Hide Your Kids!

As introduced in the last post, and because Halloween is creeping up, I want to continue exploring the impact of horror movies—only this time, I want to discuss their impact on children. Does early exposure to horror movies have long lasting effects that remain until adulthood? Or does slow exposure to horror films prepare a child to be brave?

I believe that films in general (animated, comedy, etc.) have such an impact on children. They often idolize a favorite character and try to be like them which could help shape their personalities in the future. With this sort of influence, I can only imagine what kind of psychological effect horror movies can take on a child’s extremely malleable brain. A study by  University of Wisconsin researchers, Kristin Harrison and Joanne Cantor (1999), found that 90.2% of their study’s 150 college participants reported enduring fright effects from scary media exposed to them in childhood.  These enduring effects included inability to sleep during the night and an avoidance to situations similar to the events in the film. Although a majority of the findings reported this negative effect, the 9.8% of participants remaining actually reported a positive attitude change. For example, some participants reported a commitment to becoming a marine biologist (probably after watching Jaws) or an interest in learning about the Holocaust. So while a few did benefit from viewing the horror films, there is still that majority who still experience the lingering negative effects.

According to Science Daily‘s article “Halloween Horror Movies May Cause Emotional Problems in Young Children ” (Oct 2006), Dr. Schechter of The Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center says that:

“Watching ‘Friday the 13th’ with your child is probably not a good idea. Children under the age of 5 may be too young to actually watch and understand violent movies; however, they are psychologically affected by the scenes they are exposed to,” 

I would have to agree that children under that age of 5 may be too young because, based on Piaget’s Cognitive Stages, a child between the ages of 2-7 is still in the pre-operational stage. This means that the child is beginning to represent the world symbolically and cannot think in abstract, which makes it difficult for the child to understand the violence and paranormal phenomenons in films. At this stage the child is also heavily influenced by fantasy and imaginary thinking and may have a problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. Since they use symbols to represent their world, the images from the movies may retain in the mind for a long time.

My roommate, who actually refuses to watch any type of horror movies, once told me how the Oompa Loompas in the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory used to scare her. She was about 7 at the time (just within the pre-operational stage) and up to now, even in her formal operational stage, still feels a little weird watching the Oompa Loompas dance around. This supports the idea that children really don’t understand movies, even innocent ones like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may be perceived as scary just because of the images. I, myself was TERRIFIED of Thomas the Train Engine, something about the eyes just freaked me out and I would run to another room crying until they changed the channel.

I can't be the only one who thinks Thomas is freaky!

So, based on my findings and personal experiences, I don’t think it’s a the most wise decision to watch horror movies with your children. Wait until they’re grown up and can understand that zombies aren’t real and that the situations are purely fictional. Also, pay attention to ratings, they’re there for a reason and can really help when deciding what movie to watch with children. Don’t bet on your child being the 9.8% of children in Harrison and Cantor’s study, and save them (and you) from sleepless nights.

Have a safe and happy Halloween and if you are looking for something to watch with the young-ins, stick to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and save The Exorcist for after their bedtime.

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