Monsters, Darkness, Imagination. On Horror in Children's Literature

Examination Thesis, 2016

70 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Children’s Literature
2.1 History of Children’s Literature
2.2 Defining Children’s Literature in Literary Studies
2.3 Child Readers and Adult Writers

3. Horror Literature
3.1 TheGothic
3.2 Children and Horror Literature
3.3 Fairy Tales and Censorship

4. Aspects of Horror in Children’s Literature
4.1 The Uncanny and the Unconscious
4.2 Normality and Otherness
4.3 Other Worlds and Parallel Universes
4.4 Mothers and Other Wicked Women
4.5 Animals
4.6 Lurking Danger and Death
4.7 Being Trapped, Being Lost and Being Small
4.8 Being Devoured and Vanishing
4.9 Being Left and Being Alone
4.10 Monsters
4.11 Illustrations

5. Why should Children read Horrific Literature?
5.1 Pleasure
5.2 Humour
5.3 Overcoming Fear

6. Conclusion

7. Sources

1. Introduction

A girl is lured into a flat where a child murdering women wants to sew buttons on her eyes. In a stream, a boy tries to save himself from being sucked into pipes that lead to mechanical knives threatening to hack him up. Meanwhile, a town is haunted by ghosts trying to reap the souls of every living person to quench their thirst for blood, and a young girl is persecuted by a mad woman who wants her decapitated. All of these storylines could be directly derived from horror novels, yet they are plot strands in children’s literature written by well- known authors like Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl, R.L. Stine and Lewis Carroll.

Literature for children is a field of literary studies which is versatile - yet this diversity is one of the reasons precise delimitations are controversial. While the image of childhood as an idyllic and almost enchanted place is not as explicit in modern times as it once has been, adults arguably still believe this underlying perfect world to be an important part of children’s literature. Childhood is seen as a state of innocence and security, and these sentiments should be transferred by literature for young readers. However, scary elements can be recognised in most books for child readers, though they might not be as explicit as the horror depicted in literature for adults. Also, even books for child readers including scary aspects are not listed as Horror Literature in bookstores or on booklists, whereas it is a vast genre in literature for adults. Obviously, there are plausible and practical reasons why adult’s and children’s literature are separated and why some literature is not deemed ‘suitable for children’. However, the importance of horror and fear in books for children should not be underestimated.

The aim of this work is to explore the nature of elements of horror in literature for children and what their effect on young readers can be. In addition, it will distinguish why elements of horror should be part of literature for child readers. The first part will have a look at different aspects of children’s literature as such, starting with the history of its development and an attempt to define it as a genre, taking into consideration the relationship between child readers and adult writers. This part will supply a general overview of problems the genre’s definition causes, as well as the discrepancies between the child reader’s needs and what adults want children to require from literature.

The second part then focuses on horror literature, including Gothic Horror and fairy tales, before looking at horror literature for children. In this part, a determination of what constitutes horror in literature is made before the terminology of children’s literature is broadened to the field of horror.

The third part of this work takes a closer look at aspects of horror in literature for children, analysing different elements like child fears, danger and monsters in selected books. It deconstructs what can be perceived as scary in books for young readers, how frightening elements are incorporated into literature for children, using well- known books from authors like Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie or Roald Dahl as representatives, while in the end looking at positive effects horror in literature for young readers has on a child.

2. Children’s Literature

In Literary Studies, there is a general consent that literature for children exists. Still, a concordant definition of what children’s literature implies is hard to obtain. As Roger Sale puts it: “Everyone knows what children’s literature is until asked to define it. [...] We are better off saying we all have a pretty good idea of what children’s literature includes and letting the matter rest there.” (1978: I).

Still, there are many different approaches to defining children’s literature, which as a genre “is confusing - richly and complicated so” (Nodelman, 2008: 137). One of the preceding definitions is a rather pragmatic one, stressed by Perry Nodelman as the only practical definition of children’s literature today: “A book which appears on the children’s list of a publisher” (2008:144). Even though this definition has been challenged many times, theorists have not yet found a general agreement of the genre question. The problem, therefore, does not lie in the questioned existence of literature for children as such, but what the definable characteristics of such a genre might be.

2.1. History of Children’s Literature

Though children’s books have a long history around the world, there is no consistent estimation as to when the genre first came into existence. Most studies dealing with the history of children’s literature date its beginnings to the eighteenth century, sometimes even pin- pointing it precisely as 1744, when John Newbery’s A little pretty Pocket- Book was first published (Darton 1982: 1). Others argue that it would be impossible to date the beginning of children’s literature as a genre at all, while another might lay his focus on the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, a term coined by Roger Lancelyn Green. The Golden Age of Children’s Literature describes a period from the mid- nineteenth century that “ends sharply with E. Nesbit” (Green 1962:73) and includes well-known authors like J. M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter. The name derives from the title of a novel written by Kenneth Grahame in 1895 which presented a new approach to childhood. Illustrating a deep understanding of the inner workings of children as well as their imagination and outlook on life, the novel showed childhood as a thing of itself: “Suddenly children were not being written down to any more- they were being written up [...]” (Green 1962: 69). Prior to this, little literature was written that could be considered to be for children. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century books on courtesy rules and correct behaviour were composed with the sole intention of educating children, and even these were few examples in the early stages of printed literature. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Gothic elements first found their way into children’s literature. In 1812, the Grimm Brothers published their first edition of Children’s and Household Tales in Germany, which included different aspects of the Gothic genre. Due to divergent views on what is suitable for child readers, the works of the Brothers Grimm have been drastically altered throughout time.

After the second world war, new aspects were incorporated in children’s literature: Psychoanalysis was increasingly integrated into literature for young readers. One of the first books illustrating this was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are which was published in 1963. Starting then children were given the freedom to become angry and translate their emotions into creatures that were symbolic for the frustrations felt on the inside. This created a new way for children to sort through those emotions on their own and in their own pace.

Even though the exact emergence of children’s literature is not agreed upon, children’s books have absorbed elements of folklore, fairy tale and oral tradition, frequently including certain aspects of their places of origin or historical events like war or colonisation. As Pat Pinsent argues, all children’s literature can be regarded as fantasy literature” (comp. 2016: 62), therefore representing a hybrid form of many different aspects of literature.

2.2. Defining Children’s Literature in Literary Studies

Due to the fact that, for a long time, children’s literature seemed to be considered a mere source of private delight rather than a serious genre, the focus of literary studies only recently shifted towards it. Since the second half of the twentieth century, considerable changes have been made in the way children’s literature is regarded, showing a development into a “respectable academic discipline” (Pinsent: 2016:1) from the 1970s onwards.

Traditionally, the distinction whether a book is part of children’s literature or not has focused on aspects of readability and subject matter. These aspects refer to issues like the simplicity of content and style, including vocabulary and length, as well as whether the books’ themes are of interest for child readers and are suitable for them. This is supported by an underlying notion that “adults [.] speak differently in fiction when they are addressing children” (Wall 1991:2). But even though there might be a separate field of books designed to be for children, a wide variety of novels could be denominated children’s literature, though they were intended for adult readers when they were first produced. In this way, books like Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield or The Catcher in the Rye may be a part of children’s, as well as adult’s literature “if children wish to, or can be persuaded to, read them. [.] If a story is written to children, then it is for children, even though it may also be for adults” (Wall 1991:2). Barbara Wall hence distinguishes between two categories: Children’s Literature and Writing for Children, the first including everything read by, and appealing to, children, the latter only including those works that are primarily intended for child readers.

Children’s books are often critically evaluated, especially concerning their educational value. As Peter Hunt points out, there are two paramount questions when reading and evaluating children’s literature: “Is it good?” and on top of that “Is it good for children?” (1981:24). However, these questions are not easily answered: “The first question is really two - a distinction between ‘quality’ and ‘value’; the second actually a distinction between ‘suitability’ and ‘accessibility’” (Hunt 1981:24). Hunt argues there are simply no established criteria to judge, making children’s literature as a genre an everlasting confusing territory, if no limitations can be defined (comp. Hunt 2005: 139). The standards applied to the evaluation of children’s literature are therefore merely derived from certain norms specific to a society at a particular time, mirroring the way childhood is viewed in it. ‘Childhood’, in this context, is a changing concept and the “history, definition, and study of childhood as a concept has burgeoned in recent years” (Hunt 2005:3). Children’s literature, therefore, is much more complex than it seems at first glance, resulting in a tendency to overanalyse it, making a discussion of the genre even more problematic.

One of the reasons for this is the peculiar point of view children’s literature is written from: Childhood is a state a person grows away from, yet children’s literature is produced by adults writing what they believe literature for children should involve:

[Children’s literature] is a distinct and definable genre of literature, with characteristics that emerge from enduring adult ideas about childhood and that have consequently remained stable over the stretch of time in which this literature has been produced. Those ideas are ambivalent inherently; therefore, the literature is ambivalent (Nodelman, 2008:242).

2.3. Child Readers and Adult Writers

The distinction between adult literature and children’s literature [...] would be more valid, if one could reliably decide after reading, on technical, structural, linguistic or thematic grounds, whether or not a book was for children [...]. (Wall 1991:1, quoting Philip 1984:15)

There are always discrepancies while writing children’s literature. Not only is there an underlying need of children’s literature to provide content that features what adults believe child readers to like, as well as what they want children to need, “but it does so always in order to satisfy adults’ needs in regard to children” (Nodelman 2008:242). Since adults decide which children’s books are suitable for young readers, an author inevitably gets confronted with the problematic issue of a dual addressee in children’s literature: It must appeal to child readers as well as adults. At the same time, even though the literature is supposed to be for the child, the adult reader seems to take a superior position, as he is allowed to judge what is appropriate for the child. The comparison of adult’s and children’s literature is by definition bound to make the latter appear as subordinate. A children’s writer thus needs to compromise between two addressees, even though both kinds of readers differ “in their literary tastes as well as their norms of realization of the text” (Pinsent 2016:38, quoting Shavit 1986). Peter Hunt describes this fact in detail:

Children’s books are different from adult books: they are written for a different audience with different skills, different needs, and different ways of reading; equally children experience texts in ways which are often unknowable but which many of us strongly suspect to be rich and complex (Hunt 2005:3).

Zohar Shavit argues, that most authors ultimately shift their focus on one of the addressees rather than addressing both equally in order to produce a self­contained work (comp. Pinsent 2016:38).

Keeping in mind the duality of addressees in children’s literature, many attempts to define the genre simply do not look into the problem deeply enough. Descriptions of children’s literature as something “that appeals to the interests, needs, and reading preferences of children and captivates [them] as its major audience” (Nodelman 2008:147, quoting Hancock) on the one hand completely disregard the way in which the genre is influenced by adults. Authors, on the other hand, would require an in-depth understanding of child readers’ needs and preferences for such a definition to work. However, this kind of understanding can rarely be expected from adult writers, as they can merely make assumptions about the nature of childhood. These assumptions do not necessarily represent accurate descriptions of individual children, but rather illustrate adult ideas of childhood, either revisiting an author’s own early life or presenting characteristic features adults want to be included in a perfect infancy. As Pat Pinsent points out, “all adults writing about childhood are describing a world they can no longer directly experience any more than authors can enter their own invented worlds” (2016: 62). The recurring features used by adult writers, however, not only reflect an author’s view on childhood but also imply opinions and positions on the audience it speaks to. Children’s books which are written in similar time periods, therefore, illustrate the view on children and childhood at that particular time by possessing some underlying similarities shared in most of them. This often can be seen in identical purposes of the stories written for children, for example as a means to educate, moralise or force obedience. In a way, the description of a book as Children’s Literature therefore can be seen as a sole approval of the work as suitable for child readers from the perspective of parents and other adults. This again shows the duality of the addressee, making the genre a “constructed category whose content [is] determined by those who make professional use of it, rather than the children who supposedly read it” (Steig 1993:36).

Additionally, children’s literature is often degraded in its importance by only regarding it as a means to lead young readers to higher literature at later points in their lives. Since some children do not care for literature, especially in modern, technology-based times, there seems to be a struggle to find the right kind of genre for a reader in order to make literature and reading more attractive: “[A child reader] must be wheedled, tricked or loved into literature; after all, every day that goes by is one more possible masterpiece missed” (Tucker 1976:16). While Nicholas Tucker agrees that children should be introduced to literature at an early age, he rejects the notion of literature for children having a lower status than adult’s literature and the way in which it is critically evaluated: “One should not have to defend literature on the grounds that it is necessarily good for you; a book is something that exists primarily to provide the reader with a literary experience, something he cannot get elsewhere from other means” (Tucker 1976: 17).

While children’s literature is written from an adult’s point of view on young readers needs, another distinctive feature shaping it is the fact that children read it. Peter Hollindale labels this distinctive feature as Childness - “the quality of being a child” (Pinsent 2016:41). Childness in his terminology is something unique a child reader brings when encountering a text. Child readers are confronted with literature at different stages in their development, thereby reading texts with various sets of background knowledge. They have a “developing sense of self in interaction with the images of childhood encountered in the world (Pinsent 2016: 42)” that can be contrary to grown-ups’ memories of childhood. An adult sense of self is compounded of a continuity of their child and adult self, in this way providing them with an understanding of appropriate behaviour at a certain age. In this context, Neil Gaiman points out that adults and children never take the same from a book, yet this does not mean one reading experience is more important than the other (comp. 2012b:16). Since children do not have experienced everything adults have, “ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new for children” (Gaiman 2012b:16). Peter Hollindale’s definition of children’s literature sums this up: “Children’s literature is a body of texts with certain common features of imaginative interest, which is activated as children’s literature by a reading event: that of being read by a child” (1997:30).

Still, when writing children’s books, there are restrictions in certain areas of experience and vocabulary because of the different stages of background knowledge between adult and young readers. Children’s book authors must limit themselves, as comprehension gaps between child and adult understanding are necessarily greater in certain areas of knowledge than in others. While children are, for example, interested in adult behaviour, they do not necessarily care about the precise mechanics of it, as it can be repetitive and dull, if not repellent in some cases. As Gaiman points out, “children are very good at looking away” (2012b:12), whether they don’t want to see something or don’t understand the full notion of it. In this way, children’s books often possess whole distinct layers of meaning incomprehensible for young readers, which cannot be discovered in one reading. These additional layers can open depths of complex works of art when re- reading a children’s book as an adult. As Bruno Bettelheim points out, an understanding of the meaning of one’s life is not suddenly acquired at a particular age, not even when one has reached chronological maturity. On the contrary, gaining a secure understanding of what the meaning of one’s life may or ought to be - this is what constitutes having attained psychological maturity. And this achievement is the end result of a long development (1976: 3).

Additionally, certain styles or approaches to literature might be harder to grasp for children, even though this cannot be generalised for every child. Consequently, the understanding of sarcasm and irony, which is a frequently used method in adult’s novels, can be harder for children, as they rather tend to look on than beneath a text's surface, therefore missing the implied message behind the literary one.

In this context, Nicholas Tucker addresses children’s views on the world they live in: He points out that child readers tend to understand their environment as a moral construction, in which an “inherent justice” (Tucker 1976: 20) prevails. They believe that in a perfect world good always wins and gets rewarded, while evil is punished in the end: “The possibility of an impersonal universe and a casual human existence” (Tucker 1976: 20) where such a moral justice does not always exist is a reality children have to get emotionally ready to face up to over some time. Children’s books, as opposed to adult’s literature, therefore mostly end on a positive note, creating a safe space for young readers in the fictional world: “Children may need a secure atmosphere in their books to feel secure themselves, adults may occasionally welcome a more direct appeal to their sympathies” (Tucker: 1976: 26).

In these fictional worlds, children freely solve their problems. Children serve as principal actors, mostly leaving the fictional adults merely in subsidiary roles. To keep the attention and interest of young readers, the plots’ pace is fast moving, and the depicted characters are easily identifiable types. These often fill distinct functions in the plot, like that of the smart child who provides all the information or the bully acting as an antagonist to the main characters. The clear allocation of roles creates a possibility for young readers to easily identify with the characters, thereby feeling like a part of a book’s story. In this way, books serve as a means for children to explore themselves and the world they live in without leaving the safety of their home or experiencing threats in reality.

While the different approaches to defining children’s literature as a genre show as many similarities as differences, many theorists consider a lot of them as mutually exclusive. Nodelman questions this notion, proclaiming they merely build a “more complex truth” (2008:137). Contradictions between the definitions rather emphasise the paradoxes of the genre itself than exclude each other. As Joan Glazer and Gurney Williams infer, “Children cannot be easily defined. Nor can their literature” (1979:10). Children’s literature, therefore, can be seen as a mirror image of the audience it is intended for.

3. Horror Literature

Horror is more than what makes a pulse race. There are other sources of Horror besides fear; some are far worse than fear, and far harder to write about (Marano 2007:53).

Horror fiction is a relatively modern genre that started to appear in the eighteenth century, at a time when Enlightenment thinking celebrated its triumph over reason and order. The starting point was primarily represented by the German Schauerroman, the French roman noir and the English Gothic Novel. There was a significant trend in horror in that period which reflected certain developments in other genres of the time like the greater Victorian and American novels before it developed into a “solidly artistic and serious genre” (Fisher 1981:177).

According to Noël Carroll, there are different distinct variations of horror in literature, art and film which are distinguished according to the effect they intend to have on an audience, like mystery, suspense or terror. (comp. Carroll 1990: 15). He points out the difficulties in defining horror as a genre since most conditions recurring in it are aspects that can be found in other genres as well, therefore marking them as insufficient to define Horror.

The horror felt in response to fictional monsters or threats that deviate from what would be perceived as ‘normal’ in the real world is therefore identified as art- horror. Greg Littmann argues that even though a clear definition of art- horror is hard to come by, there are three standards which can usually be discovered in works of the genre: A constant potential for death, detailed descriptions of the threats the characters are facing and the use of a realistic setting. The realistic setting in this context illustrates living environments that already include the potential for bad things to happen to the characters, like poverty or isolation.

Carroll, however, describes art- horror as a mixture of fear in response to a threat, and disgust as a response to something deemed impure, which leads an audience to be repulsed by it. This blend of fear, disgust and repulsion is then defining for Carroll’s proposed kind of horror, as he detects these traits in all monsters presented in it, like zombies or vampires. Monsters, in this regard, constitute an abnormal disturbance of a natural order, which in a converse argument means that only the attitude shown towards a monster, as well as the setting of the world horror is depicted in make a monster abnormal. Monsters violate the standing cultural categories illustrated in their fictional context, as they are “categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete or formless” (Carroll 1990:32). This definition of horror, however, causes a paradox, as a person typically would not seek out what disgusts them.

In response, Noël Carroll introduces two theories as to why an audience would be attracted to the genre of horror. The first one, which he describes as the Universal Theory, is formulated quite simply: “Horror attracts because anomalies command attention and elicit curiosity” (Carroll 1990:195). Carroll justifies a person’s interest in horror with the same traits used to define art- horror: The disturbance a monster causes with its abnormality while disgusting and repulsing to a person, at the same time causes a reaction of inquisitiveness and a search for knowledge as to how this kind of thing can exist. He even emphasises that curiosity and distress as two reactions to horrific beings are “inseparable in horror” (Carroll 1990:190). Another reason for this curiosity is the security which such a fascination can be enjoyed in: “[...] [T]he distress in question is not behaviourally pressing; it is a response to the thought of a monster, not to the actual presence of a disgusting or fearsome thing” (Carroll 1990:190).

The second proposed theory is a general theory as to why horror as a genre might be attractive to an audience. This general theory is more specific, only focusing on narrative horror. It states that an interest in horror monsters is caused by the fact that they are “impossible beings whose existence (in the fiction) is confirmed for us in the emphasis horror narratives place on ‘proof, discovery and confirmation’” (Tudor 1997:447). The disgust a person feels when encountering those ‘impossible beings’ then has to be seen as “part of a price to be paid for the pleasure of their disclosure” (Carroll 1990:184), thus satisfying an internal craving a person has for knowledge.

It is the purpose of horror as a genre to elicit an emotional effect from its audience. In addition to the feeling of disgust that Carroll describes, another reaction to the monstrous is an inability to explain the horrific, as it appears as unknown and alien. The threat posed by a horrific monster seems to be compounded with revulsion, nausea and disgust.

The reactions a person should produce when confronted with horror, however, are predetermined by the author and “horror appears to be one of those genres in which the emotive responses of the audience ideally run parallel to the emotions of characters” (Carroll 1990:17). The characters in horror works in this way establish a ‘correct’ way in which a person should react to the monsters in fiction. The reactions of an audience, in turn, are supposed to mirror these reactions of positive human characters, if only in certain - not all- respects. Carroll calls this the Mirroring Effect (comp. 1990: 18) and specifies it as a key feature of the genre of horror.

Additionally, horror as a genre mostly follows similar patterns, thereby creating a fictional world in which a reader can analyse the inner workings of the text and compare them to himself. Stephen King argues, that horror literature in this way acts as a means to offer a reader a better understanding of himself in comparison to the world he lives in:

The story is always the same in terms of development. There’s an incursion into taboo lands, there’s a place where you shouldn’t go, but you do, the same way that your mother would tell you that the freak tent is a place you shouldn’t go, but you do.

And the same thing happens inside: You look at the skeleton man or Mr. Electrical or whoever it happens to be. And when you come out, well, you say, “Hey, I’m not so bad. I’m all right. A lot better than I thought.” It has that effect of reconfirming values, of reconfirming self- image and our good feelings about ourselves. [...] the creator of horror is above all an agent of the norm (Carroll 1990: 199).

In this regard, the main point of horror is that it comes to an end and that “the monstrous is evoked only in order to be dispelled” (Carroll 1990: 121).

In modern times, horror can be seen as a mass aesthetic stimulation, starting from the 1970s and 80s onwards. Many horror novels and their authors have become household names, like Stephen King or Clive Barker and horror movies have become a popular entertainment. There are horror musicals and horror art, as well as aspects of horror in television shows and music. The horror genre is evolving and recreating itself. As Andrew Tudor puts it: “Indeed, perhaps there can be no uniquely distinctive trait of a constantly evolving genre” (1997:456). Still, the primary intention of horror in any form is unambiguous: “The pleasure of the text is, in fact, getting the shit scared out of you - and loving it; an exchange mediated by adrenaline” (Tudor 1997:444, quoting Brophy 1986).

3.1. The Gothic

Gothic novels emerged as a means to explore irrational possibilities as well as disordered emotions that arose from the new state of being in the eighteenth century. Montague Summers suggests a fourfold classificatory scheme of the gothic. (comp. Carroll 1990:) The first kind is the Historical Gothic, dealing with tales that are set in an imagined past. This kind of gothic does not include supernatural events of any kind, merely displaying gothic aspects like for example setting or atmosphere. The second type of gothic is the Natural, or Explained Gothic in which supernatural occurrences play a part but are finally explained to be for and by mundane reasons. The proposed third kind of gothic which includes supernatural events is called the Equivocal Gothic, in which the origin of supernatural occurrences is clarified through psychologically disturbed characters. Both types of gothic including the supernatural are often termed the uncanny or fantastic. But, as Summers points out, the type of gothic with the greatest importance for the genre of horror is the Supernatural Gothic. This kind of gothic fiction uses the existence and cruel operation of unnatural forces, determining it by graphic descriptions without any disproof of the supernatural as unreal.

While it is often associated with them, the gothic does not merely consist of creatures like werewolves, witches or vampires. Aspects of gothic can be found in settings, language and plot, as well as the characters represented in the fiction. It is the depiction of an imperfect world, confronting the main characters with problems and hardships: “It’s a subtle reminder that life is not always the fairy tale we hope it will be” (Howarth 2007:4). In this context, Howarth regards the gothic as an opportunity for a reader to lose himself in the distress and problems of another character (comp. Howarth 2007:3). The reader is given a possibility to compare the portrayed life in the Gothic story with his own, thereby developing Schadenfreude and creating a feeling of comfort and pleasure by realising that he is in a better place than the characters. In this way, the gothic can act as an outlet for pain and dissatisfaction.

Additionally, as Karen Coats argues, the traditional gothic novel does not deviate from classical adventure stories or heroic novels in the way the narrative is constructed and finished; It merely adds gothic elements for a changed atmosphere:

Traditional adult gothic has tended to give a sinister inflection to fairy tale tropes and motifs, combining elements of horror and the supernatural to produce situations in which the humble subject can become a hero or a heroine, beset on all sides but ultimately (usually) triumphant (2008: 78).

3.2. Children and Horror Literature

In Victorian times, literature depicted the world it was written in: It illustrated death, extreme poverty, brutality, alcoholism, injustice and idiocy. In its contemporary setting, children were mostly portrayed as victims. From children being whipped for not saying grace before dinner, to child heroines being imprisoned under death sentences, the living conditions of children constituted in literature from that time were much harsher than the idyllic pictures of childhood drawn in newer fiction for young readers: “Sex was taboo, but torture was ok” (Storr 1976: 146). The emphasis was on physical harm, and terror was evoked by the constant threat of such rather than by unknown or unbelievable occurrences. Still, [t]here was a shift from physical fright, expressed through numerous outward miseries and villainous actions to psychological fear. The inward turn in fiction emphasized motivations, not their overt terrifying consequences. The ghost-in-a-bed sheet gave way, as it did literally in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the haunted psyche far of hapless victims (Fisher 1981:177).

Nowadays, children’s literature does not include as much violence or torture, but still aspects of horror and the gothic can be found in it. Horror can be seen as a kind of fantasy fiction that can include frightening aspects as well as magic, and “magic to most children is only just out of reach: It fills their imaginings and informs their games” (Green 1962: 72).

Still, there is a constantly lingering fear of adults that gothic or scary elements might be too dark and frightening for young readers, thereby scarring them for life. Littmann raises the question, that one might "well wonder whether any works that focus so much on evil, fear and the prospect of grizzly death are appropriate for impressionable kids” (2014: 174): “Children are, after all, particularly prone to fear; below seven years in the peak period for nightmares, which can be as vivid as reality itself and sometimes be mistaken for that” (Tucker 1976: 115).

Most fictions feature danger in some form, and Jerry Griswold even considers ‘Scariness’ to be one of five recurring themes in “classic and popular works of Children’s Literature” (2006: 1), alongside ‘Snugness’, ‘Smallness’, ‘Lightness’ and ‘Aliveness’. According to him, childhood is a scary time and “the world of Children’s Literature is a very scary place” (Griswold 2006: 31). In their fiction, children are constantly confronted with threats and their own vulnerability, and Griswold even proposes that “scariness seems to play a larger role in stories for children than in those for adults” (2006: 35). While the frightening is handled as a separate genre in adult’s literature, fear appears to be an omnipresent feature in literature for young readers. Children have a lower threshold for what scares them and a different notion of what is frightening compared to an adult’s perception. Their fantasies can fabricate monsters that are equal to the descriptions in pictures or prose, and scary literature generates excitement for them by making them ‘flirt’ with their personal fears. As Griswold points out, “[c]hildhood has more than its measure of anxieties and fears - some big, some small - but children do not know which are ‘big’ and which are ‘small’” (2006: 37). By reading about their fears and naming what scares them, children gain an opportunity to put their fear into a helpful context and share it with others (comp. Tucker 1976: 116f).

Where then, can one start to distinguish between useful aspects of horror in children’s literature and harmful levels of scariness or violence - or, as Michael Howarth put it: “How dark is too dark?” (2007: 6). There is no conclusive consensus on what scares children and “nightmares are quite incalculable” (Chesterton 1976:125f). In fact, the thing that frightens one child might be the most intriguing part of a story for another. Even though there are examples of children being afraid of certain aspects of horror, there is never the certainty of a different child being scared by the same thing or the same child being frightened more than once: “[...] [T]he hint of horror may come by any chance in any connection” (Chesterton 1976: 126). Catherine Storr argues that the actual degree of horror or violence depicted in children’s literature proves to be less relevant than the context it is set in (comp. Storr 1976: 143f.). Therefore, a context that is remote from a child’s own background, presenting experiences which are different from its real life, are less disturbing for a young reader. At the same time, a story that feels close to a child readers own experiences and reality will cause harsher reactions, like fear or anxiety. This differentiation shows the close connection of affect, identification and familiarity: “We don’t know what will frighten, what will depress [.] or what will pervert. Apart from the broadest general guidelines we can only guess; even for one particular child whom we know well, we can never be sure” (Storr 1976: 144).

Just as an adult’s, the mind of a child is filled with memories and stored impressions of its everyday life. But while a grown up person should be able to gather and separate them, these impressions are often ill- assorted or merely partially integrated into the understanding of children. At the same time, it is not certain that stored memories or experiences of a child are equal to reality: Some represent a reality that actually happened, while others may be dominated by fantasy. This addition of fantasy aspects to impressions is caused by an immaturity of thinking and a lack of pertinent information, acting as a means to close gaps of understanding in the child’s mind: “Other distinctions are the consequence of inner pressures which lead to misinterpretations of the child’s perceptions” (Bettelheim 1976: 61). Fantasy, therefore, can be seen as a reaction to situations that cause anxiety or need in children, resulting in confusion in the child’s mind. Facts and imagination become muddled and the children are thus unable to sort through them. The feeling of helplessness in situations that seem familiar to children can be one upsetting factor causing harsh affects while reading. Stories that illustrate situations of struggle which a child can relate to, like for example in fairy tales when Red Riding Hood has to go to her grandmother’s house without guidance or in scary stories such as Coraline when the heroine is left alone by her parents, present situations that are close to a child reader’s reality and illustrate a feeling of helplessness:

A child presented with perplexing everyday problems and events is stimulated by his schooling to understand the how and why of such situations and to seek solutions. But since its rationality has poor control over his unconscious, the child’s imagination runs away with him under the pressure of his emotions and unsolved conflicts (Bettelheim 1976: 61).

The child’s sense of reason is then overwhelmed by its anxieties, desires and emotions like hope, fear, love or hate, and as a defence those are woven into fantasy to distance itself from them and to regain security.


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Monsters, Darkness, Imagination. On Horror in Children's Literature
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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monsters, darkness, imagination, horror, children, literature
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Mirja Quix (Author), 2016, Monsters, Darkness, Imagination. On Horror in Children's Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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