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Illustration from scary children's story by John Bauer.

5 Sinister Children’s Stories


Five marvelous stories likely to scare both children and adults.

But thy throat is shut and dried, and thy heart against thy side 
hammers: Fear, O Little Hunter–this is Fear!

Rudyard Kipling

Childhood as a state of joy and innocence prior to the corruption of the soul is an idea that mainly comes from Romanticism. Before that, children often died before reaching adulthood and had to grow up and defend themselves so quickly that often it was better to not pay too much attention and not to get too emotionally attached to them. Perhaps it was from the advent of Romanticism, and from a Christian point of view, that it was believed that children should not be exposed to violence or fear.

Many of the fairy tales we know pre-date that period and did not previously suffer any censorship. It is well known that in the original version of “Cinderella” the stepsisters had to cut their toes off to make the slipper fit, and that in some versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” the little girl eats her grandmother. Those stories incited fear in children in an educational way so that they would learn, for example, of the real dangers that inhabited the forests. There is even a fairy tale in which the protagonist goes out looking for someone to teach them fear.

That same Romantic perception of childhood persists today although in parallel with a new image of sinister childhood (from horror stories and films, such as The Shining, The Omen, etc.) We know now that children discover violence and cruelty much sooner than we would like and that they are capable of all kinds of evil from an early age. Several children’s storywriters have aimed at that aspect of childhood and written sinister, sad and melancholy stories. Here are five of the best:

  1. “The Red Shoes”

Hans Christian Andersen was a Christian and wrote this fable in which a little girl finds some red shoes that make her lose herself in a world of vanity, forgetting her duty to her family and to God. As a punishment, the shoes take on a life of their own and oblige her to dance frenetically, without a rest, until, out of desperation and repentance, the girl cuts her feet off.

  1. “The Juniper Tree”

In this story written by the Brothers Grimm, a stepmother cuts her stepson’s head off and makes her daughter believe that it was she who killed him. She then cooks the boy and feeds him to his father. Eventually, the bones that were buried under a juniper tree become a bird that discovers the crime and kills the stepmother in a frenzy.

  1. The Gashlycrumb Tinies

Edward Gorey is one of the 20th century’s most singular writers and illustrators. Many of his stories were conceived for children but his publishers obliged him to publish them for adults. To date, critics have failed to agree on the classification of many of them. One of his most famous works is The Gashlycrumb Tinies and is based on the alphabets used to teach children letters. Except that Gorey assigns a dead child to each letter to then explain the reason for the death of each one. The children are killed by bloodsucking leeches, by drowning, burning and even by boredom.

  1. “Outside Over There”

Maurice Sendak, a friend of Gorey’s, inherited that same outlook on childhood. “I don’t lie to children,” he once said. His most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are is about a boy who suddenly finds himself on an island inhabited by terrifying but kind monsters. The monsters are based on his Polish aunts, exiled during the First World War, who visited Maurice as a child in Brooklyn. But perhaps his most terrifying story is “Outside Over There,” in which a girl discovers that the goblins have kidnapped her brother and left a snowman in his place.

  1. “Duck, Death and the Tulip”

Perhaps one of parents’ greatest fears is talking to their children about death. In this beautiful story by Wolf Erlbruch, death makes friends with a duck and discusses with him the possibilities and mysteries of life beyond the grave. When the duck dies, death becomes sad. Here is an animated version of the story.

In addition to these five horror stories, we also recommend this selection of books that all children must read as a treat for the imagination.

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