The recent ripple of buzz about a possible film based on RL Stine’s Goosebumps’ books aptly followed the release of Joe Dante’s The Hole (2009) to remind everybody that horror isn’t just for adults. It’s not just for scaring people either, but for overcoming fears, depicting the ageless battle between good and evil, and feeding the imagination. Moreover, horror’s bloody good fun, and kids love it. Sitting down with your preteens for a jolly romp through The Exorcist (1973) or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) probably isn’t wise though, so it’s necessary to have an ilk of horror synched to a more innocent psyche. Creating child-friendly scares isn’t just an exercise in reducing the gore content, or permeating suspense with fart jokes, but in creating a form attuned to the boundless, and utterly bizarre, imagination of a child.
Parents love their children being creative. Bedtime stories are a staple in nurturing this, yet many of the classics are extraordinarily grim. One night little Jimmy may nod off whilst hearing about a transvestite wolf devouring pensioners, the next he’ll be told about a witch imprisoning two siblings to plump them up for Sunday roast. A few years later he’ll be ready to discover the exquisitely twisted tales of Roald Dahl, who drew from his grisly literary toy box grotesque bald witches, sadistic Twits who torture fluffy animals, and unsavoury youths being mutilated in a chocolate factory. By the time I graduated to RL Stine’s stories of haunted cameras and possessed ventriloquist dummies they seemed rather tame, but I still ploughed through them. My parents and school encouraged this morbid education; after all, reading’s a vital skill and great learning tool.
What’s not as widely appreciated is that films can be just as important in a child’s development. Animated films craft vivid worlds that fuel a child’s imagination with an array of ideas from arts and pop culture. Directed by Henry Selick, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993) flamboyant Gothicism brims with elaborate visual concepts, with traditional Hollywood monsters gleefully reshaped for its grisly characters. The design owes a massive debt German Expressionism, with twisting, scrawled architecture straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Selick reanimated Expressionism again in Coraline (2009), its exteriors crawling in spindly trees, complimented by a wonderfully dreamy soundtrack to form a wholly sumptuous eeriness. Monster House (2006) also draws heavily on the classics in its look, and creation of suspense, with giant claws made of the same thick shadows cast by Nosferatu’s (1922) Count Orlock clutching for a child as he sleeps.
Many of the horrific elements in family films are instantly recognisable to all ages, as classic imagery and motifs become embedded in our culture. Pixar films are rooted in an appreciation for cinema’s many forms, and Toy Story (1995) is exceptional in its parodies of horror motifs, capturing the fun and possibilities the genre offers. Sid is the archetypal mad scientist, constructing malformed Frankenstein toys, but is terrified as his morbid creations rise from the dead to torment him, before a seemingly demonically possessed Woody, head rotating 360°, sternly warns him off.
The Hole borrows scares from more modern horror, referencing the likes of It (1990), The Sixth Sense (1999) and Ringu (1998). But suspense is built masterfully through time-honoured methods, and in situations that explore the most universal fears. Menacing shadows envelop whole areas within the frame, whilst constricting shot compositions imprison isolated characters, increasing the audience’s awareness of off-screen space, leaving both characters and viewer exposed to a sudden attack from any angle. Suspenseful scenes are sustained to a surprisingly high level, meaning this may not be one for toddlers, but actual terrors are separated by Lewton buses (anticlimaxes) and comical interludes, Dante’s structure boasting a keen sense of cinematic rhythm.
The tendency of family horror to rehash images and motifs exposes the limitations it presents to filmmakers. Truly original ideas are increasingly rare in horror, and the genre can benefit from a high level of self referentiality, but if a filmmaker wants to explore a new idea its true potential may not be achievable with a young audience in mind. While culturally recognisable scares will be automatically understood by children, new innovations may require simplification, hence why David Cronenberg is yet to work for Disney. The concept may also need to be culled before finding how far the terror can be taken, so that children are spared years of nightmares.
However, creativity can flourish when the medium is limited; just think of what F.W. Murnau achieved without sound. 3D cinema has recently been embraced by horror, but rather then using the extra dimension to have pickaxes, severed limbs and breasts flying out of the screen, Selick and Dante are much more inventive. Coraline uses different levels of depth to distinguish between the real world and a sinister fantasy realm, a subtler reworking of The Wizard of Oz’s (1939) use of colour. In The Hole we gaze down, and up from, the title feature, whilst shadowy corners are deepened, expanding the areas horror could pop out from.
New houses act as a catalyst for horror in Coraline, The Hole and almost every Goosebumps book. While this is a reliable plot device in any horror story, immediately placing characters out of their comfort zone and providing a logical excuse for eerie phenomenon suddenly emerging, it has further significance for children. Nearly all children will have dealt with, or fear, being forced to move house, trading all they’ve ever known for an oppressive new environment. The horror that proceeds in such tales can be viewed as manifestations these fears.
Characters that seem intimidating or unapproachable at first will soon reveal themselves as friends, and accompany the protagonists on exciting adventures to defeat the evil forces. At The Hole’s outset Dane and his younger brother Lucas are bored and alienated, a situation exacerbated by Dane’s teenage moping, and refusal to play with Lucas. When they find a hole which horrors emanate from in their basement they are joined by teenage neighbour Julie on an adventure where they must overcome their worst fears. This obviously beats throwing a baseball, so it’s no surprise that, upon deciding the hole is a gateway to Hell, Julie remarks how cool that is. The blossoming romance between Dane and Julie shows them settling in through more normal means, but the central relationship is between the brothers, and their determination to protect each other reveals how moving house doesn’t mean leaving everything you care about behind.
Developing the independence and courage to face your fears is also a central theme of Monster House, which begins with DJ’s parents going away for a night after warning ‘if anything happens, call the police and hide in your closet’. Of course, when the house opposite begins gobbling people up no adults will believe DJ, especially not the police who come, in true horror fashion, in the form of a lazy, incompetent comedy duo. DJ’s babysitter is just as useless, representing the kind of obnoxious teen that makes kids fear puberty.
The reassuring fact that adventures can continue through adulthood is asserted in Ghostbusters (1984) where Peter, Ray, Egon and Winston convert an old fire station into a clubhouse and start a business catching ghosts. The gang’s efforts to confront creatures that terrorise their clients are filled with humour, drama and inventive scares such as eggs exploding in their boxes and fridges hosting gateways to sinister dimensions. Ghostbusters II (1989) can lack momentum, and caricatures periphery characters, but is decidedly scarier. The central ghoul is a supremely creepy possessed painting who kidnaps babies via spectral cradle snatchers, and a scene where the Ghostbusters find themselves surrounded by decapitated heads once made a friend of my younger brother burst into tears. But Ghostbusters II preaches a commendable message about the power of collective goodwill, so parents need not fear, although they may worry about the amount the heroes smoke in Ghostbusters.
Children can be prepared for that inevitable age when parents can no longer shield them, and desensitisation doesn’t have to be an act of traumatisation. A graded introduction to terror, supported by plenty of humour and adventure, won’t just prepare kids for darker, more visceral films, but allows them to face their fears as controlled fictions. They can then overcome these fears, both imaginary and real. With a little encouragement they could even grow up to better the world by becoming police, paranormal investigators or horror film directors.