Are you sitting comfortably? Ryan Gilbery raises the issue of frightening children in the Guardian today - that is, frightening as something to do, not being frightened of the little kinder. He refers to new film Coraline (which I'm very much looking forward to seeing), as well as older - and still much-loved, I hope - haunts such as the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl.
I think there are actually two issues going on here, although it's easy to confuse them.
First, there's the issue of scaring kids - or, at least, introducing gore to our kids. Let's get one thing straight - I was/am a fanatical Dahl fan, as well as of any work that uses the macabre and disturbing to make us flinch as we read or watch. There is something comforting in such creations, the thought of something challenging us to run away and be sick with the thought of it, but our bravado in coming face to face with our beating heart, and sticking with it.
These dark tales are not, as some would have, inspiration to repeat the violence/terror/splurge guns, but a warning, cold-hearted and shrill, against the evil that lurks out there in the world and, more sinisterly, within all of us. They are healthy fear. They are therapy. They are looking glasses clearer than any newspaper article.
Second though, is what "lessons" we are left with at the end of the day. Gilbey delves into this in several paragraphs - the idea of changing the ending, whether it is away from a pair of aunts being squashed by a giant peach, from a boy stuck in a mouse's body, or from a wolf being beheaded and gutted by a testosterone-crazed woodcutter.
The Happy Ending, it must be said, is a curse on a modern society full of those who think the world can be improved by simply changing the stories we tell. Do Happy Endings give us hope? Do they put us at ease? Or do they make us happy to indulge in more brainless sequels?
No. I claim dramatically that the Happy Ending is nothing but a false lure, a mirror world in which we come to expect good things to be the End of All. Yes, I was freaked out a little by the ending of the Witches (the book, not the film) - but only because I was expecting everything to return - to normal.
But the Witches, along with another favourite, 1984, deals the death blow to utopia. And in doing so, both of these force us to confront the thing we truly fear - Consequences. A Happy Ending so often simply ignores all the action that has made the tale so exciting. A dream, a game, a loophole in time. "Happily ever after" is sneaky code for "and they never learned".
Stories contain a series of events. Events change us. We are not who we were at the beginning of story, and nor we can never go back to the beginning. Things happen. People die. Anger rages.
People survive. People get married. Animals get chopped up.
We deal with it.