Here’s the thing about horror: It can so easily turn into accidental comedy. Watch the original 1960s Twilight Zone series and what was once genuinely scary now offers a family-night laugh.
An inverse is also true: What we once considered fun, innocent, cosy and child-friendly will morph over time into something sinister.
This isn’t a deep dive speculation into the psychology behind this law of narrative evolution, though it feels logical to me: Childhood offers many horrors, mostly because of the unknown, and our complete dependence on adults.
Below I offer cosy-stuff-turned-horrific, with examples. Children’s literature doesn’t get rid of things that Stephen King ruins for everyone; children’s literature instead embraces any newfound ambivalent emotionality, which in all cases, was there right from the beginning. Stephen King didn’t ruin these things; they ruined themselves.
ICE CREAM VANS
TV Tropes has already described the trope of the ice cream van. See Bad Humor Truck. Ice cream trucks had their heyday in the era before households commonly had their own freezers, and before supermarkets sold ice cream at a price which made the ice-cream truck ice cream seem exhorbitantly high. Today we pay for the experience of the ice-cream van as much as for the ice-cream itself.
I have previously taken a deep dive into Happy Valley, whose horror/happiness irony is evident from the title. In that crime series, drug pushers make use of an ice cream van to sell their goods.
Fear of the stranger who comes into the cosy village is an old fear indeed, and has historically had a real world effect on Travellers (incorrectly, gypsies), and other Wanderers such as jongleurs. A picture book story about a man who comes to town (who may or may not exist outside a boy’s imagination) was featured in Season One of Reading Rainbow — Ty’s One Man Band.
See the sinister jongleur up close in a story/legend such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Some stories feature characters who come to town to fix all our problems then move on to another town with problems. We might call them the Blow-in Saviour. The evil jongleur is the Blow-in Saviour’s evil twin.
In the end, it’s much simpler than that, though. We evolved in very small groups and we are naturally suspicious of newcomers. The ice-cream van is your ultimate newcomer, and what is he peddling? He can commit the greatest evil and has the means to move on, consequence free.
The zoo is an inherently evil place which keeps some creatures in captivity while encouraging the gleeful and unempathetic gaze of the zoo-goer. Zoos do not have a great history, and many remain problematic today.
Anthony Browne was one of the first picture book creators to hammer home the icky experience of visiting an urban zoo in his postmodern book called, wait for it, Zoo. Before that, and occasionally even now, the zoo gets the carnivalesque treatment in children’s literature.
FAIRGROUNDS AND CIRCUSES
Speaking of carnivals, the circus experience is eequally ambivalent, and can spark fear as much as it sparks happiness. I believe the success of thye circus has always relied upon fear: The lion tamers, the tight-rope walkers… Without the fear of death the circus is nowhere near as exciting.
Fairgrounds offer rides which are basically a realworld simulation of spatial horror: the distortion mirror, the gravitron, the roller coaster. They all offer us a new and disturbing take on the familiar world.
The fairground is therefore an example of what Michel Foucault called a heterotopia — A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal. The fairground contains a mise en abyme of heterotopias — the fairground itself is a heterotopia owing to its being separate from the day-to-day world; inside that you’ll find a distortion mirror, and the mirror itself is a heterotopia: The mirror does exist in reality. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, but the distorted image in the fairground mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal.
In art, the fairground often gets the noir treatment. (Of course Stephen King ekes plenty out of fairground settings.)
Joyland comes with all the horror trappings for which Stephen King is known: a sinister carnival, a grisly unsolved murder, a haunted ride.Alison Flood, The Guardian
Netflix series Stranger Things is heavily influenced by Stephen King fiction, and contains various forms of the heterotopia, including a fun fair. So does Ray Bradbury, R.L. Stein and pretty much every horror writer who has produced a wide ranging body of work.
Now I’m noticing palettes, I’m seeing the blood red of horror softened to a variety of pinks, purples and pinky-reds for children’s horror.
For adults, the narrative fairground is inherently sexual. In the 1990s song Fairground, Mick Hucknall uses the fairground as an interesting backdrop to a song which is, at its heart, a love letter to a lover.
See also the coming-of-age film Adventureland. The horror potential of the fairground isn’t fully explored in this film, but reminds me that settings wear narrative masks as much as characters do; the fairground is the ultimate masked character. Behind the glossy surface the fairground is always a very different beast, even if all that is is ‘not all that fun’ (in this case because you’re doing a low-paid summer job before heading off to experience adult life).
Clowns are a category of stock character including jesters, fairytale fools, the Harlequin and so on. These characters are not identical, not in looks and not even in function. For instance, the Harlequin plays the straight guy in a clown sequence (harlequinade). The Harlequin also became conflated with Mestopheles, the fallen angel who carried out the unfortunate transation with Faust. Clowns have never been pure monovalent fun.