Chapter and Verse: The Return of the Scary

Chapter and Verse is a series that features JHU Press authors and editors discussing the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by Jerry Griswold

With Halloween around the corner,  we might observe that, paradoxically, the kiss of death for a children’s book these days is when it is dubbed “too scary.” Controversially, such juvenile offerings are the front line in clashes between kids and censoring adults. Grown-ups employ all kinds of mental gymnastics to condemn or justify frightening stories that youngsters, on their part, love in straightforward and uncomplicated ways.

Take Neil Gaiman’s immensely popular The Wolves in the Wall. Readers’ comments on this book have accumulated at Amazon, and they are a study in adult ambivalence: “Any imaginative child will get the humor of the story and will not be scared”; “I don’t think the storyline is the LEAST bit scary and neither did my 4 year old son”; “Not a book for especially wee ones or children prone to nightmares”; and “A little fear can be a healthy and developmentally appropriate thing.” If you read the book aloud to a child, one commentator advises “Watch your tone of voice and keep it lighthearted.” These remarks prompt a question: Who has queasier stomachs, adults or kids?

For a more than a decade, and perhaps at the prompting of anxious parents, childhood bogies have been defanged. In movies like Monsters, Inc. and Shrek, today’s youngsters have been given the pitiable and misunderstood monster; at one point Shrek whimpers, “Ogres have feelings too.” Even a legendary villain has been recast in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, where Jon Scieszka offers a comically pathetic wolf hamstrung by his porcine pals.

In the last few years, however, the scary has made a comeback. Recent Broadway offerings for the young include a more grim version of Mary Poppins (sometimes dubbed Scary Poppins), a dramatic version of Struwwelpeter (where child-raising and bloodletting are humorously linked), and the reappearance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (where Roald Dahl’s grim reaper, the Child Catcher, has a conspicuous role). All this occurred while the goth Lemony Snicket books were selling by the cartload and Tim Burton became the twisted darling of comic and grisly PG films. “The gruesome,” critic Ben Brantley observed in the New York Times, is “newly cool.”

It’s more like a return to tradition. The world of children’s book has always been a scary place, even though softheaded adults often misremember it as a harmless and saccharine realm where the sun is always shining. Mention The Story of Babar or The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and grown-ups go misty-eyed. Few recall that six lines into his story, Jean DeBrunhoff introduces trauma when Babar’s mother is shot and killed by the hunter; and hovering over Beatrix Potter’s tale is the fact that Peter’s bunny father was caught and baked in a pie.

Before Harry Potter’s Voldemort, there was Bluebeard and the Wicked Witch of the West. Before Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, that same odd mix of the horrific and the holidays appeared in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Indeed, while the frightening seems a specialty market for adults–some read Stephen King, while others read science fiction and romance–scariness has always seemed an omnipresent feature in children’s stories.

Kids like the adrenaline-fueled sensations described by Washington Irving in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that Halloween favorite. When Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman, “his teeth chattered,” “his heart began to thump,” and “his hair rose on his head.” While uneasy grown-ups mount criticisms or defenses of the frightening, youngsters can be found riding roller coasters and playing with replicas of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Juveniles seem hardwired for the scary. How early does this pleasure begin? Sometimes you can say “Boo!” and watch an amused infant crack a smile.

Jerry Griswold discusses scariness in his book Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.  His most recent offering is Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Book.