Movies, Parenting

Traumatically scary horror movies are good for children

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a movie theatre, about to watch a horror film, or a disturbingly violent action movie, only to discover someone enter the same screening accompanied by a young child?

As they walk to find their seats, you’ve probably muttered something to yourself like: “Can you believe that? Just get a babysitter! What kind of a parent brings their nine year old to see Saw 5?”

I can tell you what kind of a parent brings their young child to see that kind of horrifyingly violent movie: a good one. I know because my father was one of those people and thanks to him, before I reached the age of 13, I had witnessed more murders, maimings and massacres at the movies than I could possibly count. And I think I’m a better person because of it.

The fish that started it all

It was the summer of 1975 when the movie Jaws came out. I was seven years old and I had never been to a scary film before, but Jaws was a huge cultural phenomenon that everyone was talking about, and my father was eager to see it. But apparently he wasn’t eager enough to pay for a babysitter, so he brought along his children – me and my older brother and sister. He must have had some second thoughts about the appropriateness of taking me, because he also brought a blanket.

That damned blanket wound up being scarier than any man-eating great white shark.

I remember every moment. I am sitting next to my siblings, nervously watching the film. I’m eating popcorn, as on-screen, the families of Amity island relax and play on the beach.  Dun dun. The camera starts to move restlessly around and John Williams’ iconic score slowly becomes more and more audible. Dun dun, dun dun. We focus in on one child in particular, who innocently paddles away on an inflatable raft – oblivious to an approaching, but still unseen danger. Dun dun, dun dun, dun dun. The camera gets closer and closer as the audience watches on in anticipation – something breaks through the water… Dundun, dundun, dundun, dundun.

And then, suddenly, everything goes dark as a blanket is thrown over my head.

I never found out what happened in this scene.  I hope the boy was okay – who is he waving to? 

At this point filmic trauma becomes real world trauma. I am trapped underneath a literal cloak of fear.  My little lungs pump faster and faster, but underneath the cloth, there is nowhere for my breath to go, and it gets hot and oxygen-deprived. I don’t feel safe, just impaired at the very moment my instincts are crying out for visual information that will help me assess the threat I am facing. I can hear frightened screams from the crowd around me as the shark does… something.. but I am unable to see what is causing everyone to shout. Something truly awful must be happening on the other side of this blanket. I start to panic and shake and my tremors continue long after the blanket comes off.

I am traumatised by a shark I never get to see.

The experience left me terrified for days. I became afraid of the water – not just the ocean, but also swimming pools, even bathtubs. My mother was furious with my father, but he shrugged it off. As a doctor, he was of the firm medical opinion that I was suffering only from the affliction of “being a big baby” – there was clearly nothing medically wrong with me. After all, it was just a movie, and he had even been considerate enough to throw a blanket over my head during the scariest parts. What was there to be afraid of?

Don’t be fooled by the Mickey Mouse doll. At this point, I was already a bad-ass horror film fan. 

After seeing how I had survived Jaws more or less intact, my dad never really bothered bringing me to kids films again. Instead, we went to see Dirty Harry The Enforcer, Jaws 2, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Logan’s Run and others. These obviously weren’t all horror films, but most of them were pretty darned  violent. After a while, he didn’t even bother bringing the blanket. In hindsight, these kinds of movies would have been very difficult for a young child to process, but it didn’t see like a big deal back then. I’m sure I’m not the only child of that era who went to see The Omen with my parents – witnessing satanically-inspired decapitations and impalements in the evening, only to come home and watch Sesame Street the next morning. I think being exposed to that kind of horrifying imagery* helped me – and kids like me – to become more resilient.

*Editors note: Just to be clear, in the sentence above, I was referring to The Omen and not Sesame Street, which wasn’t known for horrifying imagery and, to my knowledge, did not feature a single satanically-inspired murder. But if it were ever to happen, we all know that the prime suspect would be Bert, who really did always come across as a repressed and angry sort of fellow. 

Today, as an adult who has viewed innumerable acts of violence on the silver screen, if I were to ever find myself in the middle of a real life situation involving a monster attack ending in decapitation, (assuming the decapitee wasn’t me) I think I’d probably handle it pretty well. I’m sure I’d be distressed for a little while, but I’m quite confident that by the time CSI showed up to process the crime scene, I’d probably already be sitting on the blood-stained couch, absent-mindedly playing Tetris. Because that’s what I learned as a child. Before I reached 11, I was a survivor of viewings of Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, The Exorcist and many more. A few I saw with my dad, but once I had the hang of things, no film was too grown-up or too distressing for me – some I caught on VHS, or on HBO, and some I went to with other kids whose dads who were also too cheap to pay for babysitters.

You witness some depravities and a disembowlment or two, you get scared and then you move on to what you were doing before. No therapy needed. No post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses. Maybe you get some nightmares, but mostly, you’re fine.

Only a dummy would be afraid of that…

The only films that ever did any lasting damage to my psyche weren’t particularly grisly, but rather were the kinds that left things up to the viewer’s own imagination. One prime example would be the 1978 film Magic, starring a young Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist whose doll seems to control him, and may or may not come to life in order to commit unspeakable atrocities. By the time Magic came out, I was already a veteran of horror films, but this one was different – it properly chilled me to my bones – which is odd, as I never actually saw the film. I only ever watched the TV promo, which doesn’t have a bit of violence in it, but still managed to be the scariest thing I had yet encountered in my young life. That’s how it works – it’s the stuff you don’t see that really gets to you.

The TV spot features the creepy-looking ventriloquist dummy from the film staring directly into the camera, talking about magic and death. I’ve embedded it below.

Watching two hours of demons from hell chainsawing kittens to death would have been less disturbing to me than this 30 second video clip. Looking at it today, probably you’ll find it more silly than scary, unless – like me – you first saw this when you were a child when it would have been easier for it to get its psychological hooks into you. I know people who have told me that they gave up watching TV for much of 1978, out of the fear of unexpectedly catching this ad before they had a chance to turn off the TV or change the channel.

Thanks to Magic and my experience with the blanket from Jaws, it was made very clear to me that avoiding scary things only gives them power over you. Instead, you need to embrace your fears – even when you are a child. Especially when you are a child. Instead of running to turn off the TV every time that ad from Magic came on, here’s what I should have done: I should have just asked my dad to take me to see the damned movie.

If I had just done that when I was young, I wouldn’t have needed to do all the hard work I wound up doing as an adult, to force myself to get over my subsequent deep-seeded terror of ventriloquist dummies. Trust me, exposure therapy is not easy, especially when it involves buying one of those big creepy dolls, putting a knife in its little wooden hand, and then propping it up at the foot of your bed every night until you finally learn how to force yourself to fall asleep underneath its soulless gaze.

Now, whenever I see a scary-looking doll, instead of turning away, I examine it, I get close to it, and I even take pictures of it. I own its creepiness and this takes away any power it might otherwise have over me. I have dozens of photographs of creepy-looking dolls tucked away on my computer, and the difference between Anthony Hopkins and me is this: I control the dolls, they don’t control me.

This is the thing I learned from horror movies: exposing young children to gruesome and frightening imagery isn’t an act of bad parenting – it’s something that good mothers and fathers should be doing, in order to prepare their children for a world where whatever gory nonsense they see on a TV or movie screen is never going to be as bad as the things that they can conjure up in their own heads.

Here’s a doll I discovered in a museum just last weekend. Because of my training, it didn’t frighten me at all, even when it unexpectedly started to whisper my name over and over again. 

Now, I need to scare the crap out of my own child – for her own good. But David Bowie has ruined everything.

Today, I am a father myself, of a precocious little girl and I have been preparing for many years to pass along these life lessons to her.

I had it all worked out in my head. Around the time she turned eight, I would start her on a diet of increasingly scary films. We’d begin slowly with something mild and almost child-friendly, like Beetlejuice, but then we would quickly work our our way up to something nasty and fun, like Gremlins. By the time she was nine years old, we’d be watching Poltergeist together (the original, of course), then we’d graduate on to the disturbing pleasures of The Shining. By the time she was ten, we’d be ready for full on gore-fests – Evil Dead movies, 28 Days Later – anything really. There is a new version of Stephen King’s horror classic It, due out later this year, and this is the exact kind of thing I had been waiting for. Taking my little daughter to see a movie about a murderous, magical clown that targets children could have been the perfect culmination of all my plans and would have also immunised her against the all-too-common phobia of evil clowns. But it was not to be.  Because just as I was about to embark on my parental fear-preparation mission, I encountered an obstacle that was as ironic as it was unexpected.

It all started a few years ago, when she was seven years old, the same age I had been when I had my initially traumatic, but ultimately liberating experience with Jaws. We were watching a DVD together – the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth. The movie is a kind of fairy tale, starring David Bowie as a character called The Goblin King, who, with the help of his goblin horde, keeps a little boy captive. I don’t know how the story ended, because just looking at those goblins scared the bejeezus out of my daughter, who insisted that I turn off the film immediately.

Of course I knew this was the wrong thing to do. If she was frightened, then that meant she had to confront her inner goblins right then and there. It was obvious that we would have to finish Labyrinth and then we we’d have to watch it all over again. Afterwards, we needed to buy goblin masks and wear them around the house. We would then listen to the movie’s soundtrack until we could hum along to every note. Next we could and should scour the internet to find out everything there was to know about the history of goblins and then finally we would rummage through dusty old books at the library in order to find scary wood-prints showing goblins of yore devouring helpless German children.

These are the things that would inoculate her against a lifelong fear of goblins, but only if we acted ruthlessly and decisively.

But we did none of that.

Instead, she ran off to her room in a flood of tears, and I just stood there and let her do it. Even worse, before I knew it – as if I didn’t actually know any better – I found myself actually comforting her.

I wasn’t sure what the hell had gotten into me. It was like I was floating outside of my body, observing myself externally as I negated my entire horror film philosophy. I watched as I told her that goblins weren’t real and she had nothing to be afraid of. I heard myself say that she didn’t need to finish that mean old scary movie, and that we could watch something else. I looked her in the eyes and said: “Don’t worry, we don’t ever need to see any movie goblins, or anything scary at all. Let’s watch something… funny instead.”

I had turned into what I despised: a human Jaws blanket, covering my own daughter with denial and avoidance when what she most needed was direct confrontation and endurance.

This was the moment that I discovered, despite all of the effort I had put in over the years to desensitising myself to anything that frightened me, that there was still one thing in the world that could make me feel real terror – one big thing that would always hang over me. Something I couldn’t muscle through, overcompensate for, or fix in any way: I was afraid of letting my child be afraid.

The goblins from Labyrinth

The irony of being afraid to help someone else learn how not to be afraid

That was nearly three years ago. To this day, my daughter has never watched a scary movie since the Labyrinth incidentI’m still not totally sure why I caved in so quickly and so completely. Why was I so afraid to let her have the kind of cinematic experiences that I felt had been so pivotal and so indirectly rewarding to me when I was a child?

Maybe I realised something about how much the world had changed since I was a kid.

Childhood was very different in the 1970s. Back then kids were more free-range. We played outside on our own, without supervision from adults, and we went home only after it got dark and the street lights came on. We didn’t worry about child abductions, terrorism, global warming or much of anything really – we were blissfully unaware of how horrible the world could be. Maybe that’s why our parents took us to scary movies. Whether they realised it consciously or not, perhaps they were teaching us caution, and helping us develop a part of our brain that needed to learn how to accept and process the feeling of being afraid.

And maybe kids just don’t need that any longer. Nowadays, all of the horrors of humanity are literally at our fingertips. When you can see a real beheading anytime you want with just a few taps on your mobile phone, what is the point of learning how not to be too afraid of a fake beheading you’ve seen in a movie? Perhaps my fear of letting my daughter be afraid came from a sense that my role as a parent wasn’t to expose her to fear, but to protect her from it?

Or maybe I’m just more sensitive than my father, and less inclined to throw my child straight into the deep-end of fear management. I do feel that there’s no hurry, she can have a bit more time to enjoy her innocence, before she starts to learn that there are things far more menacing than David Bowie’s goblins out there.

Whatever the reason, instead of taking her to see It, this summer, we’ll probably go see Despicable Me 3. But I can’t help but feel that I’m the despicable one, for not having the courage to overcome my anxieties about my daughter’s ability to cope with a scary movie.

You see, I still haven’t given up on my theory about horrifyingly scary movies being good for children and I still encourage any parent reading this to ignore any judgmental stares or castigating “tuts” and go ahead and take your children with you to see a horror film.  At some point, your kid is going to have to learn how to experience and process terror and what better way for them to do it then in a safe, controlled environment, with you as a mother or father by their side.

Some day soon, I will be in there with you, watching my daughter jump out of her seat, and learn how to mentally cope with the threat of bloodthirsty sharks, murderous ventriloquist dolls, evil clowns and creepy goblins.  But not just yet. Until then, you can find us together, huddled safely under a blanket somewhere, hoping that the world outside isn’t quite as scary as it has seemed to be lately.

This is my daughter. 
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