I’m sure that there will be some of you who read the title and will immediately jump to saying that I’m wrong, that ‘of course horror isn’t good for kids, they’re just children after all’. You’ll make a snap decision that sitting four-year-olds down for a viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Human Centipede is not just wrong, but immoral; and I’d have to agree with you on that one, because that’s not what I’m going to advocate here.
Yes, I myself grew up having seen some horror films that I was way too young for, having snuck the odd video off my uncle’s shelf to watch surreptitiously, or having crept into the back of the room whilst they has a film on that I was not allowed to see. Whilst I can’t remember it myself, my mother is quick to remind me that when I was three I wouldn’t go near windows at night for several months because I was convinced Freddy Monster was going to get me because I’d snuck in to watch A Nightmare On Elm Street. But despite that I don’t think these experiences did me too much harm.
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If anything, discovering horror at such a young age really pushed my love for stories, and I found myself ever seeking out more thrills and scares. Having been born in the late ’80s there were plenty of children’s films that whilst not designed to be horror had some pretty dark elements that made them damn scary in places. Things like Labyrinth and Return To Oz are still films that freak me out a little to this day. And yes, whilst I might have seen the odd thing a little too early (thank you Tim Curry’s Pennywise for my lifelong fear of clowns) for the most part I think horror did me a lot of good.
Being a kid is scary. I think as adults we can sometimes forget that because we look back at our childhood wistfully, longing to go back to a time where we didn’t have to worry about bills, and jobs, and looming global threats, because as children we were unaware of all that and were taken care of by our parents. But being a child isn’t all fun and games, even if that’s how our memories paint it. It’s hard being a child.
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Everything is big and out of proportion to you, leaving you to feel tiny and isolated in a world not designed for you. Parents tell you what to do, where to go, what to wear, and can suddenly change the rules on you just ‘because I say so’, leaving you to feel like you have little to no agency. It’s a world where everything you think you know can suddenly shift, where the happy routine you’ve got can be thrown out of whack by forces more powerful than you that you can’t fight against without fear of reprisal. That sounds a lot like a horror scenario to me.
A lot of the stories that you’ll be exposed to as a kid won’t reflect these themes and feelings, as most stories written for children have happy endings where things are wrapped up with a neat bow, and the most drama tends to be things like a missing toy or having to go visit grandma. But horror shows kids that their feelings of helplessness, of being powerless in the face of stronger forces, of sometimes being alone with no one to turn to happen to other too. And in most cases, shows kids that there can be happy resolutions to these situations.
There’s a lot of horror designed for children, any of us reading this who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s will remember books like Goosebumps and Point Horror, and I’m sure even if you’ve never read one there’ll be a cover or two that stick out in your memories. Books like these were great introductions to horror for kids. They followed the normal conventions of the genre, showing characters living a good, normal life before something terrible happens, forcing them to have to confront their fears in order to reach what is normally a happy conclusion that gives them some sense of a happy ending.
The horror of these stories wouldn’t be anywhere as extreme as that in media designed for adults, but would draw upon some of the fears that children would experience. Moving into a new house, spending time away from your family, having to go into a spooky cellar, finding creepy looking objects. They took the things that kids were scared of and showed them that even if their worst fears were realised and something horrific happened it didn’t mean that you couldn’t get a happy ending.
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Children’s television is also a good place for horror, and some of the best loved children’s shows from the past are either horror shows, or shows with a very dark edge to them. Things like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? often make lists of some of the best kids shows, whilst less obviously frightening things like The Demon Headmaster and Round The Twist still get mentioned when talking about things that frightened us as kids. Sadly, it seems like a lot of children’s shows have toned down the more frightening elements over the years, as many of the lists of scary kids shows tend to feature things from the ’90s over modern shows.
Does this mean that parents have become more protective of their children and are more worried about exposing them to horror at a young age? Possibly. I’m not a parent, and few of my friends are, so I can’t speak to that with any great authority. But as an outsider looking in I do sometimes feel that parents are more aware of what their kids are watching now, are more worried about them seeing things that might be ‘too old’ for them.
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To that I’d have to say, don’t be afraid of letting your kids see things that might frighten them or scare them a bit. I’m not saying you have to sit them down and expose them to the most extreme ends of the genre, but showing them media that acknowledges their fears and concerns in a good way, that shows them that fear isn’t something to be ashamed of, but something that we all feel, could be a very healthy way to show them that they aren’t alone in the universe, that they don’t need to be overwhelmed by fear.
Who knows, they could even discover a genre they love, one that inspires to them to seek out more and even one day create themselves. Horror is good. It’s good for everyone, but it’s especially good for kids.