Coraline (see my article) is a deliciously creepy film, but it's raised again the question of whether children should be watching scary films, or reading scary books. It was raised last week on The Times' 'School Gate' blog. I agree with Sarah Ebner when she writes:
However, in my (limited) experience, I feel that as long as there's a warm or positive conclusion at the end of a book or film, children love to be scared, and it can even be good for them. It's as if they are taking a journey and some famous tales are real rites of passage. Why else would fairy tales be so successful, or a huge range of books from Where the Wild Things Are to The BFG, The Gruffalo to Harry Potter?
It reminded me of comments made by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the subect. Here's Lewis:
By confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happened, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St. George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of police. ('On Three Ways of Writing for Children' in On Three Ways of Writing for Children)
In Tolkien's famous essay 'On Fairy Stories' (originally given as the Lang lecture), he talked about the three functions of fairy stories being recovery, escape and consolation. He wrote about the value of the 'eucatastrophe', the story's 'sudden joyous turn':
But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist,' nor 'fugitive.' In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
The writer of Tolkien-Online.com is correct when he writes:
I would argue that 'eucatastrophe' pertains not just to the happy ending, but to the redemption of morality in the tale. Evil falls, but because of its own greed, its hatred, its fatal character flaw.
Good triumphs, and triumphs in some way because of its inherent good.