We all know that stories have the power to scare. They scare us all through our lives, sometimes enjoyably, sometimes to teach us lessons, sometimes to bully us. But stories can also have the power to disarm the things that terrify us; to comfort us, and to adjust the power balance back in our favour.
The trick to disarming the scary is, I think, to make the scary thing very clearly fictional, and also funny.That way we know that the monster under the stairs or in the woods isn’t a real threat, but we can still enjoy a frisson of pretend terror.
Think of those ‘terrible’and ‘wild’ monsters, the Gruffalo and the Wild Things. They are big. They have claws and horns and all sorts. But they are also goofy, and children know very well that they are never going to be a real threat. You don’t get cuddly toys made from something that’s truly scary!Those monsters represent the fears in our real lives, and those real fears come in all sorts of different forms, brought about by personal circumstances and personalities. Facing the bully in the playground, facing the dark, facing our own limitations, and so on. Using monsters or ghosts to represent those fears leaves our interpretation of them open, to suit us all, as well as putting the issue at a comforting remove. How much more limited in therapeutic use would be a book that looked at a real child facing real fears about going up the stairs in the dark. And, besides, it wouldn’t be half as much fun!
The story arc to most scary picture book stories is simply one of building up tension and anticipation of a major scare, only to diffuse it in a funny way at the end.
I love Ed Vere’s Bedtime For Monsters. A monster (again with claws and horns, and licking his lips) is looking for a bedtime snack, and it seems as though that snack just might be YOU! The monster is coming closer and closer, his tummy rumbling louder and louder, and …. Actually all he wants is a goodnight kiss!
On a more Halloweeny front, my Three Little Ghosties don’t look terribly scary, but the three of them work as a pack, as bullies so often do. They boast about how they’ve bullied some ghoulses sitting in schoolsies learning spelling rulsies, and also some witches, sitting in ditches, lipsticking their lipses, and then an ogre as big as six treeses, sitting in the forest, picking at his fleases. Each of them boasts about the way they’ve sent these other traditionally scary characters running. Children start the book almost as part of the ghosty gang, enjoying the way the witches and ghouls and ogre are made to look silly when they’re scared. Children join-in with the predictable BOO that sends each victim off in terror. But then the ghosties turn their attention to scaring a child, possibly YOU! And suddenly the creeping and whispering and creeping is coming our way. Through the night the ghosties come closer and closer, in through the windows and into the bedroom … but this time the BOO comes from the child, and it’s the three little ghosties who are now the ones fleeing in terror, sucking their thumbsies and looking silly. We see them scolded by their mumsies who send them home to bed; no longer remotely scary.
So enjoy Halloween by using the scary to comfort!