Storytelling, Fear and Horror

I have spent the better part of this afternoon reading and thinking about scary stories for kids. Tomorrow at school we have a Bedtime Reading event, where the kids come in after school in their PJs to find us teachers, similarly pajamaed, ready to share some time reading stories.

There was an unspoken expectation among the kids that these stories would involve a scary story element. Despite it being only 4:30pm, we aim to generate a bit of that ‘tales around the campfire’ mentality into our classrooms. The kids want to be scared by my stories, but they underestimate quite how chilling and weird my stories can be.

I am overanalysing this, largely out of procrastination for the many other more demanding things I should have done by this time in the day, but it has thrown me back into the murky recesses of my own childhood.

As kids, we are so suggestible and the triggers to fear are so unpredictable. For me, one of the things that most scared me was the idea that if I looked in a mirror, all of my teeth would fall out. This idea was planted in my head from a weird little segment on GMTV about bad dreams. My brother had a weird dream about the Mikeymonster – his toy monkey Mikey transformed in a dream into some malevolent creature.

It is exciting though, to be scared. The children in my class have never been more enthralled than when I was reading ‘Coraline’ with them, by Neil Gaiman. It is, undoubtedly, terrifying. They loved it.

As a kid, I used to read and collect the Goosebumps books by RL Stein, and the slightly less good Shivers series. When I look at them now, I think they are quite crap, but I remember they really hooked me in.

Kids today seem different, which is odd when you consider I am only talking about a fifteen year difference in age. Kids today are growing up in the age of the Slender Man, and the Internet has intensified the content of their playground whispers. Things are a lot darker, and whilst the things they are scared of are more dramatic and creepy – altogether less childish – their susceptibility to fear seems just as strong.

Kids today aren’t necessarily any less fearful, but they are exposed to more mediated fear. As an adult, I can confess to how immersive it is to play games like Call of Duty – sure, in the spirit of honesty, I have screamed at the TV in rage and in fear. I seriously hate zombies in games. The weird thing is that kids today can play these games with a level head and no fear, but can be scared to the core by something patchy and ill-defined.

They can be faced with something harrowing and gross and feel no fear, but the ‘idea’ of something vaguely described seems to hook their emotions more readily.

I was on a site earlier that purportedly was a collection of scary stories for kids. Some of the stuff on there was really not that child-friendly, and I am far from being Mary Whitehouse. Stories of buried siblings, severed parental heads and possessed satanic dolls. I am not arguing against this because I am against gore, to protect kids or because I am morally against introducing these ideas to kids.

I am against these sorts of tales because they are unimaginative, easy and uncreative. I have written previously about how much it annoys me to see books for kids that are meant to be funny, but they rely on poo jokes. I have similar views on horror.

I want it to scare them but in a way they can’t quite define, in a way that is not inappropriately gory and in a way that distances them from the horror in some small way. Largely, this is through subverting conventions, so they are already ‘with me’. I don’t want them to lay in bed worrying about something coming after them; I want them to be in their daily life, walking about in the local shops, and then thinking ‘Oh my word, remember Sir’s story’.

My most famous story with the kids is a horror story set in Tesco. I have set it in our local Tesco and I have never written it down, just recited it a few times a year. It is weird and horrifying. I detail how when I was walking around the aisles, I got to the bakery aisle and found this strange old man with one shoe off. He ambled towards me, smiling, and said nothing. He got closer and began chuckling to himself, his features creasing up into a foul grimace. Then, as he begins to rock and cackle, he removes a shoe lace from the boot he is holding, and places it within his mouth. He snakes it up through his nose, so the two ends of the lace are hanging out; one from his mouth, the other from his nose. He ties them in a knot and then yanks the string so hard his teeth fall out. At some point I describe it as resembling ‘a porcine donut’.

Do not tell me that the thought of a strange Tesco shelf stacker pulling a shoelace out of their face is not scary. It is.

But this idea will not have them unable to sleep because they are worried a paranormal beast is under their bed. It involve no murders or killing. It is just a vividly described weird occurrence.

I have lost the flow of why I was even writing this, so let me try to tidy my ideas up.

1. It is difficult to tell stories that will scare kids in a way that is fun for them.
2. Kids are exposed to many terrifying images that they have normalised, which is a sad truth.
3. With sensitivity, we can create amazing storytelling experiences for kids which can shock, scare and entertain.
4. You can tell stories which generate laughter along side fear.
5. Weirdness and incongruity are the new zombies and bogeymen.

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