Movies and the Mind

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Fear of Flying Monkeys, Blobs, and Frankenweenie

Are frightening movie images good for kids?

Victor and Sparky from Frankenweenie

I recently read a short article “Making the Case for Scary Movies for Kids” in Entertainment Weekly by Anthony Breznican (in the October 26, 2012 issue). I found myself agreeing with the fundamental premise that scary movies can have positive benefits for kids at the same time I thought a couple of the observations were off-target.

Let me start with some personal memories. When I first saw The Wizard of Oz at the age of 5 or 6, I was creeped out by the flying monkeys, but the overall impact of the movie was strengthening and inspiring. My fear was worth the pay-off in this case. Around the same time, I also remember seeing a TV advertisement for an upcoming broadcast of The Blob, starring Steve McQueen. While the film is widely considered to be a campy parody of a horror film, my pre-school mind was terrified of the possibility of an oozing, man-eating blob of jelly. I had trouble sleeping for weeks. I don’t believe this particular exposure to a frightening image had any positive impact on my life. Breznican’s article concedes that not all frightening images are good for kids, citing The Exorcist and Saw as examples. I personally would add The Blob to the list.

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The idea that scary stories can be positive for kids has precedents among psychologists. The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim (in The Uses of Enchantment) has argued that classic fairy tales help children work through the intrapsychic turmoil of early childhood. Anxiety is part of life, and these stories can help you deal with it. Even if you don’t buy that, it is not difficult to see how certain lessons of resiliency and good judgment might be gleaned from stories like "Hansel & Gretel." From here, it is a short jump to viewing children’s movies as modern fairy tales.

In making his case however, Breznican makes what I consider to be a highly dubious cultural generalization—he believes modern parents are overprotective when it comes to media. He cites incidents of parents removing their children from frightening scenes in Frankenweenie as evidence for this overprotective impulse. In contrast, I would argue that our culture encourages kids to grow up too fast, and the constant exposure to developmentally-inappropriate media images is a significant part of the problem. My first job after graduating college was at a day program for kids with behavioral difficulties; I was shocked by conversations (often in between aggressive outbursts) among the 6-year-old boys about their favorite Friday the 13th movie. Somewhat less extreme, we can see the Twilight films, originally aimed at “young adults,” being voraciously consumed by the ‘tween’ market. Even the brilliant Pixar films (a gift to the current generation of kids and adults as far as I am concerned) are widely viewed by toddlers and pre-schoolers, despite frequently intense and scary images.

Breznican and many other parents claim that they do not worry much about media images because their kids know the difference between fiction and reality. I am skeptical however. I know children are often able to say they know the difference, but there is often a difference between what people can verbalize and what they can actually do.

To be honest, I don’t think adults are always able to clearly distinguish between reality and fiction, especially when it comes to moving images. In order to feel anything at all while watching a movie, we have to temporarily suspend disbelief and allow our selves to be immersed in the fictional world. Our brain functioning allows us to respond emotionally to a movie even though we know it is “only a movie.” Environmental stimuli associated with danger (loud noises, sudden movements, angry voices, etc.) tend to provoke primitive, emotional responses much faster than rational, reflective responses. This is because our brain processes information differently along at least two pathways: 1) rapidly, in the more spontaneous, primitive part of the brain (limbic system); and 2) slowly, in the more rational, advanced part of the brain (cerebral cortex). Therefore a realistic medium like film is particularly adept at stimulating emotional response. A good movie feels real even when we know it is not real.

Try to think of a movie that had a strong emotional response on you as an adult, perhaps a horror film or a violent crime thriller. Think of your efforts to tell yourself that the movie was not real in order to settle your nerves or get rid of a particularly disturbing image. You were probably eventually successful, but my guess is that it took you a great deal of time and conscious effort.

Now imagine yourself at age 10 (or 7 or 3) confronted by a scary image. Your sense of self and your reasoning abilities are only a pale reflection of what they will be as an adult. How is your still-developing mental system going to defend itself from this threat if, at the emotional level, even adults have a hard time telling the difference between fiction and reality? After the movie is over, you know that it isn’t real because your parents tell you it isn’t real, but is that what your gut really believes as you stare into the dark of your bedroom?

Where is the line between the stories and images that challenge our kids in a developmentally appropriate way (like the flying monkeys) and the stories and images that overwhelm and leave kids distressed or numb (like me & the blob)? It is an incredibly difficult question, but isn’t it wiser to be err on the side of being a little over-protective as opposed to erring in the other direction?

[Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770]

 

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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