Why We like to Scare Ourselves



By Deborah Abela, children’s author



Why do we like to scare ourselves? Why, when we hear a scary story, do we simultaneously want to block our ears and yet insist it continue, desperate to know what happens next? From Dracula to Frankenstein, to stories about ghosts, goblins and zombies, why do we read these when they scare us witless?

Of course there’s fear and there’s fear…fearing someone has broken into your house, or that something bad has happened to a loved one…no one likes those fears, but sitting in a cinema or reading a book that scares us to within an inch of our Dolby stereo-sound lives….readers and cinema goers love it.

There can be a lot about the world that is scary… fear of the dark, monsters under the bed, dogs, birds, high places, spiders, the boogeyman. When you’re young, there seems to be an endless stream of terrors that will jump out at you, grab you while you’re sleeping or hide in your wardrobe until you’re fast asleep. On camp kids huddle together long after lights-out, telling ghost stories and soon after, inevitably, begin to hear knocking at their door or scraping against the roof, which must, of course, be some crazed monster or vampire or maybe even a murderous criminal escaped from jail. At sleepovers, they insist on scary films and then a night of not getting any sleep.

So why do we do it? We can’t help it. Some behaviorist say our brains are hard-wired to love thrills….whether it’s jumping out of a plane or sitting through Paranormal III. We are drawn to the frightening, the slightly eerie, with the delicious knowledge that any minute now, something terrifying is going to happen.

As part of my school visits over the years, I’ve listened to many ghost stories from kids who were busting to tell tales of the unknown and mysterious. That bump in the night, or the footsteps that woke them from their sleep. Sometimes the noises end up being dad getting a drink or their cat wanting to go outside. Other times, the cause remained unknown. And they love it.

I first learnt of the folktale Bloody Mary from these kids, who, even as they told me, loved the telling but barely held back their fear, equally fascinated and scared, but they didn’t want to stop. After a little more research, I decided to explore this further in Ghost Club Part 2: The Haunted School.

During a year 6 bonding sleepover at the disused boarding school on their college grounds, the story of Bloody Mary is discussed:


‘There are all sorts of legends about who she really was. Some say the story comes from a woman called Mary Worth, who lived over one hundred years ago and was believed to be a witch. Others are convinced it is from Mary Tudor, Queen of England.’

‘Daughter of King Henry the 8th and Catherine of Aragon,’ Edgar added.

          Lila smiled. ‘Yes and when she ruled England, she had many people put to death for committing heresy.’

‘What’s heresy?’ Charlie asked.

‘In this case, people who didn’t follow the same religion she did. In a short five years, she had so many people killed, she earned the name, Blood Mary. Folklore says that if you want to see her, go into a bathroom, turn the lights off, stand in front of a mirror and repeat her name three times and she will appear.’


Of course, the tale is simply that…a story. Something made up, that many have attempted to do, with the result being terrifying themselves, with not an ounce of Bloody Mary in sight.

Librarian and storyteller Angela Reynolds, who has shared a few ghostly tales with kids over the years, has a theory that fear in story form is a fun kind of fear, a place where people can confront the unknown in the safety of their own minds. (source: http://www.cbc.ca/books/2012/08/why-do-scary-stories-still-scare-when-were-grown-up.html)

The California Science Centre created an exhibition that looked at fear. How it affects our brains, what causes it and, fascinatingly, asks the question, ‘is what we fear really as frightening as we think?’

(source: http://www.fearexhibit.org/media/perceived_risk)

          This is one of the main themes I explore in the Ghost club series and in my novel, The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen. In the first, my two young heroes investigate ghostly sites, without a skerrick of fear, while Aurelie faces a 100-year-old family secret ,which has something to do with ghosts. It is a little hard to get used to at first, but she comes to realise that all families are different in their own unique way.

As a children’s author, it is very important to me that when kids read my books, they laugh, explore and immerse themselves into somewhere fascinating.           As Roald Dahl said,

‘Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful.’

But as Sonya Hartnett once said,

A quality book for young people should leave them a different and slightly better person than the one they were when they began reading the book.’

And I agree. While making kids laugh, cry, or their hearts race, one of the most important reasons for reading is that books can also show us how it is to be human. They can create a sense of empathy, of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. It shows us how we all want to be valued, loved, laugh and, that even though life can be scary at times, mostly it is a place full of wonders, excitement and sometimes a few pesky ghosts.

Angeline says it well when she talks about fear to the fear-filled Dylan, the newest ghost catcher,


‘Grandma Rose says it’s good for us to face our fears.’

‘Because it’s good to let the world know what cowards some of us really are?’

‘No.’ Angeline laughed. ‘Because sometimes what we’re most scared of isn’t that scary at all.’



Visit the next stop on Deborah’s blog tour:


Did you miss the previous stop? See http://lovethatbook.net/

To see all the stops on the tour see http://www.DeborahAbela.com



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