If you can write stories that scare children, you’ve got it made. Children love to be scared. This applies, of course, to teenagers and adults. But teenagers and adults love to be scared in a different way; we love to read a book or watch a movie that gives us a thrill, makes us feel safe in the real world for at least a little while. As long as we’re not being chased by a burly man with a chainsaw, or haunted by the ghost of the maid that used to work here, or trapped in a basement by a family of neo-Nazi geneticists who are looking to use you in their experiments to breed a master race (I’m serious!) then everything is OK.
But back to kids: Kids love to be scared in a way that confirms their already established view of the world as a weird, unpredictable and terrifying place. They don’t wish to just be thrilled; they want to be assured that, yes, the world is scary and they’re not wrong to think so. That’s why horror books for kids focus more on the supernatural than on the criminally insane. Think about it: the scariest thing for a kid should be a child molester, or someone who kidnaps kids at Wal-mart, or abusive parents, or being adopted into a foster family run by creeps. However, these issues, when used in fiction, tend to be dealt with seriously and usually fall under the category of something called “YA” (young-adult).
But these “serious issues” are not the standard fare for adolescent horror.
Kids just haven’t been exposed to a world (the lucky ones, anyway) where these issues take concrete form on a regular basis. They’re not scary in a slap-your-face kind of way (unless they really happen to you, in which case…uh oh). But kids have been exposed to a world where the creaking of a house at night, or the flapping of bats outside their window, or the roar of thunder during a storm, are scary and unexplainable (is that a word?)–inexplicable, whatever. So their imaginations create all sorts of fun explanations: it’s a ghost, or a vampire, or a monster.
Good horror fiction for kids reinforces these naive assumptions–or at least it should. Scare them by explaining (falsely, creatively, GRUESOMELY!) the darker side of ordinary things. Make them believe the world really is a terrifying, unpredictable place without a set of dependable rules. That creaking sound at night? It’s the dead girl that used to live here, and she’s pushing against the walls, trying to reach you, because she needs your help to solve the mystery of her death…
But I am a believer that a good horror story for young people should always have something at the end to lift the child’s spirits and assure the little guy or gal of the existence of something positive in the world. This can be achieved in a lot of ways. I’m of the opinion that people are essentially good and noble. That’s what I would try and tell a kid at the end of a horror story in which the world is made out to be a messed up, unholy, terrifying pit–that the people who live in it are essentially good and that you can depend on your family and your friends and neighbors as long as you are dependable and honest. But that’s just me. What would you say? Leave a comment below if you are so inclined.