I imagine this was a common experience for many who grew up in my generation. You’re browsing the kids section of your local bookstore. Whether it was a Barnes & Noble or a Half-Price Books, you were bound to eventually stumble upon a series of book covers something that stood out against the Hardy Boys and Harry Potter books. How could they not? With that oozing green font, titles straight out of an old-timey serial and those eye-catching illustrations! Oh, those illustrations, which featured everything from a masked man wielding an axe to a polaroid picture of a bunch of skeletons barbequing.
Those Goosebumps book covers always captured my eye. There really wasn’t anything else like them in the children’s book sections. What other book series had the audacity to name their entries “Say Cheese and Die!” or “Monster Blood”? To clutch a Goosebumps book as an eight-year-old was to feel like you had stumbled onto something your parents might not want you to read. After all, death, blood, all that stuff was supposed to be off-limits! Much like Dav Pilkey’s use of bathroom humor in the Captain Underpants books, R.L. Stine used hallmarks of horror storytelling as a hook to get kids to pick up a book.
Goosebumps wasn’t just good for endorsing literacy. It’s also a classic example of how great children’s horror can be as a gateway drug to the larger world of horror. We’ve all gotta start somewhere with our scary entertainment. For one generation, the works of R.L. Stine were the stepping stones into the genre. For another generation, perhaps it was those chilling Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Modern-day kids, meanwhile, have a wealth of options, including works penned by the likes of Neil Gaiman, to give them their first taste of eerie entertainment. The phenomenon of kid’s horror is not just limited to eye-catching Goosebumps book covers!
Kids entertainment has always been populated by moments meant to terrify rather than coddle children. Just look at the earliest animated Disney movies, particularly Pinocchio. That scene of Lampwick painfully turning into a donkey is as disturbing as anything in your average Tobe Hooper movie. Heck, going back even further, the days of Grimm's Fairy Tales made sure that children heard stories that were as terrifying as they were enchanting. Death, decay, shoving witches into ovens, all par for the course for some of the earliest kids entertainment. Scary kids stuff is more of the norm, rather than an anomaly, in the world of youth-oriented entertainment.
That omnipresence doesn't just produce fun entertainment, it can even be helpful. In her piece The Importance of Scary Movies for Children for The Mary Sue, author Princess Weekes comments on the essentiality of exposing kids to scarier material:
Horror—like any genre done well, really—is one that usually teaches something about the world, and in stories made for children, those tales are meant to teach moral lessons and build resilience in young people.
It's true, exposing these kinds of stories to kids can be useful in preparing them for reality. It isn't just adult-skewing horror movies like Get Out that can reflect the real world. Family-friendly entries in the genre can do the same thing. Just look at how The Nightmare Before Christmas has been widely and wisely interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of cultural appropriation. But maybe the best virtue of all in kid-friendly horror fare is something oh so simple: it exposes people at a young and impressionable age to the wonderful world of horror storytelling.
This is a domain of storytelling rich with exciting, scary, and thought-provoking (sometimes all at once!) tales. It's so lovely to think of people getting to have a positive association with the genre from the get-go, even if they don't explicitly partake in it. From my own personal experience, I can say that, as a lifelong scaredy-cat, I was always too petrified to watch much kid-friendly horror. Even Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island put nightmares in my head, I wasn't gonna go near Gremlins or The Goonies. But that just made horror fare a kind of forbidden fruit I'd stare at when shopping at book or video stores.
Covers to Goosebumps books or horror movie VHS covers beckoned me I was young. Just holding these items in my hands gave me a rush, like I was doing something I was forbidden to do. Maybe I didn't get to have that experience of sneaking in a viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street while my parents were asleep. But horror stuff still left a positive impression on my adolescent mind. With even more kid-friendly horror stuff being made than ever before, it's nice to think that today's youth will have their own entry-way points into this genre like Goosebumps covers were for me. Everyone likes a good scare, that's universal. But where we all start with our scares, that's so delightfully unique.
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