Which may make us wonder: Why? Why do we seek out scary experiences in things like roller coasters, haunted houses, and books?
I think there are several possible reasons.
They’re safe frights, first of all. When we go on a roller coaster, our hearts pound and we scream, but (assuming there are no engineering issues) we are in no actual danger.
Books are especially good at letting us experience frightening situations in a completely safe environment. While roller coasters give us an adrenaline rush, books provide entry into an entire world of thrills, full of complexity and consequences.
And while some adults may be tempted to shield kids from all things frightening, this isn't always a good idea. Exploring scary ideas is the first step to conquering them.
With books, we can face a wide range of fears, from everyday issues, like bullying, to extraordinary ones, like shape-changing monsters that curse people. While reading, we can think about what we would do in similar situations, and whether those actions would be good. We can learn from the characters’ mistakes and apply this insight to our own lives. We can see that we’re not alone, that others struggle with the same fears we do.
Books let us be brave. I wouldn’t want to face a dragon (or a moth) in real life, but I’m always ready for an epic battle on the pages.
As Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton*, said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be beaten.”
As much as we may want to shelter children from everything bad that could ever happen, they already know that scary things exist in the world. Books help us show them that they can persevere.
*There's a lot of confusion over this quote! I updated the attribution.