A bedtime story:
Night is falling, darling child, the curtains flutter. I have a tale to tell. Hurry, hop into bed, come close.
Once upon a time, I killed your parents.
Yes, yes, I know -- I liked them too -- but it had to be done. I burned them alive. Or perhaps I shot them dead; I can't recall, for I tell stories, and I have murdered so many.
Or perhaps they were only inattentive. This allowed me to kidnap you to a strange and dangerous place where -- there's no other way to say this -- grown-ups or wolves or beasts with no names want to rip you limb from limb.
Do you like this story? Shall I go on?
Yes, you shout? Please, you say?
A moment, and we will go out the window and across the field to the edge of the forest, you and I.
Ah, summer. The glory of childhood, its angelic idyll. Let's consider three massively popular tales out this week that impressionable young children can't get enough of:
In "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," we are reminded that Harry's parents were murdered, an evil wizard is trying to kill him and a principal character will die in this volume.
The first printing is 10.8 million copies, a U.S. record.
At the multiplex, there's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Bratty kids are stuffed into tubes, attacked by squirrels, thrown down garbage chutes and punished in various other candy-coated ways.
Roald Dahl's mischievous 1964 story, a worldwide classic, has been so popular for 40 years that it has twice made the jump to film.
Onstage, "Peter Pan" opens at Wolf Trap next week. Peter, the eternal boy-child, lures the Darling children away from their parents to Neverland, where they endure and participate in kidnappings, a poisoning and death by sword. Peter returns them home, while he is left outside without a family. Forever.
It has been an icon of children's literature for about a century.
While much has been made about a trend toward edgy realism in children's stories, fantastic events befalling vulnerable children have been around since the campfire. The dark stories, in all their bloodcurdling lore, are cultural touchstones across the world. In the Western canon, they have evolved from Grimms' fairy tales to animated films, as both thrilling entertainment and a way for children to confront their most profound anxieties, many of which they can't yet articulate. Psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim have argued that these stories play vital roles in children's inner lives, bringing their fears into daylight and creating moral order out of their interior world.
Let's be clear, though. This branch of children's literature is not some morbid psychological offshoot, kept in a cellar of the local bookstore. Instead, it is squarely in the mainstream, and many such stories have become beloved cultural icons:
Mom shot to death.
Mom dies in childbirth. Gets evil stepmother. Eats poisoned apple.
"Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Lion King," "Batman," "Superman," "Spider-Man," "Finding Nemo," "The Jungle Book" -- not to mention the tales of young Master Potter -- all feature children whose parents die, disappear or are simply not present. Here's the opening of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," the popular series of children's books, which was made into a film last year:
"If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle."
The first book tells of the resourceful but hapless Baudelaire children. It begins when their parents are burned alive. It ends with them being whisked away by strangers in the middle of the night.
The series has sold 40 million copies worldwide.
"Children are small, vulnerable, surrounded by adults who tower over them, and they have as many anxieties as we do, if not more," says Maria Tatar, dean for the humanities at Harvard University and editor of "The Annotated Brothers Grimm." "They have huge anxieties about what if my parents die? They want the safety and security of Mom and Dad -- but there is also that adventurous, curious side, where they want to see what's out there in the wide world. It's a symbolic working out, and fairy tales tell them that there are perils, but that you can use your wits and survive and live happily ever after."
And, as scary as the tales can be, they make a series of promises to children that are never articulated but are nonetheless understood.
First, there is a very clear signpost that we are entering fantasyland. You hear "once upon a time," or fall down the rabbit hole or go over the rainbow. You get to Hogwarts by running through an unseen portal in a London train station; you must win a Golden Ticket to get into Willie Wonka's chocolate factory; and you have to fly toward the second star to the right and straight on till morning to get to Neverland.
"It's a wonderful bridge to the imagination, of saying that the life of meaning, the world of magic, is right here beside us in our ordinary lives," says Jonathan Young, a psychologist and director of the Center for Story and Symbol in Santa Barbara, Calif. "It also tells us that getting there takes a slightly different angle than we knew existed."
Second, when in this fantasy land it is understood that while the monsters may be huge and the dangers severe, the child hero is not going to be killed.
"Children instinctively have an understanding of the genre, and they understand the children as heroes, and therefore they are quite likely not to perish," says Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, author of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." "But at the same time, they do understand them in a very real sense. I get kids who come up to me at readings and ask if they can be of assistance to the Baudelaire children in some way. I'm tempted to tell them, yes, it would be of great assistance if they could meet me in the middle of the night in some remote spot. But, um, I never do. They actually might."
He's joking, but he's not far off the mark.
Aidan Eubanks, an 11-year-old in Washington who is at work on his first fantasy novel, takes imaginary worlds seriously. While some of the deadly violence is fine with him now, he remembers crying when he was younger -- say, 8 -- when characters died in "The Golden Compass," or in a Harry Potter tale.
"I didn't want them to die," he says. "The books made me feel like a character was a live person. I think I was just getting used to people dying in books and dying in real life."
Third, the child hero is never really alone in these stories and never quite powerless. As innocent and doe-eyed as they may be, they always have resourceful friends and kindly mentors to offer friendship and love until their ordeal is over. Cinderella has her fairy godmother; Bambi has Thumper; Dorothy has the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man (not to mention Toto and a Good Witch); Harry has Ron, Hermione and protective teachers; Charlie has Grandpa Joe; and Peter Pan has his Lost Boys and, in the end, Tinker Bell to keep him company.
Finally, there's a payoff for enduring the frights.
These stories don't end in misery and heartbreak. There's a sense of accomplishment, a return to safety and a sense of a promising future, even if bittersweet. Although children understand that people -- including themselves -- are sometimes bad, the stories show that dangers can be overcome.
As Tatar says, "If you start with 'once upon a time,' you're going to finish with 'happily ever after.' "
Are you with me still? Have you lingered till the end?
Here we stand at the edge of the forest.
There is one last story parents never tell, one monster that is never slain.
It's coming. It is coming now.
It's there, stirring beneath the branches and rippling between the brambles. Are those teeth? Claws?
The sun is down, the light is wrong. Isn't home farther back yonder? I can't see it anymore.
What was that? Did it move? What things live in there, these monsters that come out at night and slink away before dawn?
Aye, 'tis the rustling beast of adulthood, growing closer with each fiendish step. See the snap of its jaws, the light in its eyes. It is the shape-shifting monster of our dreams that claims every child. It is coming for you. It has already devoured me, screams and all.
Tell me, little one. Are you scared?