturbing thing I’ve ever read was in a horror book for children. It was during that winter when I was reading all the horror, and it had the perfect double whammy of combining something that was physically repulsive with something metaphysically terrifying. Once again, I come back to our good friend R.L. Stine and his book 99 Fear Street: The First Horror.
The basic premise of the book is that the Frasier family, which consists of mom, dad, little brother, and twin sisters, has moved into a house (that is definitely haunted) on the aptly named Fear Street. Spookiness ensues. Among that spookiness is the loss of the family’s chocolate lab puppy, Cubby, within the walls of the house. He’s there one minute, missing the next. During the climax of the story, little brother James thinks he can hear Cubby and starts racing around the house. By this point, the parents know something’s not right and chase after him. They follow his voice all the way up to the attic, where they hear him cry out with joy. He’s found Cubby. They rush into the attic. James is gone. They can still hear his voice and loud, happy barks. The mother goes into a frenzy. Where is her son? She starts tearing through the house, ear to the wall, guided by James’ unplaceable voice. She’s so wrapped up in her desperate search for her son that she doesn’t notice the stairs. Down she tumbles, landing so hard on her arm that the bone pokes right out through the elbow. All the while, James and Cubby run around in a place no one can find.
The image of bone poking out of an elbow absolutely haunted me when I first read it. It was my first brush with body horror and it made me feel queasy to even think about thinking about it. But the context as well, of a little boy lost in walls, impossible to find, just sets the perfect environment for the disaster. The physical horror of the compound fracture born of the nebulous dread of the non-Euclidian house? Chef’s kiss. House of Leaves, who is she?
One of the reasons I’m so reluctant to ending this article on the conclusion that “kids like horror because it teaches them to be brave” and “horror for kids is like horror with the training wheels on and a promise of a happy ending” is because I just don’t think it’s a complete picture. It treats kids like empty little vessels just waiting to absorb adult teachings. And, it’s not that kids aren’t little sponges for experience, but they aren’t stupid. They come to these works as real people with thoughts, opinions, and experiences.
The story in 99 Fear Street:The First Horror doesn’t end with a neat bow, nor with the characters escaping unscathed. Only one of the three kids makes it out. Our point-of-view characters even ends up stuck in the house as a vengeful ghost. I would say, all in all, that pretty much everyone ends up in a worse place than where they started. But that was why I liked it so much. It’s not often you come to work written at a kid level, for kids, that is willing to admit that sometimes bad things happen and that’s it. There’s no follow-up conclusion.
Horror for children also does not always feature happy endings. The Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure Books (charmingly named Give Yourself Goosebumps) had plenty of endings where you were eaten by monsters and chased down by a werewolf. You were as likely to die in these self-driven adventure stories as you were to make it out.
“Neil Gaiman does something far too few authors have the guts to do.
He respects kids.”Matt Seidel, “Grotesque, Scary, and Perfect for Kids!: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline”
Kids, like adults, are drawn to darkness. There’s something about taboo that calls to us. Children’s literature provides a surprisingly fertile ground to explore this, trafficking in what Maria Tatar calls “sensory bliss and horror, offering a secure place for children to go and face down the twin seductions of good and evil.”
Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great exploration of the allure all things dark hold for children, who are told to face the light. This point is personified in the circus leader Dark. When thirteen-year-old Will and Jim meet him for the first time, they are fascinated. Dark’s description is rich and unnerving. He is “tall as a lamppost”, his vest is “the color of fresh blood,” he is “moon-calm” and has yellow eyes. Jim and Will are drawn to Dark because they don’t understand him, because he brings the promise of 3 AM secrets.
Roald Dahl’s fiction for children, while not explicitly horror, features several horror elements that speak to that deeper desire to look under the rock and find the creepy-crawlies. There’s the boy whose parents were eaten by a rhinoceros, the boy who turns into a mouse and shortens his lifespan by about 70 years, the girl who learns about cannibal giants, the boy who accidentally turns his horrible grandmother into a rooster. As stated in “Why Are Roald Dahl’s Stories So Creepy?”, “Dahl makes the danger in his tales seem real because the worlds he portrays are worlds in which terrible things happen to people.”
“The screams continued. They were so loud the President had to put his fingers in his ears. Every house in the world that had a television or radio receiver heard those awful screams. There were other noises, too. Loud grunts and snortings and crunching sounds. Then there was silence.”Roald Dahl, The Great Glass Elevator
A feature of children’s horror is the promise of a return to the normal world, but I honestly think it’s a promise these stories cannot reasonably keep. 99 Fear Street: The First Horror is still with me today. It was often not the ending where everything was okay that I ended up spending time thinking about. It was the horrible dark things that made my stomach queasy. It was the Vug under the Rug, the bone poking through flesh. There was something thrilling about it all, about this world of terrible things that couldn’t be easily explained away.
“More often than not, moral panic concerning children and horror rarely involve consulting with actual children, but instead draw upon an abstracted, symbolic notion of the child as innocent, impressionable, and in need of protection by adults at all costs…Part of the paradox of children’s horror is that it is often the most subversive and horrific texts that children are not “supposed” to watch that are identified as the most enjoyable, thrilling and best remembered.”Catherine Lester, Horror Films for Children: Fear and Pleasure in American Cinema
I loved your exploration of horror for children – Goosebumps and A Series of Unfortunate Events were favourites of mine precisely because they made child-me feel respected; like I was in on the joke for once. I also feel compelled to recommend that you watch the animation Invader Zim, in case you have not encountered it yet. (I hadn’t, and have been loving it.)
Thank you!! Ooooh yes! I remember watching Invader Zim when I was a kid. Lots of great cartoons in the 2000s