spooky kids

Kids Media Is In Its Villain Era

Storytelling for children is finally moving beyond the good guy vs. bad guy tropes, and we all stand to benefit.

by Katy Hershberger

When my daughter was a toddler, she had a collection of hand-me-down ’90s toys. There was Papa Smurf, Professor Frink from The Simpsons, and a handful of Legos, but she consistently gravitated to a very specific subset: a werewolf, a vampire, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Soon after, she began insisting on repeated viewings of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and wore her Jack Skellington pajamas year-round. Her current favorite show is Disney’s Vampirina, and by hour six of listening to the soundtrack on a long road trip, I realized that there’s no shortage of stories to satisfy her appetite for the (child-friendly) macabre. We joke that she’s a goth baby, not like the other kids. Except, I’m starting to think it’s not just her. While my husband and I never purposely avoided this type of spooky material with her, we didn’t particularly encourage it, either. We’ve mostly followed her lead, and the road has led somewhere simultaneously strange and sweet.

Sure, kids have always had an affection for the not-quite-human protagonist — see Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or the YA vampire craze of the 2000s — but in the past decade or so, there has clearly been a growth in media for young children that centers characters who were traditionally seen as scary or “bad.” In these stories, monsters aren’t the villains or even sidelined as friends but brought into the spotlight as main characters. They are the ones kids identify with and. in the case of my daughter, the ones who they play and sing as.

Between Vampirina, Hotel Transylvania, and the toy line-turned-multimedia franchise Monster High, it feels like we are in peak baddie era. There are even more examples in books: Gustavo, the Shy Ghost, written and illustrated by Flavia Z. Drago, was a New York Times bestseller in 2020, followed up by Leila, the Perfect Witch and Vlad, the Fabulous Vampire. Good Night, Baddies and I Will Read to You bring gentle bedtime stories to fairy-tale antagonists and classic monsters. Adorable Zombelina dances in a “corpse de ballet,” while Vampire Bite, I Love My Fangs, and Glory on Ice: A Vampire Hockey Story make vampires appealing for preschoolers. In Joe McGee’s Junior Monster Scouts book series, the children of Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein earn merit badges for helping others. Plus, there are, by my count, at least six new picture and middle-grade books about vampires coming out in 2024.

Kids around 5 and 6 are extremely imaginative and sometimes have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from real life, according Vanessa LoBue, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Rutgers University who studies child development. This might help explain why they’re so interested in ghoulish characters. She says that kids may find stories about monsters fun rather than scary, since fear and excitement are so closely linked.

“Fear is all about perception of threat, but the physiological response is still the same,” she says. “So they’re watching these spooky sorts of things in a really safe context. That’s exciting, at least for some kids.”

Indeed, these paranormal characters do ultimately do extremely normal things. As Vampirina explains in the show’s theme song, “I may be blue with pointy teeth, but I’m not so different underneath.” She lives in a “Scare-BNB” with a gargoyle and a skeleton chef, but she just wants to fit in with her new human friends. According to Vampirina creator Chris Nee, the show (which was adapted from Anne Marie Pace and LeUyen Pham’s Vampirina Ballerina picture book series) is really about immigration, starring a character with different foods and holidays from other kids in her town. “What I wanted to show was a kid who was easily called out as different but who, we find out, emotionally is not really different,” Nee tells me. It’s a classic fish out of water story, mapped onto gothic tropes.

Whether The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie, my child loves it all year round.

The trend also extends beyond the supernatural into general bad guy territory. Criminal mastermind Gru of the Despicable Me franchise is perhaps the most culturally prominent antihero kids encounter. The League of Super Evil and Villains of Valley View similarly follow supervillains in opposition to heroes, while Descendants shows the children of Disney villains who disobey their parents by choosing to be good. Then there’s Jory John and Pete Oswald’s picture book The Bad Seed and, appropriately, the books and film The Bad Guys.

Stories like these complicate, if not fully deconstruct, the binary of “good guys” versus “bad guys.” Often, they are not so much good versus evil as good and evil. In the Bad Guys movie, animal criminals pretend to reform, but then actually do. The Bad Seed decides that he wants to be good… sometimes.

As most adults know, it’s often the fictional villains who are more interesting than the goodie-two-shoes straight men. As a publisher, Sarah Ketchersid, who is the editorial director at Candlewick Press and editor of Drago’s books in the United States, tells me that she’s more interested in exploring complex characters than pigeonholing them as all good or bad. “It’s entertaining and intriguing to see someone who is thought of as bad actually reveal themselves to be someone good, or at least not that much different from you and me, underneath their scary exterior,” she says. “I also think the idea of breaking the rules and being a little transgressive, while not being outright cruel or mean to others, is incredibly appealing to young children. It’s thrilling to see the rules get broken.”

Monster stories may also help kids — and adults — rethink what seems monstrous about ourselves.

LoBue sees stories about complex villains and monsters as part of a cultural shift that extends to grownup entertainment. She herself is a fan of horror, as well as shows about charming evildoers, like Loki. She recognizes a parallel in vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. “They murder a lot of people!” she says. “But you still love them, and you still have a good time watching the show.”

In part, stories with some darkness are compelling for children because, even if the creatures don’t exist in real life, the characters feel realistic, Nee says. This is especially true for kids who don’t always feel happy and perky — which is most of them.

“They’re kids who know that feelings are big and for whom life is not always pink and sunshine, which is something that we kind of force on kids,” she says. “We worry about kids who have a different presentation of who their essence is, and I think it’s wonderful for us to actually celebrate those kids and find worlds that reflect themselves.”

Drago, the author-illustrator of Gustavo, the Shy Ghost, tells me over Zoom that she was inspired in part by her own experience as a shy child. “I couldn’t talk to other children,” she says. “In kindergarten, I just sat and looked at them and I was puzzled, like, how can they just talk to each other? How do they do that? It was really mysterious to me.”

Monster stories may also help kids — and adults — rethink what seems monstrous about ourselves. Leila, the Perfect Witch suggests that Leila’s grandmother was killed by Hansel and Gretel. The book comes just as our culture has begun to reconsider our idea of “witches.” Drago, who is currently getting a Ph.D. in horror genre tropes in children’s picture books, is glad we’re slowly accepting that oftentimes witches are simply “powerful women who were blamed for being too smart for their own good.”

The animated Vampirina, adapted from Anne Marie Pace and LeUyen Pham’s Vampirina Ballerina picture book series, is a classic fish-out-of-water story, with ghoulish set dressing.

“Monsters shine a light on the parts that are slightly scary about ourselves,” she tells me. She likes to think about how monsters are visual metaphors for certain emotions that we all have inside of us. Gustavo, for example, is a metaphor for shyness and feeling invisible. Vlad, who has rosy cheeks as opposed to the undead green skin of the other vampires, feels ugly. As someone brighter than the norm, he’s a misfit in his world.

For Nee, these stories demand that we examine what we find ugly or frightening about the people around us. “We certainly can see that adults make monsters out of people all the time,” she says. “We’re going to see that in politics. Even if you’re just looking at the world as we understand it today, how important it is to ask you to take a second look at what’s behind something that you consider a monster.”

“It’s nice to have the redemption story, because we all do bad things.”

Now we can look at many past and contemporary villains through our current understanding of psychology. “In a world where we now are much more open and aware of mental health issues, of anxiety, of trauma responses, so many of the characters that I’ve seen on the screen can completely be told through that lens,” Nee tells me. “I think as kids TV expands to allow understanding of far more types of characters, that’s as important as anything else in the process of us being able to meet people within their humanity, even when they don’t act in the exact same way we expect them to act.”

LoBue thinks stories that center villains reinforces an increasingly popular parenting idea: that there are no bad kids and that everyone makes mistakes. “It probably makes kids feel better about mistakes because heroes are usually portrayed as all good,” says LoBue. “It’s nice to have the redemption story, because we all do bad things.”

“Books about ‘baddies’ give children a safe space to push the boundaries and break the rules a little bit without too much risk, which is important for their development,” Ketchersid says.

Whatever the reasons, I’m happy for my kid to be growing up in a time where there are ample opportunities for her to love characters who are flawed or different from their peers. I’m grateful she gets to root for characters who are sometimes weird or mean or selfish — just like she is, just like I am, and all of us are. It can be scary to realize you’re imperfect, but I’m glad she finds comfort in monsters, the ones who are especially human.

Katy Hershberger is a writer and editor in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Slate, Longreads, and elsewhere.