It’s not Halloween, but that does not mean you have to shelve those scary stories. Giving your students a fright isn’t just fun – it can also be good for their psychological development.Psychologists suggest that scary stories are an excellent method of helping children deal with fear and other negative emotions.
Take fairy tales, for example, which – in their original forms – are notorious for their dark themes and imagery. Many fairy tales follow a fairly predictable pattern: downtrodden but plucky hero (or heroine), plunged into a grim situation and has to contend with evil forces, often in the form of a wicked witch.
These recognisable tropes become useful stand-ins for issues the reader may be dealing with him or herself. Hansel and Gretel are separated from their parents and are forced to deal with the big, scary world by themselves. Cinderella must contend with troublesome siblings. Red Riding Hood is almost duped by a monster disguised as a friend.
Through exposure to scary stories, children learn to identify their own traits, both good and bad. A child might recognise patterns of their behaviour in Cinderella’s mean stepsisters, and change their thoughts and actions accordingly. The hero represents the child’s good side, the villain the bad – and when the villain is defeated, it reassures the reader that it’s possible to conquer one’s own negative feelings.
So Maurice Sendak – beloved author of that gloriously monstrous romp Where The Wild Things Are – believed when he won the Caldecott Medal in 1964, saying, “It’s an awful fact of childhood. The fact of [a child’s] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration – all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.”
The value of scary stories is not so much about learning that monsters exist as learning that monsters can be beaten. Children are aware of their own negative emotions (whether or not they can understand or articulate them is a different matter), but they may not always comprehend that such feelings can be overcome. Just as the witch seems all-powerful to Hansel and Gretel, rage or envy might feel all-consuming to a child. But in the end, through wit and courage, the witch – the dark thought, the negative emotion – is always defeated.
It’s important, however, to recognise that there are limits to how scary a story for children should be. Different age groups will respond to different things; where a 7-year-old might be scared by Scar in The Lion King, an 11-year-old will be more frightened of burglars and break-ins. Each child will also have their own personal threshold for being afraid, so it’s important to gauge the reaction of your class and make sure everyone’s on the same page before launching into a scary story; you want to scare, not traumatise.
The medium also matters. When it comes to scaring children responsibly, books are generally better than films. Children have some control over the imagery presented to them through texts; they can make scenes as scary as they like in their own imagination. They cannot do this in film or television, where the images are forced upon them. Similarly, a child reading on his or her own can shut the book at any time and walk away. A child seated in front of a television or movie screen might feel more pressured to stay and keep watching, particularly if others are watching too.
With appropriate boundaries, scary stories can be an excellent tool for teaching kids about the world and their own character – about overcoming monsters and obstacles, anger and fear, and most importantly the ugly stepsister lurking in all of us.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.