You heard them when sitting around the campfire, saw them in your favorite cartoon’s Halloween special, and read them in that weird book you picked out in the library. Scary stories have been influencing children’s imaginations for as long as humans have been able to share them. Most people don’t want their children absorbing harmful or violent media, so why is there a whole genre dedicated to keeping them up at night?
A common theory as to why a grown adult would want to go out of their way to terrify a child is that it protects them in a way. A scary story can be used as a cautionary tale that contains enough fantasy to keep a child’s attention and the right amount of fear to make sure it sticks.
It can also be easier to avoid the much darker topics of reality. Being told a chilling tale about a ghost of a lady haunting the woods was enough to keep me inside at night. Meanwhile, the real threat was actually other people. I think the threat of being eaten by a monster made more sense to my child brain than any other reason why a kid shouldn’t run around in the dark by themself.
Popular literature that many of us grew up on including Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and In a Dark, Dark Room, to name a few, were specifically targeted towards children. Most kids who consumed this type of media probably weren’t too traumatized. I can’t imagine a movie starring Jack Black would be too psychologically damaging. So how do writers go about making these horror stories family friendly?
Steering clear of intense violence and the inclusion of a happy ending seems to be a good rule of thumb. A fair amount of horror media targeted towards adults banks on gore and jumpscares to instil fear. Sometimes it feels likes the movies are competing to see who can fit the most amount of graphic content in their flick.
Typically being rated PG-13 and under, kids’ media has to get a little more creative about getting their scares in. An R. L. Stine novel will often rely more on the actual mystery that is being uncovered, using the confusion of the reader and building a sense of dread to unsettle them.
When I read the Goosebumps HorrorLand series as a kid, I was frightened because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Whereas even some of my favorite movies end up following a relatively predictable sequence of events. Sometimes focusing more on how gnarly the next death was going to be rather than the journey we took to get there.
It’s good to get scared. We as humans tend to love a little rush of adrenaline. We consume horror for the same reason we choose to get on roller coasters, which some kids are still too short to enjoy. It’s no surprise children are fascinated with stories on the very topics they’re likely to have nightmares about.