As did many of you this holiday season, I spent my evening watching the classic Christmas jam, GREMLINS. I remember begging my parents to let me watch GREMLINS when I was about six years old, and considering some of the more extreme stuff I had watched as a child, Joe Dante’s masterpiece was a walk in the park. Or so I thought. At this point in my life, I’d already watched HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and IT. All of these films are arguably much scarier than GREMLINS, but I couldn’t get enough of it.
I’ve written about it plenty of times before, but there was no better time to be a child interested in horror than the 1990s. Sure, the 1990s aren’t known for producing as iconic horror films as the 1970s or the 1980s, but kids aren’t old enough to go see those films anyway. Where we had the upperhand, was children’s horror television. ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?, GOOSEBUMPS, SO WEIRD, and EERIE, INDIANA, were at our disposal from every kid’s TV station on cable. There were multiple outlets for horror exposure without it being “too mature” or “too babyish.” It was the perfect balance of delivering frightening stories without ever being traumatic. Much like Alvin Schwartz’ SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, GREMLINS was a perfect transition piece for older children/preteens that were craving something a little more intense than Scooby Doo cartoons. While horror is becoming much more mainstream and accepted by modern audiences thanks to things like THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY, there’s a massive lack of transition horror.
I don’t think that we should be sugarcoating the things we show to the youth of America, but I also accept that my mom showing me STEPHEN KING’S “IT” when I was 4 years old could have been a seriously traumatic experience. With the exception of animated films/TV shows, there really isn’t anything for kids today to give them a safe and healthy amount of horror. CORALINE, PARANORMAN, and the cartoon GRAVITY FALLS are all pretty good examples of transition horror, but they’re all animated. When it comes to live action, there really isn’t anything available. Don’t get me wrong, I really love horror animation for children. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a favorite for many horror fans and PARANORMAN was one of my favorite films of 2012. However, there’s a great sense of distance between seeing animation and seeing live-action. Billy Peltzer’s eyes bugging out during GREMLINS was my sign that my fear was totally justified. Seeing Sally’s eyes bug out when the tree catches fire in THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS just isn’t the same.
Similarly to allowing kids to test their limits in situations of danger (am I really brave enough to go down the big slide?), it’s also really important to allow children to experience fear in a safe environment (like watching a movie). Having safe exposure to fear helps children learn to process their negative emotions. The world is not candy coated sunshine, and when you are smashed in the head with a hammer, you do not grow a TOM AND JERRY style red bump. It seems that parents are under some weird delusion that if they don’t ever let their kids see scary things, they won’t have nightmare or experience fear. Unfortunately, by not exposing children to scary things (age-appropriate, obviously) they’re just making their children much more susceptible to fear. Not every child is the same, which makes transition horror all the more important. What one child may find horrifying, another could find comedic. Without transition horror films, you’re stuck between babying your child, or throwing your children to the wolves, so to speak.
Transition horror arguably tends to make for more interesting horror films. When you’re writing a horror film for an adult, you can rely on gore, graphic violence, sexual discomfort, and in-your-face scare tactics to make your film. When you’re writing a horror film for children, you don’t have that luxury. It forces films to generate fear with pacing, atmosphere, and genuinely strong storytelling. There’s no way to make a SAW Jr. There is, however, a way to make THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL Jr. I think of transition horror as like going through horror puberty. Sure, HOCUS POCUS is a little basic for your liking, but are you sure you’re ready for SUSPIRIA? The answer is probably not, but luckily for you there’s a film like THE CRAFT to help bridge the gap between these witch flicks. CASPER might be a little immature for you, but films like THE SHINING are a little too extreme, so maybe try watching THE LADY IN WHITE. There’s a heavily untapped market for PG-13 horror films that aren’t just watered down versions of R-rated films or unnecessarily pumped up G films. There haven’t been very many genuine transition horror films in a while, and that’s a shame. Many of us cite these transition horror films as the ones that got us to love the genre, but for the kids of today…they have nothing. Horror acted as the purest truth for me as a child. While my parents were telling me Santa Claus was watching me all year to determine whether or not I deserved presents and that there weren’t any monsters in my closet. Horror movies told me the complete opposite, but at the same time taught me how to beat the monster in the closet. Horror is a necessary experience, and transition horror films help make that experience a little more manageable.