Scary Stories For Children: A Genre Studies Course Rationale

The upcoming 2015 Children’s Literature Association Conference is one that has caught my attention – “The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children’s Literature,” an open-ended call for panels on horror, death, violence, trauma, and anything else dealing with the darker, more subversive elements that thread through so much of children’s literature and YA.

As someone sub-specializing in both children’s literature and horror, I am deliriously happy to see the darker aspects of children’s literature receiving some solid academic attention, as the genre intersection between children’s literature and horror is a curious, but fascinating one.

For many children, there is an undeniable attraction to the strange, dark, and terrifying. The question is why. Is it simply the taboo of it? Wanting to experience something that their parents have denied them? Or is this issue, if we can even call it that, more complex?

Stephen Gammell’s visceral illustrations from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series terrified (and delighted) children in the 1980s and 1990s. These illustrations landed the series the top spot on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged book series from 1990 – 1999.

One reason frequently put forth by both literary scholars and psychologists is the Aristotelian conception of catharsis. That is, that horror media offers all of us, not only children, a form of release – an outlet in which we can safely confront our anxieties. After all, childhood is fairly frightening time in one’s life, if for no reason other than children must exist in our admittedly frightening world without any real kind of autonomy. It’s little wonder, then, that children have such interesting reactions to horror media, both that intended for adults and that intended for children.

While a great deal of academic literature on the subject exists, both in literary criticism and psychology journals, it seems that children’s literature curriculums, even at the university level, have, for the most part, sadly neglected scary speculative media for children. Considering just how much of it exists, this seems like a severe oversight. An instructor building a course around this topic would have a deep pool of texts – books, short stories, poems, animation, live action films, TV, comics – to draw from and, depending on the preference of the instructor, the course could focus solely on literary traditions, solely on popular culture, or a split of the two (which I would argue would be the most ideal).

Furthermore, examining this intersection between horror and children’s literature is not only the perfect crucible for grappling with questions about audience and the instability of genre, but is also fertile ground for conversations about censorship, adaptation, remix, and more. In courses where time is of the essence, whether a themed writing course where the bulk of attention must be paid to writing itself or in a literature survey course where multiple schools of theory must be succinctly taught to students, this subject could prove especially useful. Not only can multiple themes and concepts be taught using a single work, but students would be approaching most of the texts with an already-familiar frame of reference, helping them grasp concepts more quickly and comprehensively (they may know not George Eliot, but they know their fairy tales).

Texts could be grouped as the instructor sees fit and there are certainly multiple ways of doing this. One way would be to structure course unites around themes/common anxieties and there are plenty of topics to choose from: Child Abuse, Parental Abandonment, Cannibalism, Loss of Identity, Child Soldier Narratives and Dystopia, Monstrous Adults, Getting Lost, Abduction, etc.

For an example, let’s look at one possible unit: Sexual Endangerment Narratives

Possible readings/viewings: Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Bluebeard,” Mary Howitt’s “The Spider and The Fly,” Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” Angela Carter’s “The Erl-King,” Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.

Though considered a taboo subject and a cause of centuries of excision and censorship of fairy tales, the theme of sexual predation figures heavily into children’s literature. The most obvious example, of course, is the Red Riding Hood narrative, which, in early editions, included morals explicitly warning young girls and women to beware of strange, sweet-tongued men.

This unit could serve as an opportune time to introduce students to psychoanalysis. Freud’s concept of the Uncanny is particularly useful in conversations about child endangerment narratives (and horror media in general) and, in the case of sexual endangerment narratives, can help students make sense of the unsettling cognitive dissonance of the simultaneous attraction and repulsion at play in many of these works.

Fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” also serve as an excellent catalyst for discussions about censorship, particularly of children’s literature, as most later editions of the tale considerably ease up on the violence and sexual imagery. These discussions could focus on the question of audience (who are these original fairy stories for? adults? children? both?), possibly introducing students to the topic if taught in a 1000-level course. The introduction of modern reinterpretations of these stories, such as feminist retellings by Angela Carter, could, at once, neatly introduce students to feminist theory, adaptation, and remix. Another remix text pairing that could be used in the classroom is Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem Goblin Market and Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth.

“We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?”

In Goblin Market (1862), a pair of sisters come across a band of goblin men in the woods who offer them some strange fruits to eat – but they come at a price. One sister offers a lock of her hair as payment and what follows can only be described as an orgiastic bacchanal in which the sister eats her fill of the goblin fruit, the goblins eagerly pressing themselves against her body. When the girl begins to wither away and die, her sister becomes the only person who can save her. She manages to do so through her resistance of the goblin’s temptation and through the purity of her love.

In Labyrinth, Sarah, a teenage girl, spitefully wishes for her baby brother to be taken away by the goblins that she so often reads about in her books. The Goblin King, Jareth, who is smitten with Sarah, shows up, takes the baby, and Sarah enters The Goblin Kingdom to try save her baby brother before it’s too late. Along the way, Jareth does his damnedest to make Sarah forget the baby and manipulate her into remaining in the kingdom with him. Ultimately, Sarah is able to defeat Jareth and save her brother by resisting Jareth and stating that he has no power over her. It’s an interesting spin on the Goblin Market narrative and a potentially great topic for comparative essays.

A class on scary media for children could easily be structured a number of other ways (chronologically, by form, by school of theory, etc), but the best part would be the sheer number of texts potential instructors could utilize. Works that could slither their way onto the syllabus include:

  • Other Grimms Brothers tales (and their adaptations)
  • Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper”
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Roald Dahl (take your pick)
  • Disney horror (both scary movie moments and the Disney Villain legacy)
  • Children’s programs like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, Aaah! Real Monsters, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and more
  • Neil Gaiman’s Coraline
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • Harry Potter (especially Prisoner of Azkaban)
  • The Hunger Games
  • Films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Para-Norman
  • Hundreds more

So, what do you all think? Why the lack of scary media in children’s literature curriculums?

And, because it’s almost Halloween, what are some scary stories (books, films) that stuck with you as a child? Were they stories meant for children or for adults?

4 responses to “Scary Stories For Children: A Genre Studies Course Rationale

  1. This is interestesting! I am doing my undergrad in children’s Literature and last year I took a course on fairy tales and cultures. We talked a lot about the dark concepts and sexuality in fairy tale and looked extensively at different versions of Bluebeard and other tales of course from the Baba Yaga in Russian fairy tales, to the Juniper Tree by the Grimm’s. We also watched Pan’s Labyrinth (which terrified and grossed me out) I would love to see more work in these areas, though I’m not to good with horror myself I think it is a very interesting dimension in children’s literature.

    • What great texts your prof chose! I’m currently designing a children’s horror course myself and we’re definitely doing Bluebeard (along with a couple other fairytales) and Pan’s Labyrinth (in conjunction with Alice in Wonderland).

  2. I really like the take on children’s horror made here. It reminds me of the story Coraline, a children’s story with horror themes. When the movie came out I was able to find the book in my library and I really enjoyed it.

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