I watched my first horror film when I was in the second or third grade. It was “The Murders on Rue Morgue” and it had a lasting effect on me, to put it mildly.
I still remember the conversation I had with my mother when I asked her to let me watch it. She was understandably skeptic: late-night films are not meant for children. When I promised I won’t get scared, she gave in. In the next fourteen or fifteen years until her death I never once told her about how this film had made walking to school a daily trial because the route passed through a green in the neighbourhood that had big enough trees for an orangutan to hide in. I never once told her or my dad how scared I was to get up in the night to go pee and pass by dad’s hobby corner, separated from the hall with a curtain behind which anything could lurk, including an orangutan. Or something worse.
I watched my second horror film soon after, on a school friend’s video player. It was The Raft, it was my first encounter with Stephen King, and it is to this day one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s better than the original story, too, because in the film Randy gets to shore but the blob kills him nevertheless.
Yesterday, a Twitter friend posted this: an article arguing that we shouldn’t completely isolate children from horror films but let them watch some if they so wish because, the author said, horror stokes the imagination and makes us more resilient. And you know what? I think she’s right, whatever scary statistics used to shout about TV violence and real-life violence in the 90s.
One of the most memorable quotes from Stephen King I’ve ever read — if I’ve remembered it, it is extremely memorable — has to do with why people read/watch horror at all. Why do we want to be scared? Because we want to prepare for our death, King says, that’s why. We want to know how horrible death could be in advance so we’re less surprised when it comes to bite us on the ass. We want to get used to the thought it is coming and there’s no escape.
But it’s not just about death preparation, of course. I, for one, have a case of excessive curiosity coupled with an unfortunately vivid imagination. The unfortunate part of it means my imagination is at its most vivid when I’m contemplating bad things. Death. Destruction. Embarrassment. Catastrophes of various sorts. The curiosity part does not help, I can tell you that. But it pays off in my writing because, of course, I want to get things right as well as scary.
I agree with that article’s author that horror stokes the imagination. I’ve seen it first-hand. There’s nothing like a good old nightmare, the kind you still remember twenty years on, to make that imagination fire burn high and bright. BI have at least three such nightmares that I still remember two decades after I dreamed them. One still makes me want to cry with dread. And I’m having regular doses of fresher, newer nightmares, too. Can’t let the dreaming muscles weaken.
Nightmares are high-octane fuel for the imagination. No child-friendly story about puppies and kittens or ducks in a pond can do what a good nightmare (or a book or a film) can do, which is teach you that life is not all nice, it can actually be pretty horrible and it is not just horrible to bad people. It can be horrible to you, it probably will, so you’d better brace for it.
I am now seeing the same thing with my own child. The first time she caught me watching The Walking Dead she was about four. She simply woke up too early and walked in on her mother staring at a computer screen that had monsters on it. “Monsters!” she shouted happily, bright-eyed and eager to see what the monsters would do. I didn’t let her watch the series with me regularly but she caught me a couple more times and I didn’t shoo her away. Two years later, at kindergarten, she told me she was digging under the autumn leaves in the playground looking for zombies. “Why?” I asked, naturally. “To kill them!” was the charming answer.
Watching her grow and her attitude to fictional monsters has raised a suspicion. The suspicion is that some children — or even most children, I would hope — have no trouble with imaginary monsters. They may be scared by them but in a exciting, imagination-stoking way.
The only thing so far that has given my daughter a lasting scare only happened recently. Her best friend from school told her her daddy had left the family for another family. “But she’s probably lying,” Cat said nonchalantly. “Maybe she’s not,” I said because we have a policy of honesty and when her face fell I felt like beating the crap out of all humanity because we’re disgusting creatures who hurt their children.
Since then, she gets on edge every time her parents argue and we certainly don’t have an argument-free household. Maybe talking about it will help, in time, but until then I’m all for fictional horrors that entertain and scare versus the real horrors of life that all of us sooner or later encounter and that are so much worse than a homicidal blob in a lake or a vampire in a dark alley that you will never really run into. The real horrors are never entertaining.