Playground For Fear:
Horror Fiction For Children
by Robert Hood
following article is the text of a talk given at the
Children's Book Council Conference in 1997.
there a place for horror fiction in children's books?
What on earth can young readers get out of stories of
unnatural ghastliness and terror?
Though it has always existed at the edge of popularity,
horror fiction has undergone a renaissance of sorts
since the late 1970s. Central to this is Stephen King,
whose prolific output has turned him into one of the
biggest selling (if not the biggest selling) authors
of all time. His successes -- and the mainstream popularity
of modern horror films such as The Exorcist --
have given impetus to a whole range of best-selling
novels and box-office smashes, and have firmly established
the horror genre in the forefront of popular literature.
publishers have only recently exploited this popularity,
with the marketing of such writers as Christopher Pike
-- the 'Stephen King' of teen fiction. In Australia,
the gap has been filled by the ever-popular short stories
of Paul Jennings, and occasional young-adult and junior
novels by, for example, Victor Kelleher, Margaret Clark
and Gary Crew. Local publishers are now looking to enter
the apparently insatiable junior horror market (at the
moment dominated by R.L. Stine's ubiquitous Goosebumps
series) with books by Australian authors. One example
is a series of nine short novels under the title Creepers,
written by Bill Condon and myself and published by Hodder
Headline Australia. No one can deny that, whether or
not it should have a place in children's reading, the
horror genre has already established a place for itself
in the field, and, at least for the near future, shows
no inclination to go away.
what is horror fiction? What does it seek to achieve?
word 'horror' itself, when used in a literary context,
evokes varied responses. Often horror fiction is perceived
as 'junk' fiction at best and, at worst, a danger to
the hearts and minds of everyone concerned. Horror films
are frequently -- and often irrationally -- banned or
cut. In the UK, for example, the classic and influential
The Exorcist is still prohibited! When it comes
to books, official proscription is less common, though
some parents and librarians have been assiduous in establishing
their own forms of censorship -- the classification
of horror novels as 'junk' is one of these. The often
lurid and sensationalistic covers seem to confirm the
disdain with which the genre is frequently greeted.
there are 'junky' horror novels, if by 'junk' we mean
exploitative, sensational books churned out by hack
writers with little talent and no commitment to the
genre. Yet many widely acknowledged 'classics' fall
within the horror genre -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
Bram Stoker's Dracula, Turn of the Screw
by Henry James, William Golding's Lord of the Flies,
and the most filmed novel of all time, Robert Louis
Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Many 'classic'
authors have written horror stories: my edition of the
definitive anthology, Great Tales of Terror and the
Supernatural, includes stories by Balzac, Poe, Wilkie
Collins, Hardy, Wells, Dorothy Sayers, Faulkner, Hemingway,
Hawthorne, Henry James, Guy De Maupassant, Kipling,
E.M. Forster and Dickens.
this sounds a bit like apology, but I don't intend it
to be. I merely want to illustrate that horror fiction
should not be defined as 'junk' fiction -- that is both
inaccurate and pointless. The horror genre can produce
'junk' just as any other genre can; it can also produce
great pieces of writing which get to the heart of human
experience. That the horror genre focuses attention
on the darker side of life and seeks to make an entertainment
of things we would rather not entertain in 'reality'
should be a descriptive statement, not an evaluative
what is horror fiction about? Firstly, horror stories
might be said to deal with the evocation of a particular
emotion -- horror. They set out to scare the reader,
provoking anything from subtle disquiet to gut-wrenching
shock. I'll discuss this aspect later, but before I
do, I want to make a different, and often forgotten,
point: that evoking that particular emotion should not
be seen as the genre's sole rationale. Like all literature,
horror stories can and do achieve many things: they
can show human beings living lives and facing fears
and desires; they can ask us to examine our social and
individual assumptions; they can create imaginative
worlds in which, for a time, we escape from the problems
and mundanities of our lives; they can allow us to share
the joys and sorrows of being human; they can revel
in the creative power of language; they can make us
laugh at ourselves; and, most importantly, they can
entertain and be fun. Horror stories can achieve all
these literary ends. That they do them in a particular
emotional context -- dealing with the primal emotion
of fear -- and using a particular imagery, defines the
genre but does not exhaust it.
course, most readers of horror fiction would expect
to be exposed to at least the possibility of fear and
horror. So why do they do it to themselves? Well, why
do people read any kind of literature? Enjoyment. Exercising
the imagination. Revelling in the power of language.
As a conscious or subconscious means of dealing with
aspects of life. As social commentary. Horror fiction
can and does do any of these things in common with all
literature. But it couches its characteristic exploration
of human life in particular forms of imagery which are
dark and terrible and unnatural, and which are associated
with fear. In certain contexts, people like being scared.
Perhaps it has something to do with the primal nature
of fear. As Lovecraft put it: 'The oldest and strongest
emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest
kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts ...
must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity
of ... weirdly horrible tales as a literary form.' To
deal with these primal emotions is to plumb the depths
of human nature, to pluck a potent imaginative chord.
Moreover, as death is the inevitable end of human life,
and as death remains one of the most profound of unknowns,
the imagery of death which horror fiction adopts --
ghosts, vampires, the living dead, unnatural killers
-- has unusual potency.
there's more than it than that. Death as an image is
about more than simply the end of life as such. Metaphorically,
it encompasses other loss -- bereavement, uncertainty,
alienation, insecurity, embarrassment, loss of belief
or self-image, change ... in fact, anything that represents
the encroachment of the Other or a concept of reality
that isn't ours and which we can't control. Powerlessness
-- loss of control -- is a central theme of the horror
story, and who hasn't felt powerless? Certainly not
children who face a world that is mysterious, alien,
sometimes brutal and often domineering -- a world that
creates a strong need for love and community. If adults
react strongly and intuitively to such themes and images
-- and perhaps gain a degree of resolution by safely
indulging the feelings at their most intense -- then
why not children? Generally the satisfaction gained
will not be rationalised as such, but that doesn't mean
it isn't there. Literature in all its forms is about
making imaginative worlds which resonate metaphorically,
but when asked why they liked a book, most people will
simply say it was involving or moving or entertaining.
We read to be entertained -- but beyond that lies the
serious business of self-examination, social questioning
and emotional catharsis. Perhaps, indeed, it is these
things which, to varying degrees, make a story entertaining.
horror stories can be both unsettling and reassuring.
They unsettle by suggesting that the safe, comfortable
lives we generally lead exist on the edge of a precarious
drop into darkness. Maybe things aren't what they seem.
Maybe we're not in control. But in the end, these ideas
are expressed through a fiction -- a fiction from which
we can more-or-less safely emerge to resume our ordinary,
safe lives. The terrors are there, but having indulged
them, we have, for a while, diminished their power over
us. We feel reassured. I'm not so badly off, we say.
Things aren't so bad. Phew!
What about the monsters and supernatural terrors that
populate horror fiction? It is undoubtedly true that
many of the works we would want to classify as 'horror'
deal with 'naturalistic' horrors, taking in stories
on the edge of the crime genre. Many of Christopher
Pike's teen novels fall into this category. Yet, in
a way, one of the things that pushes a crime novel,
or a mainstream novel dealing with grim themes, over
into the horror genre is the manner in which the horror
is presented. Where the perpetrators of the crime (or
its implications) take on a larger than life, almost
mythical quality, you're likely to have crossed over
into horror fiction. The killer becomes a monster, a
demon, so fearsome as to be almost supernatural -- or
at least frighteningly unnatural. Thomas Harris' The
Silence of the Lambs is a good example. Hannibal
Lecter is an emblem of our fears. Such monsters -- supernatural
and human -- are the metaphors that horror literature
uses. Lots of things are frightening, but using them
in a book doesn't necessarily make that book a horror
story. It is the particular images that any age sees
as emblematic of death and primal fear that put a story
into the horror genre.
high levels of depicted violence characteristic of horror
fiction? Though a horror story may use the imagery of
death, the death with which it deals need not be violent
death. Many of the great ghost stories are both subtle
and frightening. Indeed, one of my favourite adult horror
novels, Ramsey Campbell's Incarnate, is about
the disorienting cross-over of the dream world into
the real world, so that the distinction between the
two is gradually lost. No gore. Little violence. Violence
in fact is not as characteristic of the horror genre
as it is of the crime genre. I'm not saying there isn't
violence in horror novels -- any genre which looks so
closely at death and examines human fear in such detail
is not going to be devoid of violence -- but violence
is not its defining quality.
what about children? Does what I've said above apply
to them as much as it applies to adults? Do stories
which use the imagery of horror help children deal in
some way with their fears and insecurities? Without
being too pretentious about it, I think, to a degree,
the answer is yes. On one level it's like a ghost-train
ride or a furious rollercoaster dash. There's an exhilaration
to feeling scared, to feeling the inevitable threat
of our mortality, without any actual danger. We can
shrug it off, mock the spectre of death with impunity,
get an adrenalin rush without the need to face real
danger. In this context, children can realise, at least
implicitly, that looking at the scary side of life --
loss, bereavement, fear, the monster under the bed --
is possible. They can examine these emotions, even play
with them, and by so doing gain some power over them.
After all, aren't we told by behavioural scientists
that that's how the more intelligent animal species
(including the human species) learn -- by playing? Horror
fiction isn't going to make everyone stable and save
society from the ills that horror fiction often depicts,
but it can offer a safe forum for examining, and maybe
lightening, the dark. Horror stories provide a playground
in which children (and adults) can play at fear. And
in the end they'll be safe and, hopefully, reassured.
Overall, it seems better than repression.
to the question: what are you trying to do when you
write horror stories for kids, scare them? my initial
response must be 'yes, hopefully!' There is nothing
wrong with being scared. It's a survival response. Expressing
and examining the dark side of human experience -- the
side that lives in fear -- has always been a significant
cultural imperative. The modern trend in horror fiction
merely reflects the same needs as are reflected in the
inordinate violence and morbidity to be found in folklore,
traditional stories, urban legends and 'fairy tales'
from as far back in human history as we can see.
course, there are limits. Though these limits are likely
to be re-defined continually according to particular
times and places, one limit is that when you're writing
for a pre-teen audience, the horror is likely to be
less realistic and to occur in a less naturalistic context.
Fantasy elements come to the fore. It provides a necessary
degree of distance.
too, becomes more important the more essentially ghastly
the imagery becomes. Bill Condon and I do things in
the Creepers books, which could not be done in
a serious manner in a children's book. Beheadings, exploding
bodies, brains falling out, people getting eaten by
zombies ... even many adults would have trouble with
such things, if we took them too seriously. The humour
provides a buffer, making the fear experienced a literary
fear and not a psychological trauma.
short, as a horror writer you can't depict genuine horrors
so realistically that your young and impressionable
audience is traumatised and develops fears that they
transport into their everyday life. But nor can you
mock the monsters too much or there will be nothing
to evoke the appropriate terror. While they're on the
rollercoaster, your readers have to believe in the horror
or they gain no emotional pay-off. It's a delicate juggling
act but one that is fun to take part in.
if it isn't fun, then don't do it. Horror stories aren't
for everyone. I know many adults who can't watch the
scary movies and don't like to read the books. They
don't seem to mind the sort of violence all-too-common
in Lethal Weapon and other pseudo-naturalistic
cop shows -- but can't abide the atmosphere of horror
stories. Some children are going to be the same. I think
for such people the visceral experience is too strong
and the sense of disorientation too unnerving. That's
okay. To each their own. Declaring horror stories compulsory
would be as absurd an act as banning them -- as attractive
as a captive audience might seem to the writer.
one other characteristic of horror as a genre which
I haven't mentioned directly but have hinted at. That
characteristic makes it appealing to writers, threatening
to the would-be mind-police and compelling to readers.
It can be described in many ways: 'pushing the boundaries',
'going too far', 'being irresponsible', 'going beyond
the pale'. In a way, horror fiction (though at its heart
fairly conservative) should never be entirely acceptable.
In it, writers and readers imaginatively indulge the
dark side of human nature, scoff at social norms, play
with dangerous thoughts, question moral and ethical
standards. This is one of the reasons horror stories
tend to be looked at suspiciously. Yet perhaps doing
these things -- in a theoretical literary context --
is not bad. In fact, perhaps it's useful. Perhaps, without
such questioning, our society becomes morally flaccid.
Horror is hardly a revolutionary genre -- it won't bring
about genuine social change, nor will it bring about
the apocalypse -- but, again, it can allow the dark
side of our nature to be indulged safely, keep the guardians
of good behaviour alert, and challenge the moral hypocrites
who are actually the ones with a problem distinguishing
between reality and fantasy.
course, in so far as this 'naughty' side to the genre
appears in children's horror stories, it offers an obvious
appeal to young readers. Children love pushing the boundaries,
eating forbidden fruit (or at least forbidden lollies)
and being allowed in some measure to indulge in bad
attitudes. It's a way of testing the limits, of coming
to understand the ethical chaos through which we're
all forced to find our way. Why shouldn't we let them
be naughty, here where it's safe?
how can we expect them to value the light if they never
play in the dark?
I would direct the attention of anyone interested in
the whys and wherefores of horror fiction to books by
two of the world's most successful horror authors:
H.P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature
(Dover, NY, 1973; first published in 1945);
Stephen King's Danse Macabre (Macdonald, London,
a collection of interviews with the latter author, Bare
Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King,
edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (New English
Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser (eds) Great Tales
of Terror and the Supernatural (4th edition, Hammond,
Hammond & Co. London, 1965) is a good collection of
older, 'classic' horror stories.