Today’s post will feature some material a little different from the usual, though not unconnected. The development of narrative skills in young children is fascinating to observe, and in the context of this blog, the emerging ability to tell a “scary” story is especially so. About a year ago, I elicited a short horror narrative from my granddaughter, using the following inspirational props: a couple of tiny toy automobiles, several small wooden figurines of animals, (owl, bear, zebra), and a large plastic, steampunk-inspired mechanical spider. The result is described in an earlier post. (See also Horror Fiction from a Pre-Schooler.)
I am a speech language pathologist by profession, and my university training included the study of early childhood language acquisition and cognitive development. Oddly, I was not able to conduct similar studies of childhood horror story production during my clinical internships. Here is the story my granddaughter created last year, when she was four years old:
The car was driving and then it crashed and then it kept going again. And then there was a giant spider! And then the car ran away. And then the car looked down [from the top of a chair] and they saw a monster! And the monster was very scary. And they scared off the huge monster.
And then there was an owl. And the cars went down to see the owl. [A second car has joined the first.] The cars drive around the owl and the giant spider looked all around for the cars and then he found them!
Then he poked them with his leg. And then the cars crashed. And then the cars fighted the giant spider and he died and they got a trophy and medals.
There is a simple chronology of events, and a series of propositions linked by the conjunction “and”. For the purpose of comparison I was able to repeat this activity very recently, using more or less equivalent props: a couple of tiny metal cars, little plastic figures of a ladybug, bumble bee, frog, and dragon, and an enormous metal flying monster with big sharp teeth.
It was unnecessary to provide any prompting or leading questions; my grandchild readily formulated an organized story from the materials at hand. I merely transcribed the result. Admittedly this is only an “N of 1 study”, its subject a close relative of whom I am quite impressed. Here is a more recent story:
I’ll Never Get in the Way Again
by “C” and Pichu
We were driving our cars. When the dragon went in the ladybug’s way. “Excuse me dragon, I really need to go somewhere.”
“Roarrrr! No—I’ll never let you go”, said the dragon.
And the frog said, “Ladybug, please let me go.” [In traffic, right behind the ladybug’s car—Editor.]
“I’m sorry, the dragon is in the way.”
“Why is he in the way?”
“He’s angry and wants to rest on the road”, said the ladybug.
So they asked him to get out of the way. And then he flew off. But the monster came and ate everyone except the bee and the bee stung him. And it made everyone come out of the monster. And then the dragon breathed fire on the monster and then killed him to death for real.
Interestingly, both stories are almost the same length—the more recent one is actually a little shorter. But the second story goes beyond the mere listing of events and incorporates details about setting, the concerns of the characters, social niceties, (“I’m sorry, the dragon is in the way.”), the imputation of motive, and the intensification of scenes, as in “…breathed fire on the monster and then killed him to death for real.” C’s use of language is more efficient and sophisticated, in that additional ideas and assumptions are condensed into the later narrative without reliance on the less developed strategy of linking them with conjunctions.
Unlike C’s earlier story, this one has a title, characters, motive, conflict, and dialogue—the latter something that H.P. Lovecraft and several of his colleagues never quite mastered, even late in their careers. Like Lovecraft on occasion, she has a collaborator, albeit an imaginary one, whom she gives credit to for some of her creative inspiration.
The ability to create fictional stories—that is, to lie about real or imagined events—is a skill that adults take for granted. (And critical for survival: it allows us to live much more peacefully among our own kind than would be the case with unadorned honesty.) But in early childhood, this emerging capacity reveals the presence of remarkable cognitive and linguistic growth. How does a child learn that language can be used to talk about objects and activities that do not exist? Why is this such an important developmental milestone for humans?
Of course, communication is more than just content, more than just expressing information and emotion. It contains intent or purpose, and perhaps this forms the basis for communication. In this context, how is it that children at relatively young ages can create stories with the intent not only to entertain but perhaps frighten another?
This would be a fascinating area of research for scientists who study childhood language acquisition and cognitive development. The event in the story when the bee’s sting causes the monster to regurgitate the rest of the characters seems to echo some mythological archetypes. It may be that these early childhood narratives simply mimic the structure and content of those the parents tell at bedtime. But where do children obtain horror concepts like monstrosity, gruesome fate, and resurrection? Where do we?