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Why Are More Kids Watching Horror Films?

This may tell us something about their fears.

Key points

  • There is evidence that more kids are watching horror films.
  • Kids are increasingly worried about their future.
  • We can use horror films to better understand and address the fundamental anxieties of our youth.

I’m a child psychiatrist and lately, I’ve noticed a clear uptick in the number of kids who seem to find solace in horror movies. There is evidence supporting this observation that the average age of horror audiences is younger than the overall moviegoing crowd. Because I’m a consult-liaison psychiatrist, these children and adolescents don’t really know me the way a long-term patient could. When we meet, they are unlikely to know of my love for this genre.

My job is to see these kids when they come into the hospital, and more and more, these kids volunteer their love of and willingness to talk about horror without my even asking them about the kind of media they consume. When I do ask, I never ask, “Do you like horror films?” I just ask what kinds of movies, shows, or internet content they prefer, and I’m certain there are more saying horror now than at any other time in my career.

That these kids mention horror more often might be the result of the increasing acceptance of the genre. It also might be related to the ample availability of streaming media. Why are kids turning to horror films more than they used to?

Let’s start by looking at the state of modern horror films. There's no doubt that these stories are enjoying a resurgence, and most agree that this resurgence is related to the breadth of the genre itself. Horror films can be impressively timeless and uncomfortably timely. Their prescience is often unrivaled. The boldness and breadth of the narratives of horror stretch wider and more daringly than any other genre of onscreen storytelling.

These films can be transgressive or conforming. They can be gory or show not even an ounce of gore. Horror films make taboos understandable and make that which is, on the surface, totally acceptable and uncomfortably taboo. Find me another genre with this kind of versatility.

Two currently entirely different films–The Banshees of Inisherin and Barbarian – have both been referred to as horror. One is a dark tragicomedy about friendship, and the other is a gonzo nightmare of the strange way we wander willingly into other people’s houses as part of the Airbnb revolution. Two films, on their surface, could not be more different, but they still conjure the word “horror” in critics’ analyses. What, then, do these films have in common?

Both stories ask us to ponder puzzling and troubling predicaments that humanity conjures over and over again. Given how many different kinds of horror exist, it’s no wonder that people have a hard time defining the genre itself. Part of this is related to our cultural tendencies to remove stories from the horror category when these films are considered sophisticated or nuanced. Calling a good film a horror film has only recently oozed into our accepted cultural sensibilities.

I’ve been celebrating this genre for a while. I’ve spoken at academic and non-academic gatherings about the power of this kind of storytelling. I’ve written two horror novels and had the opportunity to meet with horror film directors. I guess I’m saying all of this to establish my horror chops (so to speak), and that’s because I’d like to make a few observations.

If you want to know when to worry, pay attention to the horror films that grab you. These movies make their point by depicting extreme versions of where we might already be heading. We know this from climate horror films like The Road and The Last Winter, and we know this from historical horror films like The Witch and Black Death. We worry about our political future as we watch each of The Purge movies, and we nervously contemplate issues of consent in intimate relationships with illuminating films like It Follows and Ginger Snaps.

I know there are readers who might disagree that each of these films is a horror film or that these films conjure the anxieties I am suggesting. But that disagreement also proves my point. This genre is uniquely personal and simultaneously communal. We would do well to talk more with each other about horror films. We’ll discover where we agree and where we disagree, and then we can perhaps better work out our differences.

Horror films depict the leaden weight of despair. They are grim and pessimistic and show us the most unsettling aspects of human nature. But most importantly, horror films are about helplessness. It’s no secret that kids are feeling pretty helpless these days. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that kids are turning to horror because they see in this genre their fears of a foreshortened or at least a rapidly worsening future.

The world seems increasingly hostile. Adults can’t seem to stop arguing and even fighting, social media is filled with shame and doom, and we flit from one disaster to the next with an almost glib acceptance. It’s no wonder horror resonates with kids. What they’re facing seems potentially genuinely horrible.

But none of this means that we should run from these discussions. We owe it to children and adolescents to listen to their likes and dislikes and to ask questions about why they feel what they feel. Even more importantly, we owe it to them to make the world better.

Our casual acceptance of the status quo is truly horrifying to most of the kids I meet, and it ought also to be a lot more horrifying to the adults who are running the world. Horror is, after all, a genre that is ultimately and most poignantly about what not to do.

If kids like and embrace horror more now than they used to, then that affinity should be our wake-up call. I don’t think it’s these movies that are affecting our youth. I think these movies reflect our youth. The kids are not alright, and we have the movies to prove it.