Even if they might have been geared towards slightly older children, I blew through the Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark series faster than probably any other series when i was in elementary school. I read a lot when i was younger, things like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Phantom Tollbooth, but nothing stuck with me quite like Scary Stories did. In fact you could say that those books were the catalyst for my present interest in horror of all sorts. What was so interesting about these books, even back in elementary school, was that they weren’t fakes. Adults like to think of kids as rather stupid, and this is extremely apparent in the media which is geared towards them. Stories about anthropomorphic objects that children can enjoy, usually with some sort of “message” about trying hard or that you can be anything you want as long as you’re a good person, saturate the market. They don an aesthetic of infancy and are packed with ideas adults think their children should be exposed to, without actually giving the kids anything substantial to think about and really develop their own ideas and identities. In this way they think they are protecting their children from things they are either too young to understand or could harm the way they think about the world. The Strasburger chapter on Children and Adolescents states this idea very clearly. “One view [of children’s media] is that children are naive and vulnerable and thus in need of adult protection. This stance sees the media as inherently problematic and in some cases evil because they feature material that children are simply not yet ready to confront” Buckingham (2000).
But the problem is that kids are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for, and can smell out a phony pretty quickly if they aren’t desensitized by the forced, patronizing kind of media that parent love to shove down their throats. This was why Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark sparked such an interest in me. Even stuff like Goosebumps never struck me in the same way as these stories because it was obviously geared towards a child, which made it seem as they left all the good stuff out because i was too young. Scary Stories did no such thing. I can still remember almost every story i read from those books; the story about the scarecrow who skins a farmer and his wife and lays their skin on the roof to dry, the story of the woman who went to Mexico and had an brood of spider eggs hatch from a boil on her face upon her return, the story of the hooked mass murder who stalks a couple as they sit together on a hill in their car. I still remember the grimy and macabre illustrations that went along with the book, black and white impressionistic representations of all the frightening subject matter that was as ghostly and unnerving as the stories they accompanied. All these stories were macabre, gory, and horrific. They never once treated the audience like kids, but actually as intelligent readers who were able to consume and digest the words on the page without having childlike themes or morals stuffed down their throats. They were exhilarating, interesting, and scary all without spoonfeeding it to me like i was some idiot, and that’s why they struck such a chord.
Now this concept is in direct opposition to the ideas argued by Locke, where the child should only be exposed to ideas that are deemed virtuous and essential for the development of the child. He opposed everything from “clownish servants” to mischievous children and even adults who talk to children about ideas that presumably only adults would and should understand, so reading stories about death and horror would most certainly have been vehemently opposed by Locke as an ill-fashioned method in which to rear your child. But his ideas seem to be focused on only instilling children with one way to think, giving them only a few sets of ideas on which they must constantly adhere and recall. I disagree quite a bit with this kind of childhood development because it doesn’t not teach children how to think, only how to follow. Ideas and concepts that we deem too “mature” for children might perhaps be beyond their ability to grasp. But with contextualization by parents and confidence in their children’s own intelligence, these oppositional ideas are less blockades to virtue but pathways to develop critical thinking and the ability to choose right and wrong without having any guidelines or handrails for them to lean on.
Not only that, but horror generally works best, and is more exhilarating, for children simply because they do not know as much. Once you’ve had time to experience the world, things that require suspension of disbelief and gullibility (most of the concepts that horror usually deals with) become less frightening. Children do not have these experiences to rely upon, so much of the ideas and concept put forth by horror has the actual ability to frighten and exhilarate children in ways that it’s very hard to adults to experience. Thomas Gray, in his Poem Ode Upon a Distant Prospect of Eton College, speaks of childhood as a whimsical, hazy period of nostalgia and longing, in which innocence not only protects from the realities of the world but comforts the childhood mind and invokes true delight and pleasure, such that cannot easily be attained once adulthood is reached. This same innocence and protection is also what allows for horror to be truly frightening to children, scaring them while simultaneously teaching them than the negative things in life should not necessarily be avoided, because positive and negative exist within a balance, and exposure to one only heightens the potency of the other.
Children are generally seen as fragile, innocent objects that must be molded into virtue. This idea does less to help them grow than it breeds dependence and close-mindedness. Children have the same capacity for critical thought and choice making that adults do, it is just underdeveloped. Shielding them away from things we may see as detrimental to their development does less to help them grow into functioning and contributing members of society as it does to rob them of the experiences help them develop skills to become independent and unique members of society. Parents should act as less of barriers from the outside world and instead as guides to contextualize experiences and help children to come to their own conclusions. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark embodies this view of children, exposing them to concepts that aren’t necessarily geared directly towards their apparent disability of age and treating them as thinking and intelligent enough to consume without fear of irreparable damage.