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An article in The Atlantic, “Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear,” explains how the hormone dopamine, released during scary activities makes some of us feel good, especially if we feel safe. If we know those ghosts in the haunted house aren’t really ghosts, we can let ourselves be as scared as we want by their sudden appearance.
In Ramona the Brave Ramona hides a book with a scary gorilla picture under a couch cushion when the book becomes too terrifying. She’s in charge of how scared she wants to be, and books offer us that opportunity: we can close them if they’re scary, or even look ahead to the end to be sure everything will be fine.
Jacqueline Briggs Martin:
We can give ourselves little doses of scare. Doses that feel like fun because we are watching events happen to someone else.
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams, illustrated by Megan Lloyd, is a deliciously scary experience. On her way home through the forest as it starts to get dark, the little old lady meets two big shoes that go CLOMP, CLOMP. Since she’s not afraid of anything, she continues toward home—but the shoes clomp behind her, as do, eventually, a pair of pants that go WIGGLE, WIGGLE, a shirt that goes SHAKE, SHAKE, gloves that go CLAP, CLAP, and a hat that goes NOD, NOD. To all of them she says “Get out of my way!” because, of course, she’s not afraid of anything—although she does walk faster and faster. When she meets the scary pumpkin head that goes BOO, BOO! she runs for home and locks the door. Then comes the KNOCK, KNOCK on the door. Because she’s not afraid of anything she answers the door and sees the whole assemblage of clothing and pumpkin head. “You can’t scare me,” she says. “Then what’s to become of us?” the pumpkin asks. The little old lady’s idea for a solution makes everyone happy. Part of the genius of this book is that it invites listeners to join in on the sound effects, giving them an active part in the story as well as an outlet for building tension.
The narrator in What Was I Scared Of?, written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, only has to confront a pair of empty pants (a fun twist on having the pants scared off of one), and like the old lady, this narrator claims he isn’t scared of anything. Still, when the pants move, he hightails it out of there, and each time the pants show up again, whether riding a bike or rowing a boat, the narrator runs from them. When he unexpectedly encounters the pants and hollers for help, the pants break down in tears; it turns out they are as scared of him as he is of them. The narrator responds empathetically by putting his arm around the pants’ waist and calming the “poor empty pants with nobody inside them.” Neither is scared of the other any longer.
This book has always been a favorite at our house. Who would not be scared of such pants? And this list of frightened responses is so inclusive—and so fun to read out loud:
I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
“Oh save me from these pale green pants
With nobody inside!”
Dr. Seuss’s language in this story frequently makes us laugh. One of my favorites:
And the next night, I was fishing
for Doubt-trout on Roover River
When those pants came rowing toward me!
Well, I started in to shiver.
I’m not a fishing person, but I might head out to Roover River for a couple of Doubt-trout.
Another story in which the fearsome is also fearful is There’s a Nightmare in my Closet. I can’t believe this Mercer Mayer book is forty-seven years old. It seems as current a childhood worry as stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. Mayer’s illustrations are perfect—we can almost hear the silence in the illustration in which the kid tiptoes back to bed, after closing the closet door.
Facing your fears and befriending them runs through all of these stories. Virginia Hamilton’s Wee Winnie Witch’s Skinny, an original tale based on research into black folklore and illustrated by Barry Moser, involves actually out-witting a very scary being. With more text and a more story-telling tone, the tale relates how James Lee’s Uncle Big Anthony is attacked by a cat who is really Wee Winnie Witch in disguise and who rides him through the sky at night. As weeks pass, Uncle Big Anthony “got lean and bent-over tired. He looked like some about gone, Uncle Shrunken Anthony.” Mama Granny comes to the rescue with her spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone.
When Wee Winnie Witch takes off her skin that night to ride Uncle Big Anthony, she snatches James Lee from his window and takes him riding with them through the sky where he is both terrified and thrilled. When Wee Winnie Witch returns to the ground and puts on her skin again, she finds that Mama Granny has treated the skin’s inside with her spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone. The skin squeezes Wee Winnie Witch so hard that she shrivels into pieces on the floor. Uncle Big Anthony gradually returns to his former self, and although James Lee never wants to see a “skinny” again, the thought of the night-air ride up in the twinkling stars still makes him say “Whew-wheee!”
This tale is gripping—and for me, a bit disturbing, or maybe thought-provoking. I was troubled by the thought and image of the Wee Winnie Witch riding Big Uncle Anthony with the bridle in his mouth. But, as I thought about it, I wondered if Hamilton was possibly reminding us of the degradation that slavery brought to black people. So many were bridled and lashed and worked to death. Hard to say. In any case this story has plenty of scare and a strong hero in Mama Granny.
Terrified, thrilled, and brought back to a sense of safety again: these stories do all that but with different levels of terror. And because picture books are usually read aloud by a comforting adult and because we’re free to shut them and even put them under the couch cushion, we can choose how scared to be, knowing that we can safely close the book. But like James Lee, we might also say “Whew-wheee!”—then open the book to read it again.
And what kinds of stories do ghosts tell to scare themselves? Read The Haunted Hamburger by David LaRochelle and find out.