“Why do we read scary books?”
Posted on 31/10/2016 in Guest posts
“Why do we read scary books?” I ask the children in the school hall on my visits to talk about Shadowsmith.
“Because it’s exciting!”
“It makes us feel brave!”
“It’s scary but also fun!”
These are the usual replies.
“And what is fear?” I ask them. “Why do we get scared at all?”
They gaze thoughtfully back at me, their brains working, until they slowly raise their hands.
“It’s imagination gone wrong,” one of them speculates.
“Is it when your heart starts pounding and your blood turns cold?” another asks.
Eventually, one of the kids gives me the answer I’ve been waiting for.
“I get scared because my brain is trying to tell me something is dangerous…”
Fear is a primal instinct, one of nature’s great drivers. It exists, at the most basic level, to keep us alive. Our ancestors huddled in darkness and told stories of the monsters that lay in wait outside the cave, and today we tell tales of our own monsters. But the question remains – why? Why do we like to frighten each other? Crucially, is there a part of us that likes to be frightened?
Just this weekend, my wife and I accompanied some friends on a Halloween-themed survival game, which saw us being chased by actors dressed as zombies through a pitch-black forest in the middle of nowhere. We screamed. We ran. We clung to each other in shock whenever the zombies jumped out, slavering and screeching. We also laughed. We had fun. Why? Why would we put ourselves through this ordeal?
Just like reading a frightening book, I think it’s all to do with facing our fear. Everyone wants to be brave. But how do we know what bravery really is if we have never been scared? Fear teaches us how to be brave. So what better or safer way is there to face our terrors than in the pages of a book? After all, we can close those pages and come back to the safety of our family and our living room whenever we wish. We remain in control.
When we are children, reading a scary book from time to time helps us to understand that everyone gets scared, that sometimes bad things happen. Surely this is a good thing because it makes us better equipped for life’s journey.
Much like chickenpox, perhaps it is better to introduce our children to these aspects early on in their lives. A child who has never been exposed to fear or negative experiences will surely have a much more virulent reaction when confronted with reality later.
A nasty villain can teach us the difference between good and evil. A plot about bullying can instil the sense that “this is wrong”. Seeing that frightening baddie get his comeuppance demonstrates that the monster can be slayed whatever form it takes.
It’s also worth noting that much of the time in children’s books the big scary moment is defused by a whopping great laugh. After all, there’s often a fine line between terror and laughter.
I became a writer because of a scary book. In primary five our class read The Witches by Roald Dahl. The book’s main antagonist, The Grand High Witch is a corker of a baddie. I was frightened of her but I also saw an ordinary little boy and his grandmother stand up to her. I followed every thrilling moment of their adventure with a racing heart and my imagination lit on fire. Though the book is scary in places, the overwhelming feeling that washed over me when we reached the end was, “I want to make people feel the way I’ve just felt.”
That feeling has never gone away. It is why I write, and why I still get butterflies whenever I begin a new story. It changed my life, absolutely.
What a shame it would have been, then, had my parents thumbed through the pages of The Witches and thought, ‘He’s not reading this. It’s too scary.’
I think the schoolchildren put it best.
‘It’s scary, but it’s also fun.’
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