Many years ago, I was a counselor at a camp on Cape Cod. I always liked scary stories, was a good storyteller, and liked children. Every night after lights out, the campers in my cabin begged me to tell them about Three Fingered Willy, a ghoulish character who preyed on children. Every night I told the same story – Three Fingered Willy coming through the woods in the dark. I told of the cracking branches, the pouring rain, and the flashes of lightning that lit up his deformed, ghastly face. In my telling Willy was a zombie who needed fresh human blood for survival – particularly warm, new children’s blood.
The woods were quiet. Occasionally a chipmunk stirring in his sleep chirped and snuffled in the old leaves. An owl hooted. A deer looking for shoots stepping lightly over the moss snapped a twig, looked up, then quietly walked towards the brook.There was not a sound in the cabin as I told the story. Not a cough or rustle, not a creak from the old cots, no movement of the bedclothes.
Suddenly, all sounds in the forest stopped. Chipmunks stirred, poked their heads up out of their nests and remain frozen. The owls didn’t hoot. The snakes didn’t slither. The worms stopped wriggling through the mud and dead leaves.
Then, slowly but deliberately, a heavy footfall was heard from the deepest part of the woods. This was no deer or elk, not even a bear which walked quietly. The steps became louder and louder and came closer to the cabin in which the boys were sleeping.
One boy woke up and whispered, “It’s Willy”, but before he could finish, they all heard a scratching on the cabin walls….
At first I wondered whether or not the boys could get to sleep after that; but if after the routine of teeth, pajamas, and lanterns out, I started to leave without a story, they stopped me. They couldn’t get to sleep without Three Fingered Willy.
Although I set the action of each installment in a different place - Willy in the high Sierras; Willy in the Louisiana swamps; Willy in the Canadian forests – the story and the character of Willy remained the same. As the summer went on, Willy became even more hideous and ghoulish. At first his face was simply misshapen, grotesquely arranged, scarred and pocked; but later on his face disappeared, and headless he appeared at the door of the cabin, silhouetted by the one light that shone from the main house. He became a ghost, a werewolf that howled in the forest and came dripping and bloody into the cabin. He was ten feet tall with arms that could reach the tops of trees. His nails were like sabers. His eyes glowed yellow.
This of course could never happen today in an age when even the most tame fairy tales are edited, made safe and non-threatening. There are many versions of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, two of the Brothers Grimm’s most popular fairy tales. In one Hansel and Gretel do not push the wicked witch into the oven and cook her, but simply escape and make their way back home. In other the wicked wolf does not eat Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother nor is he slaughtered by the woodsman. Little Red Riding Hood, her grandmother, and the wolf all escape with their lives.
The world according to these new versions is not a perilous, sinister, and dangerous place, but one of accommodation, respect, and harmony.
Children like adults like scary stories. Grimm’s tales are no different than Stephen King’s and horror movies are still a staple of Hollywood. For adults scary stories are entertainments, easy and simple ways to get an adrenaline rush in otherwise sedate and predictable lives. For children, on the other hand, such stories are far more important than those which portray the world as innocent and harm free. Soon enough they will realize just the opposite.
The tendency to protect children from the inevitable is seen everywhere. Schools make sure to identify, cull, and dismiss bullies. The world is full of bullies – bad bosses, adolescent girls, catty women, and macho-men – and the sooner children learn how to deal with them, the better. Some may confront and challenge them, forcing them to back down. Others may stay clear, while others may make deals and compromises. Bullies are important for children.
Children do not believe in witches, ghosts, or ghouls. Wolves do not talk or dress up in disguises. Old women do not eat children. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies do not exist. Yet they could; and the fantasy world of children – a unique, special place soon lost – is populated by things that could be, fears that could be realized, horrors that could occur. It is also a place where children can fly, change into flowers, and jump across oceans.
The best stories combine both fear, magic, and happy resolution. The Five Chinese Brothers is a good example.
Long ago in China lived a family with five brothers who resembled each other very closely. They each possessed a special talent. One can swallow the sea; one has an iron neck; one can stretch his legs; one can survive fire; and the last can hold his breath forever. When one of the brothers, a somehow very successful fisherman, agrees to let a young boy accompany him on his fishing trip, trouble results. This brother holds the entire sea in his mouth so that the boy can retrieve fish and treasures. When the man can no longer hold in the sea, he frantically signals to the boy, but the boy ignores him and drowns when the man releases the water.
The man is accused of murder and sentenced to death. However, one by one, his four brothers assume his place when subjected to execution, and each uses his own superhuman ability to survive (one cannot be beheaded, one cannot be drowned, one cannot be burned, and one cannot be smothered). At the end of the story, a judge decides that the brother accused of murder must have been innocent, since he could not be executed, and the five brothers return home (Wikipedia).
Perhaps most importantly children learn very early on that if a book is too scary, they can put it down. They can suspend the horror, put it in its place, and retrieve it when they once again want to be frightened. It is this manipulation of the real and the unreal which characterizes adult perceptions.
Scary stories deal with torture, murder, death and unspeakable acts; but are clearly circumscribed within fantasy. They are true tales but only allegories. We soon learn that the book cannot be closed on real mayhem, but at least we have learned about it beforehand.
Nick Falk, children’s book author and child psychologist observes:
''When you're reading a book and it's scary, you could choose to turn that book over and put it down,'' Falk says. ''It's the same with a thought. You don't have to, when that thought comes into your head, stop everything and pay attention to it and try and get rid of it. You can actually carry on with whatever you were doing and just let that image or thought stay there. It's about giving them the coping skills to be able to do that, so they no longer have to get rid of the thought or image. They don't have to like it, but they also know it's not going to do them any harm” (Sydney Morning Herald 3.13.13)Scary stories are also important in configuring a realistic worldview – a philosophical universe in which the most outrageous events occur. It is hard to place holocausts, serial killings, mass slaughter, and barbarity within a completely rational framework. There is – or should be – an element of fantasy horror within it.
Titus Andronicus is a play about greed, ambition, power, jealousy, and vengeance; but it is also a grotesque horror story. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, encourages her sons to rape the daughter of Titus, then has them cut out her tongue and chop off her hands so that she will never be able to identify her assailants. When Titus finds out, he exacts the most satisfying revenge possible. he kills Tamora’s sons, chops them up and bakes them in a pie which he serves her for dinner.
Titus Andronicus is an adult fairy tale. Tamora is as wicked as the witch in Hansel and Gretel; and Titus her cannibalistic alter ego. Fantasy becomes allegory in this Shakespeare play; and it is no different from the stories of the Brothers Grimm.
Some fairy tales with no witches, demons, or ghouls are far more scary for children than those with. Pinocchio, for example, has one of the most emotionally disturbing scenes of all children’s stories. When Pinocchio is taken away from his father and driven away on a rainy, dark night in a cart, he is disconsolate. The receding image of Geppetto, the creaking wheels of the cart, and the flashing lightning of the storm is frightening and permanent.
Children are more upset by this story than any fantasy that the Grimms could concoct. It is too close to reality. A child could easily be separated from his father and be totally lost. The story of Pinocchio could be his.
Fear is a part of everyone’s lives, and most learn to deal with it. Phobias are so common and so serious that volumes of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment have been written about them. Although many phobias – claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and acrophobia – are well known, many others are not. People have a morbid fear of cats, dogs, dentists, and even marks on a fence.
The world is an increasingly dangerous place, and travellers are rightly afraid of hijackings, kidnappings, terrorism, and brutal assault.
Does this mean that scary stories really prepare children for the gruesome future that awaits them? Perhaps not, but since fear is primordial, inescapable, and universal, tales of horror set within a clear context of fantasy may indeed be as important as any other early childhood education.
It is discouraging to see how childhood has become a protected species. The goal of parents and educators seems to be to deny children of any brush with the real world; to eliminate risk; to shelter them not only from harm but from the image of it. They encourage a world without sharp edges, pitfalls, unpleasantness, or disappointment. All children are equal, progressive educators insist, only different in their type of intelligence, character, or abilities. Playgrounds are not for challenge, but for risk-free, undemanding, innocuous play. Books are vetted for insensitivity. Nothing disparaging of race, gender, ethnicity, physical ability, or intellectual performance can be on the shelves.
More than anything else, children love scary stories. It was not a coincidence that my young charges at Camp First Arrow wanted to hear about Three Fingered Willy again and again – to be frightened silly each and every night, hanging on every gory word, every horrendous description.
Willy was real for twenty minutes, then he disappeared into thin air; but by magic he was recalled again and again. Campers who were too young to be frightened by anything real, too privileged to have real worries and concerns, were scared witless by fantasy. Fear was innate and needed only to be called up. Better in a cabin on Cape Cod than anywhere else.