Friday, October 16, 2009

The Fine Line Between Fright and Humor

How many times have you seen a scary movie and laughed in relief at a false alarm? Laughter is our preferred way to release tension. Harriet Ziefert and Rebecca Doughty in Halloween Has Boo! do a bang-up job of walking that line between funny and gently frightful for toddlers.

Art Spiegelman, who started his career writing and drawing Wacky Packages jokes for Topps gum (like "Quacker Oats," featuring a duck in place of the usual pious gent pictured on the familiar cardboard oats canister), says that much of what we find to be humorous arises out of conquering one's fears. He points to a classic example, the jack-in-the-box. When a child first encounters the toy, he or she does not know what to expect, so when Jack pops out, it's frightening. But once the child knows how the jack-in-the-box works, and that he or she can predict when the doll will pop out, and that replacing the top will close Jack back securely inside, the child thinks it's wildly funny.

As they get older, kids enjoy scary rides at an amusement park, whether that takes the form of exhilarating speed (as in a roller coaster) or tantalizing terror (as in a haunted house tour). Getting through a frightening situation makes us feel braver somehow. One of my favorite things about summer as a kid was gathering in a circle around the campfire and telling ghost stories. In these weeks leading up to Halloween, I'll be posting some more of my favorite spine-tingling tales for young scary story–lovers, but one of the best things about a book is that you can put it down at any point if it gets to be a little too scary.