When Can I Watch Horror Movies with My Kids?

I grew up on horror movies. 

It wasn’t supposed to start that way. While kids my age were throwing baseballs or shooting hoops at a neighborhood park, I was feeding my insatiable craving for film. I barely differentiated between genres at the time. Whatever caught my eye on a VHS cover box went into my mental queue. 

Then I met Lisa, the older, Italian lady who’d eventually became my "pusher." Lisa looked like a gypsy. Chatty and warm, she worked what appeared to be a 24-hour shift at our town’s mom-and-pop video store. As often as possible, I’d bike to the video store and receive a stack of tapes from Lisa… my homework. 

In the beginning, she’d shuffle the cards: Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Robert Altman’s Nashville, Scott Baio’s Zapped!, Cloak & Dagger and Rosemary’s Baby could be in a given "assignment." I devoured them all.  

In time, Lisa shifted over to a steady diet of horror. I can’t swear the original Nightmare on Elm Street served as the prologue to my intense study of the horror genre, but Wes Craven’s titillating teen slasher and its immediate sequels certainly stand out as an early, influential intro to the horror genre. I think I was in fifth grade, maybe sixth. For sure, by eighth grade, I was subscribing to Fangoria and handing in projects on monster-movie makeup techniques to my elementary school teachers. Looking back, my horror-movie education started around the time I turned 10.

Here’s the rub: I have an eight-year-old son who turns nine in February, and I can’t imagine sitting him down for a Friday the 13th movie or Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. The idea of him seeing Leatherface hang a woman on a meat hook makes my stomach churn. What the hell happened? Doesn’t that make me a huge hypocrite? If I could handle it then, why can’t he (in about two years)? 

As we prepare to send our kids into the streets in ghoulish, blood-soaked costumes to collect Halloween candy this week, I wanted to take a different approach to the regular When Can I Watch column. I wanted to remove the usual structure of the feature and open the discussion up to you, the reader, to weigh in on sharing horror films with our kids. I ran a few questions past friends and colleagues who either have kids, are experts in the horror genre, or are lucky enough to fall into both categories. The genre’s undoubtedly inventive, and there are stories that deserve to be shared. But when? It’s a question we’re always trying to figure out in this (hopefully) interactive column. What are your thoughts? 

For instance, is horror really that taboo? Kristy Puchko, film critic and horror aficionado, told me she thinks horror movies are thought of as taboo because parents ultimately feel it’s their responsibility to protect their kids from anything negative, including being terrified by something they see on a TV or movie screen. 

“But being scared is an unavoidable part of being a kid, and horror stories can at least give kids a place to explore and express it in a safe environment,” Puchko said. “And besides, kids thirst for it. That's why the Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark [book series] are so fondly remembered.”

Like me, Puchko watched horror as a kid, and says she remembers bonding with older kids over gory movies that they’d been able to see. 

“I still fondly remember sitting down surrounded by the engaged kids and screaming and jumping as a group. It was a blast,” she says. “Horror is a great genre for group dynamic, and kids definitely want to be a part of that.”

The communal aspect of movie-watching is vital. And there absolutely are varying degrees of horror. We’ve covered what I consider to be relatively safe monster movies in the When Can I Watch column before, from Gremlins and The Monster Squad to animated efforts like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie

Sam Shapiro is the film curator for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, an instructor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as well as a bona fide horror junkie. Coveting his insight as both a parent and an expert, I asked about his plans to share films from the genre with his daughter, Nora, a third grader. 

“I took [her] to see Frankenweenie yesterday afternoon, and I even thought that film was a bit too intense and disturbing for children,” Shapiro said.

He then recounted a story that’s familiar to most of us: As a kid, his mom took him to a drive-In double feature of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds

“I emerged from the experience just fine, with nary a bad dream. In fact, the experience only solidified my growing love for cinema, as well as my interest in supernatural literature. 

"But here is the important point --- my Mom would never have even CONSIDERED taking me to this double bill if she had not already known that her son would not only come out of this experience just fine, but that he might furthermore be inspired to seek out more great films,” Shapiro continued. “She was, in fact, simply nurturing his already-developing affection for films and horror literature. And it worked! … However, the very idea of taking Nora to those same two movies three years from now is preposterous. I would never even consider it -- not in my wildest dreams!”

There it is: The dreaded double standard of parenting. Do as I advise, not as I actually did at your age.  

Maybe we’re more concerned these days because horror has taken a deranged turn in recent years. The genre’s populated with sadistic exercises like the various Saw movies, the Hostel films and The Human Centipede. Naturally, filmmakers continue to push the envelope to shock and frighten the audience, but we’ve come a long way from the cheeky Freddy Kruger, and I’m not sure that’s the best thing. 

Earlier this year, the winning Cabin in the Woods put us back on a welcome track, using the clichés of the horror genre to remind us that’s it’s OK to laugh as we jump in our seats. And really, isn’t that part of the point? Puchko feels it’s important to keep it “entertaining and fun” when allowing yourself to be terrified by a movie. 

“When it comes to my younger relatives, I typically run down with them what's the premise, and then sit close by so that we're together on this as we watch,” she said. “I find that they enjoy it more when they can see I get scared, too.” 

Watching things together – a constant theme of the When Can I Watch column. Sharing in an experience, talking and laughing your way through it. It’s why movies exist, to bring us together in a timeless tradition of storytelling, just through a cutting-edge medium. 

As with anything else, sharing certain movies will be right for one kid and a horrible idea for another kid. Parents, no one knows your child better than you do. But I’m genuinely curious: When did you guys start sharing horror movies with your kids? If your kids are still young, when might you begin watching them together? And what movies do you think you’ll start with? Please use the comments section below!

  

If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.

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