As a child, I distinctly remember cruising up and down the aisles of my local video store, Movie Mania, with my parents almost every week. Sometimes multiple times a week if I was lucky. They are memories that will stay with me forever and ones that unfortunately nowadays many will never get to experience. I remember the carpet, the rows and rows of cheap, brown wooden shelves, and miles and miles of VHS boxes with small, circular plastic tags swinging from tiny hooks beneath them. Although I consumed my fair share of age-appropriate entertainment back in the 80’s, I consistently found myself fascinated with a section that for some reason I was still allowed to freely explore: The Horror Section.
It was transfixing. The immense number of horror movie cases that I would come to know and love, some sooner rather than later, with their elaborate and gruesome cover art. It’s a scene that some parents might try and shield their children from and some kids would maybe even avoid on their own. But there is an undeniable pull that kids just can’t seem to resist.
“How is something that can be so terrifying, gory and brutal become almost a rite of passage for kids all over the world?”
So what is it about this genre that worms its way into the psyche of so many youngsters? How is something that can be so terrifying, gory and brutal become almost a rite of passage for kids all over the world?
Curiosity May Not Kill The Cat
The world is a scary place. And that’s coming from me- An adult. As a child everything can seem overwhelming on its own. There is so much that a child’s mind just doesn’t understand and as human beings, we are naturally inclined to fear the unknown. It’s most likely an evolutionary trait developed way back in humanity’s infancy. Those who feared the unknown, who fled from strange noises and movements in the dark survived. Being vertically challenged as a toddler and into childhood means that literally everything is larger than you. This can lead to feeling unsettled and not in control of the situation, dependent on parents and adults for guidance.
Where this possibly connects to a fascination with horror is that while adults may have told you to steer clear of that content until you are “much older”, indulging in that curiosity is a type of control that the child has. Yes, it’s scary, and yes, a lot of the content is well-intentioned for a much older crowd, but it’s a fear that a person chooses to experience for themselves. For better or worse.
That sensation that what you’re doing is considered “taboo” by society, is a thrill in and of itself. Catching those glimpses of detailed cover art featuring blood, guts and scantily-clad murder victims at the video store, or sneaking downstairs to turn on the television and hopefully watch some fun horror schlock (or worse), has been popular with kids for decades.
While horror, specifically cinematic horror, is much more graphic nowadays, this wasn’t always the case. At least not viewing it through the lens of the present.
If one was to look back at the fear-inducing content of the late 19th century and early 20th century it would seem pretty tame by today’s standards. Yet the fascination is the same. During the heyday of story-based radio plays, families (including the youth of those eras), would gather around the radio to tune in to tales of fantasy and fiction. Stories straight out of the sci-fi magazines of the time to darker, more chilling tales with the sole purpose of delightfully scaring their listeners senseless.
“If one was to look back at the fear-inducing content of the late 19th century and early 20th century it would seem pretty tame by today’s standards. Yet the fascination is the same.”
From there horror would go on to grace the very earliest films hitting theaters, from the silent film classic Nosferatu (1922), to the iconic Universal Monsters. Not the visceral horror of today but still able to hold its own both then and now. As TV sets made their way into households so too did late-night horror-thon’s and all-nighter’s. Unique television personalities began to appear on the programming bill too. From Vampira and Zacherley to Svengoolie, Elvira and Joe Bob Briggs, these infamous horror hosts were colorful and lively enough to entice the younger generation as well as the older to tune in. Almost a security blanket for younger audiences reassuring them that, in moments between the slashes and scares, that it was only entertainment.
Where else would the kids of the last hundred years get their inspiration for their Halloween costumes if it wasn’t for horror!? On a night filled with fright and excess sugar children proudly display their favorite horror icons in costume form to go out trick or treating in because they already know and love them. The association is put there at that age that having fun and scaring the pants off each other (and themselves) goes hand in hand.
Food For The Darkened Soul
I, for one, truly believe that an early indoctrination into horror films helps to conquer the fear and stigmatism behind them. That can also translate into “real life”, where one can still enjoy the thrill of being scared from time to time without the inherent trauma that could come from some of these movies. Clearly there is plenty out there that should absolutely, in no way be viewed at an early age. There are limits for goodness’ sake!
Being frightened isn’t always a bad thing, in fact, it may be constructive to indulge in the curiosity that is already there on the surface. There’s been some great horror produced over the last few decades that is marketed specifically for a younger crowd. Films like The Monster Squad (1987) and others show that children can be the heroes of these stories. On-screen they can relate and be inspired by those of their age bracket conquering their own fears and coming out alive at the end of it.
“[…] Horror is a Symbolic Catharsis- A safe way to explore and deal with our darker emotions and tendencies while having a little fun in the process.”
Whole markets have been mined in the minds of babes, I’m looking at you Goosebumps, that have cataloged and understood the psychological intrigue that kids have towards fear and the psychological benefits I’d wager. Watching these movies creates a sense of community, bonding over their experiences. It could also lead to improvements in other areas such as problem-solving skills when they imagine themselves in those unrealistic scenarios.
There’s a tendency in recent history to blame a lot of the violence in the world to everything from music to video games, and to a certain degree horror movies. Is it justified? I don’t think so. There is a darkness within all of us but how one confronts that is the key difference. The psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote of the Shadow Archetype, an unconscious (and much darker) aspect of our personalities. Occasionally this needs to be addressed and confronted which takes an inner strength that brings about growth in the individual. Horror is a Symbolic Catharsis- A safe way to explore and deal with our darker emotions and tendencies while having a little fun in the process. I see nothing wrong with it.
What do you think? Did you get an early start on your horror education? Let us know in the comments, over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in our Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!