Good and Gruesome
Why Younger Kids Need More Gore
by Nikki Loftin
A few years ago, my husband and I met for lunch and shared our grave concerns about our children’s inappropriate bedtime stories. “They’re awful,” he said. “I don’t understand it.”
“I know! The Three Little Pigs, Rumpelstiltskin, even Little Red Riding Hood!” I practically shouted. “I’m having to change all the endings!”
“Yes,” my husband agreed, his expression as serious as mine. “The endings are the worst. All these modern fairy tales… there’s not nearly enough killing in them.”
“Almost no blood,” I agreed, shaking my head at the sad state of affairs in children’s literature. “Can you believe they’re letting the Big Bad Wolf live?”
Okay, the conversation might not have played out exactly that way, but the sentiment was the same. If you’ve been reading fairy tales for as many years as I have, you know what I’m talking about. In the storybooks my husband and I had as children, details may have differed, but there were some constants. The Gingerbread Man got eaten by the fox, Red Riding Hood spent some quality time in the wolf’s stomach thinking about her poor choices before the woodsman came by, and the first two little pigs died, of course.
The fairy tales we’d recently purchased for our children had the same titles as the ones we loved, but these were tame and gentle. The dark, scary, often gruesome classics that for hundreds of years served both as entertainment and cautionary tales had been watered-down. The thrill, as they say, was gone.
Driven by a need to revive my favorite, dark tales, that very day I began writing my own: a re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel, complete with homicidal, cannibalistic witches, enchanted food, and enough disturbing material to satisfy a twelve-year old with unfettered access to an XBox and the latest versions of Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat.
A few months later, that manuscript would become my first published novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. And a few months after that, I began my hunt for proof that my intuition was right: that stories like mine—and like Grimm’s—weren’t damaging to children.
It wasn’t easy to find.
It seemed as if my husband and I were alone in our complaints. Indeed, other well-meaning parents might be the ones behind the disappearance of classic fairy tales. In 2009, TheBabyWebsite did a poll of 3,000 British parents, for instance, and found that the bedtime stories they had once enjoyed – “The Gingerbread Man,” “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “Hansel and Gretel” – were now deemed too scary. In the study, a third of the parents wouldn’t read their tots “Little Red Riding Hood” because Red walks through the forest alone and her grandmother is gobbled up by the wolf. And yet, in the same study, 66% of the parents expressed a belief that traditional fairy tales portray stronger morality messages than their replacements!
Maybe it didn’t matter that these stories were vanishing, and new, gentle ones were taking their places. Would kids really miss anything by not being exposed to scary stories at an early age?
What do kids lose when they lose the Big Bad Wolf?
Then another article, seemingly unrelated, caught my eye. Researchers in the Psychology Department at Ohio State University in 2008 had been studying the effects of reading on behavior. What they discovered was that, in the right situations, readers who “lost themselves” in a story – that is, felt the emotions, thoughts, and beliefs of the character, an effect well-written stories often achieve—were themselves changed after reading. The effect of this immersion in text, called “experience-taking” by the researchers, may have been only temporary, but it was real and measurable. Study participants who read about characters overcoming obstacles to vote were themselves significantly more likely to vote in the 2008 Presidential election several days later. (And interestingly, when the texts were both engaging and written in first person, the effects on voting were even more pronounced.)
Further studies were conducted on groups of heterosexual male students, using compelling texts featuring homosexual main characters. After reading, participants reported more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals than they had beforehand, and relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals in rating the characters.
Because this “experience-taking” is an unconscious process, Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study said, “it can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways.” Experience-taking is spontaneous, according to Libby. “People don’t even realize it is happening to them.”
Powerful stuff, right? Readers like my husband and myself have known intuitively all along that this process was taking place. Other parents, however, realizing the effect of books on their impressionable children, may very well have been rejecting texts with frightening story lines for this very reason: because the reading experience is so incredibly powerful, it can affect a child for months or years.
Protecting a child is good, right? So maybe a child never sees herself as Little Red Riding Hood, coming to a slow realization that that’s not Grandma in the bed. Perhaps a young boy never puts himself in the place of Jack the Giant Killer, climbing a beanstalk and outwitting a giant who has all the money, power, and magic in the world. Should this concern us?
Yes. Parents cannot be with their children all the time. But characters, and these “taken experiences” can be, and are. If experience-taking is a real phenomenon, in “protecting” children from these stories, we may fail to prepare them, to equip them for independence.
In a world where football coaches like Jerry Sandusky can be a thousand times worse than the Big Bad Wolf, should we, in our haste to protect young minds, take away those stories that would allow children to see themselves as brave, courageous, resourceful, and clever? If we remove the tales that allow them to immerse themselves in roles where they face down the Evil King or Queen, have we blunted one of the most valuable tools to prepare them for real-life villains?
Reading is relatively safe. It is a training ground for a world that is not.
G. K. Chesterton’s famous quotation proclaims, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” When we take away the old stories—or shun the new ones that have edge, bite, even a little gore!—instead of protecting our children, we have done them harm, making them emotionally defenseless in a way we never intended.
Writing and promoting a book for eight-to-twelve-year olds with cannibalism, witchcraft, and murder as central plot points isn’t for the faint of heart. (Of course, the themes of childhood obesity, bullying, and the death of a mother aren’t easy to grapple with either.) But I followed my instincts, and the Grimm Brothers’ example. If a scene called for a macabre twist, I went with it.
I read the chapters as I wrote them to my own children every night. When I finished, they begged for more of the same. I brought them Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and all the Alvin Schwartz I could find.
Will so much dark, gruesome, exciting literature harm them? I don’t think so. In fact, as I read more and more about the importance of fairy tales for children, I’m becoming certain that NOT allowing children to read or hear tales that have phenomenal child protagonists overcoming great odds and truly evil villains may have dire consequences, indeed.
And that would be more frightening than a thousand fairy tale witches.
Grabmeier, Jeff. “Research and Innovation Communications.” ‘Losing Yourself’ In A Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life. The Ohio State University: Research and Innovation Communications, 7 May 2012. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. <http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/exptaking.htm>.
Paton, Graeme. “Parents Who Shun Fairytales Miss Chance to Teach Children Morality.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/>.