Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

scary stories

What scares you? Do you like to be scared? Do you like to read scary stories, ride thrilling rides, go to scary movies?

I don't. I used to go to scary movies, as a teenager, but I could only take them in a large group, with lots of editorial commentary to keep us all laughing. I still remember going to see The Omen with a group of friends and having someone break some incredible tension by whispering, "Did you know many parts of the pine tree are edible?" Trust me, it saved the moment. We all collapsed in laughter, and I don't really remember the rest of the movie.

I was a nervous kid. I was the babysitter who checked behind the shower curtain, who put a hand on a sleeping kid's back to make sure he or she was still breathing. I was the kid who had to have a light on in the hallway, who couldn't sleep with the door closed, who spent time considering whether it was better to fall asleep facing the door (and the light, and the source of potential threats) or facing the wall (thus perhaps buying me a few more moments of oblivion before the threat materialized). I didn't need to read or watch scary stories; I had enough of them in my head.

I didn't really find too many books scary, though. This was before Goosebumps (no, I'm not going to link!), after all. I didn't find fairy tales scary, or adventure stories, or fantasy/quest novels. In all of them, as Lewis says, there's the acknowledgement of evil, but also the sense that it can be overcome. G.K. Chesterton says, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." I think maybe that's what I got from fantasy tales as a child.

But I also missed a lot in my reading. Teaching "Hansel & Gretel" the other day I was again reminded of how selective we are as readers, how much we willingly ignore or forget. All my students remembered the candy (or gingerbread) house that Hansel & Gretel encounter in the woods; few remembered why they were there in the first place, which is because their parents abandoned them in the woods deliberately, fearing starvation. Fairy tales tell the truth about human life: it is, as Hobbes would have it, nasty, brutish, and short. But it can also be altered for the better, as Hansel and Gretel discover. They eat the candy house, they outwit the witch, and they return home with her wealth to discover that their (step) mother, the brains behind the abandonment plan, is dead.

It's a scary story. But it's also a reassuring one. Sometimes we have to wait for that reassurance (the last novel I taught, Coraline, is a case in point), but if it's there, then the scariness has a purpose, even a value.

In other cases the scariness isn't quite scary enough. In my seminar the other day we were talking about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then again yesterday about A Wrinkle in Time, and in both of them I think the authors may pull their punches a bit. Lewis wraps up Aslan's death and resurrection in a matter of hours, after all (does it bother anyone else that Edmund doesn't even know of it?), and then has the lion rally the troops by suggesting that they have to "defeat the witch before bedtime." Nothing deflates the threat of that battle like the homely reminder of the nursery. And in Wrinkle--which in many ways I like quite a bit--the conclusion is so rushed that we forget exactly what the scary thing was. Meg gets her father and Charles Wallace back, yes, but what about IT? What about the Dark Thing? In all of the Time Quartet books, in fact, a cosmic threat is replaced by a personal one. And that's fine--L'Engle is clear throughout the novels that the micro- and the macro- can and should be considered together--but we too rarely return to that cosmic level to see exactly what's happened and how the personal story has reframed or defused that cosmic threat.

It's a delicate balance, and one that each reader and each writer, no doubt, must find for him/herself. I have students who recall being scared out of their wits at Where the Wild Things Are, and others who demanded a nightly reading. And I've already written about Nick and Finding Nemo. (He'll hate me for this later, won't he?) I'll keep avoiding the thrills for their own sake, but I'll just have to test the waters with the scary stories again and again.


  1. I hesitate to admit this, but as a kid I was unable to watch that silly animated version of "Lord of the Rings" because I was so thoroughly terrified of the Orcs

  2. I thought there were goats between my sister's bed and mine, and would take a flying leap to and from bed if I had to get up at night.

    I also often fell alseep planning how to hide from the bad person I was sure was coming.

    MacGyver (spelling?) Halloween Special did me in. Darn babysitter.