Are horror movies the antidote to the way we’re making modern kids afraid?

It happened, and I didn't notice it. I've been hoodwinked, bamboozled. Someone made an end run, and it worked? Oh, my god, I'm Elmer Fudd. I got took.

And honestly?

Couldn't be prouder.

For the most part, when I write about Film Nerd 2.0, I'm writing about both Toshi and Allen, both of my sons, and when it comes to showing them movies, I try to keep them both involved as much as possible.

Toshi turns ten just a few months, though, and there's really no comparison between the way he digests media now and the way Allen does. Toshi's begun talking to me about storytelling in a way that suggests that when he's done watching or reading something, he's not done thinking about it. He came to me recently to tell me that he's “got a character.” The other day, he and Allen were playing, and I was sitting in the other room. I could hear them talking, and Toshi was telling Allen a story about this character he's created, a story he appeared to be making up as he was telling it.

When he chose “The Bad News Bears” to watch recently, it was more therapeutic than I expected. I wouldn't have necessarily thought to show them that one right now, but Toshi told me that he needed to see it, and it turns out that it kicked something loose in him, something that allowed us to have a conversation he'd obviously been hoping to see for a while.

I've written here before about how nervous Toshi is about horror films in general, and it doesn't help that I misjudged something terribly a few years ago. We made it a grand total of eight minutes into “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” just long enough for Dan Aykroyd to show them something “really scary,” and since then, horror movies have been off the table. Completely and utterly off the table. When I sorted all the shelves recently, establishing three full shelves of Blu-rays that I consider acceptable for the boys to watch, I included “Poltergeist”. Toshi's so nervous about horror films that he moved the film to another shelf, just to be sure. Little by little, though, we've been seeing movies that have horror elements to them, and as long as I don't call a film a “horror film,” they seem curious about all sorts of things.

I wrote last year about their first R-rated film, James Cameron's “The Terminator,” and Toshi's rewatched the film at least a dozen times since then. He's fascinated by it, and he's started to pull it apart like a magic trick. He wants to know how things were done, and he wants to know why he reacts the way he does. When I went to Fox's Christmas party this year, I ran into Cameron standing alone by the dessert table. This was just weeks after that screening, so I couldn't resist. “I just showed my nine year old his first R-rated film. It was the original 'Terminator.'”

“Oh, really?” he said, big smile on his face. “That exact cut of the film was given an X when we first submitted it to the MPAA. It was rated X for about 48 hours until we won the appeal. So… good parenting.” He toasted me, laughing.

Toshi's not just nervous about movies, though, and it's not his fault. Toshi's mother has subscribed fully to the idea that everyone in the world is desperate to abduct or kill our children at all times. She buys into that wholesale, and she passes her anxiety along to them. To be fair, we watched every parent's nightmare unfold in real-time about two years ago when a prepubescent girl in our neighborhood was abducted from her bed in the middle of the night, a genuine case of “stranger danger,” finally showing up a few days later. We had the FBI and news crews and the entire horrible circus in our neighborhood for that week, and it only enforced the idea that it could happen to our own kids.

As Toshi's been watching older films and reading books and asking me about my own childhood, he's been gaining a growing resentment of the babysitter culture he's growing up in, bristling at it. And even as I can tell he's not happy about it, he's also incredibly skittish. I've been thinking about ways to help him feel some independence without putting him or myself in a position where there's going to be any real trouble. After all, even when parents make perfectly reasonable decisions allowing their kids to play outside or walk to school or do something else unsupervised, people are calling the police and child protective services on them. It's a no-win situation. You can't give your kids the freedom you want to, they can't have the freedom they need, and no one's actually being served by any of this. We're not making them safer; we're making them emotional veal.

I had an idea about how to give him the feeling of independence without putting him in a situation where he was genuinely unsupervised. My apartment is next door to an outdoor shopping center. Starbucks, a Chinese place, Togo's Sandwiches, a newsstand, Jenny Craig, Supercuts, a karaoke dive bar where porn stars hang out, Bank of America, and a giant Vons grocery store. The front door of the grocery store is about 80 yards away from the living room window of my apartment. If I stand in the window, I could easily yell to someone standing at the door of the store. This weekend, the boys were here at my place, and it was early Saturday morning. I checked the fridge, then walked into the living room where the boys were playing “Minecraft” together.

“Toshi, can you do me a favor?”


“Put your shoes on for me.” He ran to get them, then came back in to put them on. He sat down to do so, and I took out my wallet, handing him $20. He seemed confused when I did so. “I'm out of milk, so I want you to run next door and grab some. You know what kind we always get.”

He looked at the money, looked at the window, and then burst into tears.

Not the reaction I expected. I told him that I wasn't going to make him go, and there was nothing to be upset about, but he was genuinely worked up. As we talked, it was obvious that much of his reaction was that he was angry at himself for being so afraid that he burst into tears. He was embarrassed. He was unsure why he had that big a reaction to that small a request, and he was not sure how to make sure it wouldn't happen again. We walked over together, all three of us, then walked back, talking as we went, and I reassured him that it wasn't a problem. He wasn't wrong to feel whatever way he feels, and if he's not ready for that, then I'm not going to make him do it just to make him do it. I was looking to give him the responsibility it sounded like he was asking for, not to push him into it in a way that makes him uncomfortable or terrified.

I thought I'd be writing today's column about the movie we watched as a group on Saturday, because it's a pretty major title, one Toshi's been asking about for months. We did the full running time for the extended edition of “Fellowship Of The Ring,” and if I was writing about that, I probably still would have written about Toshi and his reaction to horror films and real life fear. One of the things that was clear watching the film with the boys is that Peter Jackson was still very much thinking like a horror filmmaker when he made “Fellowship.” It's genuinely scary, and it's sort of an assault at times. It is aggressive and the violence in it all lands. It matters. There is weight and impact to it. The film hit Toshi pretty hard, and we talked about a pretty broad spectrum of things afterwards. We talked about the context of when the film hit theaters, how 9/11 had just happened and the film's message of hope felt particularly important and urgent at the time. Toshi was excited by the idea of how one small Hobbit can play such a major role, and it connected here for him in a way that it never did in any of the three “Hobbit” movies.

At bedtime, we read as the boys go to sleep, and this weekend was no different. I read for about twenty minutes, and little by little, I heard both of them slip away, their breathing growing deeper and more regular. I love that sound, and I love sitting there for a few minutes after they both are asleep. I miss being able to do that every single night. Finally, I got up and walked out to the living room. I made a few notes on something I wanted to write, and spoke to a friend for a while, and then was getting ready to read when Toshi appeared in the living room, a little wobbly, still at least a little bit asleep.

“Hey, buddy. What's going on?”

“Daddy… I don't like being scared.”

I motioned for him to join me, and he walked over, curled up with me on the couch. “Can I tell you something? I spent a lot of time afraid in my own life. There were things I was afraid of for years that I've never told anyone about. There was one short story by a guy named Stephen King that scared me for almost four solid years. It messed me up. There were several films I saw in the theater that I was too young to see, and the monsters from those movies scared me for a long time. There was one in particular that I believed in, and I never told my parents or my friends because I didn't want anyone to make fun of me. But when I was in Tennessee, the neighborhood where I lived was a big giant suburban sprawl, and when I would come back from my best friend's house, I had to go all the way up and down two pretty major hills. I would try to get enough speed going down the hill to make it all the way up the other side, but it was never quite enough, and I would have to get off and push the bike up that last part of the hill to get to my street. If the sun was down, I would get gripped by this crazy feeling that Michael Myers was going grab me, and I would start running, and by the time I got to my yard, I'd throw my bike down and I'd throw that front door open and then slam it, and I wouldn't even be able to look back because I knew… I knew… that he was right there. And of course the truth is that he never was, and all of that fear was just wasted energy on my part. It wasn't about anything, and there are plenty of things in this world that can actually hurt you. Almost none of them are things you can control. And the odds are against them happening to you. You can't live your life worried about things because the only person that hurts is you. But I understand how you feel… and you can talk to me about how you feel any time, okay?”

I told him he needed to head back to bed, and he got up and started to walk down the hall, then stopped. And when he turned back around, he was wide awake.

“I feel like I need to watch something.”

I laughed because I know that I would have used my own rough day as an excuse to watch something when I was his age, and I totally recognize the urge. I looked over at the clock. 11:30. It was early enough, and there are a number of different comedies he's been asking about, so I said, “If you want… we can watch 'The Jerk.' You just can't tell your little brother about it, okay?”

“I want to see that, but… no. Not now. I want you to show me something really scary. I want you to show me 'Halloween.'”

This is not the first time he'd asked about the film, and he knew who Michael was because of a field guide to movie monsters that he is fascinated by. But I figured it was because of my story, so I told him, “Buddy, you don't have to do that to prove something. That's not why I told you that story.”

“No, I want to. I want to watch it. And I don't want to turn it off.”

I considered his request carefully. Like I said, I consider the “Twilight Zone” screening a genuine mistake. When I saw his face when the Dan Aykroyd jump scare happened, I felt so immediately bad about it that I have been overly careful ever since. But the way he asked me, and the clarity with which he asked, made all the difference this time. I saw it when I was younger than him, and it left a mark, but I had not asked for the movie when I saw it. I had a relative who thought it was funny to show me a horror movie. Toshi is starting to ask for things and offer his reasoning for why he wants to see something, and that is exactly what I'm looking for as he develops. If he can explain why he wants to watch something and it's more complex than “there are boobs in it,” then there's a good chance he can watch it.

And that's when I realized that something had happened right under my nose, while I wasn't looking, and that it's time I acknowledge it. Toshi grew up. He's taken some control, whether we're ready to give it to him or not. He just snuck it right by me, and all of a sudden, there's this young man standing in this hallway, determined not to be a little boy, asking me to give him some respect.

“Okay, then. Let's watch 'Halloween.'” I got out the DVD and put it in the player while he got his blanket and his pillow and made his space on the couch. As the Anchor Bay pre-roll went by, he asked me some pointed questions, and I could hear that he was nervous about it.

“Do they do a lot of things where they pop out?”

“No. It's not really about jump scares. It's more about suspense.”

“Do they have a lot of blood?”

“No. There's some violence, but the 'Lord Of The Rings' we just watched has way more blood in it.”

“So why is it scary?”

“Well… Michael Myers is more like the Terminator. He just keeps coming.”

And as soon as I said that, I could feel him relax next to me. “Oh? Really? Then… okay… yeah. You can put that on.”

As he went to bed on the other side of the movie, he was smiling broadly. He basically swaggered down the hall. “I thought that was really awesome,” he said. “It was scary, but it was really awesome.” And it wasn't just empty posturing. From the very start of the film, he had questions, but he wasn't freaked out. As he realized just how calm the film is, how Michael steps into frame almost casually, he was able to settle in. He was fascinated by all the glimpses into the world of teenagers, which plays into a theory I have about how kids are interested in stories about kids who just a little older than them because it's a sneak preview of what they can expect. When Bob and Linda finished fooling around, Toshi rolled his eyes. “That guy just thinks about sex, right?”

“It would appear so, yes.”

“Yeah. That's weird. It's also stupid. Michael doesn't like it when people have sex.” I didn't explain the movie's moral code to him. He picked it up from the text. I pointed out that they didn't know Michael was there, and that there's nothing inherently wrong with what they were doing.

“You know Michael's crazy, right?”

“Yeah. Crazy about sex.”

Fair point. Overall, his reaction to the movie was that Laurie was awesome, it was really amazing that the old '50s version of “The Thing” was on the TV, and the Terminator would clean Michael's clock. He was curious about the sequels, but I told him there's plenty of time for him to find out about those later. For now, he told me that he was surprised by how much he liked it. I asked him if he'd had any kind of bad dreams or problems sleeping. I'd checked on him a few times, and he seemed fine. He promised me that he hadn't had any trouble, and that he'd actually had a very good night.

The next morning, we had a birthday party to go to, and on the way, I had my iPod playing on random. We were almost to the party when the “Halloween” theme came on.

I looked up at the rearview mirror, and I could see a big smile spread across his face. And at that moment, he didn't look scared at all. Not one little bit.