October 31, 2019

Scaring is caring: are frightening fairytales good for kids?


Grimm: no longer grim enough? (Arthur Rackham; public domain)

Don’t know about you guys, but I don’t find Halloween that scary any more.

The main reason for that, of course, is that I’m a literal adult, capable of rationalising and finding fun in spooky culture (although to be fair I still absolutely bricked it all the way through Hereditary). But there’s another reason, too: Halloween has always been mainly for the kids, but it’s never felt as childish as it does now.

We’re all complicit in its cutesifying: the fey Twitter name-change, the ‘sp00py’ cats wearing little witches’ hats, the low-battery-symbol carved pumpkins. That’s all fine and cool, and you should celebrate All Hallow’s Eve however you wish. But where’s the fear?

This week The Scotsman posted an interesting article on parents changing the end of classic fairytales so they wouldn’t frighten their kids. In a study undertaken by Legoland, 30 percent of parents revealed they had never told their children a ghost story, and up to 75 percent said they had concerns about dressing their kids up in scary costumes. More than half said they had changed the ending of a fairytale or otherwise spooky story to make it less grisly for the wee bairns.

Despite their concern, it seems the adults were not unduly harmed by such tales themselves:

As many as 80 percent of the adults polled said they remembered being told ghost stories by parents or fellow classmates when they were young … the majority of those polled said they cannot remember the spooky stories having any major negative impact on them.

So what’s the deal? Has Halloween really become too scary for kids, or are we simply overprotective of them? Surely the point of telling fairytales to kids is to administer a few sanitised scares in a relatively safe environment? By denying them that, we might actually leave the poor mites ill-prepared for the true, banal horrors of the outside world. Now that’s a scary thought.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.