Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Heath Holland On...Sharing Horror With Your Kids

by Heath Holland
This might actually be harder than brain surgery.


Don’t do what I did.

Whether you are a parent now or not, the odds are overwhelming that one day you will be. When you are, you’re probably going to want to share the things that you love with your kids. That’s why it’s become increasingly important to me to represent my love of the horror genre to my own child in a healthy, fun way, especially around this time of the year (dead bodies + candy = fun!). Maybe this is because I grew up in a house where horror wasn’t allowed. I’ve talked before about how Halloween was basically banned in my house, so I won’t beat that dead horse (for more on this, read every article I’ve ever written), but I sure did make up for this when I was old enough to start calling my own shots. I went horror nuts and haven’t recovered since.

But how do I share that with my kid in a safe way that doesn’t scare them away from the stuff? By nature, horror is dark and scary, making this one of the trickiest, narrowest tightropes that a parent will walk. On one hand, you don’t want to shelter them from horror altogether because you want them to be interested in it. Besides, kids these days are surrounded by all the marketing power that major corporations can buy and horror is everywhere. If you keep them from it too much, you’ve got a kid that’s frightened of Count Chocula. Yet at the same time, exposing them to too much horror can turn them off of the stuff altogether. In my experience, kids are naturally attracted to scary things. While we don’t necessarily want to open our back door and find a clown on the back porch, we do inherently seem to have a curiosity and enjoyment of ghosts and goblins from a very young age. More recent kid-targeted monster movies like Hotel Transylvania and Goosebumps are great at having fun with some potentially eerie content. However, it’s my own personal belief that they pull too many punches and deprive kids of a real feeling of danger. I think it’s important to show kids JUST ENOUGH to get that thrill while withholding any trauma.
With that being said, I think I messed up pretty bad this year.

I thought I was doing a great job. Horror always came kind of easy around our house; my daughter was born with some serious goth tendencies that seem completely innate and not taught, and at the age of three she was watching A Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline by herself in her room for comfort. When she wasn’t feeling well, she could count on Jack Skellington and Sally to cheer her up. Will she be wearing black nail polish and listening to My Chemical Romance within a few years? My Magic Eight Ball says “outlook good,” but I guess that will be my cross to bear if it happens. Because she already had an affinity for the universes created by Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, I figured it would only be natural to introduce her to the world of Universal Monsters when she was around 6 or 7. Success! She now loves The Wolf Man and also really enjoys Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. We try to catch Svengoolie on Saturday nights and she loves picking out the actors that she recognizes from other old horror movies. She can pick Lon Chaney, Jr. out of a black and white photograph of a hundred middle-aged overweight men. She’s never been bothered (or really noticed) if something is in black and white or a little heavy on the “talky” side of things and a little light on the action.

Last year I introduced a few horror movies that weren’t black and white and were a slightly edgier. We went with Monster Squad and Dark Night of the Scarecrow because they’re both a little creepy but also both kind of tame in the gore department and relatively risk-free in the nightmare category unless you fear supernaturally-motivated scarecrows or being kicked in the nards. Because I tend to chase spooky, atmospheric horror over shocking, trashy, stomach-churning horror (AKA the news), I see many of the same affections popping up in my kid. She recognizes when she’s being pandered to, and she doesn’t appreciate being patronized by something that markets itself as being scary but serves up no real threat. Kids recognize when the movie they’re watching contains no actual peril. THEY WANT PERIL. They want to go on a ride with the characters on screen and clench their little fists as they wonder if everyone makes it to the end of the movie. I was feeling pretty good about myself and the successes I’d achieved in raising a little horror fangirl. I was so proud of her that I actually interviewed her last year for this site because I thought her takeaway on the genre was insightful. How great of a dad was I?!
As it turns out, not as great as I thought I was. I got greedy, gang. This year she’s ten and I thought I’d up the ante by carefully making her aware of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger. After all, JB has pointed out that these guys are pretty much 1980s and 1990s versions of the Universal Monsters. Hey, they’re mascots! While I didn’t get to see any of those movies as a kid, I sure knew who the monsters were and was endlessly intrigued by them. I wasn’t about to show her any of the movies themselves (overlooking the fact that most of the kids in my fourth and fifth grade class had seen all of these movies when I was her age…it was a very different time), but I wanted her to be aware of the characters themselves. First I sat her down and asked her if she knew who the characters were. As it turns out, the kids in her class have been talking about them, but more in a vague, rumored kind of way, not as something anyone had actually seen. So how could I show her these slashers and what they’re about without exposing her to blood and guts and nudity? How could I protect her while still showing her the characters? Trailers, of course! YouTube is littered with old trailers for these movies! Not just any trailers, but GREEN BAND trailers that played in theaters for general audiences and surely wouldn’t be scary! So we sat and watched the trailer for the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, the trailer for Friday the 13th and some of the sequels, and the very first Halloween movie. She seemed genuinely interested by some and occasionally even bored by others, so I thought everything was fine until it was time to go to bed and she said something along the lines of “Okay…someone’s going to have to hold my hand while I go to the bathroom.” What? WHAT?! Turns out I’d scared the pants off of her. Even though she’d seen almost none of the graphic imagery that I’ve come to regard as tame, the power of those monsters and their unstoppable killing rage somehow seeped through the screen and into her psyche.

Big mistake, HHH.

So now we play the waiting game. Time will tell if the images of Jason Voorhees lurking in the woods of Camp Crystal Lake or Michael Myers haunting the streets of Haddonfield are going to turn her off of more hardcore horror or if they’re going to intrigue her and bring her back wanting more. Like a victim of some senseless killer in a scary movie, her horror fandom is clinging to life by a thin strand; it could go either way. She could find her interest strong enough to eventually come back for more--knowing that ultimately everything will be okay—or she could release her grip and go into the light, never to return to horror. This is going to be a long night; I pray for dawn.
So I go back to my original thesis: sharing horror with your kids and trying to foster a healthy love of the genre might actually be harder than brain surgery. Of course, maybe I’m overthinking things. Maybe I should step back and just let things happen naturally instead of worrying so much about raising the next Stan Winston fan or Tom Savini enthusiast. Then again, it’s only natural that we want to share the things we care about with the people we care about. Maybe I shouldn’t worry too much about it and just let nature take its course. After all, once you’ve looked into the face of the monster, he’s always in there…somewhere. And despite my worries to the contrary, Stephen King seemed to know that they don’t always stay away for good.

Nope. Sometimes they come back.


  1. Excellent writing, Heath. Kids will naturally gravitate towards whatever is interesting for them. I discovered horror on my own growing up, without any influences.
    Also, the monsters in the 1980s were genuine larger than life figures that every child at the time grew up knowing. After all, Jason was on Arsenio Hall and Freddy hosted MTV. Today, the children in middle school mostly reference Chucky/Annabelle/Paranormal Activity.

  2. I think I went as Jason for Halloween when I was like 6 or 7. I was all in and fascinated as a kid. The only thing that gave me nightmares were the Shining girls, (and Count Chocula) but I still loved it. I dunno, I had a great childhood too and being into Horror films at a young age didn't affect me then or now. It was definitely as a result of good parenting and a loving family. I don't think the films are the cause of problems, it's how the films can sometimes represent the reality that some kids are surrounded by.

    I struggle with the statement "overlooking the fact that most of the kids in my fourth and fifth grade class had seen all of these movies when I was her age…it was a very different time" I hear that a lot but I'm not sure how living in different times now would affect reactions to Horror films (I can understand, for example, war movies while you are a kid living through a war). I would think something like Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween would be boring or "look fake and old" to a kid. I genuinely mean that as a question as I really don't understand.

    1. I dunno. I definitely think times have changed in what we accept and what we consider appropriate for ourselves and our children, be that for better or worse. I think history will look back on the last twenty years as a very conservative era. It's something John Landis pointed out in a documentary on exploitation, that we really are so very fragile these days and have become very puritanical. Movies have shifted to the PG-13 model and are filled with consequence-free violence and nudity gets movies either a hard-R or an NC-17. I learned so many real behaviors and facts of life from movies as a kid, but now kids movies are very sanitized. Now parents get arrested for letting their kids walk home from school alone, much less watch an R-rated movie with gore and nudity. That's really what I mean by times have changed.

    2. Well said, Heath and I totally agree that times have changed. But that still deals with the climate of the times though, not the actually content of watching a Horror film. So I guess it's still related in some way. I just still don't quite get how being able to watch Nightmare on Elm Street in 84 as an 8 or 10 yr old is different than watching it now at the same age.

    3. I'm questioning this in my own brain, btw. Not expecting a definitive answer from you! Just thinking out loud.

    4. Not a parent here, but it's odd, because movies may have changed in what is considered appropriate these days and yet all it takes is for your kid to have one friend with unsupervised access to the Internet for them to be able to come across stuff a thousand times worse than any of us saw as kids.

      I have to imagine that it's the lesser of two evils to expose them to things like horror movies when they might be a little too young than it is to wait too long and have them come across that stuff on their own.

    5. i guess a huge part is how the kid is, and how he/she was brought up.

      my nephew (12-13yo) went to see deadpool with friends when it came out. all the parents were freaking out because of the sister, being the smart person that she is, calmly asked me 'is it that violent and stuff?'. my answer was 'he's seen and done way worse in his videogames and he is a smart kid who understand the difference'.

      i'm not saying that all of it, but that's at least part of it.

      and you never know to what they'll latch on to. freddy may creep the kid out, but not jason, or vice versa

  3. Very cool! My girlfriend and I have been talking about marriage/children a lot more lately and i've been daydreaming about exposing my children to the music/movies that I love.

  4. Great article, Heath, and don't be too hard on yourself, it sounds like you did everything right. I'd pretty much use your system as a blueprint for turning my son into a little monster/horror nerd. Maybe just seeing trailers was actually worse than the whole movie somehow? Left her with all questions and no answers? Although it sounds like you talked her through it so hard to say.

    I'd also like to hit on the point Chaybee was talking about because I totally agree - there is some kind of innocence about kids these days that I can't imagine an 8-9 year-old watching what I had seen at that age. But like Chaybee I can't really say why that is or that it's even true - it's something I've thought about often since I've had a kid but damned if I've come up with any answers - depends on the kid I guess!