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The Fear Factor

Why children crave scary stories

"Can you tell me a scary story?" my 4-year-old, Jack, asked me. We were in the car, driving to Joe's Pizza. "The one about The Monster of the Sky?"

Hmm. Small problem: I didn't know any sky-monster stories. Nobody warned me parenting required so much seat-of-the-pants improvisation.

"I don't know, buddy," I said, stalling.

"Do you know the story about The Monster of the Sky?"

"Well, of course, I do," I said. I had nothing.

"Daddy! Just tell me!"

Jack looked so disappointed that I made up something about a monster who disguised himself as a cloud. He got to be more and more powerful by talking the other clouds into joining him, but in the end, he got too big to float in the sky, turned into rain, and vanished.

Ta da! Moral instruction ("pride goeth before a fall") and a meteorology lesson all rolled into one. It entertained Jack all the way to the restaurant, where he said, "Now can you tell me about The Monster of the Pizza?"

It verged on obsession, his focus on fear. His mother and I, of course, understood that fear is a big part of any small human's life. Every day they are surrounded by people who seem to be powerful giants, as well as kids on the playground who can be truly monstrous. Each new experience is a confrontation with the unknown, and that's scary.

One night as I was getting Jack ready for sleep and he was asking for a you-know-what, my wife suggested, "Maybe not right before bed?" Jack was not a child plagued by nightmares (at least, not yet), but this seemed a sensible precaution.

Then Jack did have a nightmare — about Barney. Seriously. Which got me thinking about his fascination with the darker side of things, and how to control it. One preschool teacher, months earlier, had suggested that I wrestle with him at night as a way to lessen his playground urges to zap his playmates with invisible Power Ranger guns. We discussed how kids who wrestle with their dads learn appropriate limits and ways to process their aggressive urges. How, then, could story-telling be any different — a way to get those fears out in the open, and out of the system?

Jack lives in his imagination. Magical explanations have a satisfying logic for him. So fire-breathing dragons can be defeated by water-breathing dragons. Rational explanations only give him new, conflicting information to assimilate. I know how that works: Had my own mother told me that The Brain Eater in my childhood closet wasn't real, I'd have thought, "Well then, what's he doing in my closet?" Instead she closed the door tight, which did the trick (apparently my monster hadn't eaten enough brains to know how to operate a doorknob).

At school, Jack learns about bugs, colors, letters, and sings sweet songs. Many of the books he reads and the movies he watches are filled with love and sharing. This is fine, but is it enough?

I began to realize that perhaps Jack craves scary stories because they give him something Barney and Sesame Street do not: permission to feel the darker things he's going to feel anyway — jealousy, envy, anger, hurt — emotions such happy tales either passively or overtly make "bad" or unacceptable. There's a reason why the gruesome Grimms' Fairy Tales have survived for hundreds of years. Bottling things up and limiting a child's interaction with the dark side doesn't help him. As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment, "Our violent emotions are all denied by much of children's literature, and so the child is not helped in coping with them."

I could tell Bettelheim and I were on to something, simply by the look on Jack's face when I told him scary stories. It would change from one of excited anticipation, to joy, to pride at the end, as if he'd just ridden a carnival ride meant for older kids.

"The Monster of the Pizza?" I said as the waitress brought us our food. "Well, actually, right where this very restaurant was built, a long time ago, there used to be a castle with a dungeon . . ."

Since I've learned to honor Jack's scary-story requests, he hasn't had any more nightmares about Barney (though I believe I have). Now he even tries to scare me by making up stories of his own. This leads me to feel, beyond simple pride, that he's learning to put his fears into words (a skill we all need). And that he and I are connected by our shared love of stories, our mutual desire both to hear them and to tell them.

"One sunny night," Jack began last night in a dramatically exaggerated whisper, "when the moon was howling, there was a monster that was half spider and half giraffe, and he had light-up eyes."

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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