Are You Ever Too Young for Horror?
It may be frowned upon, but horror works best on impressionable young minds…
While there are undoubtedly people who come to it late, watching and appreciating film is, more often than not, a passion forged in the flames of youth. Whether as a result of a particular character or movie, it’s usually during childhood that interest is sparked and we take our first steps on a journey of viewing, analysing, comparing, and enjoying films.
Maybe it’s down to having a more naïve outlook. Perhaps it’s down to having a more active imagination. We all have memories of creating worlds of play and exploration in our minds, and anyone with young kids will agree this trait is still alive and well in the youth of today. It may even be a greater sense of empathy and an ability to identify with a story’s protagonists before we become world-weary and cynical. The more you see yourself in a character, the more you invest in them, and the more you allow yourself to believe that what you are seeing is — or could — be real.
Whatever the reason, seeing films as a kid is a different beast compared to being an adult. There’s just something special about the experience which provokes emotions and creates memories that can last a lifetime.
But there’s an even more specific and dubious delight to be had as a child: the joy of watching adult-rated horror films before you’re old enough.
For today’s parents, with the widespread use of parental locks, child-friendly accounts, and access to lifesaving reviews such as those on Common Sense Media, the idea of their children watching content intended for adults may seem terrible. Accepted wisdom would have it that kids should be shielded from watching certain types of entertainment until they’ve reached an age where they’re able to fully process what they are seeing. It’s the reason why films have age ratings, after all. On the BBFC website, it states how they exist “to help everyone in the UK choose age-appropriate films, videos and websites, wherever and however they watch or use them.” This all makes perfect sense.
Speaking as a parent myself, it can be too easy to exert protective control over your offspring despite how you personally evaded it. Sure, you may have seen some films you really shouldn’t have as a child, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to do the same — or so the thinking goes.
However, as we all know, parents and children don’t think the same way and nor should they. If they did, the world would be a boring place indeed. Speaking from personal childhood experience, nothing compares to watching films when the BBFC’s ratings were partly an indication of whether something is worth watching over its appropriateness. If anything, the less “appropriate” it was, the greater its appeal. If a film carried an 18 certificate, chances are I would watch it just to find out why.
This excitement of forbidden discovery is undoubtedly part of what makes this experience so memorable. There’s nothing quite like sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch an 18-rated horror, unbeknownst to your sleeping parents. But there’s also an added perverse joy to be found in watching something when you’re young enough to have it make a genuinely lasting — even damaging — effect. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that kids cause irreparable long-term harm to their mental and emotional wellbeing by watching inappropriate horrors before they’re old enough to handle it. Well, maybe I am, but only a little bit.
Getting the damage done early.
I must have been around nine years old when I watched the TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s It (1990). The self-styled Losers Club of social misfits appealed to me at that age, as did its rites-of-passage story which saw them forge friendships and bond while facing their greatest fears in their town’s sewers. Even at that young age, I recognised there was something in the nostalgic tone of the two-part special which made me want to appreciate my pre-teen years as something almost magical.
But let’s not beat around the bush here, It also terrified me. To say the demonic clown Pennywise’s reign of terror in Derry made an impression would be a colossal understatement. It didn’t just make an impression, it imprinted on me (and I’m certainly not alone in this, either). It had little to do with any of the aboveground antics with werewolves or mummies, but everything to do with the aforementioned sewers. There was something about the architecture of the pumping station, the eeriness of the Barrens themselves, that captured the essence of the unknown.
Even now, 30 years on, I can instantly picture the scene with Pennywise standing on the surface of the water, holding a bunch of balloons and taunting Ben. I can imagine how it would smell. I can imagine how the summer humidity would feel, and how terror would fix you to the spot. And this is because my impressionable mind was shown just enough to provoke the darker recesses of my imagination to come alive.
I’ve re-visited It numerous times since as both a teenager and adult, and I’ll happily argue it still holds up despite the acting limitations of its cast members and some shoddy VFX. But if I’d never seen it when I was “too young”, It wouldn’t have made a home deep in my psyche. The real question here is whether that’s a good thing or not. I could have avoided a few terrifying nightmares and a lifelong distrust of clowns by not watching It at that age, but I would’ve missed the sweet sensation of undiluted fear that began a lifelong love of horror.
Playing with fear.
As a survival instinct, fear is possibly the most important of emotions. For this same reason, it’s also arguably the most fun to play with inside a film. As children lack the same logical reasoning of most adults (which tempers the effects of watching something scary as a grownup), what better time to surrender yourself to the whims and talents of filmmakers with a penchant for the petrifying?
Despite the title of this article, horror doesn’t have to be experienced via adult-rated horror films seen prematurely. Even staying within the bounds of “age-appropriate” content, you don’t have to look too far to find titles with elements which seem to have been meticulously crafted to scar the minds of young kids in spite of their more accessible age ratings.
A hallway of screaming, severed heads in Return to Oz (1985), anyone? Or an invisible malevolent nothingness intent on swallowing existence itself in The NeverEnding Story (1984)? (Don’t get me started on Artax’s death scene). Perhaps it’s the grotesque transformation of Anjelica Huston into a child-hating hag in The Witches (1990)? Even Disney classic Pinocchio (1940) contains surreal body horror in the eponymous puppet’s transformation into a braying jackass — which is presided over by a child trafficker, no less!
Whether watching an adult-targeted horror film years before you’re old enough or sticking with the “family-friendly” fare like those outlined above, there are countless opportunities for kids to see something that’ll mess with their heads. And more often than not, we’ll each have one particular film which struck a primal chord of fear. But if you’re like me, it doesn’t really matter what floats your boat — be it clowns, killer dolls, monsters, or ghosts — because when it comes to films, kids, and fear: we all float down here.