The term “horror for children” might appear to be an oxymoron. However, I am personally of the opinion that no subject matter or level of scariness should be off limits to children, provided the treatment is appropriate.
I am currently writing a very dark fairy tale aimed at “the Harry Potter demographic”, although I suspect many will categorise it as horror. Think Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and you’ll get an idea of the tone.
My novel is, without question, the scariest book I have written that is primarily aimed at children. I think open-minded adults will enjoy it too, even if some are uneasy or disapproving – hopefully for all the right reasons.
Frankly, all good fairy tales should make parents uneasy – or else I question their parental veracity. Wherever we find abused, traumatised or terrorised children in literature, in everything from Oliver Twist to Hansel and Gretel, children often identify with the journeys taken by these characters, whereas parents are rightly predisposed to be appalled by their treatment.
However, just because something is dark, scary and difficult does not necessarily mean it should be out of bounds to children. I accept that parents are always the final arbitrator in these matters, as they know best the temperaments of their offspring, but children know when they are being patronised, and talking down to children is a terrible mistake.
The thing to bear in mind when writing horror for children is to keep the treatment appropriate. No subject matter should be off limits, but how this subject is approached is what makes the difference. Here is one simple principle: depict all horrifying events through the eyes of your child characters. That way, you can place them in the most terrifying situation imaginable, and it will still read in an honest and innocent way. Example: the Holocaust. How do you tackle that darkest of subjects in a way appropriate to children? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas manages, by depicting events through the eyes of a child protagonist. By contrast, horror for adults that features children is generally seen through the eyes of adult protagonists, with all their terrible knowledge of what the world is really like.
By the way, viewing events through the eyes of a child doesn’t necessarily mean keeping blood and gore out of it – quite the contrary in fact, since children often have a lurid fascination with such things (witness the enduring popularity of the Horrible Histories series if you don’t believe me).
Finally, and most importantly, horror stories for children are about confronting difficult truths in a way that is ultimately empowering. The afore-mentioned Coraline – both the book and Henry Selick’s film adaptation – provide excellent examples of this principle. Amid all the scariness, that story is about encouraging children not to take their parents for granted, whatever their shortcomings.
By contrast, horror stories for adults do not necessarily offer such empowerment. One could hardly accuse Stephen King’s The Mist of being particularly empowering. Adult horror can also contain political allegory or satire often lost on children, or else it is designed to shake the reader/viewer out of their apathy with dire warnings of one kind or another. For example Threads – a 1984 BBC television production about nuclear war – is quite possibly the most frightening and horrific warning of any kind I have ever witnessed.
Ultimately horror, like romance, weepies and even comedy, is about catharsis. These genres all offer a way for the reader to identify with something they would never want to go through in real life and leave them either laughing, crying or shaking with terror. Or, because the reader has unfortunately been through a similar situation in real life, they identify with events all the more – even if they are metaphorical (such as last year’s horror film The Babadook, which is essentially about coming to terms with grief).
As a consequence, the reader (or viewer) feels alive. Children are no different, and can experience a similar catharsis, often a very empowering one, in spite of their innocence. That is the power of storytelling and that is why – for me at least – a horror story for children is not an oxymoron.