Why Do We Tell Stories?

I took the kids on Friday to go hear Joseph Bruchac and his son Jesse speak at my university. Joe is a fellow Tu Books author, and I had the chance to visit with him when I was at ConnectiCon. He’s a great guy–has written a plethora of books, and is a first rate storyteller–he’s headlining the National Storytelling Festival this year, if that gives you any idea. To have the chance to hear him at a small venue, and I don’t have to drive more than 5 minutes?

Yes, please.

The performance was fantastic. I loved seeing how enraptured TRC and DC were with the stories, and they’ve been talking about them since. They were a variety of scary stories from Native American folklore, along with some traditional songs, flute playing, and drums. If you get the chance to hear Joe in person, you should leap at it.

One of the most interesting things to me during the evening was the explanation Joe gave for why Native Americans told scary stories to children. It wasn’t just for shock value or thrills–it was to teach lessons. When you tell a child not to do something, often they’re more interested in whatever you just told them not to do. If they say they want to go play in a dangerous swamp, and you tell them not to, chances are they might go off and do it anyway.

But if you tell them of the old crone named Toad Woman who lives in the swamp and lies in wait to pull them under and suck the skin off their bones, they might seriously reconsider. And even if they do finally go anyway, they’re much more likely to be cautious and careful–which is what you want them to be in such an environment.

This makes such sense to me, but it’s not something I’d ever really heard put into words before. Speaking from experience, there are STILL some things I won’t do (or don’t like to do) based purely on the fact that I heard bad stories about it from someone a long time ago. If this kind of psychological weapon works on me, imagine what it can do to five year olds. ­čÖé

I know one thing–one of the stories Joe told was about the tree people who lie in wait to steal little children who don’t go to bed right away. DC has been remarkably better about going to sleep promptly for the last few nights.

In any case, it made me look at modern horror movies to see if some of this same principle is at play. In some it seems to be–the “rules” horror movies seem to follow, which Scream played off of, for example. ┬áCabin in the Woods dealt with this principle, too. Though at the same time, it seems to me that the focus is changing from being instructive to just plain scaring the socks off you. I’m a fan of the one. The other? Not so much.

Just my bit of food for thought for you on this fine Monday. Anything to add?

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