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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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To The Pain…

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ~Ernest Hemingway

I work in a hospital district. About the only decent food to be had is in the cafeteria of Boston Children’s Hospital just up the road. It’s cheap, nutritious, fresh – the whole deal. So I go there a lot.

Every once in a while, though, I see something in the lobby that makes me wish I hadn’t gone there. If you’ve ever spent any time around seriously ill children, you will understand what I mean. For those who don’t, let me give you an example of one such scene. Picture this:

A little boy, five or maybe six years old, happy and smiling, full of boisterous energy. He has both parents on either side of him, each holding one of his hands and letting him swing between them. The parents, however, have grave expressions; their eyes seem hollow, their steps reluctant, their shoulders stooped. Their gaze is fixed on some distant point in the future, and they barely hear the kid when he asks, still smiling, “The doctors are going to fix me, right?”

They don’t answer. They just march their kid deeper into the hospital.

Let that one sink in for a second. Now, I ask you, is a good lean pork loin worth that image? Knowing that, somewhere deep in the bowels of that (blessed) institution, some poor kid is in for the fight of his life and nobody except him thinks highly of his odds? I gotta say, that one hurts, like deep down. My breath catches every time I think about it.

One of the things with being a professional writer is that you need to improve your craft. You need to get better. In order to do this, you clearly need to know where you need improvement. For me, the challenge has always been writing stories with legitimate emotional impact. I strive to do this, of course, but I’m not naturally adept at jerking tears from my audience. I prefer to make them laugh, make them rage, make them shudder, or make them cheer. Pity, pathos, and grief are emotions I find hard to evoke sometimes. But I have to try.

I think part of my trouble lies with the death of my brother, Preston. He suffered from a unspeakably cruel degenerative neurological disease called Batten Disease, which is essentially something like ALS except in children. My brother was born apparently normal and lived the early parts of his childhood like a normal kid. He learned to talk, walk, he went to school, he and I were best buddies, as brothers ought to be.

And then he gradually went blind. Then he slowly lost the fine motor control needed to write (and in first or second grade, too). Then he had seizures –  little ones at first, then bigger and bigger and bigger. His gross motor skills decayed. He had trouble walking. He couldn’t get to the bathroom anymore and I, his roommate, was responsible for taking him in the depths of the night. He lost the ability to speak. To eat on his own. Year after year, little pieces of my brother were carved out of him and lost forever. Finally, after over a decade of this, he finally died just shy of his 22nd birthday. He had been in a wheelchair in a pediatric nursing home for almost a decade. I cannot remember the last words he spoke to me, but they had been in our shared bedroom sometime before he lost speech, probably about a decade before he actually died. I cannot explain to you how much it distresses me that I cannot remember those words.

Yeah...if a show features this kind of thing prominently, I'm *out* (Looking at you, Grey's Anatomy).

Yeah…if a show features this kind of thing prominently, I’m *out* (Looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy).

My brother’s death has had a pervasive effect on me. During my adolescent years, when everybody else was wallowing in self-pity, I had a tangible, visible, daily reminder of how much my stupid teenager problems did not matter. When I read The Catcher in the Rye, I fucking loathed Holden Caufield, the miserable wretched coward, who I saw as cutting out on his family in the wake of his brother’s death. I still loathe that abominable prick and cannot stand to read the book again. My brother’s death has had a severe impact on my belief in any kind of benevolent deity (which I find very hard to accept), has tempered my general sense of cynicism and gallows humor about the world, and caused me to have a fairly comfortable relationship with the idea of death as a release.

The other thing my brother’s death caused is my poor reaction to sick children. By “poor reaction” I do not mean I fear them or hate them or anything. I don’t sneer at kids in wheelchairs. But the sight of them makes me angry – makes me angry at a world in which children are struck down with horrible diseases for no reason whatsoever, or angry with adults who are so careless and clueless and selfish that they fail to care for the children they love. Saw a woman in line at the cafeteria once glare at a little girl (who was two shades shy of a ghost, mind you) cheering loudly over the soft serve ice cream maker. It took all my willpower not to slap her (“If some sick kid who’s just spent who knows how long in a hospital bed wants to cheer over ice cream, YOU LET HER FUCKING CHEER, YOU MISERABLE WITCH. So help me, I will fight you…”).

I’ve basically got a big, scabbed over wound on my heart. I don’t like to prick it much and, for whatever reason, I don’t tend to bleed at my keyboard. This, though, is a weakness. If I wish to become better, I need to imbue my words with the pain. I’m working on it.

In the meantime, you’ll all have to settle for me making you laugh and rage and shudder and cheer.

The Hall of Perplexing Fear

Yesterday I finished reading Johannes Cabal: Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. It was an entertaining read about a necromancer, a haunted carnival, and a deal with the devil with a wry wit and some interesting characters and concepts – I recommend it if you’re in the mood for some tongue-in-cheek horror/adventure.

As the chief setting of the book is a carnival of the damned, however, it got me thinking about certain things a broad swathe of our society finds frightening that I don’t quite understand. Carnivals are among them, generally – I always had fun at carnivals, was never all that creeped out by carnival folk, and the only thing that scared me was the haunted houses, and that only because I was a kid and, having never gone in one, my vivid imagination made them seem MUCH worse than they actually are. In practice they’re relatively boring, honestly, but maybe that’s just adult me talking, and I’m not easily scared anymore.

Of course, I’m not talking about children being scared of things in this article – kids, particularly imaginative ones, are scared of all kinds of things. It’s actually not such a bad evolutionary trait for children to have, either. No, in this article I’m talking about grown adults and their pet fears that I find perplexing and confusing. So, to start:

Weird? Yes. Terrifying? Eh...

Weird? Yes. Terrifying? Eh…

Clowns

Why are people scared of clowns again? I mean, they’re just people in face paint. Face paint and funny clothes. Brightly colored face paint and funny clothes. Meant to entertain children.

What gives?

I mean, I guess the makeup makes them look a little corpse-y, but is that it? I’ve heard that people feel like they ‘can’t trust them’, but, then again, I don’t feel like I can trust a lot of people. That doesn’t mean they’re axe-murdering cannibals that populate my nightmares.

I saw an interview with the Insane Clown Posse once, and they were ‘asked ‘why clowns?’ The answer was ‘we’re fucking terrifying, that’s why.’ I wanted to explain to the gentleman that the thing that made him terrifying wasn’t his face paint, it was that he genuinely seemed to be the kind of guy who might commit a felony. Even without the facepaint, I wouldn’t be keen to spend time with him.

I totally understand that clowns are odd and a bit overly jolly to make me want to hang out with them. I get why kids might not like them (but kids also are afraid of bizarre stuff like cracks in the sidewalk and the letter ‘T’), but there’s just no reasonable explanation for a grown person to scream in terror at the sight of a clown. Of course, reasonable is the operative word, there. Fear isn’t reasonable by definition.

It's only 12 inches tall, for crying out loud! Chill!

It’s only 12 inches tall, for crying out loud! Chill!

Dolls

Okay, fine – maybe grown men in makeup are unnerving. How, then, do you explain the terror some people experience from dolls. You know the ones – the dead stare, the weird prerecorded voice, the neat, staid clothing.

Here the problem is, ultimately, that they’re tiny and inanimate. Even if they are animate (e.g. Chucky), they’re still up to your knee. Possessed by the devil or not, just pick it up and lob it into the nearest woodchipper or trash compactor – there, crisis averted. This is another instance of things made to look adorable or attractive somehow becoming terrifying. I don’t understand this. I mean, sure, again, a little weird, a little creepy, but not really scary. Anything that can be overpowered by one hand and destroyed by a pair of scissors isn’t on my list of fears.

Right, okay. Matching clothes are frightening? Is that it?

Right, okay. Matching clothes are frightening? Is that it?

Children

So lets move on down the list until we get to ‘creepy children.’ This one blows my mind. Really.

I like kids. I have a kid (soon to be two). I’m a teacher and, in my career, I’ve taught small children. They aren’t scary. Ever. Ever ever. I can’t even conceive of an instance where a child under the age of 10 could ever be at all creepy. They could say anything they want and my response would be somewhere between ‘ain’t that adorable’ and ‘that’s inappropriate, young lady.’ Can kids make you angry? Hell yes. Can they make you sad? Certainly. Can they be weird? 100%. Scary? No. Not to psychoanalyze in abstentia, but part of me feels like people freaked out by children aren’t so much afraid of the kids as much as the presence of those kids somehow reminds them that they are growing up and older and becoming adults, which in turn frightens them. I’m probably 100% wrong on that one, but that’s just the first thing that comes to mind.

Here, I’ve got a creepy kid story for you. Let’s make this a litmus test, maybe, for whether you ever find children scary: A coworker of my wife has a little girl of about three. Said little girl was informed by her parents that the reason her grandmother was so tiny is that, as people age, they get smaller. The little girl looked straight at her mother and said this:

Yeah, and when you get old you get tiny, too. You gonna be this big. I gonna keep you in a cage.

The mother responded with ‘oh, don’t be silly.’ The girl’s response, dead serious:

No, I keep you in a cage.  I lock you inside. You stay there.

Did you chuckle, or did you suddenly get a chill down your spine? If it’s the latter, may I remind you that it’s a toddler. She isn’t a threat to you. Honest.

I could add to this list – throw on zombies and the Borg and spiders and other things I don’t really find all that frightening – but you get the point. Of course, stuff I’m scared of might not scare you, so we’re probably even. Fear, as I said above, isn’t rational, and so explaining it or understanding it in another is very difficult. This psychological distance, however, is ripe for storytelling and adds a great deal to the experience of being human.

And I’m sure the psychiatrists of the world don’t mind, either.