Scary Stories: Empowering Kids Since 1812

by | Oct 8, 2013 | Parenting, Pop Culture, Things I Think | 12 comments

Well, since at least 1812. That’s when the Grimm brothers set out to scare the dickens out of generations of children. But clearly these stories, and the concept that scary stuff is good for kids, existed well before they started gathering the stories up.


What we can say for sure is that there has been quite a distinct cultural shift since their time. Many parents these days wouldn’t think of exposing their children to the violence and gore and terror of those old fairy tales. It’s easy to see in a side by side comparison of the Grimm version of a fairy tale and its modernized (Disney-ized) counterpart.

But before we decide that all those generations of parents before us were just plain wrong, let’s take a look at why they might have thought such content was a good idea for their kids. 

1. Scary stories served to warn children of the very real dangers they faced in their every day lives. If junior went alone into the forest, that might well be the end of him. It was really important that he understand that he must not ever go into the forest. Well, make sure he thinks that forest is full of cross-dressing wolves and child-eating witches with edible houses and he’s going to think twice about wandering off. 


2. Scary stories told children the capital T truth about the world. Those parents knew that the Truth is that there is good and there is evil. The Evil Stepmother gets danced to death by her red-hot iron shoes. That’s the sort of image that sticks with you. It’s memorable, and it’s True. Maybe evil people don’t usually come to such poetic evil ends, but the truth is that evil people come to evil ends. They may seem to be successful on the outside, but true happiness doesn’t come from evil pursuits. Snow White, on the other hand, fights injustice with kindness, meets danger with courage, meets hardship with hard work, and lives happily ever after (with a guy who fell in love with her when she was dead, which is pretty creepy, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt).


3. Scary stories empowered children by desensitizing them to the fear of danger. Through scary stories children could, in a perfectly safe environment, consider how they would react to a dangerous situation. They could learn what worked or didn’t work for one particular hero. They could make their own plans for how best to defeat a dragon. Then, if they met up with danger in real life, even if it wasn’t a dragon per se, they were more likely to succeed in defeating it.

But do these lessons still make sense for kids today?

1. At first glance, it might seem that this one isn’t as applicable to modern children. I don’t know a single child who has been eaten by a wolf. But do our children not face any dangers? What if there were a bunch of stories for kids about little boys who went on the internet late at night and monsters sucked out their eyeball juices with a straw. Sure, that sounds awful, but it’s not nearly as bad as what’s actually happening to actual little boys who are actually going on the internet late at night. 

2. Whether or not my daughters end up marrying a prince (there are a few left after all, it is a possibility) it is True that they will live happier lives if they learn to be gentle and kind and self-sacrificing. It’s even less likely that my sons will slay any dragons, but it is True that they will feel fulfilled by the pursuit of good and the fight against evil, even if the good and evil is at an office or a factory rather than a castle on a hill. 


3. We think of desensitization as a bad thing. It is a great tragedy that our society works so hard to desensitize us to sex. We can’t drive down the street or stand in the grocery store check out line without being confronted by sexually-charged images of scantily-clad women. I suppose even men have gotten used to it. How sad. We WANT to be really, really sensitive to sex. But danger? We don’t need to be sensitive to that. Our kids don’t need to be sensitive to that. It’s better if we’re not. If kids have experienced and processed dangerous situations through the characters of a story, they’ll be more likely to be able to act if they’re ever in a dangerous situation in real life.

And age-appropriate scary stories are the best way I know to expose kids to those important lessons, inspiring behaviors, and empowering considerations. So in our house, we don’t shield our kids from Grimm’s fairy tales, or spooky cartoons, or even violent and gory movies (well, violent and gory movies based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, anyway). As long as the morals are in the right place, the scariness isn’t a problem for us.


We just tell them how awesome it is and that they’re not scared, and they believe us.

Little kids don’t even know what being scared is right? Not unless we tell them. Especially since most of our children have probably never been in a situation in which their lives have been in danger. (And even then — we’re Christians, right? Death doesn’t scare us!) They’ve been hungry, yes, cold, sure. They would be those things whether they had a word for it or not. But I think “scared” is a lot more like “offended” or “bored.” My kids can only be those things if I tell them about them and then allow those concepts to exist in my home.

If I run to baby’s crib and scoop him up saying, “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, Mommy’s here.” Then baby learns that what was upsetting him is that he was scared. But if I DON’T say that, if I just scoop him up and love him and meet his needs, without putting that concept in his head, then he doesn’t learn to be scared of the dark or being alone.

As usual on this blog, I just write about my own experience with my own kids and my own parenting style. My own kids seem to be able to handle scary stories and age-appropriate scary movies. They don’t mind the dark. They don’t complain about being alone. They don’t have nightmares. I’ve never had one claim to be scared in the middle of the night. I would love to be able to attribute this to my terrific parenting, but doing that almost always comes back to bite me. So I’ll try not to. Maybe that’s just how God made them.

But if you’re willing to give it a shot, maybe you’ll find that letting your kids be exposed to scary stuff and telling them that they’re not scared of it, might just work.


Happy October! It seems like a good time to start wandering down this road. I needed to write this post first, so that I could eventually tell you about all the scary books and movies my kids like, how they prefer their saints costumes to be of the gory martyr variety, and how I have a great personal love of dystopias in general and zombie apocalypses specifically. So stay tuned . . . 



  1. Ashley Sue

    It never occurred to me not to read fairy tales to my children since they were so integral to my childhood. My grandmothers would sit is down and scare us kids into behaving. My husband also had stories related to him so we've also been doing that for out chickadees. I've never had a child be afraid of the dark or of scary movies that were age appropriate as you said. Although, my oldest is afraid of Disney's Snow White character because of her voice. Yeah not sure why but hey whatever!

  2. Katharine B.

    Just recently my family was assembled in our basement with a tornado headed our way. My children have never been presented with information on tornados in a fearful manner, only factual, and us adults were completely calm, yet 2 of our children were shaking uncontrollably with fear. I think it is a normal and natural emotion that does not have to be prompted by anyone else.

    I read Grimms fairy tales to my children and have no problem with them reading Tolkien. But I will not allow them to see films with realistic images of monsters and the like until they are at least 10 or 12. From my experience as a child, an image, especially a computer generated moving picture image, is so much more powerful than the written word. It stays in your mind forever and whether you know it is real or not, it can be haunting and give rise to irrational fear.

    I somewhat resent my parents for exposing me to images that made me fearful of the dark, closets, under the bed, and bathtub drains until I was well into my teens. But I cherish the memory of the scary fairy tales my mother would read.

  3. Elizabeth

    Can't wait for your next post. My husband and kids are into a scary book and movie phase.

  4. Micaela Darr

    I used to be one of those parents that looked for "gentler" fairy tales (never Disney though- gag me) but have come a long way round to your way of thinking. My daughters enjoy Lang's Fairy Books. I like them because the language is rich, and any danger or gruesomeness is balanced out by goodness and beauty.

    I do believe however, that at least some fear is instinctual, and not learned. For example, I never "taught" my children to be fearful of strangers – why would I? I'm an incredibly social person. And yet each one of them went through periods of "stranger danger" at about 6 months and again at perhaps 14 months. It would certainly seem instinctual to me. Sort of God's way of teaching us safety, the same way we experience shame as a way to warn us from sin. I fear I'm not making much sense here- why do I comment on blogs before coffee? The general gist is: Yes, we read scary fairy stories and we love them.

  5. Nanacamille

    I love a good scary movie but not gory movies with body parts flying all over the place. I showed "Watcher in the Woods" with Betty Davis at one of your birthday parties and the girls screamed with fright and joy. However I brought you home from a girl's birthday party that was showing one of the "Freddy" movies. Age appropriate is important.

  6. Molly

    I just ordered a whole set of Andrew Lang's Colored Fairy Books a few weeks ago, so I'm definitely in agreement.

    Also I thought you might be interested in this project – An illustrated version of Grimm Stories.

  7. Erica Saint

    I am glad that you wrote this post. I agree with you. I love fairy tales, and my husband and I love dystopias and zombie apocalypses, too. I am looking forward to your posts!

  8. Gramma Tierney

    I love the quote from Chesterton. It fits right in with my teaching of Beowulf to the seniors!

  9. Mary @ Quite Contrary

    Great post, Kendra! I agree with most of it. But I also agree with the comment above that some fear is indeed instinctual, and good for us. It's what gives us that "fight or flight" motivation. Even Scripture makes a connection, for example, between the dark and sin, evil, and sadness. Teaching kids how to leverage that instinct is a healthy way is what's important.

  10. Piper

    Stumbled here today, never visited before, but I loved this post! I agree, children are capable of handling "scary" stuff, age appropriateness is essential, and Grimm's tales are great.

    One thing I do disagree with (in a nice way, and not in a mean blogger way) is children being scared, much like a few of these other mamas. My infant daughter (9 months) regularly has nightmares and has since she was just teeny tiny, somethings are just scary to her.

  11. Christy from fountains of home

    The more I read about how to form the moral imagination in our children the more important I think it is. I really believe that hearing fairy tales is a great first step in children understanding right from wrong. Clearly, the ogre who wants to eat children is evil. That's bad. People who want to hurt children are bad. And so on. I think there is a lot for children to learn from these and I think one of the things I want to teach the most at home is good fairy tales!

  12. April Watson

    I agree that it is important to talk about the way the world really is– including danger as well as earthly, normal things like slaughtering animals. My husband has read the Little House series to our 4 year old boy, and even our 2 year old can identify which animal we're eating for dinner. That said, some kids have a much lower threshold for terror or the unknown. My 4 year old has anxious tendencies. We never told him to be afraid or introduced him to his overwhelming thoughts. They've just always sort of been there. We sit in his room until he falls asleep because he gets so worked up if we don't. He has bad dreams about trucks driving up the walls of our home and crashing into his second story walls. He's intelligent and brave. His mind just plays tricks on him. Stories are a big part of how we're working to help him cope. That and lots of prayer and Scripture. I just think that this part of him is more amplified, more sensitive, and he will deal with that the rest of his life. And God will use it! It is no accident he was made this way.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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