Young horror fanatics are a malnourished kind — there is little out there to satisfy their thirst for thrills. It's not a surprise since most children are raised to believe that horror is a harmful and taboo genre, leaving them estranged from it for the better part of their lives until they are old enough to come to their own conclusions.
While there are children's films that attempt to pander to a darkly inclined audience, there are few that fall comfortably under the #horror umbrella without defacing the genre. Most dilute it with comedy or dumb down the concepts so much that they become painfully patronizing, yet the scarier elements are arguably more beneficial to a child's mental development. So, isn't it about time that children's films spook things up and embrace their audience of creepy kids?
The Fright Way
Although seemingly few and far between, there are actually some examples of films and television shows that do get it right. There is often debate over what qualifies as a horror and whether or not it is specifically aimed at children, but some manage to fall comfortably into both categories and do so without defacing or belittling either one.
Coraline (2009) is a brilliant example of such a film, and even manages to leave older viewers feeling unsettled. The Burton-esque animation is largely responsible for this, as its almost-but-not-quite-human quality allows it to slip into the same "uncanny valley" region from where the fear of clowns derives.
The original Goosebumps television series that was adapted from the popular R.L. Stine books, which ran between 1995 and 1998, is another one to note. It dabbles with concepts that most children's horrors shy away from and it does so in a way that young people are able to relate to, using characters that resemble the average kid and situations that reflect the everyday. Unfortunately, these are just a few decent exceptions in the otherwise barren realm of children's horror.
Fools Over Ghouls
A more common yet far less favorable method of appealing to the creepy kid is to take a horror concept and water it down so much that it resembles a completely different genre. The aforementioned Goosebumps series, for example, was remade in 2016 and condensed into a 103-minute-long feature film starring the king of comedy himself, Jack Black. While the film is fun and family-friendly, it is slightly insulting to class it as horror. The comparison between the film and its novel/television series counterparts highlights the difference a couple of decades can make. Namely, as horror has gotten more extreme, children's horror seems to have gone back on itself.
Even Scooby Doo, a show that had always found that perfect balance between light and dark themes, has drifted further and further away from its spooky start with each incarnation. If you compare the original Scooby Doo, Where Are You? series with the more recent Be Cool, Scooby Doo, you see that the latter is a lot less mature and makes no attempt to home in on the darker elements for which Scooby Doo is famous. Instead, it incorporates the nonsensical wackiness showcased by other contemporary kids' shows and little of the comical wit of its predecessor. While it could simply be a means of playing to a style that is currently popular, it makes for very little variety in the sphere of children's film and television and deprives children of the spookiness enjoyed by previous generations.
Shedding The Stigma
There are existing theories that suggest that exposure to horror films could actually be beneficial for a child's mental development. According to psychologist Carl Jung's "Shadow Archetype" theory, children are able to explore the darker tendencies of human nature through horror films without it effecting their wider social lives. It has also been suggested that viewing such films could help boost a child's confidence.
Often, fears are adopted from our social surroundings, so if a child sees their parent reacting negatively to something, they will learn to mimic that behavior. If people are gradually introduced to scarier concepts throughout their childhood, they would likely grow to be less fearful in adulthood.
Aside from that, horror is a wonderful genre that is often regrettably demonized in the minds of children. There is a huge demographic for kid's horror, but with a lack of material out there to sustain it, many young people turn to the internet in order to get their fix, which is more accessible and often much scarier than films intended for adults. Perhaps this is also partially the reason why audiences are becoming more and more desensitized in general. If children's films could be more welcoming of the horror genre, perhaps we would gradually start to see it shed its unwarranted stigma.
Horror films don't always have to splash out the guts and gore in order to be scary, and children's films don't need to use strained humor and belittling concepts in order to appeal to their audience. As proven by movies like Coraline, films are more than capable of embracing the creepy kid without defacing an entire genre. Perhaps it is time that they took it a step further and started toying with even darker themes.
Do you agree that children's horror should embrace darker themes, or do you think that an element of comedy is more appropriate?