By Simon Brooks
I love spooky stories and have ever since I was a kid. Few children don’t love scary stories. As a professional storyteller I love telling them. They can be a lot of fun. An old friend of mine once told me that the Grimm tales are too scary for kids. Well, some of them are; some were not designed for adults. But these old, ancient stories were our first teaching stories — how to deal with certain experiences, emotions, situations and challenges — fear being one of them.
These stories have stayed around for so long because there is a power to them. They are not, as mythologist Martin Shaw has said the “wiggle from the penned agenda of one brain-bogged individual…” These stories have been passed down and changed (until recently) through the mouths of generation after generation of storytellers. They have gone from rough dirt to coal to diamonds. There is great wisdom in these stories. Books have been written about this by people far better studied than I.
What Can Your Kids Handle?
I am not advocating that you read the scariest stories you can find to your children, in the same way that I would never take a 6 year old to see Lord of the Rings. Movies, television, video games and the like push images into the mind and they stick. How many of you have read a good book, seen in your mind what the character looks like, only to go and see the movie version and never see again the person you created in your mind? Putting a child in front of a scary scene, whether it is a video game or movie, that image is seared into their thoughts and imagination. They will not un-see it.
Picture books are not designed to frighten kids witless. And if you tell kids a story (without using a book or pictures) the child will imagine what they can handle, what they can control. They might scare themselves, but safely. I am saying you need to find the right scary stories and read them to your children. You know your kids, and what they can handle.
Folk and fairy tales allow us to feel things, experience events through other people — the heroes, the creatures of a story — one step removed. We can see that these characters might have issues that we have had or gone through experiences we ourselves have journeyed. But these stories are not happening to us, they are one step removed. This is the safety catch. Children can see other characters deal handle fear and make it through. You might be shrugging and thinking, “Yeah, and they all lived happily ever after.” But look more closely at these stories. To live happily ever after, the characters in these tales undergo tests or challenges. There is usually a helper (they don’t go through it totally alone), and the characters have to face the fear, the challenge and figure out a way to overcome the challenge, before they get to live happily ever after. Folk and fairy tales educate us.
Sometimes the challenges in these stories are tough and seem insurmountable. But they have to be. It takes effort to reach the pot of gold, whatever that pot looks like. These stories provide hope, and not a false sense of the world. There are giants who make us feel helpless (think of corporations, or pandemics), evil creatures in the forests (watch the news any night and you will find bad people), and helpers. How often do we look to other people for help, whether they are colleagues, family or friends? And that is the power of these tales. These stories teach you to look for helpers, to try to be creative about solving problems, help others, and that there is reassurance to be found.
That Time of the Year
Let’s come back to what this is really about. Halloween is a great time to tell and listen to scary stories. In the tradition of this time of year, the veil between the spirit world and the living world, if you believe in all that, is at its thinnest. It’s time for spooky stories!
You’re not going to read W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw to a 6 year old, but your teenager might love it. Little people love the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. This might seem trite, but the youngest talks his way out of being eaten by a troll, as does the second goat, and it is the eldest, and strongest goat that dispatches the troll over the bridge. Telling a story like this, you can make the troll frightening and funny — it can have a scary, gruff voice, but pull silly faces, go cross-eyed, to counter that. The kids should feel scared and okay at the same time — if done right. And it is the river that smashes the troll into a million pieces.
The Scottish ballad of Tam Lin (also known as Tamlane) can teach you not to give up looking for what you want. And that it might not be easy to get. This is primarily a love story, but the female protagonist has to save her love by holding onto him while the evil fairy queen turns him into various dangerous creatures and finally a red hot iron rod, or sword (few fairies are good in folk tales). By plunging the sword into the nearby well, he is saved from the fairy folk, and the lovers are reunited. You might have to hold on tight to keep what you truly want, but you also have to be able to let it go.
If you don’t teach young people how to handle fear safely through stories, how will they be able to deal with it when they first come across it in real life? Kids are smart. Kids are hardy. They have to be. We cannot protect our kids forever, they need to find their way in the world, and these old stories really do help. Not the watered down versions, but the ‘original’ versions. They teach us creative ways to think, to be strong, and determined, and as I said — how to handle fear.
How Kids Use Stories to Process
I want to tell you a story — of course. When my daughter was about 6 years of age, a friend of hers told her that a registered predator had been seen at the edge of their property. The family were renting a house in a small town and had been notified that this person lived there. My daughter’s friend was obviously upset when she shared this with my own daughter. It frightened my daughter that such people existed.
I knew nothing about this, but that night my daughter came into my office and looked for and found Little Red Riding Hood. That night she asked me to read it to her four times. This was not normal. I said nothing and did my job as Dad. This happened night, after night, after night for about a week. A few days in, I got to talking to my wife about it, and she told me about our daughter’s friend and what had happened.
I realized my little girl, who knew all these stories, found the one which allowed her to process the incident in her head safely. The big, bad wolf talking to her friend. How he had pretended to be someone nice. But in the end the big, bad wolf was dealt with.
Although my wife had talked to our daughter about this, I decided I would not mention what I saw as a correlation to her experience in the book. I am a firm believer that when kids find their own answers, it is a more powerful experience for them and sits deeper inside. Find a pair of scissors for someone and they will never know where they are, show them how to find the scissors… maybe not the best analogy, but it will do!
I have often told folk and fairy tales to my kids to explain things that came up. Well-worn phrases my kids would roll their eyes at were, “Well it was like when Jack…” or “Do you remember how that princess tricked the dragon?” They weren’t the first to face this problem, neither would they be the last. “But we don’t have a little, wise, old lady to help, Dad!” they would say. And I would reply: “Will I do, then? Let’s see!”
The stories have a pattern to them. Young people can remember them. They stick with you. If you read them to your kids often enough you will be able to pull them out and tell them yourself, whenever you need them, without the written word. Maybe not word for word, but what’s the joy in that? Recreate them for your children. They become something that binds you more closely to your children. And when you get asked to tell, or read a certain tale, or they tell you the tale themselves that night, life doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
Simon Brooks has a number of stories (some spooky) for free on his website, Diamondscree.com. He lives in New London, N.H., with his wife, two children, a cat, and a dog called Moe. Simon performs all over the USA.
Marjorie Salvatore is a local artist and maker. She works as a framing gallery assistant, along with freelancing as an illustrator, graphic artist and designer in theatre. See more of her work at marjorie.salvatore.myportfolio.com
Here are some additional resources:
- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, Random House, 1976
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Ballantine Books, 1995
- Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis, Inviting the Wolf In, August House, 2001
- Marni Shaw, Courting the Wild Twin, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020
- Dan Yashinsky, Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, University Press of Mississippi, 2004
- Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Routledge, 1988