Why do kids love being scared? Not just sneaking slasher films or scary movies, I’m talking about ghosts stories, urban legends, monster stories told in tight circles, bathed either in the glow of the TV or the campfire.
Tales of the boogeyman. Playing “Light as a Feather.” Communicating with the other side using a Ouija board. Gathering the courage to summon Bloody Mary in a dark, cramped bathroom.
I think kids feel the same attraction adults feel. Scary things make you excited, in the purest physiological meaning of the term.
You know what it feels like to watch a really, truly terrifying movie. Your heart rate increases, as does your blood pressure and your respiration rate. Your amygdala goes to work, flashing signals to your pituitary glands and adrenaline glands, which, depending on how intense the situation is, release adrenaline and cortisol.
It’s a rush, and people generally love the sensation.
As long as the experience is positive.
By that, I mean that research shows that a person’s feelings towards the experience greatly impact whether or not the resulting rush is a good or bad experience. Due to your body’s reaction, the emotions you feel are intensified. So, for example, when I was rear-ended at a red light without warning, the rush I felt contributed to my genuine fear, shock, and apprehension. But whenever I go on a roller coaster, the rush amplifies my excitement and the fun I’m having. I have the time of my life whenever I go to Six Flags.
So when you watch a horror movie but aren’t actually subjected to any of the terror on-screen, your experience is more vicarious. You experience the rush but nothing bad happens and you get to walk out of the theatre or get up to grab another beer. You’re safe. You always were. You might even feel changed somehow, like maybe you learned something. It is a cathartic experience.
My theory is that children, like all human beings, enjoy the rush from a scary story and the resulting catharsis of seeing the story through to the end.
When I was in grade school, it was an unspoken rule that every sleepover needed to include ghost stories or a scary movie, maybe even both. There would be a lot of talk about bringing forth Blood Mary, but we always chickened out. I’ll never forget the tight feeling in my chest as I let the planchette slide across the letters (“I’m not moving it! Are you moving it?”) and you’ve contacted something. You’re sure of it. It’s almost too much.
And nothing beats the release of all that tension when someone starts laughing and then everyone laughs. You realize it’s all ok. It’s silly and harmless but so much fun. You have had so much fun.
Which brings me to the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series.
The other day, I realized I hadn’t didn’t own a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, written by Alvin Schwartz and, more importantly, illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Now that the original pictures aren’t part of the current editions (more on that later), I immediately purchased the whole set of the original three volumes from Amazon. Bless you, Amazon.
Now, I’m pretty sure I had a copy of the first book in elementary school, though I’m not 100% positive. Maybe I imagined owning the book. I do know that I spent hours with this book, staring at the pictures. I don’t really remember the stories in it as much as I remember why the pictures look like they do.
I do remember all the other kids in my class were equally intrigued but wary of this book. Every year around Halloween, the school librarian would set out all the “spooky” books. Scary Stories was always one of them, and there was always a waitlist to check it out. A lot of times, the teacher would have his or her own copy available for “reading time.” Still, kids couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t get enough.
And honestly, the stories themselves aren’t the scariest part. There’s plenty that’s messed up, for sure, but they were always slightly disappointing, especially compared to the pictures. I remembered, as a girl, flipping through the book to find the one or two really creepy stories. Mostly I made up my own stories to explain the pictures. Or I wouldn’t even try. I would just study the drawings and wonder what would possess a person to create such a scene, how he thought of such things. How did he get the figures to look like that, all spindly and blurred and sharp, at the same time? How did he get the eyes to follow you, even when there were no eyes?
It was morbid, unsettling. It would stay with me for hours after reading time was over. At night, after my mom turned out my light, every creak might have been some creature coming to eat me, some old rotten body creeping down the chimney, or someone trapped inside the walls, scratching and scratching and scratching.
I terrified myself with these thoughts, but that was the whole point—peaking at the book, telling myself it was just a picture, a copy of a picture even, not the original. The stories were fake. The monsters weren’t real. This book wasn’t haunted by a multitude of the same ghosts, all waiting for some unsuspecting child to snatch up. Those pictures weren’t looking at me.
I don’t know about you, but a large part of the fun was the shared experience of talking about the book with your friends. Who had read it already? Did you read the whole thing? Are you going to finish it? Or will you chicken out?
We would play monsters and ghosts during recess, or at least some kids would. All the boys pretended like they weren’t scared. They would try to scare each other and us girls, laughing like crazy when we jumped in fright. As if this made them forget that everyone, literally everyone, jumps when he or she turns the page and comes face to face with this:
We girls would roll our eyes at the boys and tell them to quit being so stupid. We would try to rationalize. Oh, it’s just a story. My mom told me it’s just paper and ink. Yeah, I’ve seen way scarier stuff. I didn’t think it was that scary.
Like anyone really believe it.
I would spend hours trying to figure out these pictures. I remember being so scared, like if I look them too much, the ink would melt, drip off the page and onto the bed, and Harold the Scarecrow would appear in my room.
But what a relief, when at the end of the night, I’d put it down. What a relief when I finished it and turned it back in to the library. I always felt a little older, braver, and wiser for having read that book, cover to cover, without wussing out.
The book has stayed with me. Every once in a while those images will pop back into my head. I’ll remember the chilling conclusion from one of the stories. And then I’m a little girl again, terrified of a picture but determined to defeat it by staring right back.
For old times’ sake, here is my favorite story from the series and the terrifying picture that went with it.
The minister’s daughter had just gotten married. After the wedding ceremony there was a great feast, with music and dancing and contests and games.
When they got to playing hide-and-seek, the bride decided to hide in her grandfather’s trunk up in the attic.
“They’ll never find me there,” she thought.
As she was climbing into the trunk, the lid came down and cracked her on the head, as she fell unconscious inside. The lid slammed shut and locked.
No one will ever know how long she called for help or how hard she struggled to free herself from that tomb. Everyone in the village searched for her, and they looked almost everywhere. But no one thought of looking in the trunk. After a week her brand-new bridegroom and all the others gave her up for lost.
Years later a maid went up into the attic looking for something she needed. “Maybe it is in the trunk,” she thought. She opened it – and screamed. There lay the missing bride in her wedding dress, but by then she was only a skeleton.
I have never forgotten this story because it has always struck me as one of the most messed up stories. That has to be on the list of worst wedding days ever. EVER. Also, no one ever thought to look for her in the trunk that was big enough to fit a person in? No? Seriously? I could never get it out of my head, what the characters must have felt. I could only approximate the mounting panic and dread as the guests couldn’t find her, as they ran out of places to look. How did her husband feel? What about her parents? Whatever they felt while searching for her would pale in comparison to the crushing guilt everyone would feel once she was found in the attic, all along.
But the real reason why this story is so deeply unsettling is the interplay between the story and it’s picture. It’s the corpse’s eyes. In the story, she hits her head and falls unconscious, the lid slamming shut and locking her inside. I always tried to tell myself that she just never woke up. But in the picture, the corpse’s eyes are open.
It is so deliciously creepy!
You’re welcome, future children of mine, for all the scares you’ll have, all of the awesome sleepovers where you can scare your friends, for the sense of accomplishment you’ll derive from finishing the whole thing. I hope you feel a little older, braver, and wiser for having read it.
Just a note, if you want to purchase your own copies, the new editions have a different illustrator, as I mentioned earlier. In my humble opinion, the new pictures kind of suck. Those old pictures were essential. I can understand that perhaps the original illustrator wanted control of his art work. I get that. Perhaps the publisher and Mr. Gammell couldn’t come to a deal concerning the new editions. What I can’t understand is why the publisher, or whoever is in charge of recruiting the artwork, chose to pick someone who doesn’t draw scary pictures.
Here’s an example:
Here’s another one:
The pictures on the left are the originals. They look surreal. Something unexplainable and painful is happening. The pictures on the right, to be fair, possess an underlying unease. Something clearly sinister is unfolding, but they were illustrated by someone at Disney.
Kids aren’t really looking for that. If kids want to watch a cartoon, they will. If they want to be scared, they won’t reach for these books. Not these editions, anyway.
Now, this isn’t exactly news. Lots of people feel the way I do about the illustrations, which makes it relatively easy for lovers of the older editions to purchase those editions. Go these links here, here, and here.