There’s nothing scarier than a terrifying monster in literature: the one not on a television screen, the one we can’t see or hide from because our imagination is running wild and incessantly conjuring up what it may look like in the story. Sitting alone in your darkened room, your every breath overly loud in the silent house, you’re unable to put the book down for fear of discovering that that dark shadow is actually sitting in front of you. Often times the question arises: why we are so attracted to horror stories?
When dealing in horror texts for children, adults often convolute what exactly is acceptable for children and what is too scary form, drawing a blurred line that changes over generations. And what is then even more curious is the question: why are children’s books — once dark and then sanitized until they had squeaky-clean happy endings — now becoming once again tales with darker themes?
Just think of it. Children already live in a scary world where there are giants all around them (adults) and chairs that are too high. The richness of the macabre in contemporary children’s literature seems only a continuation of the fairy-tale tradition, but now it’s been updated to take the anxieties of the modern world into account. Children’s darker tales and horror stories use fairy-tale-esque metaphors in order to tackle the fears and desires lurking beneath the surface of children’s lives — worries not just about death, but about alienation, insecurity, loss, and lack of agency in their lives. Just as adult horror stories provide a more palatable way to absorb the notions of death, bodily decay, and the bleakness of the human condition that would otherwise be too disgusting or distressing to deal with, so, too, do the vampires, ghosts, and ghouls in children’s literature address issues that even adults find too difficult to explain. Horror stories are honest with children in a way that adults, especially parents, are often not, and thus teaching them how to survive against monsters and, in turn, be powerful as well; they can confront their fear in a safe way.
The author of The Uses of Enchantment Bruno Bettelheim writes in his introduction, “While it entertains the child, the fairy tale enlightens him about himself, and fosters his personality development. It offers meaning on so many different levels, and enriches the child’s existence in so many ways…” (Bettelheim 12). And there is something for every child’s (and adult’s) taste, with as many variations of the supernatural as the number of snakes on Medusa’s head.
Here is a list of the 5 scariest monsters in literature we’ve compiled. Until next time, Happy Halloween!
- Jabberwok — The villian in the nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll was published in his novel Through the Looking-Glass. The Jabberwock stood “with eyes of flame,/ came whiffling through the tulgey wood,/ and burbled as it came!” This terrifying monster first came to life with John Tenniel’s famous illustration. His interpretation of the creature included the body of a dragon with a catfish-like head, with his “claws that catch” and his “jaws that bite.” Judging by the grotesque yet whimsical description, no one would want to wander into a forest and run into this beast!
- Bunnicula — Because what’s more terrifying than a vegetable-sucking, domesticated rabbit? Bunny rabbits are supposed to be the picture of innocence! Until this Bunnicula open their mouth that is. James Howe’s series about the fanged little creature perfectly blends humor and mythical lore about vampires and makes kids look twice at the animals they are responsible for.
- The Nothing — Now this is possibly the most existential monster in children’s literature. The Nothing is the evil, mysterious force of Fantasia in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, which the protagonist Atreyu is sent to destroy in order to save the citizens of Fantasia. In order
- The Dark
Family — This particular “monster” is perhaps the one kids can relate with the
most, because children often have that tense relationship with their parents
and other adults. Children struggle to make their voices heard in a world that
assumes they know and see less than they do or that their knowledge is somehow
lesser or invalid. R.L. Stine’s The Girl
Who Cried Monster’s parents are literally the monsters at the end of the
novel, and this trope of adults who do not validate what their children know is
common in The Goosebumps series and
costs the adults dearly in the end. However, nothing is more representative of
the Dark Family than Coraline’s Other
Mother. She is the ultimate representation of the anxieties of smothering,
possessing parents, for she “loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon
loves its gold… Coraline knew she was a possession, nothing more” (Gaiman 127).
- The Goblins — Maurice Sendak is no stranger to darker tales for children. While you may be familiar with Where the Wild Things Are, he wrote another story, Outside Over There, the story of set of goblins that kidnap a young baby, replacing him with an icy doppelganger that melts in his sister’s arms; his older sister then leaves the house through a window to “outside over there” to rescue her kidnapped sibling. In an interview, Sendak says that the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case and seeing the baby’s remains in a newspaper clipping inspired him to write Outside Over There. In an interview with the Paris Review, he states, “You had to form a kind of fake life, to protect yourself. Because you learn very quickly that parents can’t protect you. It leaves a lurking fear. You never feel safe, never believe, really, that your parents are any safer than you, or could protect you from the unknown.