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Last Halloween I was driving my then-five-year-old stepson home from trick-or-treating when I noticed him looking stricken in the back seat. "Are those zombies … real?" he asked, pointing at a pack of undead grownups swaying on sidewalk. One had brains spilling out of his head. His date's legs were rotting under her miniskirt.

Now I know many of you would have explained that, on the contrary, those were just adults dressed up for Halloween and that it was all "make believe," not the stuff of waking nightmares. And I suppose that would have been the sensible thing to do. But that's not what I did.

"Lock your door. NOW," I told Freddy, which he immediately did. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, I could see he was scared. Spooked out of his wits. Beneath his Dracula make-up, the colour had drained from his little face.

And you know what? He liked it. And I liked it, too. All the way home he kept pointing at various ghouls and goblins and asking, "Is he real? Are they real?" And shrieking in half-terrified delight when they'd lurch toward our car as I pressed on the gas, perhaps a bit harder than I should have. I even got a little frightened myself.

And then, as I was putting him to bed, Freddy asked questions that had arisen from his fear – and excitement – at the thought of the unknown.

"Is Santa real?" he asked.

"Yes, probably, if you believe in him."

"What about the Easter Bunny?"

I shrugged. Next question.

"What about Jesus?"

"Historically, yes."

"And God?"

I paused. "Most people think so, but not me and Daddy. You can decide when you're older, okay?"

Then Freddy closed his eyes and thought really, really hard for a few seconds. When he opened them, he looked at me wondrously and asked, "But Leah, is the Queen real?"

And this, in a roundabout way, is the reason I think it's important to scare our kids – not just at Halloween, but all year-round. Confronting the notion of the strange, the unsettling and the unknowable is something children need to do even if it freaks them out a bit. If Freddy had not been frightened by the zombies, he'd never have conflated them with the Queen – another supernatural spectre in his five-year-old imagination. This titillation and, yes, terror caused by the weirdness of things outside our normal experience is what lends the world its magic. And for kids, that magic is not just important – it's essential.

And yet, look what we've done to All Hallows' Eve, the high holiday of fear. Whether it's the plague of princess crap (if I were the empress of the universe, Frozen costumes would be banned), or the cutesy cartoon jack-o'-lantern decals, or the hipster parents handing out "healthy snacks" on their well-lit front porches, the big night is in grave danger of being drained of all scariness and thrills.

I don't want to get all "in my day" about it, but back in the 1980s in my Ontario small town, people took Halloween seriously – there was nothing cute about it. Everyone wore terrible homemade costumes covered in fake blood. Parents worked hard to traumatize small children by jumping out of coffins or answering the door in werewolf masks. And we kids took the whole trick or treat thing seriously. The rare times my parents ignored the doorbell after 9 p.m. because the candy had run out, they got their windows soaped and the pumpkin kicked in. Goblins will be goblins.

But today, we're afraid to scare our kids. We read them cleaned-up versions of the gory Brothers Grimm. And just look at the films billed "scary" in the family movie section of your on-demand cable package. Stuff like Hotel Transylvania, the Harry Potter series and Monsters University have replaced The Changeling, Poltergeist and Amityville Horror – all movies I'd watched (with lenient babysitters, who let me sleep with the light on) before the age of eight. Today, parents take their children to controlled "trunk or treating" events in security-patrolled parking lots, rather than just letting them wander the neighbourhood in search of candy.

But by sanitizing our fear and the fears of our children, we risk losing something essential, and that is the knowledge that darkness, even evil, is part of life. As Zachary Bartels, a Baptist pastor in Michigan and a thriller-suspense novelist, told me in an interview this week, "evil is a very real thing, and we'd be wise to teach our children about it, to let them feel scared of it, even for a day at Halloween. There's a reason that people have been scaring each other with stories around the campfire for centuries – it teaches us about the world. And it makes you feel more alive."

His latest book, Playing Saint, involves a curious pastor, a serial killer and the devil. Bartels is a huge proponent of Halloween and what he calls the "managed fear" that it brings.

"You can't help people to cope with fear unless you understand what it feels like," he says. "If you've known some, and something truly scary happens, then you have your sea legs. Otherwise, you're in deep trouble."