“Night on Bald Mountain” from Disney’s Fantasia
It’s not very often that I feel compelled to reach through the computer and give a fellow blogger a 12-Step-style hug, but I had a moment like that reading Daddy Geek Boy’s recent post
about reconciling one’s love of pop culture with being a scary-movie wimp. Oh, can I relate to that! Especially since I’ve been so intrigued by the movie Coraline
and would love to write about it, but I’m too terrified to actually sit down and watch the damn thing. And I’ve been feeling vaguely anxious all month as my kids get swept up in the spookier side of Halloween spirit in a way they never have before. I can’t help it: “scary” really scares me. Always has, still does.
Television viewing was well-regulated when I was growing up, but we still got a big dose of scary goodness at Halloween, mostly in the form of Disney specials. There was the beautifully animated but positively terrifying “Night on Bald Mountain
” from Fantasia
. There was the classic ghost story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
,” which my mom softened by reassuring us the Headless Horseman was actually Brom Bones in disguise trying to fool Ichabod Crane – a perfectly cromulent reading of the story, but still. And then there was that truly tweaky short from the 1930’s when Pluto dreams about hell
. (It’s worth noting that “Secretary
” author Mary Gaitskill references this cartoon in her novel Two Girls Fat and Thin
as a character reflects on the roots of her sadomasochism fetish.) Beloved animation classics or not, I was sufficiently spooked.
It was never a question of understanding that scary stories are just make believe. It was never about the gross-out factor or things jumping out saying “boo.” No, there was something more deeply, personally scary there for me. What I couldn’t articulate to my parents as a child, but what I absolutely felt, was simply this: What’s truly scary comes from a place of over-empathy. And not just empathy for the victim, but empathy for the cruel intentions of whatever creepy thing was tormenting him. It’s that awful sense that something out there wants to get
you and will enjoy
getting you; that something will delight in your fear and thrive on your suffering.
I wasn’t as upset by the scary stories with a clear-cut moral (e.g., child chews too much gum, child turns into a blueberry
), because there’s a firm implicit guideline for how to avoid a similar fate yourself. The stories with random spookiness were much harder to take. But the most terrifying stories of all were the ones with a “sins of the parents” theme. Daddy Geek Boy mentioned Poltergeist
in his post, and that’s a perfect example. The dad unwittingly helps build a nice new suburban community on top of a sacred burial ground and all hell literally breaks loose. Or how about Coraline
, in which (I’m surmising, having not summoned the cojones to actually watch it) a girl’s neglectful, self-absorbed parents drive her to seek out the spooky netherworld in the first place.
The “sins of the parents” paradigm taps into a big, universal fear: “Uh-oh, the people who are supposed to protect me are terrifyingly fallible.” Plenty of viewers relish seeing parent figures exposed for what they are: clueless, hypocritical, selfish, troubled, not fit to lead, etc. There’s a kind of personal gratification there; maybe even political gratification. Meanwhile, for those of us parents who are already painfully aware of our own shortcomings and inability to protect our children in the face of, say, a random tree attack . . . well, it’s downright chilling is all. I’m sure plenty of children delight in the upending of order in scary stories, but I never did. I didn’t want
order turned on its head. I didn’t want
to question my parents’ ability to keep me safe. I just wanted to dress up as a princess and trust.
The ghosts may not have been real, but the twisted masterminds who invented them were. Someone drew those evil lines around the creature’s mouth; someone recorded the sadistic laugh; someone knew exactly how to storyboard a scene for maximum bone-chilling suspense and a climactic dive under the covers in fear. Why? And, okay, I realize that there’s a substantial non
-wimp audience out there that truly enjoys this stuff at face value. I’ll get to that in a minute. But for now, sticking with the wimp perspective: What’s in it for the storytellers when they terrify their audience?
There is something very satisfying about scaring someone, isn’t there? Fear is one of the most visible, dramatic emotions you can elicit from a person. And when you vent your own fears to someone else and scare that person in turn, well, in a way you’ve gained some control over the fear yourself. You’ve named it, illustrated it, and passed it along. I don’t doubt that’s going on in at least some
of the scary shows and movies out there.
But even a fear wimp like me has to admit that sometimes it’s fun to be scared. I enjoy Hitchcock and David Lynch and as much as the next pop culture geek. (I love Mulholland Drive
so much, I want to sleep with the DVD under my pillow.) There’s something incredibly compelling about the dark side of humanity, even as it paralyzes you with fear. And it’s exhilarating to dip one’s toes in the “danger” and savor the intense jolt, peak, and release of a good scare. It’s like a good roller coaster. It’s a rush, but a safe one.
This is the first year I haven’t been super vigilant about protecting my kids from Halloween scariness. I’d like to, but I can’t seem to keep them away from the stuff! Since Archie McPhee
opened its new store a few blocks from our house, both kids have become big fans of all things creepy and strange. Little Girl has been known to joyfully announce, apropos of nothing, “I was a mindless zombie!” And The Boy is planning his future Halloween monster costumes for years to come.
We were watching the “Yo Gabba Gabba” Halloween episode when this song
came on, giving me a major case of the boo-boo jeebies. “It looks like that ghost is getting closer, closer, closer
er, CLOSER!!!” Damn.) But I fought the urge to swoop in with the remote control, figuring that would probably scare them more than the actual video. I stayed calm and watched their faces, ready to intervene if needed.
Their eyes were wide and engaged, maybe slightly worried. When the scary part gave way to the happy chorus, the tension on their faces broke into delighted smiles. And they asked to watch it again. I asked them if they thought it was scary. They looked at me like I’d just offered them broccoli for dessert. And ever since then, their screen time hours have been filled with On Demand Halloween episodes of “Wow, Wow Wubbzy,” “Pinky Dinky Doo,” and that same “Yo Gabba Gabba” (which continues to freak me out every time).
I think we’re a few years away from the classic Disney stuff, but I’m looking forward to sharing it with them when the time comes. As long as one of them holds my hand while we watch!