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October 05, 2012

On Frankenweenie, Kids, and the Benefits of Fear

Here we go again — another family movie opens with bits of fright and scares, in this case Disney's latest Tim Burton offering, Frankenweenie, and parents come out of the woodwork with their torches, pitchforks, and assorted cries of woe.

"It is too scary," they say, or some version of it, and that might be true for their child — fair enough. Things are scary, kids vary, it happens.

However, this is a tale as old as time, and from the first bite of a poisoned apple to the dark curse of angry bears, Disney has been at the forefront of scaring audiences, often filled with children, because fear itself is something worth fearing.

It is my opinion that children need to develop an understanding for the emotions that come with fright just as much as they need feel the pangs of anger, humor, and sadness. That is not to say that I promote scares and tears as par for the course, I prefer the sounds of laughter, but at the same time I believe I am doing my children an injustice if we avoid the dark arts altogether.

Obviously I cannot speak to your children or family situation, but fortunately this space allows me to discuss mine, so humor me:

My wife and I are raising two boys fueled on imagination and emotion — to the point that I sometimes worry about the innocence that they carry. They are both very bright, and they easily excel in academics that are aimed at children much older, but they are noticeably sensitive, overly sweet, and socially naive compared to others in their respective grades, and while this was brought about through careful intent — a constructed world to cherish childhood to the fullest for as long as humanly possible, it is also cause for concern. Are they too soft for a world so hard? Are they too sheltered and unprepared? Are we doing it right?

I don't know.

And that is one reason that I am thankful for the safety of cinematic scares. Granted, I am not one to look to films for role models, and I think that too many people put too much emphasis on implications and messages in regard to whatever qualifies as takeaway content, but I do appreciate an opportunity to address such topics in a manufactured and clearly fictionalized environment. Kids need to know what scary feels like, and I would much rather they first recognize it while holding my hand in a quiet theater than someplace lonely and lacking in comparisons and contrast.

That said, my boys have looked into a very small window of fear, one cartoonish and impossible, but it is fear all the same. They understand that a clay monster in a 3D movie is intended to scare in the funnest sort of way, like the bend of a roller coaster, or the "boo" of an unexpected startle, and they have invited the concept into their world and wrapped it in the innocence that runs there rampant and unbridled. It is one more facet to their many sides of self, and they evaluate it with each soft, slow turn.

Disclaimer: My boys are ages six and nine, respectively, and their tolerance, or lack thereof, for monsters may not be representative of other children. For Frankenweenie, which does have death, creepy creatures, and images of violence that actually surprised me (but in a clearly fictional and animated sort of way), I had the opportunity to first view the film on my own, and subsequently deemed it within their comfort zone.

Then, as a family, we attended another screening a few nights later and we cried when Sparky (the dog) died, which is something that hit home in the closest sort of way, and they hid their eyes repeatedly during the creation, hunting, and destruction of the monsters that fill the third act of the film, but they left the theater with the widest of smiles and they filled the ride home with the magic of it all.

"It was scary," they said. "And it was fantastic."

I should probably send Tim Burton a thank you card.


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