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How to Write Horror for Children
By Sarah Todd

Today children are regularly "scared" by the most responsible parents and guardians in order to instil basic moral principles and ensure the survival of the species: it is wrong to steal, to lie, to talk to strangers, to disobey a parent's instructions. The whole purpose of horror fiction is to scare readers, but the thought that deliberately setting out to scare children is immoral and reprehensible is deeply ingrained in our society. It's probably as deep as the belief that children's literature should be useful and valuable, conveying good and sound ideals upon young and impressionable minds. The notion that children might actually enjoy being scared is an unpleasant one, because we are all aware that nobody reacts to fear in quite the same way as a child. Children suffer inexplicable and unreasonable phobias and nightmares. Children can become obsessed with a single glimpse of an image, which can cause terror for months. Yet this same little person will actively seek out a copy of Lee Striker's "Revenge of the Vampire Librarian". It doesn't make sense!

Or does it?

Horror is synonymous with "scaring", and not necessarily with an educational or moralistic purpose. One problem is the actual word Horror; it's often referred to dismissively and without positive comment. It seems difficult to say horror fiction can be a good thing and that it's acceptable, even advisable, for children to read this genre. These are points all the most successful writers in the children's horror genre acknowledge, and all approach the sensitive subject with consideration and respect. And when one considers the phenomenal growth of this genre it would seem these writers know what they're doing.

So, what happens in children's horror writing?

Most books in this genre share a similar structure or formula - a familiar situation becomes unfamiliar. Cliff-hangers are very effective, because they lead the reader along from chapter to chapter. Frequently the victim never quite escapes, and there's often a slight chill included in the ending. Here are a few points I've picked up during my research into this topic:

Know Your Audience.

Your target audience is generally aged between eight and 12 years, sometimes even 14 years. Both sexes are included, and it's worth noting this genre is encouraging boys who 'don't like reading' to change their negative attitudes towards books and reading. Noted children's horror writer Margaret Clark claims that while some of her younger readers might not understand every word in the book they are able to grasp the general storyline. She also feels reading this genre has become "cultish, so it's important to be seen reading one of these books."

Clark wrote a thesis on television and violence for her honours degree, and has an understanding of her target audience: "I watched kindergarten children playing with bits of bark trying to shoot each other, and I would say that you cannot have guns at kindergarten, and not allow violent games, but you're still going to get them jumping off the top of the climbing frame screaming 'Heroes of the Universe!' So, if you can't beat them you join them."

Empowerment is the Key.

Human beings love to be scared, and children are no exception. One of the most important points to remember when writing children's horror is to keep the victims in the story in charge of the situation. Make them take control of the story; Clark refers to this as "the safety net". So while they are frantically trying to escape from a wicked witch, dispatch a possessed toy or perhaps free a friend or family member from a nasty curse there is always hope, and always a solution. Granted, the solution may require a bit of effort and thought and application of knowledge learned, but there must always be a way to deal with a horrific situation.

Be Naughty.

It's natural for children to be naughty, so applying this aspect of childhood to this genre offers a very obvious appeal to young readers. Children love to push the boundaries, to test the limits and offer a bit of resistance to authority. In children's horror literature there's an excellent chance for a writer to allow young readers a degree of freedom to indulge their "naughtiness". For children part of the lure of reading a horror story is that some adults might not approve of the genre, but reading an exciting horror story is a pretty safe way to indulge in a bit of "naughtiness". Children's horror fiction is a way of coming to understand the ethical chaos that we all encounter in our lives, so it makes sense that a good horror story could become a benefit to many young readers.

Know the Limits.

Do not let detailed descriptions of monsters/witches/vampires and their dastardly deeds get in the way of the storyline. Do not focus on gore. Irresponsible writing can have a negative effective upon a young, growing mind. The last thing any children's horror writers wants is to be told his or her work has corrupted a young mind. Also remember that the mind and imagination of an eight year old is very different to that of a ten, 12 or even 14 year old.

Robert Hood of the "Creepers" team of writers has untaken many promotional book tours, and tells of meeting children who have read three of the books in the series in quick succession. When he asks them what their favourite bits are most of them enthused about the gory parts: "'Like where the guy pulls his face off and all the maggots fall out!' The adult were absolutely horrified, but the kids absolutely loved it." This kind of description is known as silly horror - because indeed it is silly, and in the hands of a skilled writer will not affect any impressionable mind.

Do not use horror simply for the sake of horror. Use your discretion to decide what will and will not enhance your tale. Some children's horror stories can develop from everyday fears, like relationships with siblings and loneliness. Slithering worms, oozing slime, pus and mucus are common features, but blood is used with caution. In "Revenge of the Vampire Librarian" a rust-coloured carpet stain is believed by the parents to be a water mark. According to author Margaret Clark: "Often the adults are idiots who can't see what's going on under their noses."

Do Not Go Too Far

It's not easy to justify murder and gore for children's writing. Do not turn parents or siblings into monsters, and do not inflict unnecessary and irreparable bodily damage on anybody close to the hero/s or heroine/s - including beloved pets. The villain or chief monster should symbolise a threat, but that threat should always be able to be defeated, overcome or temporarily halted. There should always be a solution. You can also emphasise good social qualities such as friendship, faith, loyalty, trust and responsibility in the story.

Control and Comedy

Writing children's horror gives you the opportunity to help your young readers realise that it's possible to confront the more scary things in life. Fear, bereavement, loss, the monster under the bed... your words can help them examine these issues, and gain some sense of power and control over them. Horror fiction offers a safe place to examine and perhaps take control over the scarier aspects of life. Horror fiction can proved a playground for children to safely explore everyday fears.

The more ghastly the horror story becomes, so the element of humour becomes an important consideration. A zombie chasing a person - adult or child - doesn't seem so malevolent if it starts decaying and losing body parts during the chase. Use humour as a buffer, counteracting any possible psychological trauma with literary fear.

Horror writers must not and cannot depict genuine horror so realistically that young and impressionable readers develop fears they take with them into everyday life. Neither must you mock your monsters so much they fail to evoke the appropriate terror. When they open your book you readers need to believe in the horror you create, or they gain no emotional pay-off. Horror writing for children is a difficult and delicate balancing act, and if you get it right your audience will love you for it!

Sarah Todd was born in Africa, and lived there for the first 38 years of her life. She worked in the world of public relations for over five years, running her own PR company and dealing extensively with the world of journalism and the print media. She is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/, a site for Writers. Her blog can be visited at:


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