“I want to watch 'Shaun Of The Dead.'”
Toshi's an ambitious kid at this point in many ways, and he had his argument all lined up. To be fair, it wasn't his idea. I was looking for something from my horror collection that they wanted to see, and so we were going through these books, looking for something that was the right kind of scary for them. I've got some Val Lewton I want to show them, but Toshi was giving me all sorts of specific requests.
Meanwhile, Allen was getting stressed out. I told him we could completely opt out of the horror movie if he wanted to, but he told me he wasn't scared because Toshi wasn't scared. There's a huge amount of hero worship going on with Allen these days. He wants to be his older brother so much it hurts, and Toshi really doesn't know what to do with that impulse. It's enormously sweet, but it can be absolutely maddening. Allen's at that age where truth is a completely liquid idea, so anytime Toshi has an accomplishment to share with me, Allen has to make sure he's got a story that trumps it.
“At recess today, we were playing kickball, and I got Chance out three times. It was so much fun.”
“Yeah, Daddy, that reminds me, because at recess when I had recess today, we had kickball, too, and I got the whole class out. The teacher said that I was the best at kickball ever.”
Every single time Allen does it, Toshi rolls his eyes so hard I can hear them. He's trying to be patient, but he goes zero to irritated in mere moments. Toshi has the same problem I had growing up, in that he's the oldest, which means he can do more, but the feelings of the younger siblings often have to be taken into account. I was five years apart from my sister, so it was easier to simply say, “You're not old enough.” Allen and Toshi are three years apart, so that gulf doesn't seem as vast. Allen feels entitled to experience pretty much anything Toshi does, with some big obvious things that they don't have in common.
Gaming, for example, is a perfectly equal playing field. There's no game I would let Toshi play that I don't let Allen play. Every FPS out there (with the exception of the new “Doom,” which seems to exist as gore for gore's sake) is just running variations on Capture The Flag or Hide and Seek, and I don't get terribly upset about the idea of them indulging that particular urge as long as it's not the only thing they do. With books, there's no equality, but that's by choice on Allen's end. Allen has yet to decide whether or not he's going to read for pleasure. Toshi, on the other hand, has been bit hard by the bug, and he's powering through books these days. He's realized that there are things in books that he can't get from movies, and that my attitude about books is “If you're old enough to want to read it, I'm willing to let you.”
With movies, there's still a lot of negotiations. I say “no” way more often than I say yes. I've had some people question choices I've made about what Toshi can or can't see, and I get that. Your standards and my standards are never going to be exactly the same as parents, but why would they be? I know my kid, just like I presume you know your kid. As long as we're both actively listening to our kids when they tell us what they're ready for and what they're taking from the things they watch, that's what matters. When Toshi was wrestling with his urge to watch “Halloween,” it helped him understand what he was getting into when I compared it to “The Terminator.” A few weeks ago, I wanted to introduce the boys to John Boyega with “Attack The Block,” convinced they'd have a good time with it. “Wait, what? That movie's crazy,” I can hear you saying. Believe, bruv, that I shared this with the fam. Allow it. I only did it because I knew they'd be fine. I was able to tell them to expect something along the lines of “Tremors” in terms of monster horror. They really liked “Tremors,” so that helped them decide that they wanted to see “Attack The Block,” which they did indeed end up loving.
But there's no doubt they still internalize movies, and horror films in particular are a tricky thing because the wrong kind of scary will lead to weeks of ramifications. I got a very upset call from Toshi recently because we have a VUDU account that I share with some other people, and he can access it from his Playstation. He sounded distressed when he said, “Daddy, I have a question for you?”
“What's up, buddy?”
“You said that you didn't like 'Poltergeist,' the new 'Poltergeist,' right? You said you didn't like that one, right?”
“Yeah, I wasn't a fan.”
“SO THEN WHY DID YOU PUT IT ON THE VUDU? BECAUSE NOW THE FIRST THING I SEE IS THAT CLOWN AND I DON'T REALLY WANT TO SEE THAT CLOWN, OKAY?!”
When the billboards for “Annabelle” were up all over LA, they were both miserable, and it doesn't help that during the marketing campaign for “The Conjuring,” Warner Bros. sent an Annabelle doll to my house. My mother-in-law took enormous delight in moving the doll, still in its box, to various places in the house without comment, inevitably driving the boys into a tizzy every single time she did it. I think it's safe to say that both dolls and clowns rank very high on the list of things that scare the living shit out of them, which is why despite its PG rating, the original “Poltergeist” is nowhere near their list of approved titles right now. Nope. Not for years. Even this month's “Goosebumps” was scarier for them than I expected because of the presence of Slappy, the evil ventriloquist dummy. I understand, though. I remember going to a tour of David Copperfield's private magic museum in Las Vegas, and it went really well until the moment he walked us into the room where he keeps his collection of ventriloquist dummies. I stopped at the threshold to the room, then backed out, careful not to turn away, absolutely horrified by the entire view. Nope. No. No, thanks.
One of the mistakes I've made was regarding “War Of The Worlds,” which Allen has told me repeatedly since our screening of it. He's had horrible nightmares about it, and I feel terrible about the specific fears it seems to have tapped for him. I think that he's taken the end of the marriage harder than his brother has, and he doesn't really have a vocabulary for what he's going through. It hasn't been a non-stop thing, but it's expressed itself in numerous small ways, and “War Of The Worlds” in particular seems to be the bag where he puts all of his divorce anxiety.
There was also a formative weekend for Allen when he was very young, either three or four years ago now. They joined me at Comic-Con, and the hotel where we were staying had elevator doors that had been covered with a branded ad for “The Walking Dead,” making it look like there were actual zombies erupting from the elevator, with the walls of the elevators covered with zombies reaching in towards the passengers. Since that weekend at the hotel, during which the only way to our room was to use the “Walking Dead” elevators, Allen has been flat out not interested in anything zombie related. On those rare occasions he's able to articulate what happens in his nightmares, zombies feature prominently.
So as we started talking about what to watch this past weekend, I knew it wasn't going to be easy to find something that satisfied both of them completely. We started, before anything else, by watching the final “Star Wars” trailer a few times in a row. They hadn't seen it yet, and it made them absolutely crazy. Allen's already decided to be Kylo Ren for Halloween, and finally hearing him speak made Allen do figurative backflips around the living room. We've also been mainlining “Flash” episodes from season one now that it's on Netflix, and so by the time we got to picking out a movie, they were buzzed on all the things they love, in a tremendous mood. And then the debates began.
They've seen all the Universal monster movies, and I mean all of them. We've worked our way through every terrible sequel and spin-off, and we've seen all the classics, some of them many times. So for a little while, the two of them were focused on “Van Helsing,” a film I think is just plain ridiculous, but that seemed like it might hit the sweet spot for them. After all, they're little kids, and if there's ever been a movie that felt like it was written by a committee of little kids, it's “Van Helsing.” Here's the entire review I ran for the film at Ain't It Cool News:
Imagine you have a seven year old kid. You have to go out for the afternoon, and you decide to leave him by himself. While you're gone, there's a triple feature on TV. The original DRACULA, the original FRANKENSTEIN, and the original WOLF MAN. And while he watches all three of those films, he eats a whole box of Count Chocula cereal and drinks a 12-pack of Mountain Dew. So when you walk through the door and ask him what he's been doing, he tackles you and bellows:
“OHMYGODTHEREWASTHISMOVIEONTV, ANDITHADTHEDRACULAANDTHEWOLFMANAND THEFRANKENSTEINWASINIT, ANDTHEREWERETHESELADIES INTHEIRNIGHTGOWNSANDTHEYTURNEDINTOMONSTERS, ANDTHENEVERYBODYKILLEDTHE FRANKENSTEINBUTHETHEWINDMILLFALLEDAPART, ANDEVERYBODYDIDN'TDIEAND ANDANDTHENTHISONEGUYHEHADTHISBOWANDARROW, ANDWHENHEWENTTOKILLDRACULA EVERYBODYTURNEDINTOTHEWOLFMAN, ANDHEWENT GRRRROOOOOOOWWWWRRRRRRRRR!!!!!”
Well, that's VAN HELSING. Were there good ideas in there? Yep. A few. Were there bad ideas in there? Yep. A whole bunch. The biggest problem I see is that with $175 million to play with, Sommers no longer has to filter between the good and the bad ideas. I can imagine that if I were eleven, this would have probably rocked my world. Then again, when I was eleven, my friends and I would laugh for three hours over someone farting.
Toshi wanted to push, though, and he was he one who brought up “Shaun Of The Dead.” He made his case persuasively, and I couldn't help but laugh because of how much he reminded me of me, arguing my own cases for films I wanted to see. Both of the boys have been obsessed with Queen since seeing “Wayne's World” at the start of the summer, and that led them to “Highlander,” which they loved, and it's also kept “Flash Gordon” in heavy rotation. I had mentioned at one point that there's a great use of a Queen song in “Shaun,” but wouldn't tell them which one or how it was used. They both love Simon Pegg because of the “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” films. And if there was any one film that they both went crazy for all summering, it was “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” They must have watched it ten times over the course of the summer, and I'm pretty sure Toshi's rough ride into puberty began as he worked through his feelings for Knives Chau and Ramona Flowers. So you add up Queen, Edgar Wright, and Simon Pegg, and the idea that “Shaun” is more funny than scary, and it seemed like a slam-dunk.
But as we began to prepare for the viewing, it was clear that Allen was freaking out and doing everything he could to look like he wasn't freaking out. I told him that we could watch something else, but he was taking his cues from his big brother. He wanted to see it because, clearly, Toshi wanted to see it. I finished making dinner, we got everything set up, and then I asked Allen again, “Are you sure? We can watch something else. There are some scary parts in this, and they are real zombies. There are a lot of jokes, too, but I'm not sure this is something you'll enjoy.”
“No, it's fine. I can sit with you, and we can watch it, but I can watch it with you, okay?”
Because I could feel how tense he was sitting next to me, I told him that he was going to be the one with the control for the evening. As soon as I said that, I could tell Toshi wasn't happy. “Listen, Allen, if you decide you don't want to watch this, we'll turn it off. The moment you say so. It's up to you.”
He relaxed. Just enough. Just a little. But I could tell it as what he needed to hear. And as the film began, he kept getting closer and closer to me. Then Ed and Shaun started to talk, and the laughs began, and he started to relax. Toshi pointed out things in the background that hinted at the coming zombie apocalypse on the news or at the edge of frame, and every single time, Allen would tense up all over again.
So we reach the scene at the Winchester where Shaun and Ed are drinking after Shaun breaks up with his girlfriend, and Ed's impression of Clyde the orangutan got them giddy from how hard they laughed. Everything was going well. Then the guys stepped outside, and there's that couple in the background that was making out when Shaun and Ed walked into the Winchester. When they walk out, you see them still making out, but then the guy's head falls off. It's a background gag, but Toshi made sure to point it out, and Allen went stiff as a board next to me. So tense. And then the guys walk into the crosswalk, and there's the zombie down the street, and they do the “White Lines” call-and-response joke.
In rapid succession, both boys laughed their asses off, then asked to see it again. I backed it up, then watched the joke again, and then Allen turned to me and said, very calmly, “That was really funny, Daddy. I'm done now. Can we watch 'The Flash' so I can get the zombies out of my brain?”
I pressed stop, and Toshi stood up, angry tears coursing down his cheeks, and said, “I hate you” to his little brother. He stormed out of the room, back to his bedroom, where he dramatically threw himself on his bottom bunk, sobbing.
These are the moments were diplomacy goes out the window. I wanted to calm Toshi down, but there was no way we were going to push on with the film after I promised Allen he was in charge of the panic button. That's got to be the way it works. When I was young, I saw things I was not ready to see, films I should not have seen at a certain age, and those films took up permanent residence in my head at an age where I was not equipped to deal with the difference between reality and fantasy. I can tell Allen that zombies are no more real than the monsters in “Attack The Block,” but zombies look like human beings, and that's something that's harder to differentiate for kids.
I asked Allen if he'd wait in the living room so I could go talk to Toshi alone.
“Nope.” He didn't even have to consider it.
“Buddy, I need to talk to him to help him calm down.”
“So you stay here.”
“Please, pop, let me…”
I turned all the lights in the living room on. Keep in mind, we hadn't even gotten to any of the genuinely scary stuff in “Shaun.” We saw two jokes with two zombies. That was it.
“Okay, how about now?”
Meanwhile, I could hear Toshi wailing, as dramatic as a ten-year-old can possibly be. Exasperated, but careful not to show it, I told Allen he should join me in the bedroom to talk to his brother.
When we walked in, I stood behind Allen, hands on his shoulders, so that Toshi could see my face but Allen couldn't. I did this so I could say one thing out loud, then silently mouth something additional so only Toshi would know. I saw a possible solution to the situation, but I needed Toshi to calm down long enough to understand it.
“Toshi, can you turn over, please?”
“NO! I HATE ALLEN! HE RUINED IT!”
“Buddy, please. Just turn over and look at me, okay?”
“NO! I WANTED TO SEE THIS MY WHOLE LIFE!” I thought about accusing him of hyperbole, but the film did come out a year before he was born, so I let it go.
“Toshi. I'm not asking you. Turn over and look at me.”
When he turned over and looked at the both of us, his eyes were as red as he were at a Cypress Hill show. At least he wasn't faking his tears. He was legitimately ruined by it. It was the end of his ten-year-old world. Everything had led to a viewing of “Shaun Of The Dead,” and then the plug got pulled on him just when it was about to get great. You could almost feel the anger in the room like heat.
“Toshi, we have to respect Allen's wishes because we don't want to scare him in a way he doesn't enjoy, okay?”
Behind Allen: Toshi, Allen's going to sleep by 11. If you want, we can watch the rest when he's asleep.
“IT'S NOT FAIR! IT WAS ALREADY ON AND WE WERE WATCHING IT! YOU CAN'T STOP IT ONCE YOU'RE WATCHING IT!”
“Toshi, do you remember when we tried to watch 'Twilight Zone: The Movie'? And we had to turn it off because it scared you so much?”
No answer to that one.
“Toshi, do you remember that?”
“So you understand. That was too scary for you, and we stopped.”
Behind Allen: We can watch it later tonight. Just stop.
He couldn't resist. One more time, right at Allen. “IT WASN'T EVEN SCARY!”
And then, directly to me. “Fine.”
So of course we all enjoyed “The Flash,” and five minutes into it, Toshi was fine and Allen was fine and everything was back to normal. Dinner was great. We had a good rest of the night. And about 10:30, everyone got teeth brushed and PJs on and into bed, and we read, the way we read every night. We're doing Robert Aspirin's “Myth Adventures” right now, so I went through two chapters, enjoying all the giggles the boys get when we read these. I noticed the giggles getting quieter and less frequent, though, and when I finished the second chapter, I waited for a moment. All the lights were out, and I was sitting on the floor by the beds with a small reading lamp.
There was a moment or two, and then Allen very quietly answered, “Not everyone.”
I looked at Toshi, who gave me a double thumbs up to show he was still good to go, and I kept reading. That last chapter did it. I could hear Allen's little kid snores without even looking.
Problem was, I could hear Toshi's snores, too. I reached over and touched his shoulder, and he opened his eyes immediately in that creepy horror movie way that only little kids do.
“Hey, buddy, Allen's asleep.”
“Good. Cool.” He closed his eyes again. I had a feeling we were done for the night, but I wanted to make sure.'
“Toshi, do you want to finish the movie?”
“Yep. I do.” He said this without opening his eyes, and within moments, he was breathing deeply again, out cold.
The next morning, he didn't bring it up. He knew I'd tried to wake him up, and he knew he'd gone to sleep, and he was fine with it. The storm had passed. He mentioned that they still hadn't seen a horror movie, though, and asked if they could do “Van Helsing” with lunch. Allen was totally up for it, and it was the real excitement, not that nervous, “I'm pretending I'm okay with this” thing that he'd done the day before. So I let them put it on, and then I got lunch served. Toshi started the disc, and the Universal logo came up and then the first trailer came up.
Now, here's the thing. I couldn't have planned this. I had no way of knowing this would happen. And it sounds too perfect, too well-orchestrated to be true. But I had my friend over the next morning, and I showed it to him to verify it, and anyone who owns the “Van Helsing” DVD can easily prove or disprove this. But it's true. I swear to god it's true.
The first trailer was for “Shaun Of The Dead.”
And as soon as it began, Toshi turned his entire body, like metal to a magnet, to stare across the room at me silently. He gave me a Jack Benny deadpan that said, “Are you kidding me? While the wound is still fresh, you're seriously going to open it up and pour a whole carton of salt into it? Why does the universe hate me, father? Why?” Never made a sound, but he said it all.
And I laughed. And I laughed. And I laughed. Oh, my god, did I laugh.
The boys loved “Van Helsing,” by the way. Because of course they did.
Happy Halloween, folks. Tell me what you're planning on sharing with your wee ones in the comments below, because I'm curious if you have regular traditions with old favorites or if you try new things or if you avoid scary movies altogether.