Horror Fiction and Dark Fantasy for Children: is it Pedagogical or Traumatising?

Written by Marta Pozzi.
Edited by Francesca Lombardo.

In the past few decades, children’s fiction has been increasingly populated by scary, gory, and dark stories that have taken the publishing industry by storm. Some examples are Gaiman’s children’s books – such as CoralineThe Graveyard Book or Wolves in the Walls – the Goosebumps series, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, to name a few. Some of these books deal with extreme danger, bloody sights, and disturbing or frightening situations that may give children nightmares. Consequently, some parents are worried about the negative impact that this kind of fiction may have on their kids. On the other hand, many people argue that this kind of book helps a younger audience acknowledge and deal with fear healthily. This article will discuss the pros and cons of horror fiction for children and if and how it should be presented to them.

I have to admit that I used to have a much stronger opinion on the subject. As an adult reader who loves children’s horror fiction and who believes that children are much more capable of processing difficult knowledge than adults give them credit for, I have been wholeheartedly in favour of their unrestrained consumption of books – however scary they may be. Later on, I realised that this conviction was more of an abstract one rather than based on actual experience with children. The issue was perhaps not as clear cut as I had previously believed.

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev from Pexels

I am not a parent myself nor do I have young siblings, so I am not aware of how individual children can be impacted by reading a disturbing tale. However, I have spoken with acquaintances that do and I was surprised at how different of an opinion they had. I also did some research online and found this interesting website called ‘common sense media’, which provides parents and kids with reviews of books and movies, content warnings, age targets, and discussion topics. I was curious to see what parents thought of Coraline and started reading some of their reviews. Unsurprisingly, they were extremely varied. Someone spoke of the nightmares their kids had or of the vivid imagery they could not get out of their heads after reading Gaiman’s novel; on the contrary, many other parents and educators highlighted the educational value and positive role models and messages the story contained.

Indeed, some of the themes and characters in this particular book, and children’s horror fiction in general, are extremely scary. However, I do not think that parents should substitute these stories with edulcorated and “safer” texts just because they deal with difficult subjects. Encountering fear, danger and unsettling themes in literature (which, it must be reminded, is a safer environment than the real world, since a book can always be closed) is fundamental to start acknowledging and coming to terms with the not-so-pleasant side of growing up. Horror fiction encourages children to delve into dark and scary worlds and to come out of them victorious with the hero or heroine. Perhaps, they will be less innocent and more knowledgeable at the end of their literary travels, but they will definitely be better equipped to confront challenging situations in the future. Like Gaiman writes in the epigraph to Coraline, ‘fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’ The monsters and the monstrous empower children.

So, is children’s horror fiction pedagogical or traumatising? The answer, in my opinion, is both: it depends on the individual child. The best way to approach a scary book is for parents and educators to listen to the child and offer advice and explanations when needed. If the book proves to be too scary and not enjoyable (reading, after all, is supposed to be fun!), it should not be forced on them. But if, on the other hand, adults just assume that a text will be too intimidating for their kids because “too scary”, they may miss out on its pedagogical value.

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