When you think of children’s literature, horror is probably not the first thing that you think of. Maybe it’s Dr. Seuss, or Beatrix Potter, or more recently maybe its Mo Willems or Hollie Hobby. But the truth is, is that scary fiction has permeated kids lit for hundreds of years.
Jakob and Willhelm’s Kinder und Hausmarchen (meaning ‘Children and Household Tales’), was first published in 1812 as a collection of 86 stories – by the seventh edition in 1857, the Brothers Grimm had written 211 unique fairy tales.
While we may be familiar with these tales from their washed down Disneyfied versions – the originals were highly criticized. Although the anthology was titled “Children’s tales”, most readers did not find the subject matter suitable for children. These children’s tales contained premarital sex (Rapunzel was impregnated by the prince who visited her often), graphic violence (Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels in an attempt to make the slipper fit), child abuse (a young boy is decapitated by his stepmother in the tale “The Juniper Tree”), incest (a man marries his daughter in “All Kinds of Fur”), and probably most famous of all: Wicked Mothers.
At this same time, Hans Christian Andersen was also writing tragic tales for children. Fairy Tales Told for Children his first collection of fairy tales published in booklet form between 1835 and 1837, contained some of his most famous works such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and “The Princess and the Pea”. While not as gory as the Grimm’s tales, Andersen’s stories also featured tragic deaths and violence.
The Early 1900s
We start seeing a slight deviation away from outright scary kids lit in the early 1900s. This is not to say that there weren’t scary bits – just not as scary as the fairy tales of the 1800s. We also start seeing books being specifically published for children. One of the most famous children’s books to come out of the early 1900s was The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. While there have been scary adaptations of Dorothy’s adventures, the truth is, is that the original was actually pretty scary!
I won’t go into all of it, but let’s look at the making of the Tinman. The Tin Woodman wasn’t always made of tin. He was once a human by the name of Nick Chopper. Nick fell in love with the witch’s munchkin servant. The witch couldn’t have her servants getting married and leaving her, so the witch enchanted Nick’s axe to cut off his limbs one by one – until his entire body was replaced by tin prosthetics. W…t….f…?
The 1970s & 1980s
I know we’re taking a big leap here, but there just wasn’t a lot of scary stuff being published for children. Although children’s publishing was booming, most of it was sweet. But in the 70s and 80s we saw a resurgence of darker books for young readers.
There is A LOT to cover here…so I’ll just cover the highlights.
In 1979 Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery was published. The story revolves around the Monroe family and their pets, with the book being told by the perspective of their dog, Harold. The Monroe’s find a bunny at the movie theater, where they were watching a Dracula film (side note: who takes their kids to a Dracula film?) and because of this, they name the bunny Bunnicula. Chester the cat however, is convinced that Bunnicula is actually a vampire and attempts to get Harold to help save the Monroe’s from the menace. Now, those of us who have read the book know that it isn’t as scary as the cover or the back panel make it seem, but it does feature dark and stormy nights, some (mild) jump scares, and some terrible attacks on vegetables.
Next, we have The Witches by Roald Dahl, published in 1983. A lot of Roald Dahl’s works could be seen as scary, or at the very least spooky, but I want to highlight this book in particular. This book starts off with a death – causing a now orphaned boy to live with his grandparents. His grandmother reveals that she is a retired witch hunter. It is discovered that there are child-hating societies of witches in every country, and that the witches are all ruled by an extremely vicious and powerful Grand High Witch – who just so happens to be working on her worst plot ever. So the retired witch hunter and her grandson do everything to stop and defeat the witches. But, its not so much the witch part that is dark…you see, the witches kill human children by turning them into mice and releasing cats to kill them. Our main character gets turned into a mouse, and decides to stay a mouse…so he and his grandmother can die together. Again, wtf?
Lastly (for this era), I want to bring up probably the most important addition to scary kid lit – and one of my biggest inspirations still. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This franchise is a series of 3 children’s horror books written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The stories in these books are drawn heavily from folklore and urban legends. The first volume was published in 1981. And ALSO to add to the creep factor, these books have some scary illustrations as well.
This is true horror for children. These stories are scary and hold nothing back. In fact, here is a snippet from “The Hearse Song” which originates as a World War I Song, but is in this anthology that is written for….do I need to remind you….for children!
“Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next one to die,
They wrap you up in big white sheets
And cover you from head to feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Until your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your ssnout,
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.
These books are STILL super scary, and if you’re not scared enough just thinking about them….have you seen the movie trailer? Holy. Heck.
The 1990s i.e. Goosebumps!
First, I know there are other scary stories for kids written in the 90s (and I might do an entire post on scary shows/cartoons for kids because HOLY MOLY the 90s had a ton of them), but I really want to just focus on Goosebumps because I think this series was a turning point for a lot of readers.
There are so many kinds of goosebumps novels...there were the standalone ones ("Welcome to Dead House"), there were the Saga ones like "Night of the Living Dummy" which is pictured above, and is part of a trilogy. There were the Give Yourself Goosebumps ones (which I read and re-read no less than a million times), and I'm going to include the Horror Land books as separate from the Saga ones, because there are several storylines that take place in the same scary carnival setting.
The Goosebumps books are short, easy to read, a little scary, and a lot funny. For the most part they are episodic, and there are like a million of them so by the time you've read them all, you're "too old" for them.
This series is great because it feels like you're doing something risqué (especially when you're like 10) by reading horror, but in actuality, they're just fun stories with book covers that are a little spookier than what is on the inside.
I was an avid reader turned reluctant reader as a kid - but it was because of Goosebumps that I didn't turn into a non-reader.
Contemporary Horror Lit for Kids
There have been some awesome scary stories written in the recent years. Here are some of my favorites:
Really, you could put anything by Neil Gaiman in this spot. He is a master at scary writings for kids (scary writings in general really), but I recently read Coraline for the first time as an adult woman and OMG. If you've only ever seen the movie...you won't understand. This book is SPOOKY.
Published in 2013, Doll Bones is a story about Zach, Alice, and Poppy's quest to return a haunted doll to its proper grave site. But more so, this book is about adventure, friendship, overcoming gender stereotypes, and accidental library sleepovers. This book balances on the line between YA and Junior fiction, so its a good bridge between the two reading levels.
A neophyte Korean shaman, or "Mudang", takes center stage in this novel which combines the Korean-American experience with ancient cultural traditions for a new twist on exorcism. The story starts with 12 year old Harper, who is half Korean and half white, as she moves into her new home in Washington DC. Before moving, Harper had survived not only a fire, but also a traumatizing illness - however, she has blocked all of this from her memory. Meanwhile, her brother is making a new "friend" in their home. As she witnesses what this "friend" starts doing to her brother, her memories resurface - forcing her to juggle saving her brother, and also saving her sanity.