During Quarantine 2020, I got tired of children’s TV and movies — more so than usual. Bright, cloying colors and wide-eyed characters haunted me. One evening, I put on “Poltergeist,” and no sooner had I pressed “play” than my two daughters walked in. I sighed and told them it was a spooky movie. My then-4-year-old left. My eldest, then 8, decided to stay. I let her.
Just before the titular poltergeists make their presence known and the spookiness starts, I paused the movie and said to her, “What do you know about the family?” She paused, then replied, “They love each other.” This was the answer I was looking for. The core of “Poltergeist” is the lengths a mother and father will go for their child, and, if she knew that, my daughter could handle the movie.
As a child growing up in the ’80s with parents who kept an ear to the advice of evangelical Christian pundits, horror movies were demonized to the point that just seeing some of the visceral illustrations on VHS box covers at the rental shop could scare me. Now that I’m a father, I want to share my love of spooky stuff with my kids, in part so they learn how to handle fear in a healthy way. I don’t want to demonize something that isn’t inherently bad, especially since that usually creates anxiety, either through fetishization or further demonization. Horror is a genre that doesn’t immediately seem kid-friendly, and I want to avoid traumatizing my kids, so finding a delicate balance of fun and fear is my highest priority.
“I kind of like being a little scared, ’cause sometimes it’s good to be scared,” said Eleanor, my eldest, now age 9. “Sometimes being scared is a good thing, because it teaches you to stay away from stuff that’s bad.”
I asked Eleanor about her experience with horror after we watched “Nightbooks,” a recent Netflix movie released for Halloween.
“Some of the creatures were things mixed together, like the skull spider. It was a fun creepiness,” she said of the film. “I liked how there was a mystery to it and how it wasn’t as scary as some movies.”
Homing in on the narrative and savoring the weirdness is crucial to enjoying horror. “Nightbooks,” she said, “wasn’t that scary.” So what is scary?
“ ‘Coraline’ ” is the scariest movie I’ve watched,” she said. “I like it, but the problem is after it’s over.”
That’s when she heads to bed and her imagination kicks in.
“I don’t regret watching ‘Coraline,’ ” she said. “It didn’t haunt me forever. I got over it in a few nights.”
What else has she seen that’s scary? “ ‘Poltergeist II.’ It’s more intense than the first one.
“At first, don’t introduce them into the big scary zone,” Eleanor said when asked about how to best introduce a kid to horror. “By ‘big scary zone,’ I mean stuff that scares you. Start from the bottom with more of the kids' stuff and take it up a notch one by one.” She paused and finished with a word of caution. “ ’Cause if you show them something too scary too soon, it might scare them for a long time.”
If you’re starting your kids out on horror, Eleanor said combining the scares with laughs is best. “For movies, I would recommend ‘Ernest Scared Stupid,’ ’cause that one’s more funny and scary at the same time. And definitely ‘Gremlins.’ ”
For shows, she said “Goosebumps,” but use caution. “Some episodes are really scary, and some are just funny. One of the first ones I’d recommend is ‘My Hairiest Adventure.’ ”
Which “Goosebumps” episodes to avoid?
“The one you might not want to watch is the piano lesson one,” she said, referring to the aptly titled “Piano Lessons Can Be Murder.”
Still, though, Eleanor is feeling the pull of spookier fare. “I kinda wanna watch ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ ’cause it sounds cool,” she said when I asked what she would choose if I gave her free reign. She added, “I know that you say that it’s too scary for me, so I’m trusting you.”
She also wants to see “The Shining” and “Friday the 13th,” because I “talk about them so much.” Guilty as charged, but we’re a ways out from that. I don’t want to scare her off.
“If you show a kid something that’s too scary, it can go wrong, and they might get a little scared,” she said. “But if you do it right, it could turn out great, and you could have a great horror buddy.”
That was my goal all along.
Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college. He lives in Lewiston and is on Instagram as @theswap_quadcities and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.