Kids and Scary Movies: Protect ’em or Desensitize Them?

A friend of mine sent me the following question about her kids:

I saw your posting about 13-year-olds and R-rated movies and realized you might be the right person to help solve a (minor) problem. We’ve been been so “good” about sheltering our kids from violent movies that now they are sort of scaredy-cats about it. We worry that they won’t fit in when their friends invite them to birthday parties where G or PG movies are shown and they truly get scared. Flicks like The Princess Bride, The Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars have some scary scenes and our kids (10 and 7) get nightmares from them.

Can you recommend some sort-of-scary-but-not-too-scary movies we can watch with them to desensitize them? Is there something we can do or say to help them not be scared?  Funny thing is, our oldest isn’t afraid of anything physical — he climbs trees and rock-climbing walls up 30 feet, and loves ice hockey — but he jumps into my arms at scary scenes in movies, and our younger, 10, prefers to read books rather than see movies if there might be a violent scene. She hated the movie ads during the Superbowl. What should we do?

I’ve been thinking about your question for a while because it’s the same dilemma that I face with my children. In particular, when I screen family movies for movie studios, the question that’s always in my head is “could my 9yo girl handle this?” even though she proudly tells me she’s seen a PG-13 movie already (Mama Mia. Definitely not PG-13 in the way that, say, the latest action or horror film gets that sort of MPAA rating).

Underlying this question is something I want to start by discussing, the assumption that getting scared is a bad thing.

My answer: it’s not. In fact, I think that the journey to adulthood is scary and that our children simultaneously push ahead aggressively (who doesn’t want to be a couple of years older when they’re a kid?) and drag their heels as the reality and responsibilities of adulthood start to seep into their consciousness. Indeed, this push/pull relationship with maturity is exactly what adolescence is all about, and historically we’ve only recently thought that children needed a sheltered world within which to journey towards adulthood.

Well, maybe the journey to adulthood isn’t scary all the time, but, like Dorothy’s obviously metaphorical journey through Oz, there are portions that are delightful and bring a child great joy, but there are other moments that are dark, scary and leave an lasting impression. Whether it’s something scary they see on the street, a bully, a parental dispute gone wrong, or a vivid image from a movie trailer or TV show, we can’t scrub our children’s world into a happy place where the sky is always blue and the grass is always green. And if we could, I think it’s a disservice to them.

jason voorheenAs an aside, this also makes me think of the harm that befalls our children in a culture where we’re too obsessed with self-esteem, to the point where no-one wins at a competition because no-one is allowed to lose. What happens to those children when they grow up and get out into the adult world where there are opportunities to fail or succeed every single day, and failure is indeed an option, as all too many pampered children learn once they move away from home?

Coming back to movies, my belief is that if they’re in a safe environment (e.g. you aren’t going to yell at them or embarrass them for getting scared) there’s nothing wrong with letting them experience some scary movies and be frightened. Heck, gory horror movies are a staple of the modern American teen cinematic experience for precisely this reason, the burst of adrenaline, the terrified scream, the fun of being scared and knowing that there isn’t really a “Slenderman” or “Jason Voorhees” or “Freddy Kruger” hiding in the garage.

Now before you sit them in front of The Shining for their 11th birthday and then have to pay a therapist for the next decade, let me say that I think that not all scary movies are created equal. There are some that play with the idea of scary imagery and can be quite enjoyable — and just a tiny bit scary for younger ones — like the brilliant Young Frankenstein. It’s more effective if you understand the original material it’s spoofing, of course, but that’s adults thinking too much. For a kid there are lots of funny lines, people making silly faces, sight gags and pratfalls. What’s not to love? Even The Wizard of Oz is a splendid balance of fun and frightening, with the flying monkeys still upsetting, even to adults!

For a younger child, a film with dramatic tension is a good place to start. Toy Story 3 has a very intense scene near the end when the toys are all on a fiery assembly line heading to their apparent demise, but it’s short and with a bit of encouragement from Mom or Dad — “I promise, they’re all rescued just in time. Watch!” — even if they jump into your lap the films can still help children realize that they can make it through scary moments in a film.

I can recall how scared my youngest was when we watched the first Ice Age movie a few years ago, and how the tension was upsetting for her. But she stuck it out and not only enjoyed the film after the fact, but also was proud of the fact that she had made it through the entire movie. I still filter what films each of my children watch, but am fine with each of them watching a movie that has age-appropriate tension, action, language or scares for each of their very different developmental stages.

zombielandWhen they’re a bit older, more camp horror films like the entertaining Zombieland, stupid-funny Scary Movie or ingenious Final Destination series are good entry points into more intense cinematic experiences. And a smart way to start? Watch the film at home with the lights on and a good “comfort” snack, even sharing a blanket. Give them the space to decide if they want to “brave it alone” without hugs and reassurance, or whether they want to climb on your lap. Then watch the film a few more times and perhaps even talk about what scenes are the most scary and why. My son just turned 13 and I let him and his buddies watch Zombieland during the big birthday party sleepover and they had fun with the fact that it was sporadically scary and graphic (and has lots of crude language). Were they scared? Yes. But was it fun to be scared when you were with a group? Definitely.

This isn’t to say that I think it’s necessary to eliminate all traces of innocence as young as possible. In fact, I think that our children are growing up way too fast in modern culture and their access to the Internet, typically unfettered by parental supervision, is a dangerous trend that ends poorly for too many kids. I want my kids to actually have – and enjoy – their childhood, but I also think that childhood ain’t what it used to be. Unless they’re going to end up the weird kid who no-one plays with or invites to parties, childhood now includes questionable cinematic fare, violent video games, songs with explicit lyrics, being bombarded with thousands of sexual images every day, and the need to learn how to be safe and smart, not hide in a Luddite cave.

Some kids are going to dive in and be ready far faster than we were as children, while others will lag behind. With all of my suggestions in mind, the biggest suggestion I have is to let your children lead the way. If you make some dramatic / intense / scary movies available to them and they opt not to see them even within the safety of your home, that’s okay. Just keep an open mind and share your likes and dislikes and they’ll open up to you and talk about what’s going on.

And for the record, there were definitely movies I watched as a kid that scared the $#@$#% out of me. I can still remember a couple of scenes from Vincent Price films, for example, that would probably freak me out if I saw them now! And The Shining? Definitely not until they’re in college and you don’t have to deal with their newly found insomnia. 🙂

2 comments on “Kids and Scary Movies: Protect ’em or Desensitize Them?

  1. I recently watched a creepy animated film with my four year old son because he begged and begged me to see it. I watched him watch it, kept asking if it was too scary or if he wanted to watch something else, and he shook me off like a pitcher who only wants to throw fastballs.

    When it was over he said to me, that was scary and he didn’t like it a bit.

    So even when a parent tries to do the right thing it could end up … wrong!

    Good post … it triggered his recent memory which I wanted to share!

  2. I saw the original “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” when I was 7. I’m still wigged out by those little prune people, and I’m generally pretty fearless.

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