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The Importance of Dread for Children

Pictured: Prime children’s programming, for sure.

Ran into an online conversation the other day discussing the feelings of dread and fear many recall from a variety of children’s movies in the 80s. The assumption was that such dread and fear is no longer in vogue – you couldn’t (or maybe just wouldn’t) make a Black Cauldron or Rats of NIMH today or, if you did, you would do it differently.

Now, in the first place, I can’t say with any authority that this is actually true. Granted, I can’t really think of any “children’s” movies quite as harrowing as the ones I remember as a kid, but they may very well be out there. In the second place, assuming it is true (or that people think it should be), I’d like to take a moment to defend such films.

Fear, Dread, and Horror

For starters, let’s define terms. I think fear, dread, and horror are different things and, while I am definitely advocating for the second of those, I am very much not angling for children to encounter the third. So, to be specific:

  • Fear is an immediate emotional response – it’s the jump, the flinch, the nervous jitters. You can get this in any kind of story and its a momentary thing. Hell, it’s essentially the same emotional response generated as you crest the top of a roller coaster.
  • Dread is a sense of unease and disquiet. It is a lingering feeling that things are not quite right and that hidden dangers may lurk round corners.
  • Horror is the desolation that occurs when hope is extinguished and all that is good seems lost. Like dread, it can linger, but it bears with it not a sense of anticipation but rather a sense of helplessness. 

Booo!

As I hope is clear, both dread and horror involve fear. Fear is the drumroll, the squeal of terror, the crash and bang your heart goes through when it is surprised or frightened. Kids have this sensation often, as the world is large and strange to them, and there is nothing wrong with exposing them to a little bit in their entertainment. Probably the best example of this is the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: she shows up, she cackles, she says “boo,” and then she falls off a cliff. Scary, yeah, but not eliciting much dread and certainly not horror.

Horror, on the other hand, is when the xenomorph pops out of the guy’s chest in Aliens and runs across the room.

NOT. FOR. KIDS.

Not only is he dead (irreversible), but the thing is still out there, somewhere, on a big dark ship. And there is no help to be found. And they have no weapons. Horror is also the inevitability of death in slasher movies like Friday the 13th or the despair in the face of such monstrous things as the Holocaust or genocide in general. Horror is not for children because they lack the maturity or perspective to understand that what they are being shown is not, in fact, all there is to it. They even have difficulty differentiating between the real and the fictional. Show a kid Event Horizon or (God forbid) IT and, while I’m no child psychologist, I’d say you stand to do actual damage to the poor kid’s psyche.

Seriously, Return to Oz, what the fuck?

That brings us to dread. Dread is harder to pin down than horror or fear, I think, because it is not as clearly defined. That is really the point of dread, I think – it is uncertainty, eerie-ness. The dread I retain from Return to Oz is not because it was necessarily scary (though it was), but because it seemed to strange and so alien. I could not understand how the world worked and it was…unsettling. You look at all those heads in cases and have to ask yourself “how are they still alive? What does it mean that they are? How can this be?” The kid watching is engrossed but also freaked out. They are scared, but also fascinated.

The Importance of Dread

There is a long list of movies that made me feel this way as a kid. The Rats of NIMH, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron, Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, The Dark Crystal, and a lot more besides. All of these films were eerie and creepy to varying degrees. All of them had parts that frightened me. Nevertheless, I watched all of them constantly.

It should be noted that dread is not a new aspect of children’s stories. Hans Christian Andersen was a master of it, as were the Brothers Grimm and Washington Irving. You can trace that feeling – that unsettling, eerie prickle up the back of your neck – way, waay back to the earliest of folk tales. Of course, go far enough back and there wasn’t really a division between what qualified as “children’s stories” and what was meant for adults – they were just “stories.” The kids crowded around to listen to someone sing the Odyssey as much as anyone else. Our definition of what qualifies as “suitable for children” is a relatively modern invention in a lot of ways, dating back to around the turn of the 19th century, anyway.

But even in our modern conception of childhood, I think dread serves a real and important and enriching purpose for children. We’ve got to remember that children, simply by dint of their inexperience, live in a world full of the

Holy crap, did I have dreams about this dude!

frightening, unsettling, and unexpected. Experiencing dread in a controlled circumstance – as in a movie – gives them a chance to sort through and understand how to cope with this feeling. It instills in them a sense of caution (important) but also a sense of hope (the hero triumphs in the end). Beyond that, these stories are also wonderful fodder for their dreams and imagination. How much of my own imagination was fired by these films that I saw when I was young? A lot, I’d say. The Black Cauldron and the Rankin/Bass Return of the King are probably half the reason I became a fantasy writer.

Now, I am no child psychologist and I’m certainly not advocating forcing your kids to watch a movie if they’re screaming a crying with terror. But, I do think that exposing children to this content is not bad for them – far from it! We live in a frightening world full of mysteries and dangers, and stories like this have a lot to teach kids about how to manage such things.

Or, at least, that’s what I think.

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The Loss of Fear and the Adult-ing of Halloween

When I was a kid, I was legitimately afraid of Halloween night. As a problematically imaginative boy, I existed in a world wherein I had constructed an elaborate cosmology of evil spirits, monsters, and ghosts that stalked me each time the sun went down. While this peculiar obsession of mine likely brought to me to my current state (creating fanciful worlds for science fiction and fantasy stories/novels), it was somewhat stressful for pre-adolescent me. Any sight of the trivial horror tropes of Halloween stood to haunt my nightmares.

I tell you: completely unable to deal, folks.

I tell you: completely unable to deal, folks.

Remember those aisles in the grocery store which, around October 1st, would start to be lined with rubber masks? Yeah, I wouldn’t walk down those aisles. If I did, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look. Likewise those elaborate, gruesome displays some people set up in front of their houses – plastic skeletons, a severed arm of Styrofoam, fake blood dripping over plastic fake eyeballs – these places were fairly terrifying to me (though mostly after dark). Come to think of it, much of my young life involved strategically deciding when to close my eyes and not take in the “horrors” that would parade about each Halloween or, for that matter, in any given television show or movie I watched. Apart from the first time I saw it (around 1986), I didn’t actually see the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark until I was in high school, despite watching the movie about ten times in the interim. Same deal with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

I remember being convinced that seeing things that were scary would harm me in some way. Initially, when I was little, I felt that the scary things were in some way actually real and might awaken if they caught me looking (it was for this reason, by the way, that I sought to dress as something with a weapon or natural defenses every Halloween – just in case, you understand). As I got older, I was just concerned about getting vivid nightmares (and I used to have very vivid nightmares). Halloween night, of course, was the metaphysical climax of this feeling of terror. I loved the candy, sure, but as I walked around my neighborhood, I kept my flashlight gripped tight and made sure my plastic sword was loose in the scabbard. My weight was firmly over the balls of my feet. I imagine I looked like a spooked deer.

But then it all changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but everything became less scary. I started opening my eyes, tearing back the curtain. I started watching more horror movies. Now? Halloween isn’t scary. If anything, it’s the opposite – a banal display of half-assed “horror” tropes ladled together in a kind of stew that, in juxtaposition, are more absurd than scary. Like, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret the fifteen apparently “severed” heads stuck on your white picket fence? And why are they in such wildly differing states of decay? And what’s with the one that’s smiling? Gimmie a break.

Meh.

Meh.

I don’t scare easily anymore. Yeah, a horror movie can get me to jump, but that’s less “horror” and more clever use of loud sound-effects and fast camera cuts. Losing sleep? Nightmares? It’s been years. In fact, I find a lot of things other people find terrifying to be simply…odd. How can you be afraid of clowns? They’re clowns!

Now, while this means I live a much calmer, much saner life than I did as an eight-year-old, I do think, sometimes, that I’ve lost something crucial. There is something magical in terror, isn’t there? That little spike of adrenaline I’d get as I ran into the house with the autumn wind and the skitter of leaves chasing me; that boiling feeling in my stomach as I put my hands over my eyes and refused to feel the “eyeballs” in the local haunted house – there was something special going on there, in that brain of mine. Fear forces your imagination to fire on all pistons. Not seeing what you fear is infinitely more powerful than seeing it. All those years with my eyes closed, I was constructing truly terrifying edifices in the dark of my own mind. Now that I’ve opened them, well, there’s no going back. Those eyeballs are peeled grapes. That guy jumping out from behind the haystack in the hockey mask is a volunteer actor from the local high school and, for that matter, is two inches shorter and about twenty-five pounds lighter than me. I’m not scared anymore.

Sometimes, though, I wish that I still was.

Fly Me to the Moon

Do you remember a time when you believed there were people living on the moon? Or Mars? Or Venus? I do.

I’m a kid – no older than eight – reading Ray Bradbury in a sunny room, thinking about the color of the kids’ raincoats on Venus. A casual browse through my shelves will reveal reams of construction paper upon which has been illustrated a wide variety of spaceships, including the Costello – an interplanetary craft based upon the rough outline of the swing set in my backyard. On the floor, scattered about on their launch pads, a legion of Lego spaceships point through the skylights of my bedroom, waiting for lift-off.

This is me before true scientific understanding had dawned. Before I had my subscription to Odyssey, before I learned everything I could about the Solar System and beyond. This was when I still thought there might be Martians and wondered whether they were friendly or not.

Guess which one grew up to be Ethan Hawke!

Guess which one grew up to be Ethan Hawke.

Explorers was released in 1985. I did not see it in the theater – I didn’t know it existed until probably a few years later, when I was browsing through the local video rental store (remember browsing the rental store? Man, I loved that!) and saw it sitting on the shelf. The movie was, along with The Goonies, a representation of all my idealized childhood fantasies. A couple kids manage to build a spaceship out of junk in their backyard and fly off to explore the universe. Never mind how they did it (I don’t really remember – something about a computer program that makes bubbles out of thin air, I guess – this was also back in the days when computers were tantamount to MAGIC). The important point is that three kids, without the need for adults, built a spaceship and went off to explore space.

List off the films that did this in the 1980s – had kids/teens on the forefront of space exploration/science fictional adventure:

  • The Last Starfighter
  • ET
  • Space Camp
  • DARYL
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • My Science Project
  • Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
  • Back to the Future

I’m probably missing some, too. In any case, I grew up thinking fantastic adventure was just around the corner. All I needed to do was meet a crazy inventor or stumble upon a meteorite or get locked in the National Air and Space museum after dark and discover, to my shock and wonder, that the Apollo Capsule still worked!

And when I did manage to travel through time or open a portal to another world or fly off to Mars, there would be people there. Life, in this halcyon age of my imagination, was as common in space as it was here on Earth. Every planet would have a secret ecosystem of aliens creatures waiting to be explored and (possibly) zapped with a ray gun. There would be cultures of intelligent creatures there, both primitive and advanced, and I would make friends and enemies, establish diplomatic relations, and so on. I swore I’d have a flying car by now and that space stations would be places people went for vacation or stopped over on their way to Saturn.

I was wrong, of course. Space isn’t really like that or, at least, it doesn’t appear to be. It is vast and mostly empty and our planet is a little island of blue all alone in a sea of black, not just one member of an archipelago of habitable worlds. Getting off this rock seems harder and harder, even as it also looks to be more and more essential that we manage it. I wonder if this is just part of growing up for everybody or whether my generation was uniquely spoiled –  probably the former. I also wonder: do the kids of today have similar dreams? Do they hope to explore the Great Unknown? I worry sometimes. I seem to meet a lot of young people who don’t bother looking past the ends of their noses and whose ideas of the future involve merely a steady job and a 401K (if that).

That’s not enough, though. We need to look further than the necessities of our own survival. We need to be dreamers – crazy dreamers – if we’re going to have a shot. When somebody accuses of you of riding moonbeams, you need to take it as a compliment. It’s gotta be better than just squatting in the dirt, right?

Someone Great That Way Passes

Is it sacriligeous for me to say that I’m not a huge Ray Bradbury fan? I don’t mean to imply that I thought him talentless, mind you – he was a marvelous writer with a prolific imagination and the accolades poured upon his name are sufficient to summon the respect of even the most cynical critic. That said, in reflecting on the great writer’s passing, I am having difficulty thinking of something he wrote that really resonated with me. He is not, I can say with a degree of confidence, one of my inspirations. Nevertheless, I mourn his passing along with the rest of the speculative fiction world. He was one of the greatest among us; he helped make this genre and its cousins into something more than just primetime radioplay doggerel.

I admit to not having read all of Bradbury’s stuff (there is a *lot* of it, after all). The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and various and scattered short stories of his are all that springs to mind. Many of the titles of these stories have faded from my memory, as well; I think I started reading him in grade school and stopped when I hit other, bigger, more personally inspiring works – Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, Howard, LeGuin, Card. I re-read The Martian Chronicles in college for a class, and I remember it paling in comparison to the next read – Herbert’s Dune. If you had asked me a few weeks ago what I thought of Bradbury, I probably would have shrugged and said, ‘eh.’

Then again, upon reflection, I find images from his stories floating up. The image of the dog, mad with hunger, in “There Will Come Soft Rains” always chills my bones, as does the cruelty and selfishness of the children in “The Veldt”. The specific line in that story describing the ozone wafting off the daughter’s clothing as she comes inside has, for some reason, never left me. There is the children of Venus and their raincoats in “All Summer in a  Day;” the crushed butterfly in “A Sound of Thunder.”

There is a certain, elemental simplicity to Bradbury’s storytelling that gives it power. It is plain, clear, and devoid of unnecessary embellishment; a kind of spartan, modernist beauty, like the set of a Star Trek episode. When I think of him, I think of the colors of the Golden Age of scifi–silver, gold, gray, brown, red. He is the 1950s, cleft-chin, clear-eyed, faith in science and hope for humanity’s wisdom (even though so much of his work doubted that self-same wisdom’s existence). With him I think of moon rockets and my childhood subscription to Odyssey magazine. I think of lying on the carpet, staring through the skylight, and thinking of astronauts.

Perhaps it is premature of me to dismiss him as an inspiration. Perhaps, instead, the inspiration he gave me runs so deep it has become difficult for me to separate it from the essential nature of my being. I am more than inspired by him; I am built out of him. He gave me, and so many others, a framework upon which to hang our wildest dreams.

May he rest in peace.

To Combat the Forces of Darkness…

There is a picture floating around Facebook by Timothy Schmidt (Alex Panagop–check him out here). It’s one of those ‘Inspiration’ poster spoofs, and this one is about Teddy Bears. Observe its awesomeness. If you can only read large type, the caption says “Protecting Innocent

This was my teddy bear's official job.

children from monsters-under-the-bed since 1902.” The picture, of course, speaks for itself.

As a very imaginative little boy, I was very serious about my stuffed animal guardians. I had a stuffed elephant, a teddy bear, a pair of dogs, and a stuffed duck. Their job was to protect me from monsters. I realize this all sounds very girlish, but my stuffed animals had ranks, a chain of command, and particular missions. The elephant was heavy artillery, the rabbit and dogs were reconnaissance, the ducks were air support, and the bear was the frontline trooper. They would combat and, presumably, defeat any evil creatures that laid siege to my bed each night while I was asleep. I presume they were always victorious because I never was actually consumed by any monsters.

The monsters I imagined as a child came in all the various shapes and sizes of a small child’s hell. They were insectoid daemons, psychotic undead killers, giant poisonous spiders and crabs, and a man-eating giant named Big Belly Ben whose particularly frightening illustration in a book of children’s nursery rhymes haunted me for much of my young life. The original rhyme went like this:

ROBIN the Bobbin, the big-bellied Ben,
He eat more meat than fourscore men;
He eat a cow, he eat a calf,
He eat a hog and a half;
He eat a church, he eat a steeple,
He eat the priest and all the people!
A cow and a calf,
An ox and a half,
A church and a steeple,
And all the good people,
And yet he complain’d that his stomach wasn’t full.

The picture featured a giant kneeling over a church in a medieval European city and prying off the roof with one hand while he stuffed wriggling people in his mouth with the other. I’d have nightmares about Big Bellied Ben stooping over my own house, peering in the windows with his big eye trying to see me and, if he did, he’d rip off the wall and pull me out. I’d struggle to hide in the closet, but I never could get the door open. It was stuck, or my socks kept slipping on the floor, or I was in a whole different room in the house and had to run up the stairs, dodging the windows, as Ben’s greusome laughter shook the walls.

Can you understand why I had a team of stuffed commandos by my bedside each night?

With the exception of Ben, the monsters that infested the nooks and crannies of my house had certain limitations I was quick to capitalize upon. Firstly, they abhorred light. Turning on the lights in any room before entering would be sure to drive them away. Secondly, they were slow, so if I ran through a dark room (or outside at night, or through the basement) I’d be unlikely to be grabbed. Finally, they hid between the cracks in the floorboards or in the cement floor or the brick walkways. If I just didn’t step on any cracks, I wouldn’t get nabbed or, at the least, I’d buy myself some time. I can’t quite express how *real* these things were to me, either, and they were that way for a long time. Longer, probably, than most of my friends my age.  

Gradually, the intricacy of the forces fighting against the monsters grew to a point where it had its own factions and rivalries. The bear, for instance, defected to my brother and, while my brother’s stuffed animals were allies in the anti-monster quest, intra-bedroom warfare developed from time to time. Furthermore, my sister (who seemed to have nothing but stuffed rabbits and dolls) had her own little society of critters, but they ‘didn’t believe in monsters’ and occupied the same role in my little drama as Rohan did in the Lord of the Rings–sitting on their butts, not getting involved, all because their ruler (my sister) was having poisonous lies poured in her ear by a traitor in the midst of her rabbit population. My brother and I would occasionally stage crusades against the heathen bunny creatures and take captives. My sister would complain to my mother, though, so such invasions were short-lived.

All of my toys eventually got in on the act. GI Joes eventually formed the backbone of my monster-fighting force, along with an assortment of He-Man action figures, Star Wars guys, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (though my belief in the forces of darkness living within my house was waning significantly by then). I can only presume that this arms race was due to darker and even more sinister monsters being sent against my bedroom fortress each evening, but I don’t know for sure.

I was asleep the whole time.  

Eventually, all of this led me to write science fiction and fantasy. I learned to build worlds and to populate them with characters before I could even read, and I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since.