So go ahead, dig out those old Goosebumps books.
Remember the story about the girl who wakes up with a mysterious red mark on her face, only to see it burst open with baby spiders a few days later? No? Lucky you.
While I kinda wish I could forget this particular image from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I loved the series as a kid and was sad to see how many parents have campaigned to have it banned. It’s one of many stories that gripped my young imagination, and it’s that strangely evocative imagery that sticks most. I may not remember a single plot line from the show Are You Afraid of the Dark?, but I do recall the deliciously spooky intro and contend that it’s better than the show itself — an opinion I also hold for the intros of many adult series including Tru Blood and American Horror Story. Like children’s books, they get at the best of what horror has to offer: feelings that extend beyond reason or narrative. In other words, ~vibes~.
Now that I’m a parent, I wonder whether creating opportunities for kids to feel fear in fun, mitigated contexts can be okay — important, even. As the effort to ban books for all kinds of reasons spreads like wildfire, it feels more important than ever to interrogate the difference between protecting kids and depriving them of meaningful emotional and creative experiences.
Can spooky stuff be healthy?
Laura Trapp, an elementary school librarian who’s worked with kids for more than thirty years, says that when she reads spooky stories to kids, they react mostly with “squeals of delight, wide-eyed anticipation, giggles, and sighs of relief at the end.”
She believes that suspenseful, mysterious stories can help kids develop skills in making predictions, drawing conclusions, and using creative imagination.
In a broader sense, experts say that giving kids experiences that are new and a little anxiety-inducing can be very beneficial — provided they feel supported in the process.
Ariana Chemtob, LMSW, a toddler behavior analyst, says that with young children, reading and playing pretend games can let them get a feel for various emotions in a low-stakes way. “The more practice they get with those feelings, the more they’ll be equipped to deal with them,” she says. “They might relate it back to previous experiences and be able to problem-solve.”
She adds that a lot of fear is socially conditioned, and that toddlers may not even fear things that many adults find creepy, like spiders. (Think of the viral photos of little kids happily clutching ghoulish Halloween decorations as though they were regular loveys.)
Alison Steier, the vice president of mental health services at Southwest Human Development, explains that when a child faces the unknown and masters it, whether it be a Halloween activity, the first day of school, or sleeping in their own room, it gives them a sense of accomplishment — that satisfying sense of “I can do it” that you can only get from trying new things.
“We don’t like our children to feel upset or uncomfortable,” she explains, “but that’s part of life, and the whole spectrum of emotion. It’s important to deal with the parts of life that aren’t all easy and sweet and balloons and butterflies.” The important thing is that they need to feel they’re working with a “net” of support and not out on a limb by themselves.
How young is too young?
Looking at the recommended age windows on books, shows, and movies is always important — an adult horror movie is almost definitely going to be too much. While children’s books generally list age windows, one thing to note is that the recommendations aggregated from customers on Amazon are often slightly different than those given by publishers, so it’s worth checking before you buy.
Looking into the Scary Stories series, I was slightly shocked to realize that the recommended reading age is (according to Amazon) a mere 7 years old. Another one of Schwartz’s books, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories is deemed for kids as young as five. This is a book that features such unforgettable tales as “The Green Ribbon,” about a girl who spends her whole life with a ribbon around her neck until it’s finally removed and her head rolls right off.
I glance at my one-year-old: You’re telling me that this lovable lump who is currently trying to consume a piece of a lint off the ground will be intellectually ready to contend with concepts like mortality and beheading in just a few years? Then again, one of her favorite pastimes is a raucous round of peek-a-boo, which some believe is fun for babies precisely because of the mingling of suspense and relief when the threat passes.
Steier explains that taking development into consideration is always important. For instance, masks might be disturbing for toddlers because they’re still developing a sense of self and the boundaries of their own bodies: “Distortions of the human face aren’t funny or entertaining to a toddler, but children preschool age and older can appreciate that people are the same whether in costume or not.”
She adds that individual temperament can play a role, too — some kids are just more cautious, while others might have had real-life negative experiences that’ll make them more sensitive. But if you can determine that a particular activity might provide a fun tension as opposed to being overwhelming, give it a go.
How to facilitate fun fear
If you’re going to try a new activity that could be a little scary, Steier advises talking with kids about it in advance. So if you’re introducing really young kids to Halloween, for example, that might mean reading fun books about the holiday and discussing what other kids might be wearing.
She also believes it’s important for kids to learn how to comfort themselves. You can help them come up with a mantra that they repeat to themselves –for instance, “This is just pretend” – but ideally it should be something they feel they’ve come up with on their own.
“The more they own it themselves, the better,” she explains.
Overall, with new experiences, the goal is to assess what kids are capable of and then help them stretch just beyond that by talking through it and preparing them. But I can already see how it’s easier said than done. When my toddler fell off her climbing toy the other day, her anguished, terrified wails kinda made me feel like the most negligent mom alive — even though I knew she was physically fine. I can only imagine how much more I’ll grapple with helping her “stretch” her limits when she’s older and wants to, say, watch a movie with a murderous villain in it. I’m trying to remind myself that allowing room for some scares and surprises is part of letting her explore her world, and that my job isn’t to keep her in a bubble but to reassure her that I’m there to comfort her when need be.
To help children process their feelings, Chemtob advises giving children space to talk about them. If they share an opinion, you can validate it, saying something like, “Yeah, that is spooky!” (Importantly, this is different from invalidating their feelings by telling them they shouldn’t be frightened).
Ultimately, every child is different and assessing what they’re comfortable with will be a matter of trial and error and listening to their needs. I loved Halloween lore as a kid and still definitely had some experiences that went too far for me, such as the time another kid told me an urban legend about a murderer that haunted me for months. There’s nothing my parents could’ve done to prevent that, though, which underscores the fact that we have to focus on what we can do as parents, which is to let kids know you’re there for them. Anyway, I lived to tell the tale!
For the most part, reminiscing about Halloweens of years past made me realize how excited I am to share the traditions with my daughter as she grows up. This year, our celebrations are limited to playing with pumpkins, but I’m inspired to start a collection of spooky children’s books, which I’ll start by hunting down the original version of the Scary Stories series with the truly eerie illustrations.
For young kids:
- Five Little Pumpkins: A Fingers & Toes Nursery Rhyme Book by Natalie Marshall (ages 0-3)
- Frank was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance by Keith Graves (ages 2+)
- Leo: a Ghost Story by Mac Barnett (ages 3-5)
- Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex (ages 3-5)
- How to Make Friends with a Ghost by Rebecca Green (ages 4-8)
- A World Full of Spooky Stories: 50 Tales to Make Your Spine Tingle by Angela McAllister (ages 5-8 years)
For older readers: