Being scared—but not really—is a feeling children love. A child may overindulge in fear, just as he may overindulge in ice cream, and as a result may weep hysterically or wake up with nightmares. But children soon learn their capacity. One girl told us she was always too chicken to summon Mary Worth. She said, “I knew I’d really be scared.” And really being scared is no fun.
A child summons Mary Worth, alias Bloody Mary, alias Mary Jane, by going into the bathroom alone at night, turning out the lights, staring into the mirror, and repeating “Mary Worth,” softly but distinctly forty-seven times. She comes at you out of the mirror, with a knife in her hand and a wart on her nose.
Children, though they don’t know it, have many good practical reasons for scaring themselves. Obviously, flirting with fear is a way of learning to control it, a way of learning to empathize with others who are frightened, and a way of embellishing one’s life with a little dramatic fiction. There are also other, less obvious benefits.
In all societies, the storyteller holds a position of respect. By listening to scary stories, a child learns to tell them, and by telling them, he gains respect. He also learns confidence in his ability to control and direct others. At Girl Scout camp (a real testing and training ground for the tellers of scary stories), at slumber parties, in a tent set up in the backyard for an adventurous all night sleep-out, or just sitting on a curb at night, after most of the gang have been called inside, the story teller does his work. He may tell a widely known traditional tale like this one: