The Terrifying Stories We Tell Children

Not entirely sure if I have written about this before or not, but it is a subject that has fascinated me for a really long time.  I got to thinking about it again yesterday while reading this io9 post about several movies intended for children that had some very scary and horrible elements to them.  Having seen (and loved) many of the movies on the list, I got to thinking that maybe we often misunderstand the way that children deal with fear and challenging situations as portrayed in our narrative rich culture.

I remember, while I was growing up, loving books by the likes of John Belairs and Roald Dahl both of whom wrote some very disturbing stories in which awful things often happened to perfectly good people (people who more often than not were children).  And while I think that on occasions I felt actual fear or concern when engaging with these stories, I never really felt an aversion.  I continued to go back and seek the like again and again.

I am further made to think of traditional folk and fairy tales which have been told to children for hundreds and hundreds of years.  These are not all lovely and happy tales.  Many of them contain truly awful and terrifying elements.  While I can recognize that part of the construction of these tales is intended as a means of control through scaring children to avoid certain choices and behaviors, I think that there is a greater element of childhood psychology that is directly involved in the child’s mind itself.

We have a cultural expectation that children are all innocent and unworldly and in many ways we pursue the child rearing practices that seek to prolong this state as much as possible.  However, I suspect (though I have no empirical evidence to support it) that children are some what programmed to seek stimulus that forces them to face down fears and anxieties.  In reality the world around all of us (children and adults alike) is a very hostile and dangerous place.  While we can argue that things are safer in the modern era than in the bygone days of the past (at least so in developed nations) there are still considerable reasons for real concern and the exercise of caution.

I wonder if children who express greater interest in those things that are quite obviously scary are in some way slightly better equipped later in life?  I suspect it would be a hard matter to test but it is a curious interest.  Furthermore, I wonder if there are considerations that we as adults should take in regards to what we allow children to see and interact with (disclaimer: I am not in any way suggesting we should actively try to terrify our children or show them awful horror movies, but am instead, considering that it might not hurt to allow children to face narrative the presents some scary and challenging details.  As always context is vital for children, and any means of presenting these matters to them should be balanced with reasonable explanations and discussions to put the emotions and thoughts into a frame of reference).

~ by Nathaniel on November 15, 2011.

5 Responses to “The Terrifying Stories We Tell Children”

  1. Brings to mind a Chesterton quote: Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

    • I like this and agree entirely. As children we face the scary narrative not so much to be scared but instead to see how we can overcome those things that do scare us.

  2. I’ve not read any of Roald Dahl’s books, but I can say that there are definitely scenes in both movies based upon Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In another example where I’ve only seen the movie and not read the book, look at Coraline (the book written by Gaiman). On one of the Writing Excuses podcasts they talk about how little kids love the book and adults think it’s creepy.

    Lastly, your point about how certain people are more willing to try new things relates back to the Psychological concept of Extraversion as a personality trait. Basically, this measure determines how Extraverted or Introverted a person is in relation to the rest of society. If you want to look more into this look for books or anything involving Costa and McCrae’s Big 5 personality index.

    Thinking about it as I wrote that last paragraph, there is also another Psychological measure that aims to look specifically at thrill seeking behavior (scary situations, going on roller coaster rides at theme parks, etc.). I can’t remember who the creator of that measure was offhand, but that is another measure you can look into if you want to learn a little more about the idea.

  3. I haven’t thought of it that way. There are definitely some creepy things in stories for children, but you are right. Maybe they affect children differently than adults. Like someone mentioned in another comment, I thought Coraline was really creepy, but maybe it didn’t bother kids. But, I remember being afraid of things in movies and stuff as a kid. I was afraid of Alice in Wonderland a whole bunch, I remember. Maybe I was a wimpy kid.

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