Monsters at Halloween
On the last night of October, kids appear on our doorsteps in costumes and begging candy. Some are dressed as they wish to be: cheerleaders and baseball players, Superman and Brittany Spears, and other dreams incarnate. More commonly, however, they are costumed as witches, ghouls, ghosts, and the like. Halloween offers youngsters the chance to spoof and lightheartedly play at what they are afraid of. That holiday also provides an opportune time to consider scariness and the role of monsters and bogeys in children’s lives and stories.
In the old days, scary creatures were simple. The ogre who wants to dine on Jack once he ascends the beanstalk or the wolf who gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood are two-dimensional characters. They are simply evildoers.
Some parents, however, avoid reading such scary tales to their offspring in the mistaken belief that children should only be exposed to happy and sunny stories. That is shortsighted, argues psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, because fairy tales like these importantly acknowledge that evil exists in the world and do not sweep that truth under the rug; they teach children to be wary. Moreover, these stories offer the young the great hope that, with courage and cleverness, they can become like the stories’ heroes and heroines and overcome monsters they are afraid of.
That’s just what happens in Maurice Sendak’s well known Where the Wild Things Are. When Max meets the Wild Things, the monsters “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” But Max gets the better of them: he stares into the creatures’ yellow eyes without blinking, intimidates them, and pretty soon they are doing whatever he pleases. Indeed, by the time he departs, the monsters have had such fun that they are begging him to stay: “Please don’t go. . . . We love you so.”
This last part of Where the Wild Things Are is significant because it tells us something new: Monsters have feelings too! In fact, Sendak’s book can be said to have opened the door to the new kind of monster story we have today where the issue is not so much overcoming beasts but being sensitive to their feelings. Nowadays, instead of lessons in overcoming your fears, the monster story has become an occasion to examine how we treat “others” badly or monstrously.
In Mercer Mayer’s popular picture book There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, for instance, a young boy confronts the bogey mentioned in the title and shoots him with a pop gun; in an unusual twist, we are now to feel sorry for the monster because the Nightmare is terrified and cries, and has to be tucked into bed and consoled. We are also encouraged to look at the other side of things in John Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs where the Wolf isn’t so bad and has feelings too. And talk about sympathy for the devil, Phillipe Corentin’s Papa! presents the upside-down story of a young monster who is terrified: who trembles and wails for his parents when he finds a child sharing his bed!
Sympathy for scary creatures can also be found in extended presentations of monsterland. The title of Roald Dahl’s The BFG is significant because it refers to the Big Friendly Giant who is a vegetarian and makes pals with the little girl Sophie in a land of ogres. Equally amusing is Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman which presents hilarious details about everyday life in bogeyland–telling us, for example, about their favorite food (rotten eggs) and favorite actor (Humphrey Bog-art). If you’d like to see a similar story on film, watch “Monsters, Inc.” and its account of the loveable monster Sully and his friendship with the child Boo.
If you have any doubts about how things have changed, compare ogres. The one who appears in “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a cannibalistic villain who grinds kids’ bones to make his bread. But in the film that bears his name, Shrek is a pitiable victim of prejudice against ogres and likeable. Our monsters aren’t what they used to be.
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2005).