The floorboards creaked as the mysterious footsteps came closer. The doorknob turned. The children looked for some place to hide, but there was no time. A hand appeared, its long claw-like nails scraping the wood of the door as it pushed it slowly open…
It doesn’t even matter how this story began. This bit is enough to show that my kids love it. Why? Because they are shivering in their seats. Oh, how they love that shiver. And how I love the look of mingled terror and delight on their faces. Their hearts are pounding. They are shifting in their seats. Though they don’t understand it themselves (and really, neither do I), their brains have felt their fear and gone into fight or flight mode, sending adrenalin coursing through their little bodies. They are lit up, not dangerously so, but enough to feel the thrill.
By scaring my children, just a little, I’ve made them feel more alive.
The littlest child hid her face, while her older sister looked bravely ahead, determined to defend herself and her little sister against whoever….whatever…was coming through that door. Seeing a hairbrush on the bedside table, she snatched it up, gripping it tightly as a shriveled arm followed the gnarled hand through the door…
This would be about the point that my five-year-old would bolt from her seat and skirt the fire to come and cuddle on my lap. My son would make a joke to break the tension, and we would all laugh. My oldest daughter would roll her eyes and then shush him, eager to hear the ending. When the end does come, we’ll all exhale. Then we’ll all talk at the same time for a few minutes. Then it will be someone else’s turn for a tale. The kids stories will inevitably include elements from mine, turned their own way, but recognizable just the same. For days after, we’ll remind each other of our favorite scary moment. At the next campfire, someone will say, “Remember the last campfire story?” It’s more than just a story, it’s a shared moment of high emotion, a moment when we looked to each other for reassurance, some of us pretending we didn’t really need it, but we looked just the same.
By scaring my children, just a little, I’ve brought us together as a family.
The horrible creature that entered the room was like nothing the children had ever seen. Hunched over and shuffling slowly toward them, they couldn’t take their eyes off of its wrinkled gray skin and the disgusting matted hair that obscured its face. The older sister raised the hairbrush threateningly…
It doesn’t even matter how the story ends. Perhaps the creature attacks and they are successful in fighting it off. Perhaps someone comes to rescue them. Perhaps it turns out that the creature was friendly in spite of its appearance. In any case, the children end up safe and sound, their fears overcome. My kids will feel the release of tension. They’ll grin with relief as they feel the empowerment of victory. If I were a slightly different person, it could end with the children being mercilessly slaughtered, I suppose. That’s the next level of terrifying, but even so, the story ends. My children look around. They are all still alive and with their family and safe. One more horrible thing that hasn’t harmed them, in spite of what it’s done to others.
By scaring my children just a little bit, I’ve made them feel safer.
(Parents, I know you remember the ghost stories that scared you as a kid. Try them out on your kids, if you don’t feel up to making up your own. Or check out these well-known legends . And if you are interested in more thoughts on why we tell scary stories, listen to these fascinating clips from a talk given by Neil Gaiman. His very way of speaking will give you a little shiver.