Ah, Halloween: America's costume blast. A chance to imagine we're something else, and to look the part, if only for one night. But it's also about the dark, mysterious side of things. The grave. Ghosts and witches. Monsters. A celebration of what scares us. But how much scariness is too much? And for children of what ages?
Children of different ages have varying comfort levels with imaginary fear. So if you're going to tell Halloween stories to your kids, here are a few guideposts to follow through the cold, swirling mists of the graveyard.
First, the cardinal rule of telling scary stories to kids:
Kids only rejoice in scariness when deep down they feel safe and know it's not real.
Scariness tickles a safe child in a fun way, but it deepens real fears in an unsafe child. So know your audience. Give the option of leaving to any child who doesn't want to listen.
As a matter of principal, I won't go near Hollywood horror -- slashers, stalkers, kitchen knives -- you know the routine. Kids get enough of that at the movies.
The key is: Know your child. Some kids find scary stories disturbing, even at mature ages. But that's a decision only you can make. So good luck.
The younger the child, the gentler the material should be. I perform for K-3 age children all the time (as well as middle-schoolers and high-schoolers) but rarely venture past including a witch, ogre, or some mildly spooky character. No one dies. And of course, evil characters never win. The hero/heroine always escapes unharmed and triumphs in the end.
These are the best years for kids to listen to scary stories. Their minds are sophisticated enough to know they're just hearing a story, yet young enough to be delightfully scared. I feel free to speak of vampires, ghosts, werewolves, monsters, and hauntings of any sort. Death happens on occasion. Folktales about the Devil, or Old Scratch as he's called in American folklore, are good, too. I avoid stories about ax murderers.
Middle School and High School
Most parents don't dare try to entertain their middle or high-school children with scary stories. Yet, on occasion, if a story is well told and sculpted to their world, older kids can be remarkably receptive. It is for these audiences I use the old "hit 'em between the eyes" techniques: genuine horror; blood and guts; unbearable suspense; and death, real or rumored. But again, the heroes don't die. Humor works, too.
Read the hair-raising sea tale from Odds Bodkin -- Ghost of the Southern Belle.