As a child, I loved scary stories. I would stay up way past my bedtime with a flashlight reading Goosebumps. I also know my limits to enjoying the genre. I left a sleepover once in the middle of the night because the parents allowed us to watch horror movies and the first one terrified me. Haunted houses are hit or miss for me, and I like supernatural thrillers over gore or crime.
For some adults, the idea of children enjoying scary stories is confusing. Perhaps they are easily scared or may become nervous regarding any conversations unfolding from these stories. So, why do children enjoy scary stories? Is there a positive reason for children to explore horror written for their age level?
We often explore difficult or terrifying concepts in a safe space when reading these kinds of stories. Thinking about what happens when we die, the absence of a loved one, how we would react in a crime or emergency, or a sense of not being believed are all explored through scary stories. Yet, we know we are in a safe space with the possibility to remove ourselves if needed. We can identify and deal with our fears without having to experience real horror.
Families must make personal choices on what to read or what media to consume based on their values and the personalities of their children. I have one child that scares much more easily than the other, but he is also more likely to remove himself from something that is too much for him. The more adventurous one wants to prove her bravery, so I know to check in frequently to remind her that it’s okay if she is not ready for a certain story. Keeping these things in mind, read on for my age-appropriate list of spooky stories for October!
Spooky Stories for Little Ones
Some picture books use dark humor or common fears, such as a monster under the bed, to tell stories appropriate for younger children about fears or experiences they already know to exist. One of these situations is the death of a pet, and I love Eric Rohman’s Bone Dog which is perfect for Halloween. I watched the original live action and new cartoon Frakenweenie movies by Tim Burton with my kids, which are available on Disney+ along with several others.
Written in the 1980s, Alvin Schwartz collections of folklore, urban legends and ghost stories for children stand the test of time in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or the easy reader In a Dark, Dark Room. Mother to five and educator Juli Anna Vonderharr suggests The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, a story she used when teaching preschool due to its interactive nature and how, “it shows bravery, being afraid then facing your fears head on and accepting others as they are.”
In addition to beginning difficult conversations, El Paso school librarian Beth Jones points out, “scary stories are a great tool to demonstrate the importance of character and setting development of a story.” Two of her favorites to use with her students for teaching story structure are Ghost Fever by Joe Hayes and The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Alsburg.
Most of Lemony Snickett’s tales are mysterious chapter books for independent readers where the narrator warns readers of the sadness and terror at every turn, but his picture book, The Dark, is an interesting tale for younger readers.
Dark Tales for Middle Grades
Neil Gaiman has excellent books for every level of reader. He also collaborated with creative illustrators for some fantastical picture books. He wrote one of my favorite scary chapter books, Coraline, which has an excellent film adaptation. Two more classic series for upper elementary are the Bunnicula books and anything by Mary Downing Hahn.
I spoke with Kristin Thorsness, a mother, former teacher and author of The Wicked Tree. I asked her why she chose to write a scary tale and she shared about her anxieties as a child, “I slept with a nightlight until middle school and spent a lot of my waking time worried about all kinds of terrible things that might happen.” She elaborated on the kinds of scenarios she would imagine, like being “lost in the woods.” Each felt “real and terrifying,” and yet her favorite books were scary stories because she could, “watch from the safety of my bedroom, as characters defeated a ghost…. In a small way, I really felt that I shared their triumph— that I was also being courageous.”
These experiences led her to write scary stories for middle-grade readers. She explained, “They are in a phase where they’re becoming aware that the world is a scary place. They’re not yet ready to take on adult problems, but as they watch characters they can relate to faceing down monsters, taking great risks and coming out victorious; it teaches them that they can face the things they are afraid of, too. Scary stories empower kids by showing them that no matter how bad things get if you stand up for what you believe in and know is right, things will ultimately work out in the end.”
Terrifying Tales for Teens
Young Adult fiction and media encompasses a large range of maturity level and reading skill. Some teens may already be watching horror movies and finding adult fiction on the shelf, while others are dipping their toes into milder storytelling. Fortunately, the teen section of your library or bookstore is home to some of the best supernatural thrillers. Some readers may be ready for foundational texts that developed the genre, such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Graphic novels may be a source of excellent horror storytelling that is of interest to teens.
I recently read Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall, and it kept me up later than any book had in a long time. The story includes text messages, interviews and video transcripts. The twists will have you flipping back to previous pages to find things you missed. It is a lovingly diverse modern portrayal of teens, with LGBT and disability representation, that explores friendship and sibling relationships. Kadee Whaley, a Ph.D. candidate and co-founder of the non-profit Read With Pride suggests Ghost Girl, and the Nightmare-verse series by L.L. McKinney. McKinney’s third book in the series will be out in 2021.