When I was growing up, I loved reading scary stories. I fondly remember spending lazy summer afternoons, lying on my grandmother’s couch, reading Edgar Allan Poe and thoroughly visualizing each scene and then reliving it long after I finished the story. When my sons were younger they loved reading the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine and later graduated to Stephen King. So with Halloween upon us, I was wondering: why do scary stories remain so popular and provide so much value for young readers?
Scary stories have a timeless quality, and the appeal of their emotional power has survived countless generations. Before cable television and ubiquitous internet connectivity, scary stories were used as cautionary tales to help children become aware of dangerous people, situations to avoid, or places to bypass. Scary stories were often passed along through the oral tradition to reinforce a moral lesson, so like folktales they served a purpose beyond pure entertainment.
Roberta Simpson Brown, “Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales”, believes that scary stories teach children that it’s all right to be afraid. She even goes further to point out that scary stories help us realize that everyone is afraid of something and that it is healthy to face our fears.
Growing up has always been a scary proposition. Kids have to face the unknown when they start school every fall, move to a new neighborhood, or try to learn something challenging like riding a bike. Making new friends can be scary, trying out for a play or a sports team can be threatening, or simply walking alone down a darkened hallway to a bedroom at night can present a new set of fears. Learning how to handle our fears, that it’s okay to be afraid and that everyone is afraid at some point, are important life lessons for children.
Scary stories, like dangerous circumstances, trigger an emotional response in the amygdala that releases adrenaline, a chemical that stimulates people to fight or flee. In a safe surrounding, like the classroom or at home in bed, children can enjoy reading scary stories and then experience the anxiety that is stimulated by dangerous, life threatening circumstances or the thrill of escaping from a terrifying situation without the risks of serious injury or death.
In our society, we are increasingly restricting and curbing many physically risky situations, so
we may actually be depriving children of important life lessons, such as learning who to trust, how to determine if a stranger presents a threat, how to identify the characteristics of a dangerous situation, or how close to the edge they can stand before they slip and fall off a ridge.
Ironically, as dangerous or risky situations are removed from the everyday experiences of many kids, we may be creating a void of important life skills. When children have limited experience managing their fears or they don’t realize that it is healthy and normal to feel fear, they may ultimately experience more anxiety about new situations or even avoid taking healthy, incremental risks to stretch their comfort zones.
As we mitigate more risks in everyday life, scary stories not only present a healthy way for kids to enjoy a good yarn and safely experience the thrill of danger, they also provide a unique way for children to learn how to gauge risks and how to manage their fears. As a result, kids who read scary stories may be better prepared to handle their inevitable fears and be better equipped to thrive in an increasingly, uncertain world.
Perhaps reading scary stories is another way to help children become more resilient?
Regardless of their psychological value, well-written scary stories will continue to be loved by countless generations of readers because they are just so much fun to read.