Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Scare or Not to Scare

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everyone know how fairy tales end: “And they lived happily ever after.” On the other hand, the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as originally written, were dark rather than sunny, as were the folk tales on which some of them were based. Thanks to the popularity of the horror genre, we are now seeing movies and television series that put the grimness back into stories that had been sweetened for the palate of the innocent back when I was a kid.

On the one hand, realism demands that bad things happen in 21st century stories. Our family subscribed to Jack and Jill magazine in the Fifties, and I remember the outraged letters from parents when it dared to publish a piece about a non-anthropomorphized duckling that got separated from its mother that ended, “And there the fox found it, for that is the way of the wild.” (Amazing what one remembers for sixty years, when so much useful information is as lost as the unfortunate duckling.) On the other hand, current “political correctness” (oh, how I hate that phrase, even when I agree with the opinions it supports) demands that we discourage competitiveness in children with the philosophy of “everybody wins” and an objective of “nobody gets scared.”

I’ve now seen two or three times a trailer for the Christmas movie Parental Guidance, in which Billy Crystal as a babysitting grandpa (Bette Midler plays the grandma) is outraged to find there are “no outs” in his grandson’s Little League baseball team—an inning lasts until everyone has had a turn at bat. The grandkids are of the Barney generation, brought up on the principles of the friendly purple dinosaur. I found this in Wikipedia:

"His shows do not assist children in learning to deal with negative feelings and emotions. As one commentator puts it, the real danger from Barney is 'denial: the refusal to recognize the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world where everyone must be happy and everything must be resolved right away.'"

The reference for this quotation is Lyons Partnership v. Ted Giannoulas, 179 F.3d 384, 386 (5th Cir. 1999), citing Chala Willig Levy, "The Bad News About Barney", Parents, Feb. 1994, at 191–92 (136–39).

Sounds like somebody got sued over this. But I digress.

I’m baffled by the coexistence of today’s kids protected from negativity and today’s adults, especially young adults who will soon be the next generation of parents, reveling in vampires, zombies, and other paranormal villains.

I recently helped my granddaughters, 8 and 5, reenact The Wizard of Oz. I remember the older one being bored when I tried to share the movie with them, but now she’s just learned to sing “Over the Rainbow” and would like to see it again. (My VHS tape had a fatal accident; I’ll have to get her a DVD for Xmas.) The little one was too scared by the witch (as her father was at the same age) to take part in our skit unless we followed a version they’ve seen, I guess as a TV cartoon, in which the witch is not destroyed by a pail of water, but joins Dorothy and her companions on their journey to the Emerald City, where she asks the wizard to grant her wish to learn to dance.

Oddly, I remember reading somewhere that Frank L. Baum, the creator of Oz and author of quite a few additional books about it before someone else took over the series, deliberately did not put monsters or terrifying events into his stories. How ironic that generations of children have found the movie version of the Wicked Witch of the West far more frightening than any movie monster. The Wicked Witch doesn’t scare me or any other adult, as far as I know. I’m not enamored of the plethora of horror movies, new and old, in theaters and on TV in honor of Halloween. I don’t find being scared enjoyable. Not only don’t I read scary books or watch horror shows, but I avoid rollercoasters and would never take up extreme sports like skydiving. But only intense and unconditional love of my granddaughters could have made me willing to act out the bowdlerized version of what happened on Dorothy’s visit to Oz.


Sheila Connolly said...

Just this past week I read a comment about the ending of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, a beloved children's classic. White made his central character, a spider, a warm and sympathetic character--and [SPOILER ALERT] killed her in the end. That's the reality of nature. Children loved the book, perhaps in part because it wasn't and sugar-coated--I think children have better BS detectors than we give them credit for. A spider will not live happily every after.

Are we doing children a disservice by sanitizing stories, removing any hint of evil and pain?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

That's the question, Sheila. Here's part of Baum's original 1900 intro to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
"Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations. Yet ...the time has come for a series of newer...tales...[eliminating]...all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment...and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident..."The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" ...aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out." Baum never dreamed that there would one day be a movie of his book that studies show has given kids far more nightmares than any monster or horror movie.

Sandra Parshall said...

Don't the Harry Potter books/movies have scary scenes and battles between good and evil? Even very young children love those.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Harry Potter is a special case: the first book wasn't dark at all, it was Harry's first year at Hogwarts, he and his friends were 11. The first cohort of readers grew older a year at a time as the books came out (and the movie viewers also had a year between movies, while the actors aged a year each year). By the third or fourth book, there was a lot of dark--not "scary scenes and battles" but authentic dark. For example, Harry is depressed for months after realizing that it's inevitable that he will either die or have to kill Voldemort before the horrors will end. (Great characterization!) I don't know how parents are spacing their 11-year-olds' reads (and viewings) now that all the books and movies are out, but it would make sense to pay attention to the appropriateness of each installment for children of whatever age they are.

JJM said...

Ahem. " ... the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out." Obviously Baum had forgotten about that statement before he wrote The Tin Woodman of Oz. Because Oz is a fairyland, no one dies. Even if the person in question is chopped into pieces ... Think about that for a moment. (In this book, the Tin Woodman ends up in a conversation with the severed head of Nick Chopper -- the man he used to be before his head was lopped off and replaced with tin. And, yes, the other body parts are still there, too.) If that isn't nightmare territory, I don't know what is.

Interesting and well written post, Elizabeth, thank you. By the way, you might be interested (but not surprised) to know that (professional) storytellers are discussing the exact same issues re: fairy tales -- what has already changed, what they've been asked to change by their clients, what they feel they should change given the changes in society, etc., and why.--Mario R.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'll get to see for myself, Mario. I'm working my way through the books (those written by Baum himself) on Kindle, which include The Tin Woodman. BTW, speaking of the magic of childhood reading, as I read the first three books in the text-only Kindle edition, I had vivid recollections of all the illustrations in the editions I read as a child, ie 50 or 60 years ago.

lil Gluckstern said...

I find that children tend to self select what they can handle, and if they are frightened, they do give you the opportunity to talk about it. Yes, the world can be a scary place. Bad things do happen, but it is also beautiful, and funny, wondrous, and awe inspiring. I hope we can convey that to our kids.

Anonymous said...

Watching almost all college students jump into a main thoroughfare in our town without once looking up (or turning on the crosswalk lights) makes me think, Sheila, that definitely children aren't getting enough information whether the failure starts as early as childhood stories or not.

The movie "The Wizard of Oz" gave me nightmares at 5, one of only two early movies I remember getting them from (the other one involved Nazis & a burning house) even though I watched horror movies and Westerns all the time as a small child. (My father wasn't onto my t.v. movie viewing habits apparently as he got mad at my great-grandmother due to the Nazi movie nightmare; her practices of what I could view were no different than her granddaughter's..) Interesting about Baum's intent. In the version of the novel I later read, I didn't recall differences. It is funny what you forget.


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Dmitriy said...

I find that children tend to self select what they can handle, and if they are frightened, they do give you the opportunity to talk about it. Yes, the world can be a scary place. Bad things do happen, but it is also beautiful, and funny, wondrous, and awe inspiring. I hope we can convey that to our kids.