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Why Are We Afraid to Scare Children?

I watched the Platinum Anniversary Edition of Pinocchio over the weekend. aside from the revelation of how ridiculously Disney manipulate the market to keep their movies out of constant circulation and creating false scarcity, what really struck me about the movie was how ridiculously (and gloriously) dark it was. As a 23-year-old adult, I felt more than a little uncomfortable watching the movie, so I can only imagine how it would have terrified me as a kid. Turning kids into donkeys and selling them to the circus! Threatening to chop up the lead character for firewood (and showing a similar puppet with an axe in his back)! The lead character lying limp, face-down in a puddle! It occurred to me that you’d never get a film like that made for kids these days. Why are we afraid to scare children?

He's a jackass! Geddit? Seriously, this gave me nightmares.

In fairness, the Disney movie has nothing on the original tale. You know Jiminy Cricket? Pinocchio squashes him in a temper tantrum and he spends the rest of the story as a ghost. At another point, Pinochio is lynched by the cat and the wolf and left hanging (they grow tired of waiting for him to suffocate). I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t exactly a feel good story. However, enough of the darkness from the book makes it into the film to make it a decidedly unpleasant experience at times – it’s hard not to squirm in your seat. And that’s fantastic.

And it isn’t as though the movie is as incredibly soul-destroying as the first half of It’s a Wonderful Life. Pinocchio is full of the trademark Disney whimsy, and arguably offers the prototype of the classic Disney supporting cast, including the wry narratior (Jimminy Cricket), the caring father (Gepeto) and the cute supporting animal (Figaro). The early scenes in Gepato’s workshop are arguably as magical and alive as anything Disney has done since.

Looking at the great children’s stories that we told down through the ages, it’s easy to see that as time marched on, they become gradually less dark. Those of us who grew up on the Disney version of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, for example, can’t imagine how dark and sadistic the original tales were – they would be better suited to adaptations as horrors than as family films, to be frank (and, admittedly, it has been tried somewhat unsuccessfully). The edges of these horror stories – truly the stuff of nightmares – have been gradually eroded and softened over time, becoming tales which end in that magical stock phrase ‘happily ever after’ (which now seems the faithful bookend to ‘once upon a time’).

A lot of the change in the types of stories we tell does come from a growth and development in our attitudes towards children. While these stories were being crafted, at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, children didn’t have a childhood as we know it – most would become part of the labour force before they reached double digits. They were highly at risk from disease and plague – not to mention the inevitable danger that other human beings must have posed (there are all manner of historical folk stories about bands of cannibals feeding on the innocent during cold winters throughout Europe – though we can’t be sure whether they have any basis in fact, they certainly illustrate the mindset of the time, of a people who viewed this as a legitimate fear).

Children were to be seen and not heard. Punishment was doled out with little or no reason. These individuals did not exist independent of the parents who housed and fed them – human rights didn’t exist, let alone children’s rights. Obedience was the key to a productive household – not independent thought or literacy. You didn’t question, you did what you were told. It’s only natural that the stories of the time should reward such characteristics and punish those children who did not demonstrate them – the inquisitive ones, the curious ones, the ones who would disobey or upset their parents.

Being honest, it isn’t hard to see why we don’t tell these stories any more. We’re a society that believes in education for education’s sake. Independent thought is welcomed. Surely the protagonists of these fairytales who demonstrate these characteristics should be rewarded, not punished. By all means keep the tales we’re familiar with – they have a nice ring to them, after all – but change the bloody endings and tone them down several notches.

I can understand that logic and I respect it. I don’t want to have my little sister told the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales as originally envisaged. But I do wonder if we have swung too far in the opposite direction, if we are now far too frightened of telling our children anything even a little bit uncomfortable.

I asked last year if we had stopped making movies for children, when we were producing films like The Fantastic Mister Fox – a far greater treat for Wes Anderson fans than for their children – or Where the Wild Things Are – an explorations of a young boy’s fractured imagination – but I also asked if we were pandering too much. Are we underestimating what children in modern society can enjoy?

There’s a famous urban myth that Bambi scarred a generation of Americans so badly that Disney effectively banned the death of parents in future films – The Lion King is one of the few modern films to feature such a death. However, the suggestion ignores the fact that Bambi had such a huge impact precisely because of the death of Bambi’s mother. I remember the scene vividly, with just the whiteness and the silence and Bambi calling “mother” (and the dread when you, just eight years old at the time, realise what has happened before even Bambi does). I can’t remember much of the rest of the film, save a rabbit named Thumper. The reason that we all remember Bambi is because it grabbed our childhood selves and gave us a vigourous shake – it scared us, but it felt good to be scared.

You can start crying... I won't judge you...

Would I hesitate to show a young relative Bambi or Pinochio? No, I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d put it well ahead of most other Disney fare currently being produced. In a way, Pixar get a pass because they’ve avoided the toning down that we’ve seen at Disney. Try to convince yourself that Sid blowing up toys (and his mutants) didn’t mildly disturb you in the original Toy Story, or lie and tell me that you didn’t cry during the opening montage of Up. What harm could exploring these honest emotions possibly do to a child.

After all, I turned out (relatively) okay, didn’t I?

17 Responses

  1. If you remember Shelly Duvalls Faerie Tale Theatre it was also dark and haunting and a show created for kids. Bambi is even dark and ominous.

    I think the difference is we live in such a PC world that no one wants to offend anyone, and placates to conforming rather than taking any risks ever. Besides, kids deserve more credit. Look at Alice In Wonderland. It was dark, but still a great movie for kids.

    • Yep. Most of the stuff I remember loving as a child wouldn’t get made today because some parents group would lobby against it as too dark or warped for children.

      Haven’t seen the Shelley Duvall thing. Worthy of a you tube?

      • Absolutely. I’ve bought all the seasons and have rewatched them as an adult and they are still interesting. So dark!

  2. Like Heather says, we live in a PC world where you can’t even say “Merry Christmas” anymore but “Happy Holidays”. Of course, if you say Happy Holidays to some die hard Christians, then they get mad because you didn’t say “Merry Christmas” lol

    Anyways, you know my position on this. In Western civilization, we tend to treat children as the most innocent beings who should be sheltered from anything that sounds remotely like an adult topic. We have books, music, tv shows, movies exclusively for children. The question is: Is this a good thing? Does it help the development of children to live in fairy tales and fake happy dandy stories until they basically reach pre-teens?

    I think not. This only leads to young people having a harder time adapting to the real world. Much like giving awards to kids just for participating, it only increases their expectation that everything is great: trying is enough, just wanting something will result in you getting it etc… Then little Joe or Megan gets into the real world and they fall from very high up.

    • *standing ovation*

    • I think you’re on to something there.

      And it’s funny you should mention the “happy holidays” thing. A coworker has a brother Stateside teaching and he was talking about things like “happy holidays” and having to wear a badge saying “it’s okay to wish my a Merry Christmas… if you want to”. I couldn’t believe it.

  3. I remember a mother complaining that Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty scared her daughter too much. Not sure how old her daughter was. Maybe 5? But really Maleficent too scary? She’s a witch with a green pasty face. I saw Sleeping Beauty as a child…and nope not scary, because a witch cursing a girl to sleep forever, even then, seem to be so far from reality. But Bambi, though I can’t remember ever watching, that I can imagine it having an effect on my child self…just as it did the generations years ago. The fear of a lost of a parent is universal.

    • I think we underestimate what kids can watch and enjoy and think about. What’s the point in having a bad guy if they can’t intimidate their audience? (I’m not talking about blood-curdling Gary-Oldman-in-Leon-level villainry for kids – as you noted, Maleficent has green face paint and has clearly had eloquition lessons, but that’s about it.)

  4. This is a great article!
    I actually did my diploma thesis on the use of darkness within fairy tales and it’s integral role in forming a reference for children on how to deal with difficult times in the real world. Since it was fine art that I was studying it was mostly to do with dark childrens’ illustration, but a huge part of my research was talking about what you discuss here in your post.
    If we look at these stories as morality tales from which to learn, I dread to think what we are teaching if everything works out happily ever after with no hardship on the journey.

    • Yep, that’s it exactly. I’m wary of extending this debate into the discussion over the raising of children, because… well, I know films, not childraising, but I do wonder if this is the result of a society that’s afraid to tell its children that there are scary and sad things out there in the world, but also one that is afraid to actually punish and enforce boundaries with their children. Like I said, I don’t want this too balloon out, but I think maybe we mollycoddle our kids and this is one of the ways that we do it.

  5. This is a great topic and very well written, my friend!
    Personally, I love scarring children and take every opportunity I can to scare my own! 🙂
    Seriously though, my mother was never strict about movies. I saw a lot of things as a kid that I shouldn’t have and think I am the better for it. Don’t get me wrong, I know this could cause some people to pick up a gun and storm the office… but if we can find ways, like Disney films, to prepare kids for the hardhsips and reality of life, I’m all for it!

    • Amen on the “seeing films I’m not supposed to” bit. My grandad was a big fan of that. In fact, I reckon I loved Shutter Island because I used to stay up watching those kind of atmospheric nonsensical horrors with him.

      Good times.

  6. Speaking as someone who worked for the Walt Disney Company for over 8 years I can honestly say there is no scene that fucked me up more than the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio.

    Other traumas include:

    Bambis Ma being shot

    Knowing that Eric was ‘ok’ knowing his new bride was actually part fish

    Knowing that Prince Philip and Prince Charming essentially made the moves on their brides when they were unconscious and/or dead.

    Disney gave me many things to defend daily.

    • Amen on the Pleasure Island sequence. The worst part? That nobody seems to care once they leave. I get the sense that Pinocchio, selfish little brat that he is, forgot to mention it to the authorities that there’s an island with stolen children being turned into donkeys and sold into slavery.

  7. …I never thought about that actually. Holy shit!

  8. I was freaked out by the changing of colors of the horses in the Wizard of Oz. But that is also why I enjoy the movie so much to this day. I remember Nickelodeon aired a show called Are You afraid of the Dark and there were episodes that scared me. But I still watched nonetheless. I am so glad I was part of the last generation that got to enjoy programming that wasn’t overly-optimistically happy. Sometimes I think parents are more scared than the children or they simply forget that we all have had the experience of scary things and it served as a great lesson about reality vs. fantasy.

    • I agree Kayla. I, personally, was (and, to be fair, still am) terrified of the Child Catched from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

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