Representation of horror culture in children’s media key to their strength, resolve, problem solving, imagination, and character development
By James Johnson
It’s still possible that Halloween may be cancelled this year, as COVID-19 continues to batter us. But that doesn’t mean our kids shouldn’t entertain themselves with festive content this fall. Or does it?
In her 2018 book “Once Upon a Time in a Dark and Scary Book: The Messages of Horror Literature for Children”, K. Shryock Hood has laid out a concerted effort to identify contemporary youth horror fiction as hopeless fare which leaves our children vulnerable, perhaps susceptible, to the horrific realities of this world. That, no matter how hard your parents may try, sometimes there just isn’t anyone coming to rescue you. In fact, she argues that parents actively endorse access to these types of stories for their kids – books with repetitive hopelessness as recurring motif.
But what is hopelessness? Hopeless for whom? The reader? The character? Suppose the author failed to connect the reader to the victim as a result of lack-luster character development. I’m terrible at flushing out characters and my son actively seeks to destroy the NPC’s in our Dungeons & Dragons adventures because they’re just that unrelatable. But when he picks up a Goosebumps book, he gets scared, much like when he watches a movie that has a particularly difficult scene or two. He closes his eyes at the movie or puts the book down when it becomes too much.
Why bother with these books anyways, if they are clearly too much for our kids to handle? Is it traumatizing that I offer these options to our son? He knows I love horror culture. He is aware of the serials I review, and the movies I watch, though he doesn’t read or watch them himself. So why then does the sight of flesh eating zombies and monsters devouring the innocent make him giggle and cheer while a quiet, dark hallway awakens a sinister primal fear within him?
Horror becomes real when we make the horrific event entirely plausible. This is when the real fear creeps into the child’s psyche, when we lend credibility to the impossible. For example, a mask that a child wears for Halloween is haunted and turns them into a demon-monster that attacks their friends. This part of the book isn’t particularly scary, says our 7 year old son. It’s a mask that turns you into a monster. Pretty clearly fantastical.
Fast forward to the second half of the book and the story changes from killer masks to killer pumpkins. But the kicker is these pumpkins come for you when you’re all tucked in and snuggled under your blankets and it’s dark and the night is cold and no one believes you when you tell them the killer pumpkins are trying to kill you. This story freaked him out way more than the haunted mask because the night is endless with possibilities and the warm bed is so familiar.
Children’s horror should be embraced on the grounds that it encourages problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and ingenuity.
For her work, Dr. Shryock Hood uses examples like the left behind series for children. That’s the Christian series where the rapture leaves behind non-believers. I haven’t read or reviewed the children’s version of these books so whether or not this constitutes horror, or even children’s literature, I’ll leave that up to your discretion; but my thinking on the whole matter is as follows:
If, as a parent, you find yourself curating your child’s collection of books (the beloved children’s bedtime bookshelf is iconic), then it will be entirely up to you as to what you wish to censor, and what you will let them experience. For our home, It has always been our belief as parents that we would be honest and open with any queries our son would have. As a general rule, we follow standardized guidelines like the motion picture rating system, the comics code authority, and the entertainment software rating board (ESRB) to make quick, uneducated decisions when in a pinch. Of course, nothing can replace proper research and parental due diligence, but these guidelines are in place for a reason. This way, we believed we wouldn’t need to hide anything from him for protective purposes so long as we provided context and rationale behind whatever it was he consumed, witnessed, experienced, etc.
In addition to these important discussions and industry rating systems, selection and curation have remained two of the most important functions for successfully managing any potentially stressful or harmful content. So, with that being said, it’s my purview that dangerous, hostile, uncomfortable, and perhaps even deadly scenarios are important to understand and to contextualize. Children’s horror should be embraced on the grounds that it encourages problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and ingenuity.
Of course, I agree that there should be some limitations to what children are subjected to in media. I’m not a complete monster. I also think that happy endings in horror books should be encouraged, so that children with softer resolves can enjoy the genre too. But I honestly encourage storytellers to aim higher, avoid patronizing solutions to pedestrian problems, and make the fear real. Our children are not as delicate as we think and challenging reads should be encouraged in order to diversify their emotional tool kits for when they need to face real world problems, in very real ways.
This season really brings out the frights!
Keep reading and happy horrors, kiddies.