By: Amanda Tullos
“People were puking everywhere.” I clung to my father’s words as he told me about his experience sneaking into a local drive-in to catch a glimpse of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead when he was 14-years-old. Through wide eyes, he recalled standing between two cars, watching as shocked moviegoers began violently vomiting out of their car windows as a zombie sunk its teeth into the fleshy neck of its next victim on screen.
My dad told me this story as he dangled a copy of Dawn of the Dead in front of my face. I was eight. The tale would lead me on a never-ending quest to experience the same visceral response to a horror film, whetting my appetite with titles like Deadly Friend, Poltergeist, Evil Dead II, and Pet Sematary. Nothing was off limits.
While some may argue against that kind of exposure as child — “Horror films are damaging! They’ll cause nightmares! They’ll give you anxiety!” — I disagree. Horror films can teach young viewers invaluable life lessons, like addressing your fears and overcoming them.
Horror films never scarred Trish W., who at age three, was already obsessed with the 1989 slasher movie Shocker. A self-proclaimed “Monster kid,” Trish’s childhood was filled with a healthy dose of horror movies and heavy metal. Now, as an adult with a child of her own, she’s passing her love of the genre on to her 9-year-old daughter, Jamie — named after Halloween series scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis.
“She came out of the womb exposed to horror. I always had [horror] movies playing in the background. When she was really young, about 4, she became infatuated with Jason Voorhees.”
Horror films were the norm for then-4-year-old Jamie, who, at age 5, insisted on having a Friday the 13th themed birthday party. Over the years Jamie would watch films like Child’s Play and It, and she was even allowed to watch an edited-for-TV version of Friday the 13th. Jamie never expressed fear or anxiety over the horror movies she watched because Trish made it clear that it was all pretend.
She explained, “If you’re putting it out there that its scary, then yeah, these kids are going to be afraid. But if you’re putting it out there that it’s just fun and silly or make believe, it’s definitely a lot less intimidating.”
Jamie’s experiences with horror movies didn’t hinder her developmentally; in fact, horror films helped her flourish both socially and creatively. Fascinated with how movie monsters are made, the 9-year-old now shows interest in becoming a special effects makeup artist.
“My daughter is not forced into liking horror. She was never forced into that life. It was always around, it was natural. And it was always up to her whether or not she wanted to be a part of watching movies like that. She was naturally drawn to it.”
Similarly, Fright-Rags President and CEO Ben Scrivens has always presented horror movies as optional for his kids, ages 12 and 9. Constantly reinforcing the message that horror movies are fake, Scrivens explains, “If it’s a safe situation and you’re letting them know it’s fake, it’s entertainment, I really think it’s OK to push those boundaries a little bit.”
While he has gradually introduced his kids to “gateway” movies like Gremlins, The Goonies, and Jaws, Scrivens stresses the importance of knowing your children and what kind of films they can handle — but, he thinks a little fear can be good. Scrivens said, “I feel like there’s something to watching something, getting scared, and having to deal with those emotions and those feelings, and I think that helps you grow a little bit.
Scrivens’ first experience with horror came on Halloween night in 1981. The artist was just 4-years-old when he was left to entertain himself in front of an old console TV. He watched as a girl cowered in the corner of a closet, fighting off a knife-wielding man wearing a white mask. The film: John Carpenter’s Halloween.
“I don’t remember being terrified. I remember specifically what jumped out at me was when he was in the closet…I remember being scared, but it was almost deeper than being scared…I don’t think I knew how to process it. Funny enough, as I watched [the film] as I grew older, I became scared of Michael Myers, for sure.”
The picture catapulted Scrivens into a life and career surrounded by horror movies. Although he was allowed to watch whatever films he wanted while growing up — including Hellraiser when he was just 10 — Scrivens is much more wary of the films his kids can view now.
While his 12-year-old daughter shows no interest in the films plastered all around her home, Scrivens’ 9-year-old son is just like his dad. Passing the horror torch down to his son, Scrivens introduced him to Halloween a year-and-a-half ago.
While nightmares are always a possibility, Scrivens stated, “I don’t think having nightmares is inherently a bad thing. I’m not saying you should plague your children and make them have nightmares, but I think a little fear can be healthy.”
Fear was a familiar feeling to Becki Reiner, whose experience watching The Lost Boys and Silver Bullet with her dad at the age of 3 molded her into the horror fan she is today. She explained, “That was probably my most traumatic experience in my entire life…but that experience was what really set me looking for the next fix, basically. It was horrifying and it gave me nightmares, but I was obsessed. There was just something about it that I couldn’t get enough of.”
Now, Reiner and friend Tyler Blakslee are spreading the gospel of horror to kids as part of their film club, Teenage Werewolves Horror Film Fiend Club. Blakslee, a literature teacher at an inner city international baccalaureate school, started the club as an after school space to talk horror movies. Soon, the club soared in popularity, and has become a solace for young people to dissect horror movies through an educational lens.
One of Blakslee’s earliest — and most terrifying — horror movie memories came after watching A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time. After seeing the film, he developed an irrational fear that Freddy Krueger was hiding behind his shower curtain. Blakslee detailed, “It freaked me out, but…it’s that rollercoaster, that titillating fear. It’s scary, but you still look behind the curtain.”
Blakslee continues peeking behind the curtain — and now he’s encouraging children and teenagers in his horror film club to do the same.
For many horror fans — young and old — fear is what drives us. Being scared by a horror movie is only momentary, but the lessons learned and the experiences had while watching these films will last forever.
My father’s chaotic Dawn of the Dead drive-in story has stayed with me for over 20 years, and I had the surreal experience of watching the movie with him at the drive-in for the film’s 40th anniversary. As we watched together, I remember looking around at the other cars. No one was puking. But, I spotted something that made me smile. A teenager standing in between two cars, watching the movie.