Columns > Published on July 25th, 2016

Storyville: Introducing Your Children to Horror

I’ve been a fan of dark fiction for as long as I can remember, so when the day came that I had children of my own (twins actually, a boy and a girl) I knew it was only a matter of time before they started asking about my work, reading and writing, and seeking out dark fiction, horror especially. Here are some ideas on how you can turn your kids on to horror without scarring them for life.

GENERAL SUGGESTIONS

I just wanted to toss a few things out there right away, then I’ll get into specific books and films that I think can be powerful experiences for you, and your children.

•  Always be conscious of the appropriate age you’re reading or watching for. Do a bit of research. I was surprised to see the cursing and sexuality in several books and films, even though the movies were only PG-13 (or even PG!). When it comes to books, either re-read or look online to see what the consensus is. Did you forget that molestation scene? The dead dog? The naked body in the bathtub? I still can’t believe Stand By Me is Rated-R, that was a shocker. And yet, The Matrix (also Rated-R) is very tame.

What has been seen can’t be unseen, right? Take it slow, and always respect the feelings and emotions of your kids

•  Sometimes it’s the strangest things that can scare the living daylights out of your kids. There was a moment I didn’t anticipate in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the “Large Marge” scene that made my son cry and leave the viewing. Did NOT see that coming. Be aware of certain fears your kids may have, too—ghosts, dolls, clowns, strangers, shadows, zombies, etc. Or you may end up with them in your bed.

•  Respect it when they say “NO” and wait for the right opportunity. It may seem like a film that would be a big “YES” but don’t push the movie, or the book, if they don’t like the trailer or the first few pages. It’s okay, you can always revisit them later.

•  With YA, do your research as well. There is some DARK stuff out there in YA land that really surprised me. Talk to your local librarian, and get to know them, and they’ll help steer you toward books that are appropriate, and away from titles that may be surprisingly violent or sexual.

•  When it comes to comics and graphic novels, take a moment to flip through them, as there may be violence or sex that you forgot about, or it may be portrayed in ways that is particularly offensive (or, the opposite, tasteful and lacking in blood and suggestion). Easy to flip though and make sure.

STARTING EARLY

One of the first books that really scared me was Where the Wild Things Are. I think this is a great book for really young kids, but ease into it slowly. Be aware of how your children are reacting and if they’re okay, proceed. For me, there were certain creatures that bothered me, and others that didn’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the strange combination of rooster and claws, or the long line of teeth paired with horns—suggesting something demonic. Beyond that, it was the idea that reality could slip away. I was both fascinated by it, and terrified by it. What makes this a fun ride, and a positive experience, I think, is how it ends. Max returns home, and the jungle fades away, and he has dinner—he is home safe and sound. And hungry. That’s a nice full circle, the loop closed, the reader (and child) not left to worry about the monster, the tension that was created, eventually released. You get off the rollercoaster, and sleep in your own bed.

Also try the Goosebumps series, both of my kids enjoyed the books. And I think A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is also a good early series to get into.

And then there are the Disney movies. When it comes to live action movies, I can remember watching Old Yeller on television, and it was very upsetting. It’s not the horror of a monster, but the horror of having to kill your own dog. To be honest, it’s a film I still haven’t shown my children, partly because I kind of want them to hold on to their innocence as long as possible, and this seems like such a brutal thing to do—shoot your own dog. But there you have it—the horror of man. But what I’m really thinking about are the first animated movies we see as kids. I’m willing to bet that a large number of you cried when you watched Bambi for the first time, terrified of the fire, and the death of his mother, even intimidated by the father. It’s a fairly safe place to start, especially when mixed in with other lighter Disney fare. How many of you were scared by Sleeping Beauty? I can remember seeing that witch turn into the dragon and man that was a powerful visual. For such a young kid, that was as dark and foreboding as the shadow of the demon at the end of The Exorcist would be many years later.

Another classic is King Kong. Man, did we all cry at the end of that. And I’m talking about the original here. And who doesn’t remember that scene with the dinosaur, the T-Rex, the violence in that death. My kids bawled their eyes out, so while I avoided Old Yeller, I didn’t anticipate this one being so powerful. It’s the emotion of the beast, only wanting to protect his girl, the airplanes, the way they trapped him and made him perform, it’s all so unfair. Prepare the Kleenex.

EXPANDING THE DARKNESS

As your kids get a little older, and start to get bored with Disney animated movies and the kid’s section of the library, they’re going to start looking at PG and PG-13 movies, as well as YA (and adult) titles. Where can you go next?

One graphic novel that I liked a lot was Coraline. It’s a pretty dark little comic, but my kids love it, and it didn’t leave them with nightmares. The black eyes, be careful with those, for some it’s a bit much.

And the books! Man, is YA getting dark these days. Unwind by Neal Shusterman, for example (and the Unwind Dystology). And his Skinjacker Trilogy (Everlost, Everwild, Everfound). Wow. I mean, I kept asking my son about these, and they sounded so dark. Harvesting bodies, caught in a limbo between life and death…yeah, pretty intense. If you’re kids are up for it, these are some powerful books. Before they get into Stephen King, this may be a good place to visit. He just won the National Book Award for YA, so you know he’s doing some good work.

When it comes to storytelling, a good place to go is the Harry Potter series—both the books and the films. I recommend them both. The books have much more detail, but the films are really fun to watch. They don’t have excessive violence, very little if any blood, more about the fantasy, and politics, and culture of Hogwarts. The movies are all PG or PG-13, so they’re pretty safe.

For some other fun horror films, be sure to check out the work of Tim Burton. For animated films you have Frankenweenie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, 9, and Corpse Bride; for live action, be sure to watch Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Those are my favorites. He manages to be weird, funny, and dark without being a one note director and/or producer, embracing the humor, romance, and sentiment that makes for great storytelling.  These are all pretty safe places to hang out. Also try Gremlins (which can be surprisingly tense at times) and Ghostbusters (which is mostly funny, with some adult humor).

Also, depending on how your kids can handle the weird, try the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. We LOVED Howl's Moving Castle especially, as well as My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo. He's really more "weird" than horrific, but he does go to some pretty strange and unsettling places.

APPROACHING ADULTHOOD

My twins are only twelve, so as they get closer and closer to 13, the R-Rated films still a ways ahead, the work they are able to read and watch continues to expand.

Stephen King. I mean, you know we had to get here eventually. I’ve only allowed my kids to read a few of his books, but they have been so eager to read him, I had to let them, eventually. We focused on pretty tame titles—The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (the bear made of bees still a tense moment), The Green Mile (one scene with Coffey holding the dead girl is a bit intense), The Cycle of the Werewolf, and The Eyes of the Dragon (more fantasy than horror) all being fairly safe. My son DID read The Talisman, it was a book that many parents suggested when I went online, and there was only a bit of darkness at the home for wayward boys, some scenes where I think (if memory serves me) a man pursued some kids, but nothing happened. But I’d save that until your kids have read a few King titles.

We’ve only watched a few classic horror films, the most recent being Poltergeist. For the most part, my son was totally okay with the movie, but my daughter didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So, this is where I listened and I didn’t try to talk her into it. There were some jump scares—the tree, the storm, stuff like that—but it was only the clown doll at the end that really got to my boy, and even that wasn’t too big of a deal. He handled it fine.

THE FUTURE

There are a lot of scary movies that aren’t Rated-R that I can’t wait to watch with my kids. So many great books, I mean, I can’t even begin to list them—King alone good for probably 30-40 titles. Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, Neil Gaiman, and on and on. Growing up I remember Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, The Omen, Amityville Horror, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th. I wonder if they’ll all hold up. And those are still probably some of the “tame” titles, not even pushing into the really freaky stuff. The bottom line here is to be careful—what has been seen, can’t be unseen, right? Take it slow, and always respect the feelings and emotions of your kids. If you do, then you may find that you will have a lifetime of books and films to share with them—and that’s a pretty exciting idea.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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