How scary books can help children understand their feelings

Published on: 31 October 2023

Emma Read, author of The Housetrap, explains why spooky stories can spark conversation, as well as provide a thrill. 

Do you like scary books? Or do they make you want to hide behind a cushion? Would you avoid sharing a scary book with your child? After all, it’s not very nice to be scared, is it?  

But as society becomes ever more risk-averse, and modern parenting along with it (and as a parent of two I am as guilty of this as the next person), are we actually doing our children a disservice by shielding them from the darker side of fiction? Ithere potential for spooky tales to be beneficial to young readers, and might they serve purpose in children’s fiction beyond beingmere thrill-ride for the bravest? 

How feeling fear can help us grow

Studies have shown that many parents avoid reading scary stories to children or edit them whilst reading, to make the narrative lighter. It’s completely understandable – we all want our children to feel safe and happy. And it’s not just parents – consider any number of toned-down, fairytale-inspired Disney movies (explore the source materials and you find something altogether more sinister and gory)But in doing so, are we potentially denying them an important opportunity for growth? 

In the same way children benefit from climbing trees, going to the shops independently, or negotiating their own compromises with siblings, scary and thrilling books can allow a child reader to rehearse certain emotions and scenarios, particularly fear in the face of peril.

The reader learns to recognise what they are feeling and prepare how they might respond all within the safe spaces of home, school or a library. Just like that irresistibly scalable oak tree in the park, they can have a go – test how high or how far they want to push, and feel brave when they do. They will begin to know themselves, know how much is too much, and at what point they no longer feel safe. 

Hopefully my readers will never find themselves trapped inside a decaying puzzle house powered by an unknown supernatural force, but books like The Housetrap can help them navigate the very real fears they might encounterfrom failing a test, to the challenge of climate change, from facing a bully to coping with the death of someone close to them. I love hearing from The Housetrap fans who have put themselves in my characters’ shoes, asking themselves how they might react, what they would do in order to escape. This run-through of fear is like practising for life.

Illustration from the cover of Crater Lake by Jennifer KillickIllustration from the cover of Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick

Scary books can help children process feelings they don't understand yet

In The Housetrap, Deliah is scared of a lot of things – she can’t escape from the house, but neither can she escape her own self-doubt. She has to battle the unknown forces working against them inside Manvers Hall, but also the voice in her head that insists she is not enough. Scenarios like this offer the reader a chance to explore difficult questions and sometimes find a metaphor for their own, very tangiblereal-world problemsFor children experiencing trauma themselves, engaging with scary books can be particularly useful, helping the reader understand feelings they don’t yet have a name for, or don’t know what to do with. This was why I enjoyed reading horror as a child.

My world was a scary place and the books and fairytales I turned to didn’t pretend it wasn’t. Rather, they showed me there was a way to overcome grief, loss and fear and emerge all the braver. 

Sharing stories with age-appropriate scary themes or characters can spark conversation – the reader has the opportunity to consider and confide what they find scary with peers and adults, opening up a discussion around a healthy and normal emotion. Researching this topic, and talking with my own children about what scares them, has revealed some fascinating differences in the perception of fear between adults and children. It’s common for adults to name the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as their most feared fictional character, and yet this creation can be found in a ‘U’ certificate movie: ‘suitable for all, aimed at a family audienceThings I found perfectly ordinary as a child, now seem utterly terrifying as an adult (Watership Down, anyone?) Children have a different sense of the fantastical to adults and are often able to compartmentalise ‘scary’ events in a way grown-ups can forget.

Witches, monsters and creepy houses are easily logged as magicit’s the war in another country, or the heating of the planet that they hear fragments about on the news that really scares them. 

Illustration: Erika MezaIllustration: Erika Meza

Having said that, The Housetrap is not all about message. I wrote it to be a fun, exciting ride of an adventure andof course, scary books can provide that purely pleasurable thrill without too much hard work. To me, they are like funny books for kids – sometimes a reader just wants to laugh until their sides split or scream until they go faster. Reading for pleasure can be just that and perhaps that’s one reason scary books often entice otherwise reluctant or exhausted readers to dive in and enjoy the ride. Of course, scary books aren’t everyone’s preference, just like any other genre, but for those that enjoy that frisson of fear they can make the reading experience incredibly fun. When you’re young (and not so young!) anything slightly dangerous or edgy can seem more desirableit feels a little grown up, a little daring; one reason perhaps why horror novels for young readers have always been popular, from Goosebumps and Point Horror, to Shiver Point and Dread Wood – one bookseller recently told me they simply can’t keep Jennifer Killick’s books on the shelf.  

And of course, with children’s fiction (perhaps with the exception of older YA), you can be fairly certain that the fairytale is going to end with the satisfaction of a Happy Ever After where the villains have been dispatched and the heroes emerge safe into the light once more, wiser and braver and ready for anything. The monsters will be defeated and all will be right again with the world …  

...Or will it?! 

The Housetrap by Emma Read is out now.  

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