4 Year Olds Can Watch Stephen King’s IT: and Other Questionable Decisions My Parents Made Raising Me

The days of sneaking into living rooms to catch midnight horror movies when your parents were fast asleep have now been replaced by minimizing Netflix browser windows when Mom thinks you’re playing Minecraft. The elusive “horror movie back rooms” in video stores are now just a few key words into Google. Considering how easy it is to be exposed to graphic horror films, the discussion of when it is “appropriate” for children to see horror films has become a huge topic for debate amongst parents. What is too scary? When is the right time to intentionally scare your kids? Is there ever a “right” time?

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My parents took the approach of “anytime is a good enough time to show our kid fucked up stuff.” One of my earliest memories I have as a child was sitting next to my mother as she binge-watched STEPHEN KING’S IT. The ironic thing is that I distinctly remember my father telling her I was too young, and her response being, “She’ll never remember this.” Growing up, my parents were (and still are) well respected members of our community. They both volunteered for the local recreation department, and part of their volunteer work was running my hometown’s annual haunted house and haunted hayride during Halloween. My parents and all of their friends would dress in costumes, pop out of the woods, climb onto the tractor, and scare the absolute shit out of everyone. At five years old, I was let onto the haunted hayride reserved for adults because my parents were the ones doing the scaring. I don’t know how familiar you are with children, but kids have really shitty memories. Babies don’t have object permanence and forget things once they’re out of sight, and (as my experiences would show) five year olds completely forget that their dad is the one in costume when there’s a fake chainsaw six inches from their face.

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I was in first grade when South Park first aired on television. My school held a conference to inform parents of how to explain to their kids why a cartoon wasn’t meant for children…and my parents were actively encouraging me to watch it. Comedy Central had a South Park marathon on New Year’s Eve, and I was shipped off to my grandma’s house while my parents went out to celebrate. My dad tasked me with recording all of the episodes on VHS so we could watch them later, but my grams was not about to let a seven year old listen to some flapping heads call each other “dildos.” The VHS is still at my parents’ house, complete with quick channel changes to KaBlam! from whenever my grandma walked through the living room. My parents liked the show, and they liked spending time with me. They knew that it was a forbidden fruit and that even if they told me I wasn’t allowed to watch it, I was going to find a way to watch it. So, instead of leaving me to try and figure it out on my own, they watched it with me. I didn’t understand half of the content, but my parents would watch the show with me and always explain to me why the joke was funny, and why I was not allowed to repeat it. I didn’t “lose my childhood” or “grow up too fast” because I watched South Park before I learned long division, but I did have a much better grasp on mature subjects when I was old enough to understand them.

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My mom ran a daycare for over 20 years, so the kids in the neighborhood were more than familiar with our household. Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead was a favorite of ours, and the “older kids” were constantly sneaking Serial Mom and other dark comedies into the VCR when the “little kids” were outside playing. I had a co-ed sleepover one night with some of my friends and we couldn’t have been more than 11 years old. My dad told us a horror story of “The Lukaroo,” (a made up monster that I swear to god I will turn into a script someday) and then showed us The People Under The Stairs and Sleepaway Camp. One of my friends was so terrified, he made his mom come get him and walk him home…even though he lived next door. We screamed, we laughed, we had nightmares, and it’s a night that all of us look back on fondly. That same scared kid has admitted decades later that “The Lukaroo was the scariest moment of my life, and there is nothing that could happen that could scare me like that.” How beautiful is that? If the scariest thing to ever happen to you is a made-up story from your childhood, what’s so wrong with that? Sure, some of the parents of my friends thought I was a total weirdo and despite my high honor roll grades and involvement in just about every extra-curricular offered in school, people were constantly questioning my parents’ decision to expose me to everything and anything.

There were plenty of things I watched as a child that I never quite understood or that completely went over my head. To me, Candyman was just a scary man that came out of the mirror, and I was way too young to understand the presences of the societal weight of white privilege and class discrimination in the film. However, since I had gotten the “be scared” part out of the way years ago, revisiting the film pushed the underlying meanings right to the forefront. For the most part, horror films are largely exaggerations of morality tales. Once you remove the surface level “horror” elements from the film, you’re left with important life lessons. The Babadook isn’t just a horrifying creature from a book, it’s also a serious look at the difficulty of parenthood. Frozen isn’t just about being trapped on a ski-lift, it’s about the realization of what is truly important in your lives, and what is worth surviving for.

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My parents didn’t ever drop me in front of the TV and use it as a de-facto babysitter, rather, they watched these questionable films with me and were there to guide me if I didn’t understand something, if I found it to be too scary, or if a character said something I wasn’t allowed to repeat. Perhaps most importantly, they always made sure I watched the film all the way through. Vampires are exposed to sunlight, the helicopter lets people leave zombie ridden areas, and our heroes live to see another day. Had my parents noticed my fear of Pennywise and immediately turned off the TV, I would have spent the rest of my life horrified by his sharp teeth, and not empowered knowing that I could fight him with my inhaler if needed. My parents were more interested in explaining to me “why” something was scary, instead of just leaving me to my own devices. My parents left me alone to watch Home Alone 2: Lost in New York when I was a kid (thinking it would be fine), and when Marv is electrocuted and turned into a skeleton (which is supposed to be a joke), I flipped absolute shit. I was horrified of the laundry machine for weeks, because I didn’t have someone telling me “it’s a joke, it’s not real.”

At some point, my parents did have to stop holding my hand and I was left to discover horror on my own. My first real encounter was with the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill. I remember sitting at a campground with one of those TVs with the VHS player built into it and shaking with fear for most of the film. In particular, the “underwater” sequence:

I was 9 years old watching this with my best friend (who was 11) and we were fucking horrified. Over 15 years later and I still find myself holding my breath when I watch this scene. It was around this time that I endured some pretty traumatic events. Most adults aren’t prepared to deal with trauma, let alone children who have been spoonfed brightly colored cartoons for most of their existence. However, I had seen House on Haunted Hill and that was way scarier than some of the real life stuff I was dealing with. If I could survive watching that film, I could survive childhood trauma too.

Obviously, this isn’t going to work for everyone as every child is different, but don’t be afraid to scare your kids or let them experience some negative emotions. 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. What one child may find horrifying, another could find comedic.  Without testing the waters with something like horror films, you’re stuck between babying your child, or throwing your children to the wolves, so to speak.

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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.  Fear is a necessary experience, and exposing your children to horror films help make that experience a little more manageable.

Comments
2 Responses to “4 Year Olds Can Watch Stephen King’s IT: and Other Questionable Decisions My Parents Made Raising Me”
  1. Angelique Bone says:

    My parents were much the same; they watched with me and explained things, and with few exceptions, would let me watch pretty much anything I asked to watch. (I ran rampant through the horror section at the video store; those vhs covers spoke to my soul!) I truly agree with your statement about how shielding kids from anything spooky or scary does more harm than good in the long run. The real world is so much scarier than anything on the screen!

  2. Awesome article! Coincidentally, I just watched that *House on Haunted Hill* remake again today on VOD. Which, in turn, led me to this article via IMDb. I personally prefer the sequel *Return to House on Haunted Hill*, but the original 1959 William Castle classic is priceless! *rimshot*

    Here’s my much shorter blog post about being exposed to fear as a child through film and such – http://beautypersoni.blogspot.ca/2015/06/facing-fear-as-kid-is-fun-classic-blog.html

    The movie that scared the crap out of me as a kid was *Cujo*, and I likely saw no more than a minute while trying to sneak a peek of what the babysitter was watching. I eventually saw the film many years later and, even if I’d never had that childhood experience, I’d still consider it one of the scariest ever made! Truly terrifying!

    Anyhoo…

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