Scott: Horror Movies Can Teach Kids As Well As Scare Them


(Illustration by Alex Garcia | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Elise Scott, Opinion Writer

Each time a new scary movie comes out, I know to expect a call from my teenage siblings. It doesn’t take much for a teaser trailer to capture their imagination — especially if the movie involves characters their age — and their excited speculation about the plot or the monster always leads to a hard ask: “So, can we go see the movie?”

If it is reasonably age-appropriate, the answer is usually yes. It is difficult to resist the temptation to be the fun older sister, and while the threat of our mother’s wrath certainly lurks in the back of my head, I figure it’s a rite of passage. Plenty of my own childhood memories are defined by the sinking feeling of dread prior to the monster, alien or murderer leaping from the shadows. I used to peek at the screen through a cage of fingers, and it is charming to watch my little sister now do the same. It feels selfishly nostalgic to watch their first experiences with the same emotions I remember so clearly from childhood, especially now those scary movies no longer get under my skin the way they used to.

Fear hits different when you’re younger. Kids have an easier time suspending their disbelief and immersing themselves in the dark. Watching horror as a kid was a far rawer experience than anything I have felt as an adult. Adulthood is already tinged with a dull sense of horror about one’s personal inadequacies, relationships and boredom. Experience brings relativity, the ultimate distraction. It’s difficult to properly process scary art when I am already thinking about my to-do list before even leaving the theater. What would have once kept me up all night now fades all too quickly into the background.

The adult instinct is to shield younger people from the gut-wrenching shock of horror, but this is such a missed opportunity. There is a real pleasure in feeling truly scared, and the occasional jolt of terror probably won’t cause irreparable damage. If anything, it’s a chance to practice managing the unpleasant feelings that bubble from challenging content. Fear has always been a substantial part of the human experience, and these stories are a pressure valve designed to help us to cope with it. Kids should be allowed to explore stories that make them ill at ease, confused and afraid. Most kids and teenagers are probably intimately aware of these feelings already.

Young people are more resilient than they are given credit for. “Adult” themes like danger, abuse, sexuality, abandonment, isolation, bullying and violence do not kick in only after a certain age. Reality may be scarier than fiction for many kids, and finding relatable characters can teach them just as much about overcoming adversity than any motivational poster or school counselor can. My little brother is absolutely captivated by the kids from “Stranger Things” and the new “It” movies, no doubt because they are the same age he is now. I often think about how lucky he is to see himself in well-written characters who feel real, both in their bravery and goofiness. It may all be in the subconscious, but kids need to know that other people — and especially kids like them — can experience bad things and still make it out okay.

Obviously, there should be limits. No one should be forced to watch anything that distresses them and there are some levels of violence that take it too far for young audiences. It is worth seriously evaluating the content and the kid on a case by case basis to make sure no one is traumatized. Also, not all horror films are created equal, with many of them being painfully stupid. No kid should cut their teeth on the vapid early-aughts films I watched as a teenager. Their unlikable characters and nihilistic violence set my expectations so low that I didn’t realize that horror could have artistic merit until watching “Night of the Living Dead” for a college class.

I can’t go back in time to experience my favorite horror movies as a kid, but sharing these memories with my little siblings is the next best thing. It may even be better because it is so fun to connect with them over art and to watch them critically engage with it. I’m just glad they have a better sense of the underlying allegories than I ever did and that my little sister has informed me that she now “likes stories that have a deeper meaning.” They may come for the jump scares, but at its best, horror has many more doors to open.

[email protected]