The Beauty of Fear (Why your kids should be scared)

I wrote this article last year for a parenting blog (I know, right?) in support of my then-upcoming novel Charlie and the Grandmothers. It didn't actually make it in, so now I'm sharing it here.

The sky is black with a menacing storm. Cackling fills the air. A witch, seething, calls upon the power of Hell before her body stretches itself to impossible heights, morphing from sorceress to wraith, from wraith to fire-spewing beast. Only a shield protects our hero prince from being charred alive by the witch’s hate-fueled flames. It’s into these very flames she tumbles and dies, bleeding out from the blade in her heart, her screams lingering in our ears long after she’s diminished to a dark smear on the chasm floor.

This isn’t from an episode of a particularly dark HBO series. It’s a scene from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. When it was released in 1959, the film’s villain, Maleficent, was so frightening that young children reportedly cried at screenings. She terrified me circa 1986, but she also became my hero. Equal parts beautiful and scary, she was my inspiration. I wanted the power to thrill people with my own characters the way Maleficent thrilled me.

What Sleeping Beauty didn’t do was traumatize me. And I can't say I was scarred for life when I later sought the film’s source material in anthologies like Andrew Lang’s gruesome The Blue Fairy Book. You know what happens to children in stories from The Blue Fairy Book? Their own grandmother tries to cook and eat them. I loved it.

Sure, there were nightmares. Edgar Allan Poe, R.L Stine, the covers of movies in the horror section of the video store—they all gave me nightmares. But those nightmares are a fond memory for me. As an author and illustrator now, I’d even say I made a career out of them. Unfortunately, many kids are missing out on opportunities to have nightmares of their own.

Part of the problem is supply. New scares for young people were already rare in my own childhood. They’re scarcer now. Where is today’s Maleficent? The Angelina Jolie picture was lovely to look at but had all the bite of a lukewarm glass of milk. Where are the irredeemable ogres who’d slay the innocent? The vampires who really just want to drink our blood? It’s like villains aren’t allowed to be bad anymore. They can be mildly sinister or they can be ridiculous, but they can’t shake the audience’s sense of security. Too often, it’s love alone that saves the day, which is all very sweet, but it’s a dreadful bore.

Which leads me to the other part of the problem: Boring is in demand.

I get it. Moms and dads want their children to feel safe. They want them to have positive experiences, be shielded from worry. Parents also want to sleep through the night, and they don’t want to answer uncomfortable questions.

But there’s value in being a little frightened. Fear adds dimension. It gives kids more to think about than the lyrics to “Let It Go.” A child who fears the monsters in the dark is healthy. The creatures he sees in the shadows of his bedroom prove that his imagination is fully functioning. This is a good thing. A normal thing. And children should know that it’s normal to be scared. When you ban them from subject matter that frightens them, you’re telling them that their fear is wrong—a thing we should pretend does not exist.

Only it does exist, and it’s an all-ages, equal-opportunity emotion. Love is another one of those, as are grief and loss, and all of them can be scary. They’re part of that required package of uncertainty that life hands us the day we’re born. We can’t know what will happen tomorrow, how long we’ll have our loved ones, who means us well and who doesn’t. But as grownups, we know we have to face those risks. And when we do, that’s when we find out how strong we really are. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—we even say to ourselves, “That was fun. Let’s do it again.”

Before swooping up your little ones in the face of fictional horrors, ask yourself: are you really saving them or are you muting their imaginations? Are you helping them develop into happy, healthy adults or are you training them in the art of avoidance? I say give your kids a chance. Permit them to have a few nightmares. You might find they’ve been up to the challenge all along.

But we need more material. If enough parents demand it, the supply side might listen. Until then, good, old-fashioned fear waits in its tower for someone to free it from a long slumber.