Why do kids love a good scare?

I had the opportunity to meet WETA’s Richard Taylor at the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo last weekend. My five-year-old daughter adored him from the first moment. While no one else at the Expo was able to figure it out, he immediately got that she was dressed as Alice in Wonderland. We heard about Richard’s lovely children (his daughter, Amelia, is six-years-old, and a little bit taller than my daughter), and how much he enjoys bringing them to the WETA Workshop and seeing their reactions to the wondrous worlds and creatures he creates. When school classes come for  tours of the WETA Workshop, Richard described how he wears a giant rabbit costume and jumps out at the kids…. And how this sends some of them running to the other side of the room! But, he says, most get such a thrill out of it…. (and , it seems, Richard does, too!)


Well, WETA has come up with the most amazing technological advances to thrill us all, contributing a new richness and immensity to the lexicon of modern mythology. Stories that resonate with adults and children because they convey critical messages and knowledge about how to negotiate our lives in contemporary society. While watching The Hobbit, my daughter sat curled up in her IMAX seat, hugging my arm and laughing every time something on-screen scared her. What message did she take away from the movie?  I asked her. “There’s bad guys out there, Mom, and bad things happen. But that’s ok. If we try hard to be good, things can get better.  We have to try, even when we’re scared. And we can get help from our friends.”

Having studied anthropology, I’ve observed that, pan-culturally, kids love a good scare. Scary stories, scary movies, being scared by a giant rabbit jumping out at them. In the past (and in some places today), scary stories served as a means to transmit messages about how to stay safe. Little Red Riding Hood does a good job of demonstrating how leaving the village and going into the forest alone comes with the risk of running into a wolf,  for instance; a good rule of thumb for mid-second-millennium European society. Similarly, Kallaalit (Indigenous Greenlandic) children love stories of Kalaaq, wherein footsteps in the snow going away from (and not returning to) the village  transmit messages about the dangers of traveling alone in the harsh Greenland climate.

But why do children seem to universally love a good scare from time to time?  The stress that comes along with it increases adrenaline… This helps focus children’s attention to what is happening in the moment… Perhaps it is that these moments represent pseudo-experiences of risk, without any real threat, and therefore fear can give way to enjoyment… while at the same time children learn lessons that for thousands and thousands of years children learned by experiencing real risks in daily life (presumably without enjoyment).

Technology (such as that used and developed by WETA) has enhanced the “realness” of these pseudo-risks, expanding the overall experiences through sensory input, and thereby enhancing the associated learning. However, enjoyment still remains a product because the enhanced experiences do not replicate true threat/risk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s