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Horror Films You Can Watch With Your Kids

Doctor, can you recommend a horror film for my tween?

Good old-fashioned horror flicks are increasingly in vogue.  They are rising, as it were, from the crypts of the back aisles in video stores to the front of movie theater ticket lines.  Though I haven't seen it yet, the new film Super 8 particularly reminds me of the stuff I love.  Who can forget giggling with fear when you first watched Spielberg's Poltergeist in the theater?  The communal experience that only large screen cinema affords has reintroduced us all to the joys and camaraderie of being scared out of our collective wits. 

Why?  Who not?  Maybe it's our desire to displace more contemporary anxieties.  Certainly at the end of the day there ain't a whole lot on the screen that holds a candle to the tribulations of the real world. 

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But, to be clear, I'm thinking of horror as a special genre.  I'm thinking of the giddy storylines that rely on the sturdy scaffolding that friendship affords.  Plus, for my money, most good horror films leave you smiling as you leave the theater because you knew from the start that what you watched was just that - a movie. 

I guess I'm thinking here especially about the classically redemptive horror film.  These were the movies on which I cut my adolescent teeth - the movies that called for a second bowl of Crunch Berries on Saturday night.   It seems these kinds of stories are back with gusto, and I suppose that my dual profession as a horror novelist (just one so far) and a (hopefully still respected) child psychiatrist has caused my patients and their parents to increasingly ask me: 

"Doctor, can you recommend a scary movie that is appropriate for my 11-year-old?"

Music to my ears!  But first, we gotta establish some rules:

An appropriate horror film for an 11-year-old must have the following components:

-Friendship.   Zombie movie enthusiasts like to point out that zombies are just the thing that happens.  It's what the humans do with each other that carry the story.  Every good Stephen King novel (and they're all pretty darn good) is really about friendship.  It takes friends to face down fear, so we'll start with friends as necessary to any storyline.

-Minimal to No Gore.  I don't mind gore, but gore only works if a person is developmentally comfortable with where their body ends and the external world begins.  On average, an 11-year-old is just mastering the soccer skills to fire the ball into the goal.  The monkey bars on the playground aren't really a distant memory.  Seeing bodies come apart like jigsaw puzzles feels more threatening if you are only now becoming comfortable that your body will behave.  So, in general no gore, but if you must have blood and guts, these tropes must never be gratuitous.  Bodily integrity must be maintained, and if it is to be interrupted it must feature prominently in the story.  Otherwise you lose your audience as anxiety comes to overpowers plot.

-Transgressions or Perceived Transgressions.  Remember that according to moral developmentalists like Kohlberg and his students, the brain of an 11-year-old is just wandering into the capacity to situationally appraise right versus wrong.  It can be uncomfortable for kids to veer from previously iron-clad rules, and the best horror films feature a clear element of choice: Do I leave the house against my parents' will or do I stay home?  Do I sneak into the amusement park after hours or do I get a hamburger with my buddies instead?  These seemingly dichotomous moments create tension, because the viewer both wants and advises against breaking the rules. 

-Supernatural Themes.  When you're 11, you're just starting to see the world as more dangerous than it ought to be. We don't need to scare our kids with real life stuff.  No slasher films.  Show me something made up, a ghoul or a spirit with nefarious intentions, and the movie is much more palatable to a younger audience.

And finally:

-Redemption.  This is a tough word to define, and roughly it conjures the notion of delivery, of being rescued.  When I talk about the redemptive nature of a good horror movie, I'm not thinking of the religious connotations of the word. Instead, I think a good scary movie for younger audiences always brings the protagonists to some kind of salvation, to a resolution for earlier mishaps.

So - we got the ground rules. 

1. No gore. 

2. Lots of friends. 

3. Stick to the supernatural

4. Transgress and Redeem

Given these rules, my recommendations, in no particular order, include:

1.     Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

This Disney gem starred Jason Robards and sticks very closely to the magic and nostalgia of the famous Ray Bradbury novel for which it is named.  Without giving too much away, the movie is a shoe-in for any son who has ever doubted his father's prowess and the corresponding strength of parental love.  But this movie ain't The Waltons - there are scenes scary enough to make you wet your pants.

2.     The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

Again based on a popular children's novel, this movie features a fantastical world of humorous, powerful, well-meaning and sometime evil creatures.   The struggles of these magical beings become a proxy throughout the movie for the tension that the children experience in the setting of their parents' unpleasant divorce.  The last scene, when the son must confront what just might be his estranged father, is one of the most frightening movie moments I've ever endured.  But the ending, the redemption, makes it all worthwhile.

3.     Monster House (2006)

This movie reminds me most of the scary movies of my youth.  Who didn't grow up near a spooky old house or building?  Who didn't pawn their fear off on the perceived oddness of the folks who reside in the spooky old house?  And, at the end of the day, you can't really beat an old fashioned haunted house - especially if the ghosts of the house must, in the end, be vanquished by equal parts grief and love.  Monster House is a lovely movie and deserves far more attention than it has received.

4.     Coraline (2009)

Neil Gaiman is a treasure.  Everything he writes has the uncanny knack for capturing our most primitive feelings intertwined with our most admirable attributes.  No one describes the imperfection of humanity as well as Gaiman, and the film version of Coraline is as beautiful to watch as it is frightening.  It also features probably the most chilling line in all of childhood literature - "Everyone has an other mother."  Add to that a talking cat, a creature hell bent on eating children's souls, and a child heroine who is more frightened of her own parents' indifference than of the ghouls in her closet, and you got plenty of grist for the psychological mill.

These are just a start.  Do folks know of others?  I'm always up for a good scare.  Just remember to watch these with your kids - you may need them to cover your eyes when you get frightened.       

 

 

 

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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