“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The famous words of FDR could not hold more true. Fear is the monster we need fear the most, not some guy in a hockey mask or a razor-clawed haunter of nightmares, but rather the act of fear itself; for fear is what keeps us awake in the night, tossing and turning, and weeping with the lights on. Also, it seems pretty obvious that Roosevelt never saw The Shining.
Fear, however, does not have to be the thing we, um, fear. It can be fun, exciting and, in the case of young children still developing their sense of self-awareness and a feel for the world, it can be downright necessary. Fear is educational.
How’s that, you ask? How is scaring a kid a learning experience?
To be clear, I am not suggesting we (parents, educators and other fairly responsible adults hereafter referred to as "society") should try to scare children, rather we allow them to deal with it when it presents itself in an environment that we can control. I’m talking about the movies.
All too often we read Facebook updates, tweets and blog posts from parents who cannot believe the darkness of this family movie or that—it's actually quite impressive that they are able to type through the anger, what with the pitchforks and the torches and the signs they made.
"It’s too scary," they yell in all caps, and to be fair they might be right. Some family movies may very well be too scary for some children, and that’s fine. Things are scary and kids vary. It happens.
However, this is a tale as old as time, and from the first bite of a poisoned apple to cursed pirates, angry aliens and the sullen souring of once-kind souls, storytellers in the family-film industry have long been at the forefront of scaring audiences—for they know as well as anyone that fear itself is a thing worth fearing.
It is my opinion that children need to develop an understanding for the emotions that come with fear just as much as they need to feel the pangs of anger, humor, love and sadness. Life is not always a whistle away from a dance number, and they should know that bad things happen, and that there is strength in facing their fear.
That is not to say that I promote scares and tears, in fact, it is well-known that I tend to prefer the sounds of laughter, but at the same time I believe I am doing my children a disservice should we avoid the dark arts altogether. Ask Dumbledore. He got it.
My wife and I are raising two young boys fueled by imagination and emotion—to the extent that I sometimes worry about the innocence that they carry. Also, covet it.
They are both bright kids, but they often seem sensitive and socially naive compared to others in their respective grades, and while this was brought about through careful intent—a constructed world to cherish childhood to the fullest for as long as humanly possible—it is also cause for concern. Are they too soft for a world so hard? Are they too sheltered and unprepared? Are we doing it right? Is anyone?
Which is why I am thankful for the safety of cinematic scares. Sure, I could just as easily turn on the news or hand them a paper, but life doesn’t offer a lot of nets, and I like to do so when I have one.
Scary movies are contained and controllable, and unlike the moments that surely lie ahead, they offer a fear that we can explain, discuss and, if absolutely necessary, run from.
As a parent I appreciate the opportunity to address such topics in a manufactured and clearly fictionalized environment. Kids need to know what fear feels like, if even for a safe, small moment, and I would much rather they first recognize it while holding my hand in a quiet theater than someplace lonely and lacking in comparisons, contrast and overpriced popcorn.
Experience with fear now will only serve children better when they face the real thing. It is one more layer in the protections that we give them, and there is nothing scary about that.
Just don’t take them to see The Shining.