Monday, September 16, 2013

When Is TV Too Scary for Children?

That's not me asking the question, you understand.  Instead, it is a question answered by Stephen King in the June 13-19, 1981 issue of TV Guide, for which the author wrote a short essay titled the same thing as the title of this post.

"Read the story synopsis below and ask yourself if it would make the sort of film you'd want your kids watching on the Friday- or Saturday-night movie," after which he described the tale of a man who, as the result of "inflation, recession and his second wife's fondness for overusing his credit cards," is on the brink of financial ruin.  His wife concocts a scheme to get them out of this mess: they will kill the two children, make it look like an accident, and collect the insurance money.

King continues the synopsis, and we come to realize eventually that he is describing the tale of "Hansel and Gretel," but modernizing it so as to emphasize the gruesome and horrific elements.  King says that children get exposed to numerous such stories, ranging from "Hansel and Gretel" to the legend of Bluebeard to "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Snow White."  His point, obviously, is that we've been inundating children with the spooky, bizarre, and morbid for years, to such an extent that many of us have to be pushed toward recognizing it.  So with that in mind, is violent television automatically something to worry about?

illustration by Daniel Maffia

"Three of my books have been made into films," says King, "and at this writing two of them have been shown on TV.  In the case of Salem's Lot, a made-for-TV movie, there was never a question of allowing my kids to watch it on its first run on CBS; it began at 9 o'clock in our time zone, and all three children go to bed earlier than that.  Even on a weekend, and even for the oldest, an 11 o'clock bedtime is just not negotiable.  A previous TV Guide article about children and frightening programs mentioned a 3-year-old who watched Lot and consequently suffered night terrors.  I have no wish to question any responsible parent's judgment -- all parents raise their children in different ways -- but it did strike me as passingly odd  that a 3-year-old should have been allowed to stay up that late to get scared."

As well it should, be the year 1981, 2013, or somewhere before, after, or inbetween.

King continues, and talks about using "one of those neat little time-machines, a videocassette recorder," to tape the two-part movie and offer to let his kids watch it, if they decided they wanted to.  Daughter Naomi "had no interest; she's more involved with stories of brave dogs and loyal horses these days."  Joe (8) and Owen (3) did watch; neither of them suffered any ill effects, it seems.

King then describes also having a tape of Carrie, which he decided to keep on "the high shelf," where his kids could not get to it even if they wanted to do so.  The reason for this is that King felt Carrie's "depiction of children turning against other children, the lead character's horrifying embarrassment at a school dance and her later act of matricide would upset them.  Lot, on the contrary, is a story that the children accepted as a fairy tale in modern dress."

It's worth pointing out that Carrie, too, can be seen as a fairy-tale riff: a modern-day semi-retelling of Cinderella, which in its original form is a much uglier and brutal tale than the Disney version with "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes."  Still, King's point is a valid and interesting one, and I think one could make the argument that there are a number of King-based movies which -- for some kids, at least -- would make perfectly good dark-fairy-tale-style entertainment.  It comes to mind, as do Silver Bullet, The Langoliers, and Cat's Eye.

King talks about the movies that haunted his nightmares as a child, and says that it was not the ones which starred Frankenstein's monster or the Wolfman, but Disney cartoons: Bambi's mother shot, Bambi trying to escape the forest fire, Snow White eating a poisoned apple, the big bad wolf who terrorized the three little pigs; the brooms in Fantasia, even.  He mentions that Owen recently crawled into bed with he and his wife Tabitha, complaining that Cruella DeVille was in his room.  (One hopes that Kelly Braffet has read this article.)

"Do I believe that all violent or horrifying programming should be banned from network TV?" King asks.  "No, I do not.  Do I believe it should be telecast only in the later evening hours, TV's version of the "high shelf"?  Yes, I do.  Do I believe that children should be forbidden all violent or horrifying programs?  No, I do not.  Like their elders, children have a right to experience the entire spectrum of drama, from such warm and mostly unthreatening programs as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons to scarier fare.  It's been suggested again and again that such entertainment offers us a catharsis -- a chance to enter for a little while a scary and yet controllable world where we can express our fears, aggressions and possibly even hostilities.  Surely no one would suggest that children do not have their own fears and hostilities to face and overcome; those dark feelings are the basis of many of the fairy tales children love best."

The author goes on to make an argument for the idea of responsibility: the responsibility of the parent to make sure that when their children use "that magic window" in the living room, they are following guidelines to ensure that their children know how to correctly process something like The Shining (which was debuting on cable TV that month).  Among these guidelines: "discuss it with them afterward," if you do decide to allow them to watch something frightening.  King's rationale: "children have to walk through their own real-life version of Hansel and Gretel's 'dark wood' from time to time," and "if we remember our own scary childhood experiences, we'll probably remember that it was easier to walk through that dark wood with a friend."
The article is the sort of excellent nonfiction King excels at: social observation spiked with personal experience.  A collection of King's substantial nonfiction pieces is about twenty years overdue at this point; such a book would almost certainly become one of his very best the second it was published.
Fingers crossed that it happens one of these days!


  1. That is a rather good article.

    On a personal note, it seems my earliest childhood entertainment involved the horror genre. Heck, the first book I ever bought was by children's horror author John Bellairs.

    I don't whether that explains my ambivalence toward, say, Bambi or not.

    Incidentally, of all things, I one day asked myself this question pretty much out of the blue.

    Supposing the gunshot missed but triggered a minor avalanched, carrying the mother and the hunter with it?

    I then saw the main character's mom slowly emerging unhurt from the ruins of the snow fall and shaking herself off.

    Just before she's about to leave, a hand shoots out of the pile of snow and wraps tight around her hind leg.

    She winds up pulling the hunter out of the snow drift (I see him as a portly, almost ZZ top like fellow in standard red checked hunting shirt and khaki vest). Then hunter then pulls out a knife and the two stand off facing each other.

    Where that came from I'll never know, although I strongly suspect the answer is idle boredom in a free moment.

    The rest would have been the animated Disney version of the Defiant Ones, where in order to survive two people who hate each others guts have to rely on each other sort of thing.

    Yeah, idle boredom.

    Back on topic, I think King's onto more than he realizes by comparing horror to fairy tales.

    It's pretty obvious that horror stories came about when the fairy tales went from being about a visit to the elves with a brief, frightening misadventure with like Banshee on the way, to just being an encounter with a Banshee, period.

    As for kids and horror...

    This is the one that sort of has me almost stumped. I know they shouldn't be exposed to anything too gratuitous, but then again, I'll swear I once saw a kid of six going on no more than eight watching Freddy vs. Jason.


    1. Oddly, I did not see most of the classic Disney movies when I was a kid. I saw a few of the more (then-)contemporary ones, like "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Rescuers" and "Pete's Dragon," but none of the classics. I didn't watch them until I took a trip to Disney World in the late '90s, when I was 25 or so, and decided maybe I should do some homework.

      Like most of them, I love "Bambi." I think it's a thoroughly sumptuous piece of art. But I can totally see how it and some of the others -- most of them, really -- would have totally wrecked some kids. I was prone to be scared by all sorts of things when I was a child, so I've occasionally found myself wondering how I would have reacted to the Disney films of that era. We'll never know!

      As for Freddy vs. Jason, I can guarantee you that there has never been a horror movie so vile that SOME jackass didn't still take their kids to see. I work at a movie theatre, so I should know. I mean, this past Christmas Day, there were people who brought their kids to see a 10:25 p.m. show of the blood-soaked, three-hour "Django Unchained." I've seen kids in the "Saw" movies, which are appallingly violent. Some people are just trash, and they will almost certainly be getting trashy kids in return.

  2. In addition to the Disney horrors King mentions, which disturbed me wonderfully as well, two of my own most-remembered scared-the-crap-out-of-me moments from childhood were the Lot-6 freakout scene in Firestarter and the floating kid scratching on the window from Salem's Lot.

    Agreed 100% on the need for a collection of King's non-fiction pieces. (And I hope Kelly Braffet is buying her husband a Cruella deVille doll as I type these words...)

    It makes me sentimental to see this piece and think about when Joe, Owen, and Naomi had strict bedtimes, and a videocassette recorder was a time machine.

    1. Me too. I couldn't help but think while reading it, "...and that kid later grew up and wrote Double Feature..." Weird, cool, and kind of sad in some way.