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Scary stories are fictions that aim to create fear and/or unease in the audience. They have ancient roots in folk literature, but they are best represented through the Gothic genre, which is the first literary genre to have fear at the center of its narrative structure in Western literature. Scary stories always have an uneasy atmosphere and monstrous characters. This enables the author to criticize our society while transforming it a bit and the reader can face his or her fears; the author can also use scary stories to educate the reader on the norms of society.

frise auteurs scary stories

The evolution of scary stories

Scary stories can be found in various literary genres and have evolved along with our society. We will give a history of scary stories, from myths and fairy tales to Gothic literature. Then we will talk about scary stories today.


Myths and fairy tales

Scary stories have existed since the beginning of storytelling, starting with myths, Greek myths in particular, and fairy tales. They were first told orally, and then written in different forms.

Scary stories (or horror stories) have always existed in storytelling. They were first popular in what we call "folk literature" which refers to the oral tradition of people who didn't have written language. Folk literature is transmitted orally, by people telling stories to others. It consists of prose and verse narratives: poems, songs, myths, proverbs, etc. Literature was oral until 4000 BC, before writing was invented and developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Oral stories were then written down and transmitted to future generations.

Horror stories were mostly popular in myths and fairy tales. Those two narrative structure were used to explain social or natural phenomenons, especially focusing on foundational tales, which were origin stories, meant to answer questions about where we came from and why.

"A myth expresses and confirms society's religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult."

Lauri Honko

"The Problem of Defining Myth" in Alan Dudes (Editor). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, p. 49. University of California Press.


Ancient Greek myths made use of horror in their plots and writers used suspense in their stories to keep the audience interested. Works of ancient Greek literature feature supernatural elements, such as Gods, ghosts and curses, as well as psychological horror, with murders and betrayal.

In Antigone, by Sophocles, the main character, Antigone, wants to bury her brother with a proper funeral to keep him from damnation, against the wishes of King Creon, their uncle. He condemns her to be buried alive. Creon's son, Hemon, warns him that refusing the funeral and keeping a man's soul on earth exposes him to the fury of the Gods, but Creon sees it as a threat against his life and his power. Tiresias, a blind prophet, predicts that the Gods will be angered, and make Creon suffer. When he refuses to listen, his niece, Antigone, his wife, and his son kill themselves. This myth was used to represent the danger of hubris, which means arrogance and pride. It was a tale illustrating what was supposed to happen when one didn't respect the Gods. It uses both supernatural elements and psychological horror to drive the point home.

Fairy tales are similar to myths, and also commonly use horror devices. According to researchers, some fairy tales date back to the Bronze Age (from 3300 to 1200 BC), more than 6,000 years ago. They still exist today. They were initially told orally and then written down.

Sometimes, they were first imagined and written, and the writer claimed that they were taken from the oral tradition to make them seem more plausible.

In the original Snow White, published in 1812 and written by the Brothers Grimm, the queen is punished with a pair of hot iron slippers which burn her feet, and made to dance until she drops dead.

Fairy tales usually feature supernatural entities: ghosts, fairies, dragons, talking animals or objects, witches, curses, and magic in general. They also incorporate psychological horror: murder, suspense, imprisonment, and so on.

The most famous fairy tale writers are the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. Among their works, we can find Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Bluebeard or Snow White. You might have seen fairy tales as animated movies, since they have been used and retold by Disney, which shows us that they are still relevant today. However, the originals were more violent than the movies, which were sanitized to appeal to bigger audiences.

English French
Myth Mythe
Fairy tale Conte de fées
Scary, Horror Effrayant, horrifique
Folk littérature Littérature populaire
Oral tradition Tradition orale
To transmit Transmettre
To explain Expliquer
Natural phenomenon Phénomène naturel
Plot Intrigue
Supernatural Supernaturel
God Dieu
Murder Meurtre
Betrayal Trahison
Entity Entité

Gothic literature

Gothic literature is a specific type of fiction. It is characterized by its medieval settings (castles or monasteries for instance), and its atmosphere of mystery and horror. It builds on the themes of melancholy, sadness and eeriness common theme in Romantic literature. The movement dates back to the 18th century, but a lot of writers have used it as an inspiration and written in a Gothic style since then. 

The style is called Gothic because of its specific settings, which are reminiscent of the Gothic style of architecture from the Middle Ages. In fact, buildings and architecture are very important in that literature. The stories usually take place in old houses, castles, or monasteries, whether it be in small towns with cobblestone streets or in the countryside. 

The first Gothic novel is considered to be Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1795). It takes place in the Middle Ages, between the 11th and 12th century, and the themes present in the novel have remained staples of the genre. The novel deals with Manfred, a prince whose son disappears before his marriage. However, the marriage was meant to counter an ancient curse. Manfred is haunted by ghosts and driven crazy. The supernatural elements in this book were inspired by medieval novels but Walpole added realistic elements, which led to the creation of the Gothic genre, a new genre of fantasy which was grounded in reality, making it more plausible and therefore scarier. Walpole himself lived in a Gothic mansion, and claimed to see ghosts in this house.

In the Gothic genre, the themes are similar to those of current horror stories, although there is almost always a supernatural element. The plot devices and character types used by Walpole became common in Gothic literature: hidden identities and strangers, medieval castles and houses, secret passageways, supernatural forces, and damsels in distress.

The masters of Gothic literature are considered to be Shelley, Stoker, and Poe. There are three major Gothic works written by them: 

  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein;
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula;
  • Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the house of Usher.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was published in 1897 and led to an entire subgenre of horror, the vampire story, which is still popular today. It tells the story of Jonathan Harker, an English lawyer who travels to Transylvania to meet his client, Count Dracula. Dracula traps the lawyer in his castle and travels to England, where he kills many people to drink their blood. He is hunted by Harker's fiancee and other townspeople. The character of Dracula is thought to be based on Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian ruler, who impaled his enemies on stakes (pointy wooden sticks) and drink their blood. As with all scary stories, it is open to interpretation. Some think it represented the relationship between the past and the future: Count Dracula could be seen as a metaphor for the primitive nature of the past facing the uncertainty of the future. It has also been interpreted as a criticism of the conservative and repressive norms of the Victorian era in England.

English French
Gothic Gothique
Cobblestone Pavé
Staples of the genre Les essentiels/les basiques du genre
To counter Contrer
To haunt Hanter
Crazy Fou
Medieval novel Roman médiéval
Fantasy Fantastique, imaginaire
Realistic Réaliste
Grounded Basé sur, fondé sur
Stranger Étranger

Scary stories today

Nowadays, scary stories are omnipresent. They can be found in various genres and various media. A new genre has emerged: science fiction. A lot of authors are inspired by the Gothic genre and horror stories. The most famous one is Stephen King. Some of them make pastiches of scary stories, that we can be in a wide variety of formats.

Some themes have evolved to reflect the new challenges of our civilization. The emergence of science fiction coincides with the technological progress made since the 19th century. Science fiction explores the consequences of innovations, which can be scientific or technological. It has become a literary form since the end of the 18th century. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story in 1835 which dealt with a trip to the moon. Jules Verne helped the genre gain popularity at the end of the 19th century, thanks to the scientific accuracy of his novels. This popularity developed into the 20th century. The most famous science fiction author of the 19th century is considered to be H.G. Wells. He wrote The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. 

However, the Golden Age of science fiction came later, in the middle of the 20th century, with authors such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick, who explored new themes. They introduced the "space opera" subgenre. The genre became more focused on space and computer sciences. The genre reflected on the ways new technologies were affecting our lives and our social interactions, and the effects they could have on people. It even had indirect effects on leaders in those industries, who started a reflection on the consequences of their actions.

On the other hand, there has also been a strong continuity between the Gothic period and modern scary stories. Even in the 21st century, the most popular stories have ancient roots.

The bestselling horror novel of the 21st century is Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. The first book of the series was published in 2005. Stephenie Meyer has said that she was influenced by vampire stories, but also used the Romantic male characters from Victorian literature to turn the figure of the vampire from Dracula into Edward. 

In fact, a lot of contemporary horror writers are aware of their influences and reference previous works in theirs as an homage. Some of them make pastiches: a pastiche is a work of art that imitates another work of art.

The Scream movie series, directed by Wes Craven, is what is called a pastiche of horror movies, with elements of dark comedy. The first movie, Scream, was released in 1996 and is considered to be an homage to the genre as well as a satire of the clichés present in the horror movie genre. The story was inspired by a real life serial killer, The Gainesville Reaper. In the movie, a killer hunts people in a small American town, and seems to be focused on one character, Sidney. One of the characters, Randy, is a fan of horror movies, and comments on the plot as it evolves, because it resembles the plot of a horror movie. The movie makes fun of the usual clichés present in horror movie: immature teenagers who do not understand the consequences of their action and melodrama. It also acts as social criticism: the movie references the fact that black characters are often killed first, which evokes racism, and criticizes the importance of violence in the media and popular culture. The journalist in the movie is satirized as a ruthless person who only cares about finding the story and becoming famous, and does not show empathy towards the victims. This is what we call "metafiction". It means a fiction in which the author references the fiction itself.

The works of Alan Moore can also be seen as metafictions. In his comics, or more specifically graphic novels, he reflects on the tropes of comic books and superheroes: for instance, in the universe of the mystery comic books entitled Top Ten, released from 1999 to 2001, everyone has superpowers, from cops to regular citizens, to pets.

So, horror is still a very relevant genre in our society. One of the most famous horror writers of the contemporary era is Stephen King. He has written around 60 books and 200 short stories. There have been dozens of adaptations of his works as movies and as tv shows. Stephen King represents the blended nature of horror genres. His influences are a mix of science fiction and Gothic influences. He credits science fiction writers Richard Matheson (I am Legend) and Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner) as his biggest influences. He also uses Gothic themes frequently.

The Shining is an example of modern horror, since it is both a book and a movie, and has varied influences. The hotel from The Shining is a recreation of a Gothic castle, complete with long hallways, secret rooms, ghosts and curses. The Shining was published in 1977 and adapted into a movie by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. Both the movie and the book were widely successful. It deals with an alcoholic writer named Jack Torrance who is hired as a caretaker in an isolated hotel, The Overlook, in the mountains. He moves in the deserted hotel with his wife Wendy and his son Danny. He doesn't know that the former caretaker went crazy in the hotel and killed his family. Danny has psychic powers and is able to see the horrors that took place in the hotel. The hotel's cook also has this power, which is called the Shining. He and Danny can communicate through telepathy. The story follows the family as Jack Torrance slowly goes crazy. He is haunted by nightmares and visions, and eventually tries to kill his family. He ends up freezing in the snow after chasing Danny outside. The elements of this story are highly symbolic. King has explained that the haunting of Jack Torrance was a metaphor for his own fears of ever hurting his children, which haunted him. He said: "As a young father with two children, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children. Won't you ever stop? Won't you ever go to bed? And time has given me the idea that probably there are a lot of young fathers and young mothers both who feel very angry, who have angry feelings toward their children."

English French
Drama Pièce de théâtre
Cop Policier
Regular Normal
Citizen Citoyen
Pet Animal domestique
Comic Bande-dessinée
To evolve Évoluer
To gain Gagner
Subgenre Sous-genre
Roots Racines
Blended Mélangé

The characteristics of scary stories

The common characteristics of scary stories are the uneasy atmospheres and the monstrous characters, regardless of the genre or format.


Uneasy atmospheres

Scary movies scare us with plot devices, but also by building an atmosphere that makes us uneasy. A lot of devices are used to convey an atmosphere of horror. They usually have to do with things that affect our senses, and especially our senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell. The settings in those stories are also meant to be frightening.



First of all, we will see how horror stories use our own sight to scare us. The most common device used is darkness. In horror stories, the settings are often dark. 

In books, darkness is conveyed through descriptions of darkly lit rooms, but it is mostly thanks to the stories taking place at night. In fact, the most famous horror monsters are linked to darkness: vampires only appear at night, and they are characterized by their aversion to the daytime, since they can be killed by being exposed to sunlight. They are pale and emaciated. In movies, underexposure is used. Basically, exposure means how bright an image is. If an image is underexposed, it means we will mostly see the shadows. "Dark" is also a word that can be used symbolically. A character can be described as dark, to mean that he is is evil. Darkness is even used in the Bible: "The Dark Lord" is Satan, and God created light and called it good. 

Darkness is scary because, the character doesn't know what's going to happen, he can't predict anything or find his footing, and therefore neither can we. If we can't see what's happening clearly, it creates a feeling of dread and suspense because anything can hide in the dark. We are therefore constantly on the lookout for what can jump out at us. Darkness is synonymous with mystery.

In the horror video game Silent Hill, first released in 1999, the only source of light is the character's flashlight, and we can only see what is right in front of him, which increases the feeling of unease.



Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are also often used in horror stories: they show the duality of characters or alternate realities. 

First of all, they can be used as a metaphor for the duality of the character, which means that he has different sides to his personality.

In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson mirrors are used as a metaphor for the duality of the main character. 

Mirror images can also be used to show alternate realities: they reflect our world, but with slight differences, which makes us uneasy. A ghost can appear in the mirror behind a character, even though the room is empty, for instance.


The use of senses

Our hearing is manipulated in horror stories. Sounds are often unexpected and imitate suffering: cries of pain or fear are heard, and to add to the feeling of suspense, their origin is unknown. It is also hard to distinguish between human sounds and animal sounds, which adds to the feeling of unease. Smell and touch are often used in new location, when the character arrives somewhere unknown, and first notices the characteristics of the place. Smell trigger emotions and memories (remember Proust's madeleine!), and nasty smells and textures can provoke disgust. They can also evoke decay and death, since the most obvious bad odors are the odors of death. 

In movies, the most obvious device is music. Music is "nonlinear": unusually high or low-pitched, and changing tones rapidly. It is meant to replicate the sound of fear. It is usually created with sharp high-pitched violin notes.

The most famous uses of violins in films can be found in the movie Psycho, by Alfred Hitchcock (1960): the sounds of the violin accompany the movements of the knife as the female character is stabbed in her shower. 

Music can also be used to induce "jump scares". Jump scares are what we call scares that make you jump from your seat. The music will get progressively louder until it stops abruptly, and the frightening image appears. 

In books, sounds can also be effectively used to create suspense.

"There came a light tap at the library door—and, pale as the tenant of a tomb, a menial entered upon tiptoe. His looks were wild with terror, and he spoke to me in a voice tremulous, husky, and very low. What said he?—some broken sentences I heard. He told of a wild cry disturbing the silence of the night—of the gathering together of the household—of a search in the direction of the sound; and then his tones grew thrillingly distinct as he whispered me of a violated grave − of a disfigured body enshrouded, yet still breathing − still palpitating − still alive."

Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart


In this short story from 1843, the main character murders an old man, and hides the body under the floorboards. His guilt then manifests through the sound of a beating heart under the floor. Sounds are used throughout the short story to induce fear. Here, the sounds come before the scary presence. They announce the arrival of something unexpected and install an ominous atmosphere. In the short story, Poe also uses onomatopoeia: words that imitate the noise, for instance "boum" or "pow". Thanks to onomatopoeia, we can picture the sound more clearly in our head, even if it is described in writing. 

Smell and touch are hard to convey in writing or in movies, and are therefore also associated with the character's reaction: disgust, vomiting, and so on. Smells and touch can be used symbolically, to signify evil.

In The Perfume (1985), by Patrick Süskind, the main character has a very developed sense of smell, and he is fascinated by the smell of young women. He ends up killing them to extract their scent and create a perfume, but when he wears it, people become drawn to him and end up eating him. 

Here is a recap of how senses can be used, with which devices and what effects.

scary stories smell

The settings in scary stories

There are familiar settings present in scary stories:

  • the houses (castle, manor, mystery houses, usually empty and/or squalid);
  • the wild (the forest, outer space);
  • graveyards, deserted buildings, and lonely places represent emptiness and loneliness when faced with our fears. 

They were staples in Gothic horror but are still common today. 

These examples of settings transcend genres and periods. Sometimes, authors like to subvert expectations and install horror in familiar places or places of order, which adds to the unease of the characters and the audience. When places that we encounter in everyday life are used, it highlights the sense of dread, since we tend to think of these places as safe. That is why the myth of the "bogeyman" (a fictional half-ghost, half-demon creature) hiding in the closet is so frightening: it is close enough to get us, and not in a remote country or abandoned castle.

In The Mist, Stephen King traps his characters in a supermarket with an evil fog which swallows them one by one. It reinforces the idea that even common places are not safe. 

Carnivals and fairs are popular in horror movies for that very reason: they are places where one goes to have fun, but horror writers like to underline the scarier parts of carnivals by exploring what goes on there at night.

Carnivals and fairs are used in Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Stephen King's Joyland.

So, devices and settings are common threads among scary universes and genres, and are used to build an atmosphere and create feelings of loneliness, fear, unease, and sometimes disgust.

English French
Sight Vue
Darkness Le noir
Underexposure Sous-exposition
Dread Crainte, effroi
Suspense Suspense
Mystery Mystère
Mirror Miroir
Duality Dualité
Hearing Ouïe
Nonlinear music Musique non-linéaire (notes très aiguës ou très basses qui se succèdent)
Jump scare Saut de peur, procédé de film d'horreur visant à faire sursauter le spectateur
To announce Annoncer 
Unexpected Inattendu
Ominous De mauvais augure
Smell Odorat
Touch Toucher
Emptiness Vide
Loneliness Solitude
The Boogeyman Une créature mythique des comptines enfantines
Disgust Dégoût

 The monsters

In scary stories, there are a lot of monsters. There have been common figures in scary stories throughout literary and cinematic history. We will separate them into two categories: 

  • the supernatural monsters who represent unknown or unknowable things: death, disease, the potential violence of others (ghosts, vampires, zombies and werewolves);
  • the real life monsters, that is to say the monsters we could encounter in everyday life.

The ghosts

Ghosts are the most popular types of creatures in scary stories. They are the spirits of dead people who have retained their form. 

They are also called spirits, from the latin "spiritus", which means breath. Usually, they are not invisible, but sometimes they only appear as shadowy figures, or through the objects they touch. The history of ghosts can be traced back to classical Antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome). In fact, they often appeared in the Odyssey and the Iliad, written by the Greek poet Homer. They can be utilized during any period.

In the famous Poltergeist movie directed by Steven Spielberg, a ghost (or poltergeist) appears through the television to take a family's soul. 

The fear of ghosts is associated with the fear of the dark and the fear of death, since they are difficult to see, and represent the unfinished business of people on earth (sometimes they look for vengeance), and the fact that the afterlife is not knowable.


The vampires

Vampires are present in most cultures' folklore (ancient stories). They are undead creatures who come back to the world of the living by crawling out of their coffin after being turned by another vampire. In all vampire stories, there are shared characteristics.

Vampires are pale and gaunt (very skinny), their reflection cannot be seen in a mirror, they suck the blood of other people, or sometimes animals. They are immortal, but they are vulnerable to sunlight, crucifix or holy water. They can also be killed with a stake through the heart. Bram Stoker's Dracula created the legend for modern vampires. Vampires represent a fear of contagion: they spread their vampirism through blood. Symbolically, they can also stand for toxic and abusive people, who "suck" one's energy the way one would suck blood. There is also a religious or spiritual dimension to vampires. Have we have seen, they can be killed with a crucifix or holy water. So, they are associated with the antichrist or the devil.

One of the first and most famous film about vampires is Nosferatu (1922) by Murnau.

vampire scary stories horreur

© Flickr


The zombies

Zombies are also undead creatures, but they are created through the reanimation of a corpse which is already decomposing. Therefore, they are braindead, have no capacity to think, and are physically decaying. 

Zombie first appear in voodoo folklore in Haiti, but today they are everywhere.

The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook is the first zombie movie and dates back to 1929. 

Zombies also symbolize disease (since they are decomposing) and death. These creatures have also been used as metaphors for the fear of disease, or even, more symbolically, to criticize the "mindlessness" of people.

In the movie Dawn of the Dead (1978) directed by George Romero, the zombies are a criticism of capitalism and the mindlessness of consumerism: that means that capitalism turns people into creatures who do not think and only exist to consume things, the way zombies consume brains.


The werewolves

Finally, werewolves are humans who turn into wolves, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because of a curse. They transform during the full moon. They represent the savage or primitive nature of man: when they transform, their clothes are torn off and they become wild animals.

Lycaon is considered as the first werewolf, he appears in Greek mythology. He is transformed into a wolf by Zeus.


The real life monsters

Natural or human monsters highlight a more familiar danger: killers are real, and one could come across a killer in their life. They are examples of human deviancy (psychopathy, violence, etc). Usually, their actions cannot be explained.

The most notable subgenre of horror stories involving killers is the slasher film, where an unknown serial killer attacks a group of people. The genre started with Psycho, by Alfred Hitchcock. It led to a series of movies that continues to this day: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996). These movies were so popular that most of them have been remade in the 2000's, with the same stories, but for more modern audiences. The TV shows you may watch are also types of slasher stories.

Pretty little Liars or The Purge are slasher TV shows. They are characterized by their mystery as well as their gore: the characters do not know why they are being targeted, and neither do we.


The functions of scary stories

Scary stories are invented to entertain the audience, but they also have two main functions: making sense of the senseless and propagating the norms of society.


Making sense of the senseless

Scary stories help making sense of what we cannot control or understand: our fears. They help us understand extreme societal issues like madness, power abuse, social faults or excesses. 

Watching horror movies is a way of controlling our fears. In horror movies we can watch from a distance as fictional people and experience the fears we have, but we can turn off the TV, close the book, or leave the movie theater. The monsters are contained within the work of fiction, and therefore, we control them. They are also a mirror of our own behaviors and fears. They enable us to understand better society. They explain various social and societal issues through allegorical figures.

Madness and mental illness are scary because they make us lose control of our faculties and change our behavior. We literally lose our mind. In scary stories, through the characters, we can explore the meaning of mental illness without going through it ourselves, and understanding something makes it less scary.

The Babadook, a movie directed by Jennifer Kent and released in 2014, addresses the topics of grief and depression by using the metaphor of the boogeyman. The monster from the movie represents the mother's sadness after her husband's death and her fear that her depression will make her a bad mother. 

Political extremism and abuse of power are also often criticized in scary stories. They show us counter-examples of behavior, so we know the dangers of certain actions.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell in 1949, shows us what would happen if a dictatorship came to power. It warns us against authoritarian figures. It is a dystopian novel: it means that it takes current realities and highlights their danger. The word translates to "bad place" from the Greek. Dystopias are the opposite of utopias. Orwell's novel takes place in the future, the year 1984, when most of the world is ruled by a single party with a cult of personality. In that society, people are constantly watched by the State (specifically Big Brother, the leader of the party), and even their thoughts are monitored. The language has been simplified and some words are not taught to people, so they don't even have the ability to think for themselves. This novel criticizes totalitarism, but also mass surveillance and the violations of freedom of speech.

Social faults are also explored in scary stories: they show us the consequences of our actions.

The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch, where people treat the main character as an animal because his face is badly deformed (he looks like an elephant), and yet, when his doctor starts talking to him, he realizes that the "elephant man" is actually a sensitive and generous person. This movie underlines the dangers of bullying.

The excesses of technology have also become a common theme in science fiction and horror. A lot of works explore the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. This theme became popular after World War II and the use of the nuclear bomb: scientists became aware that there was also a moral aspect to their work and that just because they could create or invent something, it did not mean they should, because it could hurt others.

The show Black Mirror deals with a new technological danger in every episode. For instance, in the episode entitled "Nosedive", the characters rate themselves using their social media apps, and their quality of living depends on how much likes they get from other people, so they become obsessed with their online image. 

Finally, as we have explained with the description of the common characters in scary stories, death and disease are the most common fears explored. They are the ultimate unknown: we have no control over them and we cannot prevent them.

For instance, in the movie 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle imagines what would happen if an epidemic spread through England, and how people would react, through the use of zombies.

English French
Fear of the dark La peur du noir
Fear of death La peur de la mort
Vampire Vampire
To spread Se répandre, se propager
Contagion Contagion
Religious Religieux
Zombies Zombies
To control one's fear Contrôler ses peurs
Madness Folie
Extremism Extrémisme
Abuse of power Abus de pouvoir
To warn Prévenir
Dystopia Dystopie (voir cours « Utopies et dystopies »)
Fault Défaut
Excess Excès
Disease Maladie

Propagating the norms of society views

Finally, scary stories are used to propagate normative views of behavior. What is scary in those stories should be avoided in real life. In that way, they propagate stereotypes. It is particularly the case with women who are often punished when they are independent in scary stories.

Scary stories are also used to regulate behavior. In his book about the psychology of fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim explains that stories are meant to teach children how to act. First of all, Bettelheim explained that fairy tales were meant for children, and he had the theory that some of them served as sex education.

In The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm, a princess meets a frog after dropping a gold ball into a pond. She becomes friends with the frog, who turns into a prince after she throws him against the wall. In The Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault, a young girl encounters a wolf in the woods. Both stories acknowledge that sex can be scary for children and uses metaphors to explain the mechanisms of sexuality and the proper behavior to adopt. The Little Red Riding Hood was also said to explain what we call puberty, that is to say the change that occurs between childhood and adulthood.

Nowadays, scary stories can also have moral or behavioral meanings.

The TV show Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, which was created by Joss Whedon, deals with puberty through metaphors. It deals with the topic of morality and the difference between right and wrong, especially in difficult situations.

Little Red Riding Hood is a metaphor for the dangers of not listening to one's elders, but also of young women having sex. Sometimes they are also used as a tool to change minds and persuade people.

However, since it is used to dictate behavior, if it is not handled well, it can lead to sexism and racism being perpetuated through metaphors. Women are often punished for being independent in scary stories. As Mona Chollet explains, the figure of the witch is actually used to demonize women who are free-thinking and behave the way they want. In a lot of horror movies, independent women who have sex and often some of the first ones to be killed. This has actually become such a cliché that modern horror movies have referenced it.

In The Final Girls (2015) directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, the characters experience all the common themes of horror movies and comment on them: one of them explains that the girl who is pure and obedient will be the only one who survives, and will therefore become the "final girl" while the one who is sexually active will be killed much sooner. This movie also references another stereotype: the fact that black people are often killed first in horror movies. In the movie, this is explained as coming from the racist cliché that black people's lives matter less than white people's.

In Carrie, a book by Stephen King adapted by De Palma for the screen, a virgin girl mocked by everyone because of her difference and religious upbringing ends up killing her schoolmates.

English French
Normatives view Vues normatives (normatif : qui émet des jugements de valeur)
Norm Norme
Encounter Tomber sur, rencontrer
Pond Étang, mare
Stereotype Stéréotype
To regulate Réguler
Elders Aînés
A tool Un outil
To handle Manier, s'occuper de
To lead to Mener à
To dictate Dicter
To demonize Diaboliser
Racist Raciste