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Scary content for kids, good or bad?
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Scary content for kids, good or bad?

Maurice Wheeler 30.10.2018 10 Mins

I love watching scary movies. Your heart rate increases and your adrenaline starts pumping. It is an emotional overload, but in a good way.

I have pretty much always liked scary stuff. I remember watching Dr Who as a child, hiding behind the cushions on my sofa, peeking out and watching through my fingers. I was scared of that week's monster enough to feel the need to hide, but the excitement was far too exhilarating to actually leave the room!  

A couple of weeks ago, when the family were sat around watching Strictly Come Dancing, a trailer for the new Dr Who came on. My 8-year-old and 11-year-old both looked intrigued and asked if they could watch it. Was this OK? I watched it as a kid, sure, but are these different times!  Should I let them both watch it? I am sure it will be OK for my 11-year-old, but what about my 8-year-old? Is he too young? Will it give him nightmares? Is it fair - even though I know he would enjoy it? Would the effects afterwards be too much? Some cursory research explained that “Introducing children to overly scary content too young could induce symptoms including crying or screaming, trembling or shaking, upset stomach, clinginess, paralysis, sweating, fever, chills and loss of appetite”...I don’t want that!  

What is ‘overly scary’ and ‘too young’ obviously depends on the child, but where is the line that we as a society have drawn? This line is quite subjective (although very recent research has found a way of making it less subjective by measuring stress hormones in the air of cinemas! ). The first thing that became apparent is this line has moved over the years… by quite a bit. In the original Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in order to make them fit into the glass slipper, and when found out, the Prince had his doves peck their eyes out. Hansel and Gretel is a terrifying story of child abuse and cannibalism that leads the children to burn the witch alive. Our approach to what we need to protect our children from has come along a long way, but has it gone too far? Is it “health and safety gone mad”? Is my worry about letting my 8-year-old watch Dr Who akin to making him wear goggles when playing conkers (I don’t do this BTW) . Or, like fairy tales of old, are scary stories really valuable life lessons that teach children about danger, loss, consequences to their actions and help them understand parts of themselves that cartoons and angsty drama will never reveal? OK, OK. Enough with the questions. Let's turn to some experts for the answers.

At a recent conference in Warsaw, I had the opportunity to chat to two Swedish film producers: Martin Jern and Emil Larsson. They were presenting “Room 213”, a scary movie based on a highly popular book by Swedish children's author, Ingelin Angerborn. I asked them why they chose a scary book as the inspiration for their latest project. “Well first off” Emil said, ”it is a great story that is really popular already in Sweden, but secondly we wanted to create a film that wasn’t too serious and felt more like a fun adventurous story. We want children to be able to explore part of themselves but in a safe environment. We wanted them to understand good and bad consequences of their actions, but also leave a lasting memory”.  “So many stories in Sweden” Martin added, “Are really serious, or just the superhero blockbuster movies. We wanted to make a movie that wasn’t either of those, but would still be an adventurous, fun, fantasy mystery.”

Diving bit deeper, I wanted to understand where the line is for them? How did they decide what was too much and what was OK?

“We tested it a lot and made a lot of changes in edit,” said Emil, “It was trial and error. The editor brought a lot to the process, creating different edits that we would test and see that it wasn’t hitting the right notes and re-edit. Most cuts were to make it scarier. For example, we felt we had to make the ghost more tangible, whereas in the books it was more of a suggestion. It’s not just the jumpy bits that get the kids scared. There was a lot of awkward and difficult social stuff about being out of your comfort zone in a social situation that was just as scary to the kids as the ghost.”

The reaction to the movie has been amazing. 90 thousand kids went to see the movie in Sweden, which is almost a third of their entire target audience. The movie has also gone on to win many awards, including the winner of the Children Jury Award at the Dublin Film Festival.

However, the thing Emil is most proud of is a time when he was screening the movie and a 10-year-old child had run out of the cinema - clearly terrified - and then, still shaking, he stopped, turned around and ran back into the cinema to watch more.

Another piece of kid’s content that has seen the opportunity in scares, is ZombieLars. It is hard to summarise ZombieLars, so I will quote the IMDB page: “ZombieLars is an exciting drama comedy series for kids 8-12. Lars is eleven years old and a half zombie, or "living unliving." ...as the politically correct term goes. In his new hometown, Lars's kind are rare and frowned upon. But he soon discovers others who are different too: a ninja, a witch, a troll and a changeling, to mention some. Together, they explore their true nature in a conformist and deeply prejudiced society. Will Lars' half-dead heart start beating for someone special?”.

I spoke to Gisle Halvorsen who, along with Thomas Seeberg Torjussen, are the show creators of ZombieLars: “We needed to break through. We were speaking to a child and asked what TV show they were watching at the moment. They replied with ‘West World’. We realised they are watching the sort of shows that NRK (The Norwegian public broadcaster who air the show) is not currently making, so we set about creating a show that was a highly original, narrative-driven, coming of age story. We wanted children to say “What the heck! Did I just see that?!”  

When I asked Gisle if he was worried about creating a show that was too scary, he replied: “Sure. In the beginning we were really worried we would make something too scary, but we also realised if we didn’t take a chance and do something new and exciting we would never break through. Children have access to every possible form of content and while public broadcasters have been typically reticent about creating shows like ZombieLars, we knew we had to do it.”

In a similar tale to the creation of Room 213, Gisle and his team did a lot of testing. “We tested the show a LOT, and so we knew that the kids were on board. The issue actually came from the adults and execs higher up in the organisation who mostly thought the show wasn’t right for children.  However, once we launched the show it was obviously all fine.”

Again, ZombieLars has gone on to win many awards including Best Fiction in age category 11-15, both in the main Prix Jeunesse International section and from the International Youth Jury in Munich.

Gisle goes on to make the point that these sort of exciting and scary shows, that push the boundaries and take chances, are 100% necessary if they are going to cut through in the current media landscape. Children obviously have an appetite for the content, but for them it always had to make them laugh. “As long as we were laughing when we came up with an idea, we felt that was OK. It was when it got a bit too serious and real that we felt we had gone too far.”

With Halloween coming up, there will be a wave of scary movies and TV shows coming out that children will find themselves naturally drawn towards. It seems the general consensus is that 11 is the age when kids can begin to properly handle and enjoy scary content. This matches with the father of child psychology, Piaget, who talked about the ‘formal operational stage’ where children can properly understand abstract constructs and can also rationalise that just because there are bad things happening in a movie, doesn’t mean they will happen in real life.

Scary content will always be a draw for children. They want to push the boundaries and test what they are capable of. In these extreme moments of heightened emotion, there is a chance to tell lasting stories and also maybe impart some ethical or moral questions that help shape them to be more considered. With children independently seeking scary content, maybe we have a responsibility to provide them with appropriate content that excites but doesn’t terrify. We don’t want them wandering the wild west of YouTube looking for their kicks and getting into something they can’t unsee.  

References

http://www.sciencebrainwaves.com/the-science-of-fear/

The Effects of Horror Movies on Children. (2016, Mar 24). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/%ef%bb%bfthe-effects-of-horror-movies-on-children-essay

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