Are scary stories all part of growing up?

When my eight-year-old son came home from school with a dark tale, I felt concerned. With eyes as big as saucers he told the story of a little girl who stumbled upon a dead body in the woods. Nearby, lived Slenderman.

After some Google help, I learned that Slenderman is an urban legend. He was created online in 2009. Some kook planted a seed and organically, Slenderman grew to a 12-foot tall, faceless creep who wears a business suit. Sometimes he has tentacles for arms. Sometimes he reads your mind. Sometimes he kills. Some kids know he's a fictional character. Some don't.

American preteens, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier believed he was real. In May, they stabbed another friend 19 times as homage to Slenderman. Thankfully, the friend is alive and currently recovering at home. This scenario is scarier than any Bogeyman.

Scary stories a rite of passage?
Scary stories a rite of passage? Photo: Getty

We all grew up being afraid of the Bogeyman, the evil witch or the Big Bad Wolf, didn't we? We must like it,  there's a whole industry devoted to scaring people.

Clinical psychologist and author, Lynn Jenkins says humans are voyeuristic and curious by nature.

“Whether one is drawn to spooky things depends on their personality. Some children will find it appealing but others cannot tolerate the feelings that come with being scared. It's normal for kids to explore new things but they are quick to figure out what makes them feel safe or not,” she says.

When Cheryl's daughter brought the legend of Slenderman to a sleep-over, the party-goers suddenly felt unsafe.

“She told the Slenderman story and none of them got a wink of sleep. They were all petrified. I think kids get to an age where they want to be scared a bit. They share stories to outdo each other,” says Cheryl.

It was Debbie's daughter who hosted the party for her ninth birthday. Debbie says it was meant to be a typical slumber party: games, dinner, cake then bedtime in the backyard sleep-out. It was all fun and games until 8:30pm, when things started to unravel.

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“One of the girls asked if she could sleep in the house. When I asked why, she said other girls had been telling scary stories and she was too freaked out to sleep outside,” explained Debbie.

One by one, the guests asked to sleep inside. Debbie slept outside with her daughter, who wasn't afraid of the story. 

Slenderman and stories like 'the man in the white van' are especially scary because there is an element of truth to them, which is a crucial characteristic of an urban legend.

Fairy tales, on the other hand, are always metaphorical says fairy tale expert and author of The Irresistible Fairytale:The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes.

The retired professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota says people are drawn to these stories because they deal with common problems.

“Fairy tales are appealing because they deal metaphorically with essential problems that all human beings have throughout the world: sibling rivalry, fratricide, child abuse and so on. These are problems that we have not resolved and concern every ethnic group in the world. The fairy tale is the only genre that embraces infants to the elderly because it speaks to people in diverse ways about serious issues,” he says. 

To Mandy's three-year-old daughter, everyday is a fairy tale – the good parts anyway. Inspired by classics like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, Miss 3 loves dressing like a princess and is already planning her happily ever after.

“She believes the world is a magical, beautiful place. She dreams of being a princess and marrying her prince,” says Mandy.

When Miss 3 asks about the evil characters, Mandy explains that they are not real.

“Kids don't need to learn about the big bad world at three years old. I will protect her from reality for as long as I can. Right now, she's in a beautiful, happy place. She believes in happy endings,” she says.

Lynn says parents need to pace their children as they grow. “Reading a fairy tale might be appropriate for a child's age, personality, intelligence and maturity despite it being spooky. But sitting with them while they read it or rather, reading it to them is important. This allows opportunity for questions and appropriate explanation.”

Stated in this article, a poll found that a quarter of all parents wouldn't read fairy tales to their under five year olds. Professor Zipes thinks parents should consider many other things before banning a book.

“I believe that parents are very ignorant about their own children and how children can appreciate all aspects of fairy tales. If adults think fairy tales might harm their children, they had first better take them away from violent television shows, cutthroat sports, target shooting, and the like and discuss what really produces horrific behaviour in our societies. Fairy tales have often been blamed for scaring children, when it is really the parents who scare children the most,” he says.

I told my son that Slenderman is not real. I think I burst his bubble. I think he likes to be scared a little.

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