We took our Twelve Year Old to see the new Pet Sematary, and that’s okay…for her.

Obviously, this is a bit of a tricky subject. There are probably a lot of people out there who will think twelve is too young for horror and we should be more careful in what we watch with her. Ironically, there are probably an equal number of people who think we’re too restrictive, because while we’ve introduced her to some horror, we wait till she’s in bed to watch The Walking Dead

I can hear the argument engines revving, so I’m going to start this post off right away with a few caveats:

  • Horror is not appropriate for all kids: Some people get scared easily. Some people don’t like being scared. You know your kid; make choices accordingly.
  • Not all horror is okay for kids: Horror is a broad and varied genre, and while I’ll argue below that sometimes it’s good to feel a little disturbed (what’s the point of horror if not to make us question society and ourselves), it’s not okay to feel damaged.
  • Watch with her vs. Let her watch.  We don’t “let” her watch horror. We watch it with her. We choose movies we think she’ll enjoy, and we watch them together, as a family. We talk about what’s going on, both from a character/society point of view, and from a narrative/structure/art point of view.

Why we decided to introduce our daughter to horror

One of the things all parents learn very quickly (I hope) is that their kids are not them. While Little Person (a bit of a misnomer, given that at twelve she’s at least three inches taller than me) shares traits with both of us, she is also decidedly her own person. And like all parents, Dan and I have had to adjust our parenting on the fly to accommodate those differences and meet her needs.

When I was growing up, the house rules around books and TV were pretty simple. If I could read it, I could read it, but Mom and Dad got final say on the TV. That meant that horror was not something I was exposed to until I was an adolescent, and that worked out pretty well for me. I’m one of those people who has come to appreciate the genre as an adult. As a pre-teen/teen on the other hand, I DID NOT LIKE being scared. I tried…I really did (my birthday parties between the ages of 13 and 15, which featured The Blob, Poltergeist, and Child’s play — with predictable results — can attest to that), but I got scared easily, and when I did, the fear stuck around for a long time. Slimer from Ghostbusters gave me nightmares, and Evil Dead (which I watched while sleeping over at a friend’s house) terrified the crud out of me. It was literally months before I could go for a hike in the woods without being scared to tears. Even the idea of being scared, scared me. I once brought home a copy of Pet Sematary from the public library and was so freaked out by the picture of the cat on the cover that I hid it under a pile of laundry till I could take it back, unread. It wasn’t till I discovered the Monster Panic sub-genre that I began to develop a taste for horror, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Tremors.

I began my adult life with the assumption that this kind of stuff was just too scary for kids. I remember being incensed at parents who took their eight year olds to see Jurassic Park. That movie made me jump (Raptors, like Aliens — and zombies — are uniquely terrifying. Something about the way they can navigate human environments). If it scared me, I thought, how could a kid handle it? I was NOT, I told myself, going to be one of those parents.

As she grew older, however, Little Person began to develop a taste for being scared that far exceeded my childhood tolerance. The turning point came when she was around six, and Dan took her to a live-action haunted house put on jointly by The Haunted Walk and Ottawa’s Diefenbunker Museum. She loved it. She loved it so much that when the call came for zombie volunteers the next year, she asked us if we could sign up. Turns out, kid’s good at being scary!

Little Person became the poster-child for the “Incident at the Bunker”
Little Person in action as a zombie.

Five years later, we’re still volunteering, and being behind the scenes in a haunted house has gotten her interested in the anatomy of horror. How can light, pacing, music and sound (or the lack thereof) be used to create tension and fear? How do jump-scares work? Etc., etc., etc..

Slightly older, but still rocking the creepy vibe.

That interest, combined with her emotional maturity and advanced reading level, led us to reconsider our stance on horror for kids. I had to eat my pre-child words (as most parents do) regarding Jurassic Park; she loves those movies, and they never scared her, although Jurassic World made her cry.

We began to gradually introduce the scary stuff we enjoyed, starting with horror themed board games (Arkham Horror and Zombicide) and Monster Panic movies.  Over the last year, we’ve moved into gothic horror, supernatural horror, and *some* zombie movies. She asked me to recommend some books, so I started her off with Stephen King’s “The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon”.

Our family ground rules for movies are as follows:

  • She doesn’t watch anything she hasn’t seen before without talking to us first. Dan and I will often pre-screen new movies to see what we think. If we say “no”, she knows it’s not arbitrary, and it’s not “no” forever. In terms of The Walking Dead, we’ve told her we’d talk about it when she turns fourteen. That’s not so far away, in the grand scheme of things.
  • Nothing with graphic violence (Although campy a la Army of Darkness is ok)
  • Nothing with sexual violence
  • When she watches movies with her friends at our house, it has to be something her friend’s parents are okay with. These are things I ask when meeting other parents. Right now she has one friend whose folks are okay with horror, and a number whose parents are not. That’s cool with us.

Long story short, every child is unique, and as a parent, you need to know your child. If they get frightened easily, are prone to nightmares, or — like adolescent me — have trouble letting go of fear …maybe horror isn’t for them. And that’s fine.

If, on the other hand, they like that shiver-down-the-spine feeling, love ghost and monster stories, and think Halloween is the best holiday ever (and not just for the candy), it may be time to explore some spookier fare.

How Horror can provide teachable moments

Horror can be supernatural or mundane, and can span the gamut from psychological thrillers that terrify while showing nothing at all to all-out gore-fests. What it all has in common is that horror as a genre is often about things that make us uncomfortable both personally and socially. Good horror asks the hard questions and (hopefully) makes us question ourselves and our assumptions. What is it like to be different, or alone, or trapped, or invaded, or powerless? What happens when society breaks down? How will people behave? What does it mean to be human…or not human?

Watching or reading horror with your kids can offer a lot of “teachable moments”, from the generic:

  • What should so-and-so have really done?
  • What would you do, if…?

To the social:

  • What social narratives about women do classic slasher movies often reinforce?
  • What are the common tropes in Monster Panic/Disaster movies, and what cultural narratives do they reinforce?
  • What does a movie like Get Out tell us about the experience of being black in in America?

Please DO watch movies that expose and subvert tropes and narratives, like Cabin in the Woods.  Stephen King’s novels are also a good place to begin conversations about gender stereotypes and domestic violence, as he often explores the terror inherent in being female or a child in a misogynistic society.

To the very personal:

  • Why does this scare me?
  • Why does this make me uncomfortable?
  • What does that say about the narratives I tell myself?

Needless to say, talking about horror provides way better opportunities for positive life lessons than a lot of other stuff out there aimed at young adults, particularly the stuff aimed at girls.

Horror books/movies that we’ve shared with Little Person (but may or may not be okay for other kids)

Caveats: I’ve put a * beside the ones that I’d hesitate on, with other kids her age who aren’t her. And, as usual with my lists, this is probably far from inclusive!

Books

  • Doll Bones by Holly Black
  • The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • It by Stephen King*
  • The Shining by Stephen King*
  • Cujo by Stephen King*
  • The Relic and Reliquary by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child*
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Movies

  • Monster Squad
  • The Watcher in the Woods
  • Tremors (1-6)
  • Sleepy Hollow
  • Congo
  • Deep Rising
  • Anaconda & Anacondas (some sexuality, but not much)
  • Jaws (1&2)
  • Signs
  • Odd Thomas
  • The Cave
  • The Village
  • Lake Placid
  • Grabbers* (not super scary but does involve a lot of alcohol)
  • Night of the  Living Dead (1968 and 1990)*
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)*
  • Day of the Dead (1985)*
  • Land of the Dead (2005)*
  • Cell*
  • The Relic* (The book is better!)
  • Zombieland*
  • Sean of the Dead*
  • Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies*
  • The Shining (1980 Kubrick version and 1997 miniseries)*
  • It (1990 miniseries and 2017 movie)*
  • The Stand*
  • Pitch Black*
  • Resident Evil (all)*
  • Underworld (all)*
  • Predator (1&2)*
  • Sweeny Todd*
  • Cabin in the Woods*
  • A Quiet Place*
  • The Woman in Black*
  • Crimson Peak*
  • Pet Sematary (1989 & 2019)*

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