The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893)
Fear - such a natural response to the unknown and yet one that is also so easily perverted. This is one of those areas among many in children's literature, where there is a fine line to be trodden and where there is likely to be dispute among reasonable people as to where the line ought to be drawn. Debilitating fear is just as dangerous as uninformed fearlessness and vice-versa.
Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, it takes practice to believe in impossible things:
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll
One impossible thing I believe is that children ought to be able to have a childhood in which they are free of adults' pre-occupations, phobias, over-indulgences, over-involvement and micro-management.
Another impossible thing I choose to believe is that children are better off learning through mistakes early and as children rather than later as adults. That fear in moderation can be a good thing.
Yet a third impossible thing I believe is that children will do what they do and yet parents are obligated to provide tutelage and guidance to their children.
And finally, most improbably, I believe that all three things can be achieved simultaneously and without too many broken bones.
I am not up to six impossible beliefs before breakfast but I am working on it.
One of the lessons I have always worked to instill in our children is an understanding of the difference between instinctive fear and conscious concern. There are some fears and repulsions that just part of our human and biological heritage: snakes, heights, rotten flesh, the dark, the strange/different/foreign, etc. Our bodies tell us there is a problem that we should shy away from and usually force us to do something about it long before our minds have even begun to acknowledge the danger. We need to respect the long millennia of learning encoded into our bodies, but also to use our brains. We open ourselves to all sorts of disasters when we respond to instinct alone, but we ignore instinct at our own peril.
Because of the shape of the Australian coastline, many of their beaches are cursed with strong rip-tides and undertow. These conditions can be hazardous even for strong swimmers. When we lived in Australia, we enjoyed swimming at the beach and needed the children to be concerned and alert, but did not want to frighten them away from swimming. Hence our constant refrain: respect the water but don't fear it, an admonition that is equally applicable to all our instinctive fears.
Beyond striking this balance, between instinctive fear and dismissive disregard, there is also the challenge of what scary things should children be exposed to at what points in time. It is a precarious judgment because it has little to do with calendar age and everything to do with life experience and conceptual maturity. We have all read, even as adults, a story which introduced some disturbing idea that perhaps gripped us at the time of the reading but then left us with disturbed sleep or nightmares later.
I recollect two such experiences. Once, when I was six or seven, we had returned home to Tulsa to visit family. We were staying in an apartment. For whatever reason I had been allowed to watch some TV and on came a 1930s Frankenstein movie in black and white. I was gripped. The spine tingling anticipation of disaster was wonderful. I don't recall being afraid of Frankenstein the creature, but I do remember the nightmares over the next few weeks. The nightmares weren't about creatures or death or being brought back to life - they were about the idea of one's brain being put into another body. A dissonant conceptual fear. I just wasn't ready to grapple with that concept.
Equally disturbing but for entirely different reasons, was the night I stayed up into the small hours of the morning reading. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. It was past lights out but, not having read him before, I had just that day plunged into Sherlock Holmes and was in the first rush of consumption. One story led to another and to another. I hoped that if I kept my bedroom door closed and the light covered, perhaps my parents wouldn't notice when they come to bed. And they didn't. But fate always has something in store for you. For me it was finishing The Speckled Band at 1am. Oh what a great story. And oh how hard to get to sleep with that image of the snake slithering between rooms. Not that there were any snakes in Sweden in the mid-winter. Not that there were any vents between rooms. There was no rational basis for fear. But somehow, reading that story illicitly in the small hours of the morning made it all that much more disturbing.
The final decision on what scary stories are appropriate for which children has to be made by the person closest to the child. External advice can be given only in the broadest brush strokes. Small children are the easiest candidates for whom to find scary stories. Their fear portfolio is pretty much limited to those instinctive fears and their life experience precludes much sophisticated forecasting of what will happen next. Pretty much a surprise event at the end, delivered loudly, is the perfect scary story.
It becomes increasingly difficult to choose exactly the right balance between instinctive fear and deeply psychological fear as children grow older. There is a lot of material out there that is simply crudely terrifying. The author seeks to press all the instinctive fear buttons without really developing a story line or drama. The selections below are those which use fear selectively to move the story line along, rather than those in which fear is substituted for a good story line.
We hope you enjoy the list below and welcome other suggestions of scary stories for children.
The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss (What Was I Scared Of? Is the scary story in this collection)
Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Don Wood
The Fierce Yellow Pumpkin by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Richard Egielski
A Dark, Dark Tale by Ruth Brown
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell
The Improbable Cat by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Peter Bailey
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and illustrated by Nenad Jakesevic
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Dracula by Bram Stoker