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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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Fearing Your Work

In all this talk of writing and revising and revising again and hunting for agents and publishers and book deals and all that jazz, there is something we sometimes neglect to discuss: how psychologically daunting writing a novel can be. And it is. It downright terrifies people – terrifies them into inaction or despair or even cleaning the house over and over again like some kind of deranged amphetamine addict. Writing hurts on a spiritual level. Well, it can, anyway. It often does.

If you’re reading that last bit and saying “ha! When I write, I am FREE!” I have this to say:

Wait.

For some, this is the scariest thing imaginable.

For some, this is the scariest thing imaginable.

The more I write, the more I believe that the great filter that separates those who write from those who wish to write is not one of talent or time or intelligence or training or money or any of that – it is a psychological barrier. You’ve got to sit down and fail. Yes, fail. And not even spectacular failure, either – mundane, limping, ignominious failure. Failure that makes you question your worth. And then you’ve got to get back up, sit down at that desk again, and try to find success in the failure somewhere.

In my case, I recently finished a draft of a novel (my seventh novel overall, the third in the Saga of the Redeemed). It was the fourth draft of the book and I completed it in about ten weeks or so. I walked away feeling pretty good about myself, let it rest for a week, and then went back to read it.

Oh. Oh God.

The thing is an unutterable train wreck. The external conflict was working okay, but the characters’ motivations were all over the place, the action was boring and predictable, and the twists weren’t telegraphed enough to make any sense. Gah! I’m going to have to rewrite maybe 75% of this damned thing and now the summer (with its blissful days of writerly concentration) is over! No! Soon the students will once again descend upon my mind palace and supplant all this novel-thinking with reams and reams of papers to grade and lectures to deliver and discussions to moderate! I’ve failed to finish the book I swore I’d finish this time around! No!

Honestly, the failure of this draft (complete as it is) has been enough to knock the wind out of my sails in these last days of summer. I feel useless. I threw the novel up on my office wall in color-coded index cards and stare at it bleakly.

But I’m wrong. I didn’t fail. I just didn’t finish yet – I’m one step closer to completion, and I will make that step. It’s just a matter of dusting myself off and fighting for some time to do it. But man, looking at that wall, looking at the orange Xs I crossed through terrible scenes, really hurts. Not physically, but almost so. It’s a knot in my chest I can’t work out, a thing that makes me wince every hour on the hour.

I’ll get over it, though. I’ll ride back into battle with that beast soon enough, and perhaps this time with the wisdom to see myself to victory. As Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers once said:

Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.

True words, my friends. Sit down. Write the words. Feel the pain.

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.

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.

The Power of Panic

There was something down the end of that hallway, calling our names.

I had a nightmare last night. Not a real, sit-up-in-bed-and-can’t-sleep-anymore type nightmare–I rarely have those anymore, and if I do they aren’t anything like this. It was, instead, one of those dreams that simulates a horror movie. I was staying in a hospital with two other people–an ex-student and a friend (but I can’t remember whom). It was night; we were alone. There was somebody stalking us.

At first we thought it a prank, but then we were wrong. The person we thought it was, well, they never really existed. This was something different…something wrong. It was coming for us, and it was going to get us, one by one. I found myself walking through a darkened surgical ward, hearing it whisper my name, and then it burst from a cabinet, black and smoky, glowing eyes.

I led with my knuckles. The dream ended with me digging my thumbs into its stupid eyes, swearing a blue streak.

My reaction to fear is, I think, sort of different than most. I feel fear, sure, but my instinct is almost always ‘attack’ rather than ‘run’. That pounding of the heart, the chills in my bones, the tremble in my hands–all of that gets focused into a sort of berzerk sort of rage that I direct at the object of my terror. I can control it, sure, but if you jump out from behind a bush as a joke, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll slug you as hard as I can. Horror movies frustrate the hell out of me, primarily because all the people do the exact opposite thing that I’d do. They go all limp and start squealing or running or whatever–I gave that up a long time ago. If I see Freddy Kreuger, I’m going to go for his jugular and hope that glove of his doesn’t finish me off first. I’m not going to give him the time to deliver his pithy one-liner.

Fear is a terrific motivator. Not only can it change me–relatively peaceful, easy-going guy–into a norse berzerker, but it reduces otherwise intelligent people to drooling idiots, organized people into flighty bubble heads, and stupid people into superheroes. Panic is enormously powerful.

In Frontier: 2280, I’ve included a weapon called a ‘panic bomb’. I stole the idea from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: it’s a weapon that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb, acts like a bomb, but isn’t actually a bomb. You toss it in a room and it starts hissing and beeping and a little LED counter starts down from 10; it might even announce that it is a bomb in a loud, scary voice. The idea of the weapon is a way to flush people out of cover without actually exposing them to anything harmful or, conversely, cause confusion and panic in the defenders. If you don’t think such a weapon would work, you’ve never been in a crowd of people who were frightened of something before. Us berzerkers start smashing things to stop the danger, the panicky ones start running amok, the squealers start yelling their heads off, causing more panic–things get ugly, and fast. All the rationality and higher thought that we, as a species, are so proud of goes straight out the window, and we become little better than stampeding cattle.

I’ve talked before about how the zombie apocalypse trope underwhelms me. I don’t see zombies as wiping out a huge number of people, all things considered. You know what would, though? The panic associated with the possibility of zombies attacking people and the dead rising from the grave. Can you imagine the looting? The violence? The chaos? All perpetrated, by the way, by humans  against other humans. All those anti-zombie fanatics who actually have spent time thinking about ‘what they would do if the zombies come’ are going to be running amok, chainsaws in hand, trying to ‘survive’ when, in the end, they’ll mostly be hurting other people or getting hurt themselves. That’s the power of panic, you see–more potent and faster spreading than any disease you can name, and probably the cause of more deaths.

There’s a reason, after all, that it’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater without cause, and it isn’t just for the hell of it. People have died because of that, trampled beneath the sticky soles of a thousand other panicky movie goers who, for the love of God Almighty, do NOT want to burn alive.

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.