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Scary children’s media: what are we so afraid of?

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Catherine Lester is completing her PhD thesis on the children’s horror film in Hollywood cinema at the University of Warwick. This research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Prior to beginning her PhD Catherine worked in children's literature publishing and academic journal publishing.

Channel 5 caused a stir last month when they aired the classic 1978 animated film Watership Down on the afternoon of Easter Sunday. Aside from Art Garfunkel’s tear-jerking song ‘Bright Eyes’, the film is infamous for the gore and violence inflicted upon, and by, rabbits that we would prefer to think of as cuddly and docile. Viewers took to Twitter to air their grievances, to call for whoever made the decision to be sacked, and to suggest that child viewers would be traumatised. Indeed, it is very surprising to realise that the film carries a ‘U’ rating from the BBFC despite their own admissions that they still receive complaints about the film every year and that if released today it would be rated ‘PG’. But for all the fuss that was made on Easter Sunday that children would be disturbed by the film, it remains unclear whether or not any children were actually adversely affected by it.

This news story is just the latest development in a long history of concerned adults wringing their hands over the effect of frightening and/or violent media upon children. Early sound horror films such as Frankenstein (1931) incited public concern in the 1930s due to their immense popularity with children; in 1954, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing attack on the comic book industry in which he claimed that horror comic books would turn children who read them into juvenile delinquents; when the toddler James Bulger was tragically murdered in 1993 by two ten-year-old boys, the tabloid press accused the boys of having been inspired by the horror film Child’s Play 3 (1991). However, no evidence has ever been found to support these and similar claims.

Despite these concerns, over the past few decades Hollywood studios have been directly catering to the child audience by producing horror films specifically addressed to children and which are about children and issues affecting them. These films, such as The Witches (1990), Hocus Pocus (1993), Monster House (2006) and Frankenweenie (2012), are the subject of my doctoral research at the University of Warwick. These films reject the oft-held assumption that children and horror are incompatible. Rather than including elements typically associated with horror, like visceral gore, graphic violence and sex that are inarguably unsuitable for children, children’s horror films employ sophisticated filmmaking strategies in order to suggest horror in subtle ways and engage with themes that bear relevance to their target audience. Coraline (2009), for example, is highly unsettling even to an adult viewer like myself not due to any violence or sudden jump scares, but because it suggests that the scariest thing of all is the notion that a child’s parents could turn against them and that things are not quite what they seem. ParaNorman (2012) is, on the surface, a Scooby Doo-esque zombie romp, but beneath its slapstick humour and references to classic horror films it is a nuanced portrait of a lonely child, ostracised by his peers, who is struggling to come to terms with his identity.

Many children’s horror films also suggest that watching horror and other frightening media, within reason, can be a perfectly acceptable and potentially beneficial activity for children to engage in. The Monster Squad (1987) and the aforementioned ParaNorman and Frankenweenie are all children’s horror films about children who engage with the horror genre, either by watching horror films or creating their own. In each case, consuming horror is indicated to aid the child protagonists in battling monstrous threats or is accepted as being a normal facet of their personality. Hopefully, the increasing popularity of children’s horror films shows that this attitude is becoming more widespread.

Far from being ‘bad’ for children, therefore, horror that is created specifically for and about children can provide a fun and safe space for them to engage with frightening content and ideas before becoming exposed to darker, more adult material. However, just as not all adults are fans of horror, it is also important to acknowledge that not all children necessarily want to enter this space. Moreover, whether on board with horror or not, it can be especially disconcerting to encounter horror where it is not expected to be, which may have been the case with Easter Sunday’s broadcast of Watership Down. The film’s ‘U’ rating and various DVD covers certainly do not indicate the violence that is inflicted upon Hazel & Co. throughout the film, while Channel 5’s primetime Sunday afternoon scheduling of the film was indeed questionable. What we can take from this, however, is not that children should be either shielded from horror or allowed unrestricted access to it. Rather, it highlights the importance of responsible and appropriate classification, marketing, distribution and broadcasting strategies so that children who want to engage with horror and other frightening media can do so willingly, while others can avoid it or approach it at their own pace. The BBFC are making great strides in this area by incorporating public opinion into their ratings guidelines, launching a children’s version of their website, and by providing highly detailed reports on individual films online and on a mobile app so that parents can make informed decisions about what their own children can and cannot handle. But, yes, perhaps it is time they reconsidered that Watership Down classification…

On that note, I would like to conclude by pointing out that, contrary to what the reactionary tweets to Watership Down’s inappropriate broadcast suggested, the film is about more than just rabbits killing and being killed. It is, at its heart, a profound and moving tale about the importance of bravery, teamwork and friendship, and of the ability of even the smallest, most vulnerable creatures to prevail in the face of great danger. What better message is there to convey to children than that?

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