Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #3: “You know… for kids!”

It is easy to forget when watching some teenager running through the woods trying to escape death by the most unlikely weapon some psycho killer can get his hands on that our obsession with horror really begins in childhood. Kids are at once scared of everything and fearless. Perhaps our adult obsession with scaring ourselves is somehow a way to reconnect with our youth and tap into that element of fearlessness we may have lost along the way.

There are different kinds of horror for children. The first might be listed in a class syllabus as “An Introduction to Horror”. This course would cover the basics of horror. The jumps and sudden scares, the false frights, and horror appreciation.

First and foremost, it is important for kids to understand that horror is for fun. Pixar Animation Studios has always been excellent at connecting the child and adult worlds with each other. In the 7 minute animated short they included on the “Cars” DVD they’ve submitted their version of An Introduction to Horror titled “Mater and the Ghostlight”. Now, there is nothing really scary about this cartoon—save for maybe the Screaming Banshee, but even that is really a punchline. But it’s a great example of what makes fright fun.

The short involves a prank the car-izens of Radiator Springs play on the rusty tow truck Mater. They all gather around and tell Mater a scary story about the “Ghostlight” and then take off all at once leaving Mater alone to imagine what this ghostlight might do to him in the dark. How many times as a child did you lie awake after some family gathering to ponder the terrible things that might be lurking about while everyone else is asleep, never imagining that anyone else could be suffering the same plight?

They tie a light to Mater’s tow cable and the poor guy drives around frantically trying to escape the ghostlight until he finally realizes it is just a lantern tied to him. Then everyone pops out for a good laugh with (at) their friend. Then comes the punchline, but I’ll leave that for viewers to discover. It is a fun little film that my kids just love, and I think that makes for a great introduction to horror for them.

Later kids get deeper into Horror Appreciation with family movies of the nature Tim Burton likes to make. With movies like “Corpse Bride” and even “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, Burton has shown a knack for taking dark themes and making them appealing to kids. Two of his early attempts at kid-friendly horror include his first live-action short “Frankenweenie” and his first stop-motion feature length animation “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.

One thing Burton does with both of these films is saturating them with references to classic horror and science fiction. “Frankenweenie” is a kids version of Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” story with a little boy bringing his own dog back from the dead. Burton gleefully recreates the reanimation sequence from James Whale’s original “Frankenstein” film—a sequence that is the quintessential mad scientist scene.

Burton is certain not to leave mad scientists and a Frankenstein’s monster type of character out of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” either. The characters of Sally and her creator Dr. Finkelstein add a new twist to the creator/monster relationship from Shelley’s work. In “Nightmare” Sally is the one person in her world who isn’t a nightmare and she seems to be more of an embarrassment to her creator than an abomination. I suppose in Burton’s universe not being a monster is an abomination. But he fills is with catchy songs and bright colors, so the kids still love it.

Eventually, the young ‘uns will crave more than just cutesy horror references, even if there are some dark themes running underneath them. Fantasy films act as a sort of gateway drug from the young viewers. Fantasy carries their hopes and fears and can be the first movies to really provide bumps in the night.

This past year saw the release of two fantasy films—both from popular young readers novel series—“The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles”. Both films are definitely bent toward darker tones and frightening concepts, yet both still hold children as the central heroes. In each film an adolescent is the chosen one to prevent some dark force from taking over the world.

The dark forces in “The Seeker” seem more devious than those in “Spiderwick” but are much less imaginative in conception. While “The Seeker” seems aimed at slightly older children, the fantasy world of “Spiderwick” is much more fun and adventurous. And since “Spiderwick” is more successful at creating an interesting and mysterious world, the small dose of horror in it is more effective.

But effectiveness aside, it is in these fantasy settings where a horror fanatic will find his roots. The notion of worlds that operate under different rules—rules that are more brutal and powerful than those of the world we live in—drives our curiosity. The notion of an unbendable, inexplicable evil that we must inevitably face drives our fears. And when those notions combine, we get a taste for the thrill of horror. The taste is addictive, and we seek out higher dosages and different flavors from that point on.

No comments: