Blogger Chelsey Roos

Why Kids Love Horror

A scary black and white forest with a lone figure in the background. Text reads "Why kids love horror".

When I was a kid, way back in the late nineteen hundreds, I loved horror as a genre. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was my jam (I loved the pictures. Today they are nightmare fuel). I read Peg Kehret’s Horror at the Haunted House over and over. Christopher Pike? Check. Goosebumps? Absolutely.

Kids have always loved scary stories, but in recent years, middle grade horror has really taken off as a genre. Why does this genre appeal to kids, and what are some ways for the library to support young scare-lovers?

Why Love Horror?

Reading horror allows kids who have grown up in safe and secure settings to experiment with both fear and bravery. They get to put themselves in the shoes of the main characters experiencing the fright, but also feel the triumph and exhilaration of outsmarting the evil clown or rescuing their little sister from a malevolent spirit.

On the flip side, horror can also appeal to kids who are currently experiencing insecurity or trauma because it feels familiar to them. For many kids, the world already feels like a scary, unfair place, and horror doesn’t try to put a big sunny smile over that. Instead, it shows kids how to confront overwhelming, frightening situations where they might feel powerless, frequently through metaphorical plots that connect to real-life situations. In horror stories, the main characters are often going through grief, loneliness or other big feelings. Some kids feel lectured to when they read about these feelings in a realistic novel, but in a scary story, the thrills and adventure make the plot more enjoyable.

Heading reads "Modern Horror for Middle Grade Ghouls." Four book covers are shown: Small Spaces, Spirit Hunters, Deadman's Castle, and the Forgotten Girl.
Like a lot of publishing, middle grade horror has traditionally focused on white authors and characters. Slowly it is diversifying, but there’s still a long ways to go.

Great Horror Reads

Kids Scary Classics That Still Strike Fear Into Modern Audiences:

  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz
  • Wait Til Helen Comes, Mary Downing Hahn
  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  • Skeleton Man, Joseph Bruchac

Contemporary Creepy Hits:

  • Small Spaces, Katherine Arden
  • The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud
  • The Forgotten Girl, India Hill Brown
  • Spirit Hunters, Ellen Oh
  • Hide and Seeker, Daka Hermon
  • The Hiddenseek, Nate Cernosek
  • Deadman’s Castle, Iain Lawrence
  • Hush-A-Bye, Jody Lee Mott

Frightful Programs That Won’t Give You Nightmares (Probably)

Horror-Readers Make Great Horror Writers

Host a scary story writing program. Set some firm age limits so no one gets traumatized – upper elementary is a good place to start. Gather your writers and have them suggest scary characters, scary settings, and scary endings (He was dead the whole time! The creepy doll reappeared the very next day!). Put all their suggestions up on a board and then encourage them to pick one character, one setting, and one ending (or let them make up their own). Turn them loose and watch in amazement as they come up with everything from Goosebumps-level cheesy to even-Steven-King-would-find-this-too-weird horrifying.

The Terrifying Tales Book Club

Pick a scary book for your kids to read before you meet. Spend half an hour discussing your favorite thrills from the story, and half an hour doing a related activity. When my book clubbers read Small Spaces, we made our own mazes out of marbles, straws, and paper plates, but I strongly considered leaning all the way in and making our own evil scarecrows.

Two Words: Coraline Movie

Screen a creepy film that’s still age appropriate. Coraline was made into a fantastic creep-fest – perfect your creepiest smile while you offer kids some buttons for their eyes.

Master Monster Make-Up

Pre-Covid, I would have recommended checking in with your local face painters to see if any of them would be up for leading a class in monster make-up. Save this for a future when (hopefully!) Covid is our own distant nightmare.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be reading Katherine Arden’s latest with all the lights on. Happy scaring!

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials

One comment

  1. Jack McLaughlin

    Dear Chelsey,
    I know this is an old article, as far as internet time goes, but I have a question regarding the subject of children enjoying horror. When I was a child, I loved horror so much, but I often felt alienated from my peers because of it, and I wished there were more Goosebumps-esque books and TV shows out there. Do you think kids would like a show akin to Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, but with a spooky twist? Nothing too scary, of course…think of “Zombo” from “The Munsters”. Do you think it could be a worthwhile idea, or is it “dead in the water”? I know I would have loved something like that as a kid.

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