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G.K. Chesterton:

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist.
Children already know that dragons exist.
Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

The following is from Andrew Peterson’s Note to Parents about the books in his “Wingfeather Saga”: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness: Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the Fearsome Toothy Cows of Skree and North! Or Be Eaten: Wild escapes. A desperate journey. And the ghastly Fangs of Dang.

So this is a story about light and goodness and Truth with a capital T. It's about beauty, and resurrection, and redemption. But for those things to ring true in a child's heart, the storyteller has to be honest. He has to acknowledge that sometimes when the hall light goes out and the bedroom goes dark, the world is a scary place. He has to nod his head to the presence of all the sadness in the world; children know it's there from a very young age, and I wonder sometimes if that's why babies cry. He has to admit that sometimes characters make bad choices, because every child has seen their parent angry or irritable or deceitful-even the best people in our lives are capable of evil.

But of course the storyteller can't stop there. He has to show in the end there is a Great Good in the world (and beyond it). Sometimes it is necessary to paint the sky black in order to show how beautiful is the prick of light. Gather all the wickedness in the universe into its loudest shriek and God hears it as a squeak at best. And that is a comforting thought. When a child reads the last sentence of my stories, I hope he or she drifts to sleep with a glow in their hearts and a warmth in their bones, believing that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

And here’s Russell Moore:

The kids know--they instinctively know--that they're living in a universe in which something's gone awry. It's not our job--as parents, or as Sunday school teachers--to disengage that. It's our job to come in an to provide an answer to that. Yeah, you're living in an enchanted world. Yeah, you're living in a haunted world. You're living in a world haunted by demonic powers. That's exactly right--what you deeply fear is indeed the case... Your worrying about the monster under the bed isn't unreasonable; there's a monster under the fabric of the cosmos. Instead, we give them a story that provides the only comfort that really is lasting comfort; it's a comfort that the enemies have been defeated.

See also David Mills’s Touchstone essay, “Enchanting Children: Training Up a Child Requires a Well-Formed Imagination.”

For a book-length treatment, see Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination.

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7 thoughts on “On Scary Stories and the Moral Imagination”

  1. Dave Moore says:

    Hey Justin,

    Our other computer crashed, so wouuld you resend me your email? I want to send you an article I did for The Huffington Post on Tiger Woods.


  2. Andy says:

    BTW, Russ Moore’s interview with Andrew Peterson can be listened to here:

  3. Scott Howard says:

    Russell Kirk, the great conservative writers of the 20th century and a true man of letters, loved ghost stories and wrote many excellent ones himself. In his anthology of ghost stories is an essay entitled, “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale.” Ghost tales are “experiments in the moral imagination.” “The good ghost story,” he writes, “must have for its kernel some clear premise about the character of human existence – some theological premise, if you will…. all important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural… can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”

    Thankfully, the folks at the Russell Kirk Center have blessed us by posting this essay on their site:

  4. Bill Burns says:

    @Scott – What a great essay! Thanks for the link. It certainly makes me feel better about my son’s (and Mrs. Burns’!!) reading fare.

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Is there a link to an article or essay about the theology of ghosts?

    How do I explain ghosts to my children from a biblical perspective?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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