Brain Pickings

Neil Gaiman on Why Scary Stories Appeal to Us, the Art of Fear in Children’s Books, and the Most Terrifying Ghosts Haunting Society

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”

Neil Gaiman — prolific author, champion of the creative life, disciplined writer, sage of literature — is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. At TED 2014 in Vancouver, he hosted a semi-secret late-night event where he read a ghost story and a brilliant short essay titled “Ghost in the Machine,” contemplating the psychology of why scary stories speak to us so powerfully, followed by a brief Q&A. With Gaiman’s permission, here is his beautiful reading of a beautiful thought-piece. Special thanks to two friends: WNYC producer extraordinaire Alex Goldmark, who kindly helped edit the audio I recorded, and Gaiman’s better half, the amazing Amanda Palmer (yes, her). Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

Why tell ghost stories? Why read them or listen to them? Why take such pleasure in tales that have no purpose but, comfortably, to scare?

I don’t know. Not really. It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.

The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voicemail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Halloweens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.

One of the things that makes Gaiman’s sensibility so singular is that he is among the few contemporary writers unafraid to explore darker psychoemotional themes in “children’s books” — I put this in quotations with the intended caveat that Tolkien so memorably articulated in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children”, which Maurice Sendak also expressed and which Gaiman himself has echoed. After the reading, I asked Gaiman how he relates to that adult construct of “children-appropriate” literature, in culture and in his own work:

In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.

Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by the great Lorenzo Mattotti — the artist behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven — will be released in October and is now available for pre-order.

In responding to the final question, Gaiman considers the things that terrify him, today. His answer couldn’t have been any more poignant:

The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It’s like the feeling, sometimes, that you’d start talking to people and you’re going, “I don’t know if what you’re saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don’t know. And you’re walking around being haunted by dead ideas… Look around and see where you are today.” I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.

Complement with Gaiman on where ideas come from and his sage advice on the creative life.

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