As a part-time job, I work in the children’s department at the public library. I’ve been there for seven years, and my main job is collection development (buying new stuff, tossing old stuff), and connecting kids to books by creating topical displays. My annual favorite displays are the ones I do in October. I look forward to it all year, and pull out a little bit for everyone: scary ghost stories, monster stories, and funny stories about how a kid accidentally turns into a zombie and now has to face middle school looking, well, like a zombie. I put out books about vampires and werewolves, books about the holiday itself, Halloween cookbooks and costuming books, picture books about witches and black cats, and plenty of picture books about being afraid, with tips for kids about how to deal with their fears.
The reason these displays are my favorite is because I can’t keep them full. The books fly off the shelves as fast as I put them up there. The kids’ and adults’ enthusiasm for the dark and creepy fascinates me, and I work hard all month digging deeper and deeper into our collection to find relevant gems for them. It’s really exciting for me as a librarian. But why? Why is Halloween the most popular event of the year for my readers? Even my own kids who, with such active imaginations, have been haunted by nightmares and the fear of unseen creepies since they were less than two, love this month.
It all comes down to power. When you’re a kid and you’re laying in bed at night, mind wandering to all the possible bad things that may happen to you (what’s in the closet? what’s under the bed? what if someone broke in the house and got to me before my parents could help?), you’re a victim. Kids feel small and vulnerable in situations like that, and totally unable to protect themselves. How many of you adult readers had bedtime rituals as children to keep you safe from the boogie man? I never EVER let my hands or feet extend past the edge of the mattress, and husband-Jamie always tucked his sheet totally under all sides of him to keep the creepies away. Sheets and mattresses make a poor defense against the undead, but as kids that’s all we have.
And that’s where the power of the spooky story comes in. When kids choose to engage in the creepy, they take control. They are safely exploring the terrifying “what ifs” they so dread at night, and better yet, they are experiencing these stories through characters who are in the end triumphant. Usually. But even in short urban legend formats where there is no victorious hero, the child still has control. She’s choosing the adventure, and can leave at any time.
There are other ways of engaging with the spooky than reading books, of course. Halloween crafting and cooking, decorating, dressing up, acting the part of the monster (giving the scares instead of receiving them)…. This year, Eva has become obsessed with Dr. Who, a quirky Time Lord who travels through space and time saving the universe from unfriendly aliens. The BBC TV series (written for kids) gets quite intense at times. Eva loves the Doctor for his wit, courage, and intellect; she’s dressing as him for Halloween, and building his TARDIS spaceship (which looks like a 1950s British police box) to carry her Trick-or-Treating spoils. Dr. Who is always right on the edge of what Eva can handle in intensity, but she likes the challenge. By actively engaging in the story, she is taking control of what frightens her. By dressing as the hero, she can experience the power of triumph. Even Ian, who says he hates the spooky, admits to enjoying jumping out at teens and adults as they chaperone their kids in trick-or-treating. He, too, likes taking the power of the scare.
Now of course there is a balance to be struck between the safely scary and the traumatically terrifying. I wouldn’t plop my kid down in front of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. And sometimes kids will be exposed to things they’re not yet ready for. It would be awesome if we had 100% control of this and could dole out life experiences only as our children were mature enough for them. But we all know life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes Dr. Who will prove too intense for comfortable bedtimes. But using those moments to build coping mechanisms also plays its valuable role in growing up.
The world can be a scary place. There are real-life boogie men, natural disasters, climate change, economic crises, wars, disease, over-population, domestic abuse…. We can’t shield our kids from these things forever, and unfortunately it’s sometimes difficult to add enough sugar to make our real-world creepies palatable. But if we can equip our kids with examples of heroes and heroines overcoming frightening adversity, they’ll have a fighting chance. From Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dr. Who, the world of story is there, waiting to show kids how to kick some serious butt, even when they’re flawed and struggling themselves. You can be scared but brave, damaged but unyielding, small but powerful. That’s why spooky is good for kids. Happy Halloween, ya’ll.
PS: If you want some good scary story book recommendations, let me know and I’ll put some together for you!
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