Accidents can happen. Sometimes you’ll spill a glass of water or trip over the dog when answering a knock at the door. And sometimes you’ll take the kids to the cinema to see Peter Rabbit and be erroneously shown a trailer for the “scariest horror film in years”. But perhaps horror cinema isn’t all bad, as critic Kim Newman argues.
In some respects, cinema itself warns us against allowing children to see horror films. That’s because, whether you’re in the US with “R” or “NC-17” ratings or here in the UK with “15” and “18” age restrictions, we’re programmed to believe this particular piece of screen entertainment is suitable only for a mature mind.
But most film fans – myself included – will admit to watching horror from a young age. Have these films harmed us in some way? No.
Author, critic and broadcaster Kim Newman was prompted to consider how horror films might affect children after another incident of “age-inappropriate” trailers being shown during kids’ matinees occurred in England. This happened after a notorious incident last year when Australian cinemagoers were aghast at a screening of Peter Rabbit when the trailer for Hereditary – aka “the scariest horror in years” – was played in front of a bunch of pre-teens.
Yet, as Newman argues, horror is part of invigorating the imagination, potentially steeling us for the real traumas of life. He said the genre had a profound impact on many creative minds, exampling “jumpy kids” Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro growing up to “love monsters”. They have both shown “the world of an imaginative child is full of wonders and terrors, and if you strip out the latter by insisting on a diet of just Peppa Pig you risk raising a generation unable to cope with the slightest trauma.”
It’s a potentially fruitless task stripping children of the chance to see horror given the realities of what they’ll see in real life. As Newman recalls from growing up in the 1970s, there’s frightening stuff that goes under the radar of the ratings system: “those public service information films (“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water” earned Donald Pleasence his horror immortality well before Halloween)” and “random stuff like an eerie song Rolf Harris warbled on a TV show”.
Ultimately, horror cinema isn’t the corrupting influence some want you to believe. Concludes Newman: “The night terrors only stopped when I was 11 – which, not coincidentally, was when I stayed up late to watch Bela Lugosi as Dracula on television and transformed overnight into a horror movie fan.
“Since then, as a critic and novelist, I’ve been chasing that dragon – trying to find again the fear, the perfect cosmic awe, that horror films are in your mind before you actually see one.”