How come children’s horror movies aren’t scary any more?

Overly sanitised film like Goosebumps are depriving younger viewers of formative moviegoing experiences.

Words

Nick Chen

Based on RL Stine’s bloodcurdling book series, the new Goosebumps movie is a CGI-heavy children’s horror that’s devoid of actual scares. According to the BBFC, edits were made in post-production to bring the 12A certificate down to a PG, which raises the question of whether this big-screen adaptation intended to be frightening in the first place. That said, should a film like Goosebumps be scary? And if not, then what’s the point of children’s horror movies?

It used to be common for family films to tap into our greatest fears. Take Home Alone, with its home-invasion storyline that speaks directly to children’s (and adults’) very real anxieties concerning burglars and being abandoned – there’s even a tarantula to freak out the arachnophobes. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang brought us the Child Catcher, a grotesque kidnapper whose nose sniffs out children hiding beneath the floorboards; his interrogation of a protective toyshop owner is a precursor to Christoph Waltz’s Jew hunter in Inglourious Basterds.

Watership Down is a rite-of-passage movie that teaches us about death and grief. Likewise, Anjelica Huston peeling off her skin in The Witches is a macabre image seared into the minds of cinemagoers of a certain age. Then there’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which traumatised me as a six-year-old (I only recently learned that the contest winners don’t die one by one, and that my crippling fear of the Oompa Loompas was misplaced.)

Though not strictly horror movies, these pre-adolescent staples are still popular babysitting tools because they stick to a child’s perspective. Because being a kid and exploring the world is daunting and unavoidably scary. By contrast, contemporary kids’ movies that contain strong fantasy and horror elements – from Night at the Museum to Goosebumps – are mellow, with a greater emphasis placed on humour. The relatable good guys are Jack Black and Ben Stiller, sharp comedians equipped with enough one-liners to combat any brush with death; the children hiding behind them more often than not sarcastic know-it-alls.

Does the problem stem from censorship itself? In Goosebumps, a police officer goes berserk when mistaking an “audiophile” for a “paedophile”, a scene which suggests that the BBFC are more forgiving of adult innuendo than the sight of blood or a half-decent jump scare. Given that every few months a news story emerges about a cinema accidentally playing something like The Conjuring instead of Frozen, typically accompanied by furious statements from aggrieved customers, it’s perhaps understandable that parents are protective when it comes to choosing what to allow their little’uns to watch.

Still, it does seem that ratings boards are to blame for wrapping young viewers in cotton wool. Could someone like Guillermo del Toro be a potential saviour of kids’ horror? The Mexican director recently tweeted that he’s developing a film based on the children’s book series ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, although both rated 15, are immersed in the sense of trepidation that comes with being a specific age: young enough to believe in twisted fairytales, but with enough life experience to separate fantasy from the real world. A family-friendly solution, if masterminded, would prove that children’s horror movies can still be terrifying and relevant to the complexities of growing up.

In the right context, it’s perfectly healthy for young viewers to feel fear once in a while – yet increasingly it feels as if PG movies like Goosebumps are being marketed at parents who don’t want to suddenly find their kids sleeping with the lights on. Children’s horror movies don’t have to send chills down the spine to serve a purpose, but a few postmodern twists and a generous dose of humour is a poor substitute for real dramatic tension. If this sanitisation continues, future generations will never get to experience the thrill of being shaken and unsettled by a movie, which is surely key to the emotional development of any young viewer. Now that’s a truly terrifying thought.

Published 3 Feb 2016

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