What is it about humans that we actively seek out “negative” emotional states for pleasure? We sometimes want to be angry (or we wouldn’t seek out partisan political opinions), we sometimes want to be sad (entire genres of music are dedicated to this) and most pertinent to what I want to talk about, we sometimes want to be scared.
I’ll admit, I love a good horror movie. Actually, I love the bad ones too, but for different reasons. I’m a fan of atmospheric horror and lingering dread more than a startling “jump scare,” and I will watch anything that has a consistently creepy vibe rather than going for gross-out stuff (not that there isn’t a place for body horror or violent “slasher” stuff, just that it’s not my favorite flavor of horror). In particular, I love a good ghost story and have for as long as I remember getting a bit of joy from being frightened.
More Than Just A Movie
Horror films have an added resonance for me. When I was a teenager learning to cope with a mood disorder, I self-medicated with horror movies. I’ve given a lot of thought about why I found horror as a genre comforting when I was depressed, and the best I’ve come up with was two-fold.
Although you are meant to identify with a protagonist in a horror movie, character depth is usually pretty shallow. You don’t care TOO much about a character in a horror movie because they rarely give you a reason to, but also because you know not to get too attached to anyone in that sort of film. That means that these sorts of films can be passively observed; sometimes it is refreshing to be a neutral observer when it is hard to feel much of anything emotionally. The superficiality of a bad horror movie can actually be an asset because the bad stuff is happening to someone else that you are completely disconnected from. On the flip side, when a horror movie is really effective and building tension and a good scary vibe… well, hey, at least you are feeling SOMETHING. When depressed, getting a good adrenal kick due to quality filmmaking is a reminder that you are alive.
Not Everyone Shares My Interests
My wife has no interest in horror as a genre, and that has never been an issue in our relationship. There are exceptions (we both really like a grandiose gothic tale either in literature or in movies like Crimson Peak and The Woman In Black, which also hit my sweet spot by being haunted house movies), but by and large I’m on my own when it comes to scary movies. She knows that I like to watch horror movies when it begins to feel like autumn and when I am feeling under the weather (either physically or emotionally) and leaves me to it. However, I have a not-so-secret hope that at least one of my kids will eventually become a horror movie fan, just so I can have someone to watch these movies with.
My daughter, age 2.5 at the moment, is experimenting with being scared. She’s been doing this for a while, and it is fascinating. She’s testing her tolerance and pushing the boundary a little at a time. By far the most-watched episode of her favorite show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is the one where Daniel sleeps over at his friend Prince Wednesday’s house and is spooked by a weird shape on the wall which turns out to just be a shadow of a friendly stuffed animal. The song that goes along with the episode is called “See What It Is, You Might Feel Better,” which is great advice for a toddler who is feeling apprehensive, but terrible advice for any protagonist in a horror film.
My daughter asks for this episode specifically (“I want to see Daniel Tiger get scared!”) because she relates to the feeling of unease and the reassurance when it turns out to be okay. Being scared a little bit while at the same time knowing you are safe is essential for kids to overcome anxiety. Building up a tolerance for scary things makes the world a little less scary overall.
Helping Kids Be Scared
I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for showing horror movies to children. Kids have plenty of things that make them scared already, from a darkened room to imaginary monsters. And remember that some things that kids find scary are totally innocuous to adults. My daughter recently revealed that she was a little freaked out by a broad desert in a movie we were watching. Why were the sand dunes scary? Who knows?
We’ve given her opportunities to set her own comfort level with fear, gradually easing her into things. For a while, The Lion King was her favorite film, and we dutifully fast forwarded past the stampede scene and accompanying death of Mufasa. Sometimes (but not always) she wanted to see the scene where the hyaenas chase Nala and Simba, so we had our finger on the remote for that one too. It was up to her to gauge how brave she was feeling and how scared she wanted to be.
I’m not great with repetitive viewing (unlike my daughter), so I was relieved when Moana replaced The Lion King as the movie of her heart. By the time that had happened, she’d built up enough fear tolerance that she wanted to watch all the scenes with the lava monster, and didn’t even bat an eye at the giant crab or the coconut-monster pirates. We knew there was a risk that she would react poorly to any one of those scenes, and we’d find out the hard way with nightmares, but we lucked out that time. When asked, she will sometimes say that the scary part is her favorite, but in fairness, she’s been known to say that about any part of Moana she is currently watching or has just seen.
Mistakes Were Made
We’ve made a few missteps, but I think that an element of trial and error is ultimately necessary to finding the things that are in that perfect zone of scary-not-too-scary. My wife showed her ParaNorman once, which is a great film and has a great lesson about celebrating being different and weird. It also has a lot of zombies, ghosts and a witch.
Before you judge us too harshly, I should state in my defense that this kid loves the aesthetics of Halloween. Last October, she was seen running around a Michael’s craft store picking up miniature gravestones, skulls, bats and assorted ominous objects and screaming “Halloweeeeeeeeen” in a jubilant voice. It was on par with Christmas in terms of holiday excitement, so I think the thought was that a movie that just, sort of, extended those themes would be okay.
While the kid didn’t freak out, we got the feeling that we’d pushed her too far. She spent most of the movie asking, “what’s going to happen?” which we interpreted as a request for the thrills to be mitigated just a little bit by predictability. Also, ghosts and zombies are hard to explain to a kid with no conception of death. We haven’t revisited this movie, and consider it a close call that we narrowly avoided.
I almost made the same mistake with Kubo and the Two Strings. Luckily, I recognized my horrible error pretty much right away. Nope. Sorry. If there’s a scene that I find unsettling, there’s no way I’m letting my toddler see it. Great movie, but not anywhere close to “scary-not-too-scary.”
My daughter talks about monsters a lot.
She will tell me about a monster in an empty room, and sometimes actually have authentic trepidation about going into a room she thinks has one. I, of course, have seen enough monster movies to know that if I assure her that there are no such things as monsters, I have doomed myself to be killed by one. Rather than try to fight against her (extremely active) imagination, we shift the conversation by telling her that any monsters she encounters in our house are definitely friendly. This ties in nicely with Sesame Street, where the monsters are all cute and fuzzy and extremely friendly.
On the spectrum of scary-not-too-scary, she’s setting up a scenario for herself where there is something concrete that is scary (a monster in mommy and daddy’s room) and then asking us to help provide supports for coping with it. Those supports include us reminding her that any monsters in our house are friendly, that there are parents who will keep her safe, and that monsters are only temporary.
We’ve had some pretty good success with this policy, which has led to her branching out and extrapolating a bit. Yesterday, she told me that she wished there was a “little monster in my room that would play with me.” We call that a younger sibling, honey, and you’re in luck.
Dragons hold a similar place in her personal mythology. She’s fascinated by them, but a little afraid of them at the same time. When she was younger, she’d tell us she was concerned about dragons on the ceiling, and we were confused by this oddly specific fear (accompanied by her adamant belief that a robot lived on our roof). One day, we were at the puppet theater where her grandfather likes to take her and noticed a large Chinese dragon puppet high up on the wall near the ceiling: mystery solved.
My daughter’s concerns about dragons have shifted over time. Initially, she was worried that a dragon would come and eat all of her books. More recently, she’s been anxious about dragons nibbling on her toes. And in the past few weeks she’s been using her dragon toy to playfully work through her concerns about the consumption of her parents and little brother at the hands of flying reptiles.
Playing With Fear
This may seem complicated, but her love/fear relationship with dragons and monsters is pretty emblematic of the tumultuous emotional work she’s putting into recognizing where she is safe, where she is not, and when it is okay (or even fun) to be afraid. We’ve had to make sure that the adults in her life know that sometimes she will say that she is scared when she is, in fact, playing at being scared to see what it feels like.
And by and large, our little girl is pretty confident. She may be a little shy with strangers and new situations, but she has no problem being left in the care of trusted adults. I suspect that working through her fear is a part of establishing this confidence. So we push on with baby steps, letting her experiment with what makes her scared and what feels safe, knowing that there will inevitably be missteps where she goes a little too far and freaks out, hoping that the trauma won’t be lasting.
In The Meantime
My daughter may be comfortable playing with fear, with playing with toys to work through her fear of monsters or dragons, with hearing stories of Star Wars droids so that robots aren’t mysterious and creepy anymore, with enjoying media that is probably a little too exciting for her, and going down slides on the playground that make her parents nervous. On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified that I’m not a good parent. I’m scared that she’s going to get hurt, that she’s going to have nightmares, and that she’ll stumble onto something that she’s not ready for. And this is not an unreasonable fear: recently, at a science museum, she played with a simulation of the life cycle of a star and then was genuinely upset when the star died. I certainly didn’t expect to have to explain life and death to a 2 year old in the context of a giant ball of gas, but I also didn’t expect her to be afraid of the desert.
I mean, the desert… what’s that about?