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Childhood Fears 90’s Style

Being a child can be an especially frightening time. Despite what toy commercials and sitcoms usually want you to believe, when you are a child your every emotion is raw and susceptible to manipulation. Fear is a huge form of manipulation that largely stems from the unknown. Most things are unknown to children because the ability to process a frightening situation requires life experience. We don't lose fear as we get older, but become more able to handle it. We can't always handle it but our makeup has certain ways to help us deal with what scares us. One of these defenses is turning the concept of fear itself into something enjoyable. It may not help what things get truly horrifying, but it allows us to at least utilize fear in a fun way at times.

This is all why we make horror and children are as involved in this as anyone. We tend to not give kids enough credit as to what they can handle and unfortunately the idea of children scaring themselves in a harmless way is seen as an act of self-injury and emotional trauma. It isn't though. Many of my fondest memories from childhood centered on the time I felt that surge of adrenaline, walking the line between safety and exciting terror. This meant haunted houses, horror movies, ghost hunting; anything Halloween related, essentially.


Many movies I watched as a kid were full-fledged horror films, as they fulfilled the desire to take a peek into the adult world. I did however grow up also watching frightening films that were geared towards children. These ranged from absolutely low-key bits of delight such as Lamb Chop in the Haunted Studio to movies that I am pretty sure wanted to see how much terror children could handle before they died such as the classic film The Witches. I appreciated both these styles and all the different levels that came in between.

There is a lot of nostalgia involved in children's horror films as they spoke of a time that isn't in as much effect. I'm biased as all hell but I really feel that I grew up in if not the golden age of horror, the most prevalent. I was part of the Are you Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps generation. I wasn't part of the first wave of horror comics, put out by EC Comics and the like, but I was around for the height of popularity for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981-1991) as well as a large influx of other series and knockoffs.

Every Saturday Night, October or not, we kids got to take our fears head on with my favorite part of SNICK, Are You Afraid of the Dark? While it couldn't get away where as much explicit content as a more adult-skewing shows, AYAOTD went for the throat as much as it could and often achieved this goal with great success. Sure, there were corny moments and acting here and there, but the show really and truly went with the intention of scaring its audience. I love both scary things and horror subjects but they are not mutually exclusive concepts. Often they go together, but not always. There are several horror projects that at no point come across as actually trying to frighten anyone. You can have ghosts and witches and mummies and all spooky entities in a comedy. It may not be scary, but it's still horror. Dark, however, wasn't satisfied simply showing children darker subjects, but it wasn't made to make hair stand up across the US, Canada and any other areas that could figure out a way to see it.

The subjects dealt with in AYAOTD were less “teenagers getting their heads cut off mid-sex” and more “children have their lives completely demolished.” Often there were unhappy endings, and unlike the moralistic tales of EC Comics and the proceeding Tales From the Crypt, it didn't matter if you were a good person or not. These episodes had genuinely horrific moments that still stick with me and the extra bit of terror it added along with fun and excitement is much appreciated. Goosebumps was in the same wheelhouse, but rarely ventured to the same vicious territory as Dark allowed itself to go. I loved Goosebumps, don't get me wrong, but if I have to give a nod to what kid's show really went for it in regards to freaking out the kiddies, I have to go with Are You Afraid of the Dark? As an especially anxious child, real life scared me plenty, but unlike most I was able to align myself with curses, ghosts, vampires and even death itself. I felt stronger through all this, and it allowed the world to become less scary in a legitimate bad way and fill up with exciting terror and glorious darkness.

There's an unwritten rule that goes as follows: If you were a child with a TV in the 90's and you are not a Hocus Pocus fan, you are a bad person. It's an unwritten rule because I just made it up, but I just wrote it down so now it's a written rule. Neither of those things changes the fact that Hocus Pocus is an awesome example of the opposite side of the “true terror” child's entertainment coin. Hocus Pocus is an example of the Family Horror film that doesn't have terror as its primary directive. It's the most well-known, but many other examples are out there. One of my other favorites Ernest Scared Stupid is another prime example of this other style of child-oriented horror. Do these films have scary elements? Hell yes, they do. Just because they are family fair doesn't mean that they aren't going to delve into dark territory. As films aimed mainly at children and families, they involve children having horrible things happening to them, which is a very important part of the overall subject.


"We don't lose fear as we get older..."

Ernest Scared Stupid deals with a troll turning children into wooden dolls while Hocus Pocus dabbles in such subjects as child murder and kids being pursued by witches. While these films present comedy and adventure as their primary focus rather than sheer terror, they are aware that dark themes are a must. The previously mentioned The Witches film technically falls into this category, but the scene with the witches peeling their fake faces off and revealing themselves alone makes it wonderfully guilty of trying to give kids heart attacks; and has thus earned my respect as a truly horrifying piece of child's fantasy horror.

Just like slasher films showing teenagers that they indeed are not as immortal as they may think, these films showed youngsters that just because someone is a child that doesn't mean that ghoulish or even horrific experiences aren't out of the question. As I child I knew that certain things were real and others weren't and most of the things that played out in kid's horror flicks were of the things that were not. There aren't many slasher or realistic murder type movies for kids so most films for younger audiences that attempted to give a good scare center around fictional monsters we have created but it all still shows that danger is not designated to adults. But it does so in such a way that it all feels more fun than genuinely worrisome.

Through horror, children learn about more morose subjects in a more real way than some instructional video. The 1993 animated film The Halloween Tree, for example, deals heavily with a group of children desperate to fix the looming sickness that has affected their friends and the movie is progressed by the threat of death and its effect on others. It's some heavy subject matter that I don't feel would work as well without the horror element and adventurous spirit. It wonderfully mixes in fantastical concepts with all-too real worries we all have displaying danger as an aspect of life that these kids, and by extension the audience, will have to face in one way or another.


Though primarily about fun, horror films have always been, in my opinion, the best way for us to examine the rawest emotions within our species and beyond. Understanding how fear works, its triggers and how we respond to it is just as much a valuable lesson as anything else. I give a lot of credit to the creators of the various projects that respect children enough to give them a glimpse at the more sinister workings of the world. These films teach us to keep our eyes open and believe in our own abilities to persevere, even in the most unexpected and horrific scenarios.

Much of this can be traced back to the original, more gruesome versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales and the like. But where such stories had an overall moral about how to live, true horror serves more as a presentation of awareness; a survival guide of sorts that can be calibrated to our lives.

I'm proud to say that I grew up experiencing horror and never hid or shied away from them. While there still is darker material for kids out there, it never feels quite like it used to when more was possible to get away with. Growing up, I didn't stick with peppy subject matter and I never filled my head with ignorance to the possibility for the gloomy days. For horror doesn't teach us to be afraid of the world, it teaches us that it's not all sunshine and smiles and that should never keep us down. It is possible to fight back, to face what scares us and survive. Even if the characters didn't make it, we did and now we're going back for more.

P.J. Griffin, HMS

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