It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact origin of my love for the horror genre. The earliest instance I can think of is reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The darkly illustrated book cover caught my eye at a school book fair. It was a black and white ink drawing with spindly lines and hazy shadowing. A man’s head protruded from a hill, like something out of a nightmare. He smoked from a primitive pipe and had a cherry-red nose, and a blue vein-like brush stroke traversed his skull. I was immediately sold! My friend invited me to join her family at their lake house, and I took this little anthology along with me. All the kids were sent to a separate cabin, just down the driveway from the main house. It was the perfect setting to read my book. The musty smell of wood and stagnant lake, old wood panelling, and the rickety beds covered in ancient quilts really set the mood.
One story in particular scared me the most: “Green Ribbon.” To make a long story short, a man unties a green ribbon from his bride while she is sleeping and her head falls off! I was so terrified that I called my mom from the lake house; I was crying, pleading to come home, but I was too far away for my mom to come get me, and it was too late, so I ended up sleeping with my friend’s mom instead.
I can’t remember my feelings the next morning, but I do know that the experience did nothing to deter me from reading other scary stories. Now, as an adult, I love reading Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and true crime novels or science fiction. In fact, I’m constantly on the hunt for movies and books that will keep me up at night.
Why am I, like so many other people, attracted to storylines that are frightening?
Last year, we interviewed the Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales, Roberta Simpson Brown. Roberta specializes in writing scary stories for kids, and our first question was “Why are scary stories so important for kids?” Roberta responded, “Scary stories can serve as a kind of sounding board. Kids realize that they’re not the only one afraid and that it’s okay to be afraid. It helps them identify their fear so they can deal with it.”
She continued, “They can find different solutions, or if there is no solution, then at least they can get information about how to deal with it. Fear can be like a chronic pain, you may not be able to get rid of it, but you can learn how to live with it.”
The idea of scary stories serving as a “sounding board” was quite common in my research about the impact that scary stories have on young readers. Scary stories are a “safe place” for young readers to experience fear. As one article from nymag.com stated, “Children learn to cope with emotion in a low-stakes setting. Whatever danger is present in the story, we know that it can’t really harm us in real life (even though you might still stay up at night to make sure a headless bride isn’t going to walk out of the closet). When you wake up the next morning, you feel more alive, relieved that you made it through the night.
Instead of sheltering kids and reading strictly fairytales and stories with happy endings, it can be beneficial to expose them to sadder, scarier stories. These stories expose readers to a wide range of emotions and can help them develop empathy. It doesn’t help a young reader to simply read books that present an idealized “safe” world. Kids need to experience a healthy dose of fear, disappointment and sadness in order to prepare them for life’s inevitable ups and downs. Experiencing these powerful emotions helps build confidence and fosters a greater understanding of how to cope with threatening situations.
Folktales offer a wealth of scary stories, often in the form of cautionary tales. When I take a mental inventory of August House books, I immediately think of Spirits Light and Dark: Supernatural Tales from the Five Civilized Tribes by Tim Tingle.
This collection of stories from five Native American tribes features an element of the spirit world. Each story is spooky, imaginative, and also educational. One story, “The Jealous Witch,” offers a chilling scenario with “blood-splattered” imagery. A Chickasaw woman, Bertha, takes pride in her fried chicken. Eventually, a witch grows jealous of Bertha’s local fame and tampers with her farm. After a visit to an old friend with magical abilities, Bertha finds her solution. She watches over her farm the next morning as the jealous witch encroaches upon her property, only to be attacked by hens with “razor-sharp” chicken feet. Bertha’s problem is solved but now she’s too afraid to make her famous fried chicken. The imagery is somewhat whimsical and the word choice is a bit eerie, but readers will takeaway the moral of the story which warns them against the pitfalls of jealousy. In addition, the story presents the opportunity to enjoy a good fright.
On the surface, scary stories can help build confidence, enhance empathy, and teach a lesson, but there is also scientific evidence that demonstrates how scary stories can be beneficial (and might explain why we seek out the sense of fear). When we’re scared, our brain produces a multitude of chemicals including cortisol, adrenaline and interestingly, dopamine. Dopamine is commonly known to increase when one is happy, activating a sense of pleasure.
The same chemical reaction occurs naturally when we’re scared. For example, we get the same feeling when we’re riding a rollercoaster: it’s exhilarating, exciting, and a little bit scary. Most of us love these feelings and seek out those thrilling scenarios, because we love the way dopamine makes us feel. It’s a natural stimulant produced by our brains, and scary stories allow us to safely experience and enjoy that sensation without actually being in any real danger.
Scary stories, whether they’re about a life-altering and seemingly unimportant green ribbon holding a woman’s head onto her body or a silly tale about witch-killing hens, are extremely beneficial for kids. Not only are young readers building comprehension skills, they’re learning valuable life-lessons. They're learning about different cultures, they’re expanding their emotional range of feelings, and they’re learning about their own fears and how to cope with intense situations.
Just like when you wake up the next morning after a sleepless night of surveilling the closet door, readers will lift their heads from a good scary story to appreciate the vibrancy of the world around them, and they’ll feel more alive!
I’ll finish with a quote from legendary sci-fi/horror writer, Neil Gaiman, “In order for stories to work - for kids and for adults - they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.”
Check out the August House scary stories reading list for a few of our favorite folktales to frighten and delight. Halloween is right around the corner!