Once angelic, docile; a respectful silence lingering beneath tousled ringlets and disciplined bonnets.
Now thuggish, malevolent; smearing pensioner’s blood across fast-food-stained hoodies, grunting slack-eyed in the pale luminance of electronic displays.
Wildly different images; both of which are, of course, bollocks.
Speaking from the perspective of the teacher (that is to say, through the prism of an upturned wine glass) children today are bright, engaging, funny, caring, mature, interesting and interested, witty and warm. The tapestry of their personalities is woven with as many diverse threads as that of the adults who spawned them. It is the fate of each generation to be horrified by that which comes after; many parents who baulk at current teen interests and predilections are those same young people who scoffed at their own parents’ disapproval of Ozzy Osbourne or The Exorcist. Modern children are just as wonderful and exasperating as they have ever been… but I would concede one difference, one evolution.
Kids today are harder to scare.
I have no doubt this is true. The kids in my own classroom discuss horror films casually, dismissively- even sounding bored- referencing films for which the trailers scared the very bejesus out of me.
So what scares kids now? For writers of YA fiction, this is a pressing concern. Charlie Higson’s excellent zombie-survival series The Enemy has lurched menacingly into a fourth volume. Kids absolutely love them. But were the books to be filmed, a 15 certificate would surely be the very least they could expect- these are scary, violent stories. Higson has talked of using his son as a guinea pig, turning the terror-screw until his son finally reached the point of nightmares. The point, for the writer of scary stories, of success.
There has been, without question, a desensitisation of young people. Immersion in the innocence-destroying world of the internet and its myriad perversions; the gleeful viscera of torture-porn such as Saw and Hostel (not to mention The Human Centipede); and ever more real video games- still sanitised by their form so that certificates are ignored by parents.
And if kids are becoming ever more shock-proof, ever more hardened to the digital world’s daily sloshings of gore, where do we, writers of YA fiction, turn in search of that elusive scare?
Never fear. In every hardened, battle scarred child, spooning saturated fat into their granite shell, there lies a soft core of vulnerability.
And that is where we strike.
Eventually, all our anxieties come back to those explored by the Victorians: the power of science, sexuality, madness, guilt, isolation, death. And it doesn’t matter how many nubile co-eds are fastened anus-to-mouth to form human insects, we will fear these things all the way into the shiny future.
We fear the power of our own minds: The Yellow Wallpaper, Jekyll and Hyde.
We fear where science will lead us: The Island of Dr Moreau, Frankenstein… Jekyll and Hyde.
We fear our own sexuality, the creeping rot of our own guilt, a descent into loneliness: Dracula, The Tell-Tale Heart… Jekyll and Hyde (for me, all roads lead to Jekyll and Hyde…).
In my work I explore a combination of the fantastic and the real. This, I feel, is the best way- maybe the only way- to spark the fear in modern young readers. Real-life terrors develop extra spice when combined with supernatural elements; otherworldly horrors are given relevance and shape by earthly concerns. My debut novel, The Marionette, is concerned with the loss of a grandparent- set against the backdrop of a supernatural horror that seems to connect with the grandparent’s past. It matters not how gore-hardened a young reader may be, we all fear loss; and if otherworldly elements beyond our control are involved, then that real, grounded fear is given an extra kick.
That’s the theory anyway.