Fear & horror in children’s literature – Review of truly terrifying kids & YA books
Part 1: Lost in the Woods
I am fascinated by the special kind of horror that can only be found in stories about and for children. Since the very first children’s books by Perrault and the Grimm brothers, and before that, in folktales and oral traditions, stories about children have so often been gruesome and strangely disturbing.
Take for instance Hansel & Gretel, an old German folk tale about two starving children who’ve been abandoned by their parents in a forest, and then taken captive by a woman who plans to eat them. Many modern versions of the tale clean it up in significant ways—the children are lost in the forest, not abandoned, and the cannabilistic intent of the old woman is minimized. She plans to kill the children, but we don’t know exactly why.
In Neil Gaiman’s version of this classic tale, which is hauntingly illustrated, no details are spared: Hansel overhears his mother convincing his father to purposely lose the children in the forest, and the witch happily refers to Hansel as “meat” when she locks him up in a cage to “fatten him up” for the slaughter by forcing him to eat until he cannot “choke down another mouthful.”
Hansel and Gretel come upon the gingerbread house
in Neil Gaiman’s version of this classic
I particularly like Hansel and Gretal as an introduction to the discussion of fear and horror in children’s literature for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a very popular folktale, and as such, it forms part of the emotional-mythic foundation of modern children’s literature. The story is thought to have originated in the Great Famine of 1315-1321, which makes it not as old as some (for example, variants of Jack and the Beanstalk originated over 4000 years ago), but it’s old enough to have branched off into many other stories.
Secondly, it is squarely a children’s story—we are exclusively given the perspective of child protagonists who must overcome adult antagonists. Having said that, it is a special type of children’s story in that it has no moral lesson embedded in it, which is really quite intriguing and rare in children’s literature in general. I’ll get into that later, in Part 2 of this essay.
Lastly, this classic foktale hits what I’ve discovered to be two very common notes in scary children’s literature: abandonment and hunger, which I’ll get into now.
Abandonment and Hunger in Children’s Horror
Throughout children’s literature, we see the theme of abandonment coming up again and again. In many instances the protagonist is an orphan, and although many orphan stories aren’t scary or classified as horror, there is something obviously sinister and/or sad about them.
I am not a scientist so I’m not going to delve too deep into the psychology of the fear of abandonment, but suffice it to say that since Freud’s study of Little Hans and Bowlby’s studies on attachment, we know that children have an innate fear of abandonment that is tied to their self-preservation. The so-called lizard brain is hard-wired to attach to adults.
And the reason for that is simple: children need care-takers to survive. Their small statures make them prone to predators, and also make finding food more difficult. What children have are their adorable, large eyes, their soft baby smell, and their infectious giggles, which trigger the care-taking response in not only adult humans but in adult animals as well.
So it makes sense that so many children’s horror stories contain both themes of abandonment AND hunger. Here are a few of my personal favourites, from picture books to young adult novels.
Examples of Abandonment and Hunger in Children’s Horror
THE BABES IN THE WOOD
by Thomas Millington, 1595
illustrated by Randolph Caldecott, 1879
An abandonment folktale very similar to Hansel and Gretel, but with a tragic ending. Orphans, the children are left by their greedy uncle to die in the woods. Their bodies are covered with leaves by birds. This book is so horrifying that many reviews are quite outraged, which I found quite amusing. I guess they expected something else. This tale is thought to be based on a true story that happened in England.See reviews of this book
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH
by Roald Dahl, 1961
James, a four-year-old orphan is sent to live with his evil aunts, who starve and abuse him, and force him to sleep on the floor. Here again we see the two themes of abandonment and hunger in one story. Is it coincedence that the giant peach becomes his saviour, just as the gingerbread house is the saviour of Hansel and Gretel? This book is a classic, and is so very disturbing, as is much of Roald Dahl’s writing.See reviews of this book
THE LONG WALK
by Stephen King, 1979
The Long Walk was nominated as one of the best books for teenage readers. This terrifying novella follows a 16-year-old boy who competes in a walk to the death with a hundred other boys. The rules are simple: If you stop walking, you’re shot dead. Last person walking wins. You have only the food you’ve brought with you. This story touches on hunger and abandonment, as all of the underage boys are being exploited because of their low social class. Often compared to Hunger Games, this book is much more of a psychological horror. Very disturbing—I loved it as a kid!See reviews of this book
WHEN THE CHENOO HOWLS: NATIVE AMERICAN TALES OF TERROR
by James and Joseph Bruchac, 1998
This illustrated book contains many authentic First Nations folktales, but the one I’m particularly interested in is about the Chenoo, or W*ndigo, a posessed human turned creature with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. The W*ndigo traditionally stalks travellers who are walking in the woods. Sound familiar? This creature has terrified children for thousands of years. There are elements of the foolish choice (see Part 2 below for more info on the foolish choice) in most tales of the W*ndigo. Also, I’ve put some links on the W*ndigo in the resources section of this essay, below.See reviews of this book
THE DAY THE BABIES CRAWLED AWAY
By Peggy Rathmann, 2003
In a similar although much tamer vein, we have a beautifully illustrated picturebook “The Day the Babies Crawled Away,” by Peggy Rathmann. On the surface it’s an adorably illustrated adventure about a boy who must wrangle up babies (a little like herding cats). However, looking deeper, we see that the parents are so busy stuffing their faces with pie that they neglect to notice their babies are in danger. As I read this story, I felt the anxiety of the little boy who must rescue the babies from very precarious situations (hanging from cliffs, lost in a dark forest).See reviews of this book
WHITE IS FOR WITCHING
by Helen Oyeyemi
While not written for teens, this beautifully written, very creepy haunted house story follows a teenage orphan whose mental health condition—pica, an eating disorder that makes her crave to eat things that aren’t food—intensifies after her mother dies. Here we see again how hunger and abandonment are tied up together in horror. This book leaves the reader unsettled and seeking to make sense—is there a ghost or is the view-point character mentally unwell? It has been argued that this book deals with colonialism in England, where Oyeyemi, a black woman, lives.See reviews of this book
A MONSTER CALLS
by Patrick Ness, 2011
In this very touching and scary middle grade horror, we meet a young boy whose mother is sick. He is haunted at night by a monster in the form of a giant yew tree (here we are, in the woods again). This story is very visceraly about the terror of being abandoned by a dying parent and is set in the modern world. The story is tragic so pull out your tissues if you plan to read. What I truly love about this story is that it’s not moralizing. The character does go through a transformation, but it’s not a lecture. Compare this with The Nest (below in Part 2), which covers a very similar topic.See reviews of this book
THE NIGHT GARDENER
by Jonathan Auxier, 2014
We come back full circle to Hansel and Gretel in the Night Gardener, about two siblings, a boy and a girl, who are starving orphans forced by hunger to work as servants in a house haunted by an evil tree and its ghostly gardener. This disturbing and scary story is a real page turner. I love the tension created by the fact that one of the siblings knows the truth about their parents’ death, and the other doesn’t. This story contains elements of the Poor Choice, which I go into in depth in Part 2 of this essay below.See reviews of this book
Morals in Children’s Horror
The majority of the above stories in the Abandonment/Hunger category are not moralizing or educational. There may be a theme that speaks to morals or ethics, but the main arc of the story does not revolve around the protagonist learning a moral or lesson. This is uncommon in children’s fiction, and might be why I am drawn to horror for these age groups.
The vast majority of literature for young people (horror and not) contains a strong didactic element. In another essay I wrote on allowing children to read books for adults, I spoke at length about our tendency to infantilize children. I’m not going to get into that here, but I do have a question I think is worth asking: how does horror fit into what Irina Rata calls “the colonization of the child?” Why do adults write children’s stories about kids being abused, abandoned, starved and shot?
This might be tangential, but I feel the discussion warrants it. In her very critical examination of classic children’s literature, “The Case of Peter Pan, Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction” (1992), Rose Jacqueline examines how we manipulate children through our children’s stories. In her own words:
“Children’s fiction is impossible, not in the sense that it cannot be written (that would be nonsense), but in that it hangs on an impossibility, one which rarely ventures to speak. This is the impossible relation between adult and child. Children’s fiction is clearly about that relation, but it has the remarkable characteristic of being about something which it hardly ever talks of. Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between. To say that the child is inside the book—children’s books are after all as often as not about children—is to fall straight into a trap. It is to confuse the adult’s intention to get at the child with the child it portrays. If children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp.” (pg. 1-2)
Part 2: I Told You So
There is so much to unpack in that quote above, but I think the main point she is making is that writing for children is a covert form of grasping and manipulation, which is such a creepy way of looking at the writer/reader relationship.
In sharing this quote, I’m transitioning to my next topic, which is the idea that adults often use fear in writing to scare children into behaving. Think of expressions like, ‘Don’t walk in the woods or a bogeyman will get you.’
The next group of horror books from my personal canon includes some moralizing tales. Just like with the Abandonment/Hunger category, these stories seem to follow an eerily similar pattern. In this case, the pattern is what I call Foolish Choices where the child walks in the woods, and… I told you so.
Foolish choices are by no means unique to children’s literature, as any pulp horror movie will have you yelling, “Don’t be a fool! Run for your life!” However, foolish or ‘immoral’ choices seem to be a frame that fits the remainder of the horror stories for children that I’ve chosen, so I’m using it.
And just to clarify—I didn’t choose books in either of these categories because they fit some pre-identified framework. I sat down with my big stack of books, and these two patterns emerged: Orphans and Fools.
I start this second half of my journey off with another very old folktale, Little Red Riding Hood, which has its roots in many cultures with slightly different versions. The first printed version by Charles Perrault came out in France in 1695 and follows a young peasant girl as she travels to her grandmother’s house. She stops to chat with some strangers who find out where she is going, and one of them, a wolf, beats her to her destination, eats her grandmother, and then dresses up as her grandmother and eats Little Red Riding Hood.
Little Red Riding Hood from 1911 version of the story
Later sanitized versions treat the story much differently. In most, Little Red Riding Hood is saved, the wolf is killed and there are no sexual undertones.
Did I just say sexual undertones? Yes, in Perrault’s version, before Little Red Riding Hood is killed, she gets undressed and lies in bed with the wolf.
If you weren’t absolutely certain there was a moral to this story, Perrault makes it clear in his afternote: “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say, “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”
Little Red Riding Hood’s poor choice is to talk to strangers as she walks to her grandmother’s house. She also makes the dubious choice of taking off her clothes before hopping into bed with the wolf, er, I mean her grandmother. These poor choices don’t end well for her.
Let’s look at some other classic and modern horror stories that follow other children making poor choices
Examples of Poor/Immoral Choices in Children’s Horror
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
by Ray Bradbury, 1962
Oohh, what a creepy and beautiful story! The writing here is gorgeous, and we’re drawn in right away by two twelve year old boys who are ensnared by a creepy carnival owner. Their first poor choice is to sneak out at night to watch the carnival train pull in. Similar to Little Red Riding Hood, we as the reader have to wonder how it is that these boys don’t know they should run for their lives? This is tale of good and evil with a happy, if not somewhat evangelical ending.See reviews of this book
WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
by Shirley Jackson, 1962
This contains a spoiler, so beware, but I can’t connect this story to my exploration of immoral choices without spoiling the ending. Basically the main character, an eighteen year old girl, murders her family so she can have her sister all to herself. This is one of those truly rare villainous main characters. LOVE IT! The story is very strange, very absurd and masterfully written. Possibly more suitable for advanced readers looking for a thrill.See reviews of this book
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DUMMY
by R.L. Stine, 1993
No children’s horror list could be complete without R.L. Stine and his Goosebumps series. Slappy has entered the nightmares of many a child, including mine! Haha! What a creepy frigging character. My God, what a scary story. This is where the infantilizing cover really doesn’t do the contents justice. Now most of R.L. Stine’s stories are exactly of this ‘Foolish Choice’ moralizing variety—you do something bad, you pay the consequences. In this story, the protagonists greedily befriend a magical and murderous puppet with the hopes of gaining fame.See reviews of this book
by Neil Gaiman, 2003
Here is the second story by Gaiman on my list. He is a master of children’s horror and never fails to pull the punches. In Coraline, we meet a girl who makes the terrible choice of stealing a key to open the next door apartment. There she meets her ‘other mother,’ a woman who wants to sew buttons onto Coraline’s eyes… super creepy! And of course, we watch Coraline enter the apartment not once, but twice, and we scream, “Don’t do it!” the entire time. There is also a very poignant abandonment scene when Corline is locked in a closet by the other mother and told her parents have left her.See reviews of this book
by Vera Brosgol, 2011
This is the only graphic novel in my personal children’s horror canon (so far), and it’s very much a story in the tradition of bad choices. Anya, an immigrant girl from Russia who is desperate to be popular and win the cute boy, makes one bad choice after another, until they finally come back to… haunt her (ahahah… cue vampire laugh). I absolutely loved this story, which proves that a book can be incredibly scary, sweet and touching all at the same time. This story is moralizing, as Anya learns integrity by the end, but it doesn’t feel like a lecture. I think it’s something every teenage girl can relate to.See reviews of this book
by Kenneth Oppel, 2015
This is the final book in my curated list (for now). Very similarly to A Monster Calls, The Nest follows a young boy as his family goes through a medical crisis. As in that other story, this boy also has nightmares during which a monster, a queen bee monster, visits him. In this story, though, the final climax is brought on by the character’s own foolish choice (he wants to make his ill brother ‘normal’ and invites the monster to help him). Although this story is very well written, it did not grip me as much because the moral was too on the nose. I felt lectured to. I’m still keeping it in my list as a comparison book to A Monster Calls.See reviews of this book
Why did I choose to curate a list of great horror stories for children and young adults? It’s a good question, and one I’m asking myself. In creating this personal canon, I never set out to prove a point or sum something up. I simply went on a journey, carrying my trusted talisman, a library card, and helped along the way by an amazing sidekick, the librarian at the Central Branch of the VPL who literally spent hours with me hunting for horror books! (he did his masters thesis on the semiotics of fear in children’s fiction, so I got lucky!)
I chose horror as the topic of this canon partly because I’m writing a middle grade horror novel, but also because I thought long and hard about the kinds of books I liked when I was young, and about what my students might like. It’s presumptuous to think my students will like what I liked, but I had to start somewhere.
Stephen King was the first author I adored. Even though his stories are often about adults, I felt he understood me, a ten year old girl, more than most people. I had read Stephen King’s entire oeuvre by the time I was a tween. More than loving the thrill of reading a scary story (and oh how I loved it) I also appreciated the fact that most protagonists in scary stories are misunderstood, mistreated and/or maligned. There was something there I could relate to.
The world is a scary place.
Earlier I spoke about the fact that adults often write children’s literature with an agenda. Sometimes that agenda is to change, educate, moralize or colonize the child, and sometimes that agenda is simply to entertain. However, I believe sometimes that agenda is more personal. Sometimes an adult might sit down to write a story because they themselves want to figure something out, explore an idea, or heal from past hurts.
Horror can be, strangely enough, a balm for the soul of someone who is broken, lost or confused. It says, “You’re not alone.” Horror is not neat and tidy, most often conversely so. It’s bloody, absurd and ambiguous. It does not give a solution. It doesn’t rescue, but it abides. It assauges. It confirms.
here is a list of all the Children’s books I’ve referenced in this essay.
The Night Gardener, 2014
Something Wicked this Way Comes, 1962
Anya’s Ghost, 2011
When the Chenoo Howls: Native American Tales of Terror, 1998
Babes in the Woods, 1879
James and the Giant Peach, 1961
Hansel and Gretel, 2014
Hansel and Gretel, 1812
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 1962
The Long Walk, 1979
A Monster Calls, 2011
The Nest, 2015
White is for Witching, 2009
Little Red Riding Hood, 1695
The Day the Babies Crawled Away, 2003
Night of the Living Dummy, 1993
While researching for this project, I found so many awesome resources I want to keep handy for future research and applications. Here are some of them:
For this project, I listened to a Cree Elder tell a very scary traditional Algonquin story about the W*ndigos on a site called Our Voices. So cool, check it out!Go to Our Voices
Here is an excellent essay by Back Story Radio on the misrepresenation of the W*ndigo in popular culture.Go to Back Story
This is a strange source (Legion Magazine, a military history website), but a very detailed and seems accurate account of multiple stories about the W*ndigo, including some from early colonist history.Go to Legion Magazine
Okay, here is a cross-linking of the various names for the W*ndigo in different First Nations cultures, including links to many oral tradition stories about the W*ndigo.Go to Native Languages
Read Aloud: The Day the Babies Crawled Away
Remember the day the babies crawled away?
We moms and dads were eating pies.
The babies saw some butterflies.
And what do you know?
The babies crawled away.
Remember the way
You tried to save the day?
You hollered “Hey!
You babies STAY”
But none of them did.
And some of them hid.
What a day
When the babies crawled away.
Abandonment in literature
A great anonymous essay written about abandonment in literature can be found at the blog link below. It discusses in quite some depth the various historical, psychological and philosophical roots of abandonment in literature.Go to essay
A note of apology
I need to admit and apologize for the fact that I did not stray much out of Western literature in my exploration. Partly, I did not know where to start, and partly I felt out of place. I hope to remedy this in the near future.