Why children like scary stories, or ‘Dreadtime Reading’

Published on: 26 June 2024

Author Robin Jarvis discusses what draws young readers to read scary fiction. 

Robin Jarvis and the cover of The Crystal PrisonRobin Jarvis and the cover of The Crystal Prison

Eek! Crumble!

A very long time ago, when I was about seven years old, my parents, for reasons I still can’t fathom, allowed me to stay up late to watch a showing of Hammer’s ‘The Gorgon’ on television. I loved every calcifying moment. The suspense and stalking menace captivated me that and the lady with terminal split ends.

The following day at school, I regaled my best friend, Ian Whitfield, about it. Being a sensitive soul, resembling in many ways a mini Charles Hawtrey, he was never permitted to watch such nightmare fuel, and listened with round-eyed relish. And so we invented our all-time favourite game, ‘Eek! Crumble’, in which we would creep, separately, around the huge shed that stored the sports equipment and try our best to avoid one another. When we inevitably collided, we’d both cry out, ‘Eek!’ then freeze and turn to stone for moments or minutes, the timing was always different, then simultaneously call out ‘Crumble!’ as the petrification magically shattered, freeing us to spin around and start the whole thing again. This entertained us during countless playtimes. It was the electric thrill of anticipation and not knowing when we’d appear around the corner that gripped us. The tension of uncertainty is a powerful and exhilarating lure. 

Ghost trains and rollercoasters

Children love to be scared; they just do, and they’re far braver than adults at calling up and confronting those primeval threats that lurk in dark cornersThere’s a fundamental need to experience something ‘other’ and unsettling. That which can make us gasp or raise the hairs on our necks, excites and challenges us. To encounter dangers and situations outside of the cosy normal and then feel relief for surviving unscathed is why rollercoasters exist, although I always preferred a Ghost Train.

Books, howeverby their very nature, are a more intensely personal experience. They pull you in with quicksand words and remain with you far longer than those stomach-in-mouth moments staggering away from the Big Dipper.   

Illustration: Erika MezaIllustration: Erika Meza

In children’s fiction, monsterswitches and a panoply of other gruesome beasties supply an abundance of that same basic fear which is slip-chewingly addictive. There’s no better refuge from reality than to be submerged in a thrilling story. But those escapist frights are at the same time safe. If the scares are getting too nerve wracking, the reader can look up and is instantly reassured. The comforting familiar surrounds them and keeps the perils on the page 

Scary fiction can help us face our true fears

There’s also a deeper attraction to fear fiction. It can help a child cope with their own worries and troubles, the courage of characters enduring harrowing terrors can inspire and help deal with genuine upsets. It’s been thirty-five years since The Deptford Mice books were first published and now, when I’m doing an event in a bookshopadults tell me how the books helped them through particularly tough times in their childhood. One lady confided that when her parents were having a toxic divorce, the bravery of the mice kept her going. Another told me the books are her comfort blanket and when she’s low she dives back into those worlds; she even took one to hospital when she had to have an operation. For them, frightening stories are what they reach for because it’s vital to remembeevil does not succeed and heroes that are pitted against impossible odds can win.

Hearing their devotion to my work is incredibly humbling but I’m tickled by how many times they add that they had to turn the beloved book around on the shelf, as the cover was just that little bit too frightening. Scares are necessary and cathartic, but we have to be in control. 

Which brings me back to Eek! CrumbleI never lost touch with Ian Whitfield. He was the inspiration for Oswald the albino runt in The Deptford Mice and remained my oldest, dearest friend for fifty-three years. We’d phone or text almost every day, and we often spoke about that daft game and just how much we enjoyed it. Last year I held his hand as he died in hospital. One final ‘Eek!, but for him there was no reviving ‘Crumble’. If only real life was as comforting and reliable as a scary book. 

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