Why Do We Love Scary Stories?

October 31, 2011 at 10:54 am in Books & Entertainment by NanaIsland

The most challenging part of being a parent for me was to sit through all the movies. My little boys loved watching Barney, that horrid purple dinosaur – over and over and over and over. EEEEEK! But the real horrors were from my sweet daughter as she went into her teens. She went through a phase of watching one horror movie after another – Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3 and I’m sure I would have had to sit through Scream 12 if they made one. Thankfully, they didn’t.

This horror movie phase coincided with middle school which might say something about middle school but that is a subject for another blog. Why did I let her watch these silly movies? I have a theory about this. From the time of prehistoric man, there have probably been kids who are drawn to that dark forest, the big cave, the tall stranger. It is that curiosity we humans have. And for the most part, curiosity has been a good thing. Civilization wouldn’t have evolved if those first humans hadn’t stopped in the middle of chasing after food and thought, “There must be a better way to eat!” If it weren’t for that human who thought, “I wonder what that tastes like?” when he saw his herd of goats jumping around after eating berries, we wouldn’t have coffee.

But for a lot of animals curiosity is deadly. Imagine a herd of deer running away from the lion. And imagine one deer, we’ll call him George, who has an iota of curiosity, enough to stop running and wonder if the lion is really that bad. Well, George is not likely to live long enough to pass on that curiosity to his offspring. In fact, most of George’s friends didn’t think – much less be curious – about anything. Thinking would take valuable time away from running. So for most animals, curiosity was definitely not an advantage for survival.

But back to our caveman. Although one goat herder stumbled upon coffee because he was curious enough to try the berries, his fellow herder who tried to befriend a neighboring tribe was chopped up into little bits. After several members of the group suffered a similar fate (by the way, this is why your husband refuses to ask for directions), these humans realized the dangers of curiosity.  To counter this tendency that especially young humans exhibit, the elders devised – stories. Remember that story of Red Riding Hood? Well, our modern version is a watered down version of the one these prehistoric parents told their kids.

Grandma getting eaten by the wolf meant a wild animal tearing a loved one limb by limb. And that Red Riding Hood might have been the bloody remnants of what happened after the little girl encountered that wolf who tore off her head.  That lovely Disney version of Sleeping Beauty came from a different story altogether. In the original story, written by Giambattista Basile in 1636, Sleeping Beauty gets more than a kiss from her Prince Charming. Instead, she gets raped and subsequently gives birth to twins. See what I mean? Our horror movies probably pale next to the stories they told kids around the fire in the dark, cold night.

So those scary movies about a babysitter trapped in a house with a psychopath are not too far from those original stories our ancestors devised.  And there is a memory of those old stories in our brains.  In fact, the smarter we are – the scarier the stories. Now we’ve got those stories of Hal taking over the spaceship and Matrix where we humans are turned into living batteries.  But we also identify with the hero or heroine in these stories. Through them, we can experience the horror, the pain and fright.  How many times have I said, “Don’t open that doooooor!!” But we also have a chance to overcome that fear, to emerge stronger and wiser.

My teen daughter was standing at the edge of the dark forest, full of curiosity and trying to arm herself with fear.  Thankfully, I don’t have to sit through these movies with my kids anymore but now more than ever, I pay attention to stories.  Stories – funny stories, moving stories, scary stories are how we try to make sense of this world.  We listen to stories to learn how to outrun those wolves, to escape the psychopaths and conquer our fears.

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