Why children's horror gives adults nightmares

Image by Thomas Shellberg on StockSnap

Some people consider horror for young readers an oxymoron - because honestly, what's there to be scared about in a book a kid can get their hands on? Oh, there's plenty, and if you ask me, it's the adults who are frightened of what's lurking there. Here are some of the reasons why horror tales for younger readers have the edge over their 'grown up' counterparts.

Their horror has to go to where the really scary things dwell...

One of the features of any tale for a young reader is a constraint on content, and nowhere are you more likely to find the kind of content that gets challenged than in the horror genre. When reaching for the big names of horror in literature you think Anne Rice & Stephen King. You think Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson & Daphne du Maurier.

And then you think: ‘nah, not for the kids’. Horror, as we’re often presented with it, is distinctively for grown-ups. Depictions of sex, gory violence, and the - entirely understandable - cursing that comes with being chased through the woods by an axe murderer are not going to find themselves on the bookshelves of the under twelves. But I'd argue, in the case of horror as a literary genre, it's the “age-appropriate” constraint that lets the essence of horror really shine through for young readers.

Horror, done right, can cut right into everything we’re afraid of and show us that we’re right to be worried.

Because it's not someone being chased through the woods by an axe murderer that makes a horror story what it is - it's the reveal of how and why things got to that point. It's the tension between what should be going on, and what actually is going on. It's the idea - that broken and festering little kernel of bad, true thought in the heart of the story - that bleeds scares into every page. And because they’ve got nowhere else to go, that is where horror tales for younger readers zero in: on the idea that things are not what they should be, and on the ways to craft reactions of suspense, dread and terror out of that idea while remaining in a young reader’s imaginable world. And to pull that off…

Their writing has to be at the top of its game.

So if horror for young readers can't rest its impact, or its genre credentials, on exploitative and gory tropes, where does it go? It has to go right to where the true chill of a horror story lies - it must plot the mystery of why things got like they did and it must take every chance to put a thrill of excitement down our spines and instead turn it into a chill of terror. It must draw the willing reader up close to the existential questions that we know we won’t like the answers to – if we can get answers at all. And it must do all of this while writing for readers young enough to – hopefully – have no experience with haunted houses, monsters in mirrors, or zombie-vampire serial killers.

Instead this kind of horror often has to tap in to what kids know, and turn it into something else. Whether it’s the shivery feeling of hiding during a game of tag, that first night in an unfamiliar house, that sense of waking up one morning and everyone else seeming “off” somehow, that urge to explore a shadowed corner… much of horror written for young people takes those familiar childhood experiences and twists them hard using a combination of fantastic leaps of imagination and brilliantly crafted prose. The result, done right, can cut right into everything we’re afraid of and show us that we’re right to be worried.

Whether it's honing their skills in writing the perfect the jump-scare (looking at you Darren Shan!) or stealthily drawing the reader in to a corrupting reflection of our own reality in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, writers of horror for younger readers usually need to be at the top of their game to earn the name. Otherwise, their tales are mere misadventures into scary town, leaving no heart-pounding fright and no creeping doubts…

Because horror stories don’t often have happy endings

Almost every point in Saorise Docherty’s brilliant blog on 5 reasons fairy tales are good for children applies to horror tales as well, but there is one difference that the genre jump makes: horror stories don’t end well, as a rule. A good horror story for any age of reader has to satisfy its contract with the reader – it has to deliver the fear, the suspense, and the plot – but it doesn’t have to tie things up in a bow to end on the right note. In fact, a hallmark of horror is that it does nothing of the sort; the questions linger, the shadows lengthen, and the reader absolutely doesn’t think that scary noise in the night is an owl.

For younger readers who are coming into their own identities, dealing with new realities of life, and experiencing the wider world for the first time, horror stories can be the place where they can go and look for scares instead of waiting helplessly for them to come a-calling. It’s also where they can go to confront the truth that bad things happen, often for reasons they’d never imagined. Perhaps it’s why so many horror fans get hooked on the genre when they’re young, and it is surely a unique aspect of horror’s appeal to young readers. Providing some control over when and how they find themselves frightened is one of the great ways reading empowers a young person’s emotional agency; and happily there are plenty of ways to use horror to test one’s courage out there.

It comes in a great range of forms

Depending on how you feel about it, as an adult you probably spend some time either skittishly avoiding watching horror films or chasing them down with wild abandon! But that pesky rating certificate means that such films are beyond the reach of most young people - which means that early exposure to horror tales comes to interested young people in the form of books. (Indeed, because that is less scary!) The great news is that horror fiction for young readers is actually remarkably varied in form and function, and if a young person is looking for a scare and willing to risk a nightmare, there’s plenty of choice out there to suit their reading habits.

Horror fiction for young readers is remarkably varied in form and function. If a young person is looking for a scare and willing to risk a nightmare, there’s plenty of choice out there

For the die-hard lover of a new scare with every read, there are omnibus collections of horror novels from the likes of R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame – the best of which are a real masterclass in building a scary story around a childhood feeling. Start with The Beast from the East (#43) and Welcome to Dead House (#1) for some of the purest frights in a huge oeuvre. Prolific author Bruce Coville also has a spine-chilling talent crafting terrifying (and often heart-breaking) stories for readers twelve and under, as well as editing acclaimed anthologies of middle-grade horror fiction short stories.

Other great short stories suitable for younger readers can be found in the work of Paul Jennings. His short tales, darker than what you’d find in Goosebumps or Coville, including tales of cloning gone right and amoral linguistic experiments are classed as on the cover as ‘quirky’, but rest assured – they are the essence of horror and will leave young readers taking nothing for granted after less than an hour’s reading time!

Last but not least, there are those rare continuing series in the horror genre for younger readers – though these tend to hover where readers 10 and up will access them. Darren Shan’s Zom-B series is deservedly popular and brilliantly plotted (Those cliffhangers! Those jump-scares!), but my favorite is Jonathan Stroud's marvelous series of Lockwood & Co. novels. As we follow the same band of young ghost hunters through genuinely terrifying trials; we’re in for an exploration of what repeated exposure to frightening things and horror’s themes can do the way we think, the way we are with each other, and the way we seek out our next adventure.

And there I’ll leave you, dear reader… be brave out there, tonight!

Check out all of our scary book lists for children and adults! You can also read one of our previous blog posts about censorship in children's books.

Credit for top image: Thomas Shellberg on StockSnap