Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Watching horror movies with my kids

When this roundtable was suggested, I gave it some thought and decided to give it a pass. I had already reviewed my gateway genre movie, and although I did do a brief search for bizarre foreign children's movies just so I could write about something weird, my heart wasn't really in it. Most of the things I like that are aimed at a younger audience (Something Wicked This Way Comes or The Black Hole, for example) are just too well known for me to have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. And let's face it, unless it's kaiju, kiddie fare just ain't what we do around here.

Right around the time everyone was confirming their movie picks and the first couple of reviews were trickling in to the group, I had mentioned on Facebook that my son had been on a Chucky kick and my daughter had wanted to see more gleefully mean-spirited carnage, so we'd spent the weekend watching Child's Play 2 and 3, as well as Final Destination 4 and 5 (and yes, I know it's called The Final Destination, and no, I don't care, and yes, I think it should have been FIVnal Destination and the last one should have been called 5nal Destination). Good ol' Chad Plambeck had the notion that rather than a traditional movie review, I should join the party by writing a piece about my take on movies and parenting and watching horror flicks with my kids.

Growing up, I wasn't allowed to watch R rated movies. PG-13 was on the fence, depending on the subject matter. If you think that stopped me from watching them, I have a lovely piece of oceanfront property in Montana you might be interested in. Nights spent at the houses of friends with more lenient parents were gifts from the movie gods. I saw Predator at the house of a babysitter who had cable. I didn't care that something was wrong with it and the sound didn't work, I watched the whole thing silent and was absolutely enthralled. Best of all, mom and dad had no idea that “unrated” and G weren't essentially the same thing. I've expounded upon this more in my Creepozoids review. I got to see classics like Night of the Living Dead at the home of the Bruesewitzes; family friends who loved horror. I vividly remember Sandy reacting like I'd slapped a kitten when I told her I'd never seen John Carpenter's The Thing. Guess what I got for my 12th birthday? Boy was that an eye-opener.

Point is, by hook or by crook, I got my horror fix no matter the restrictions placed on me at home. Make something forbidden and it only enhances the temptation. It was a strange atmosphere of encouragement and proscription. I could watch any 50's sci-fi, Ray Harryhausen, or kaiju movie I wanted. They were, after all, free of objectionable material, and fed my love of monsters. Every birthday or Christmas there was practically guaranteed to be a new Video Treasures or Goodtimes Home Video tape with new rubber suited wonders for my eager eyes. What my folks didn't understand was, how could someone who loved monsters as much as I did let it stop there? They even had a hand in my obsession with horror movies, although until I told them about it recently, they didn't realize it. Along with Godzilla movies, they would occasionally rent the Jaws flicks for me and even watched them with me a few times. Dad would get a great kick out of sitting behind me, waiting for the music to crescendo or the shark to make a sudden appearance to claim a victim, and then grab my shoulders and yell, scaring the bejeezus out of me. Except instead of being truly afraid or making me upset, it just enhanced my love of those movies. I learned to anticipate the jolt of fear, and to roll with the thrill of it. It's a hoary old cliché, but kids enjoy being scared in the safety of their home. Confronting fear that can be dealt with in a comfortable and familiar environment sometimes makes it easier to deal with the real fears encountered out in the world.

I come at the question of what entertainment is suitable for my children from the completely opposite side of the table, obviously. Far from looking at horror as something to be shunned as garbage that children need protecting from, I eat, sleep, and breathe it. To paraphrase Chop Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (another one the kids and I watched recently), “Horror is my life!” One of the things I looked forward to about having kids was being able to share the things I love with them, and hoping they took to at least some of it as much as I did. Of course, you can't start them out on Italian gut munchers and 70's exploitation. At 9 and 11 (although an exceptionally mature 9 and 11, and those of you who know them know that's not just parental bragging), they're still a good few years off watching the really nasty stuff.

Basically my only two blanket restrictions are explicit sex (also explicitly crude talk about sex – it's going to be a good long while before they get to see Deadpool) and especially sexualized violence. I don't mind if they see a bit of nudity. We're all nekkid under our clothes, after all. I was always on the filthy hippy liberal side of the, “Why is it OK to show violence on TV but not sex?” argument until I was actually put in a position where I had to give it some thought. Kids learn about death early. Pets die, great grandparents die, when they're quite young. They know how to cope with it. It's a simple concept with easily grasped consequences. It takes a lot longer for a mind to develop to the point of being able to comprehend the deep personal and social implications and repercussions attached to sex, which could make it frightening in the not-fun way and maybe cause serious hangups down the road. We've had “the talk” with them, of course, read books to them about it and the like, but seeing it portrayed in an exploitative way in a movie is so far removed from real life that it's difficult to explain. “A monster just ate that guy” is a lot easier for a kid to get their head around. Kids' stories from the very earliest ages feature monsters eating people. It's, “Fee fi fo fum,” not, “Fee fi fo suck my cock.”

There are a frustratingly large number of movies which contain but a small amount of this objectionable material, which I am nonetheless forced to remove from my repertoire of movies to share with the kids, including some of my absolute favorites and things that I know they would enjoy. One such example reared its head just the other night, when my friend John came up to stay the night and we watched Razorback after the kids went to bed. Now, Razorback is one of my favorite movies. The only Jaws knockoff that's very nearly as good as Jaws and one of the few movies I consider to be shot-perfect, that there's nothing you could change about it to make it any better. Unfortunately, there's a scene of threatened but unfulfilled rape that is nonetheless carried off in such a brutal and straightforward manner that I don't feel the kids need to be exposed to such unpleasant and realistic violence, even if it is all only performances. My daughter told me only just today that sometimes she feels afraid that supporters of Donald Trump may hurt her if they know she doesn't agree with them. It broke my heart that someone as young as she is can sense the culture of hatred and violence that currently pervades our country. I see no point in making that worse with something that is intended to be entertainment.

Gore, on the other hand, is easy. From a very young age, I always made sure they knew that anything in a movie was make-believe. At the end of the day, these actors get up off the ground and wash off the fake blood and go home to have dinner with their families. They accepted that, and never once have I had a problem with them being upset by gore in a movie.

It's also important to know your kids' limits. You don't want to sit them down in front of something they're not ready for. For a long time, both the kids were terrified of Chucky. They wouldn't even look at the spines of the DVDs on the shelf. So those movies were reserved for after they were in bed. Beez took the plunge first, unsurprisingly. She's always been daddy's little horror fiend. Not long after, Phoenix decided he wanted to give it a shot. He'd seen some Friday the 13th and Halloween entries – had gotten his feet wet in the shallow end with some of the more harmless fare – and felt he was ready to see the killer doll in action. I've always made sure they understand that these movies are intended to be scary, and that there's nothing to be ashamed of if they do get scared and want to turn it off. Oddly enough, the only time either one of them has ever gotten disturbed enough to want to shut something off was an episode of the TV show Lost Tapes.

It's interesting to watch how their tastes have developed. Phoenix is into the franchise horror: Jason, Freddy, Michael, any character with a back story and a bunch of sequels. Beez goes for quality over quantity, and seems to have acquired my love of anything with a monster in it. Her favorite movie is Dog Soldiers. She even wrote it on a “learn about your classmates” type worksheet for her new school year that got hung up in the classroom. I've watched it more times on her request than I have of my own volition, although I'm not complaining. Honorable mentions include Ginger Snaps, Critters, Alien, and Frozen (she is a nine-year-old girl, after all). She's more like me in that she'll try just about anything once. If she doesn't like it, no harm no foul. Phoenix, on the other hand, takes after his mom, and is very set in his ways. It's like pulling teeth to get him to try something new if it's not on his own terms, but almost every time I've convinced him to give something a shot, he's loved it. He's also much more into comedy, so if a movie has a humorous bent, it goes a long way towards his enjoyment of it (I knew he'd like Texas Chainsaw, but I knew he'd love Texas Chainsaw 2). We recently watched Bad Taste, and I thought he was going to bust a gut when the sheep went kerblooie.

I think it's worked out pretty well. I get to share the things I love with my kids, and I have two people who I can hang out and watch movies with any time. They're even turning into quite the little movie critics. While we were watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Beez came up with this little gem all on her own during the dinner scene, ten dollar words and all: “I think gender is important in this genre. If it was a guy in this scene it wouldn't be as scary. Guys are stronger and so you'd expect him to escape. With a girl, you root for her more, and you're not as sure she'll get away so there's more suspense. It also makes you more excited for her when she does get away and wins over a bunch of guys.” I'll wager that's more thought than most third graders put into their movie watching experience. Horror is good for the mind.

It's also a good bonding experience. The kids have both said many times I'm the coolest dad they know. Now, that certainly makes me feel good but it's by no means why I want to watch these movies with them. It's something I love and I know they can handle it and will love it too. If they were of a more sensitive constitution I would never consider having these movies on, if there was a chance they would be upset by them. I'm just a lucky dad to have such awesome kids with whom I can share my artistic passions.

I struggled like hell to figure out what to say in this piece. It's still not what I'd like it to be. When I'm just blabbing about movies, any old thing will do most of the time. Since it's about my kids, I feel like it should be my magnum opus – the greatest thing I'll ever write. They are, after all, the greatest thing I will ever contribute to the world. But at some point you just have to publish and move on. I think what I'd like to do is leave it open ended. This obviously isn't the last word on the subject. They're young yet, and we've got a long way to go in our journey together. If you have questions or comments about anything I've said, or think of things I didn't cover that you'd like to hear addressed, let me know. If and when I get enough material, I'll do another piece, and we'll continue this conversation about parenting and kids and horror movies, because in the end, I realize that's what this is. Not one article. Not even a series of articles. It's a conversation, and one that needs to be had, because everyone's parenting style, and everyone's kids, are different. Just make sure they get to see some monster movies.

But you don't have to take my word for it:
Checkpoint Telstar: Time Bandits 
Micro-Brewed Reviews: The Magic Serpent 
Psychoplasmics: The Gate 
Seeker of Schlock: Spider-Man 
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Gamera vs. Viras 
Web of the Big Damn Spider: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

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