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Avoiding a Nightmare on Your Street

By Laura Fries

As dutiful parents, we make it a point to check Halloween candy, take the time to insure costumes are fire-resistant and never let the kids trick or treat unsupervised. When it comes to entertainment — scary movies in particular — many parents are simply unsure of where to draw the line.

It's what Don Shifrin, Co-Chair of the Council on Communications and Media for the American Academy of Pediatrics calls the upside-down nature of Halloween. "Normally, we shield children from death and scary images," says Shifrin. "Then comes Halloween with all of the costumes, decorations and movies to celebrate it."

Whether it's nostalgia mingled with the renewed fervor for the holiday, which now ranks only second to Christmas in terms of decorations, parents often let their protective guard down on Halloween. It's important to remember that scary movies are, well, scary and while kids in general love to be scared and hate being coddled, the adults have to keep the scary stuff in check.

Just about every child will argue that they are old enough, brave enough and wise enough not to be frightened by a costume, book or movie. As adults, we can readily admit, we don't always know what will haunt our own dreams, let alone our kids, until it's too late. With the holiday fast approaching, what better time to learn how to face the monster, so to speak?

With a watchful eye from parents, letting kids carefully explore the world of scary movies and come to terms with their anxieties can be a healthy, organic part of childhood development. In fact, according to Dr. Kathie Nunley, author, Brain Imaging Researcher and founder of, kids are actually wired for thrills.

"Due to brain development, adolescents are particularly 'emotional' creatures and therefore prone to thrill-seeking for the emotional benefit," says Dr. Nunley. "I think experiencing all sorts of emotions in childhood is part of the normal developmental process - and that includes fear," she says.  "You have got to 'practice' everything that you may use in adulthood, or it won't develop in the brain.  So in a way, scary stuff like stories or movies allows the child to experience the emotion, but without the real threat of injury."

Darren Shan, author of The Cirque Du Freak and The Demonata series, shares a similar view. "I think a love if horror is instinctual. I've loved being scared ever since I was a very young child — I used to have a poster of Dracula over my bed when I was 5 or 6!!! I also think horror is a positive influence on children — it encourages them to use their imaginations and ask questions of the world around them. 'What's under the bed? What does it eat? Why is it there? What can I do to fight it if it attacks?' A carefully monitored sense of mild fear is good for most children."

Dr. Nunley warns, however that a child's need for intense emotional stimulation frequently overrides logic, so it is up to the adults to set and enforce rules when it comes to scary entertainment. It's one thing to have good natured fun. It's another to be an accomplice to life-long phobia. Dr. Vic Strasburger, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of New Mexico warns that it's particularly difficult considering that things that aren't scary for adults can be very scary for kids. Knowing your child's limits and respecting them is crucial.

Although past conventional wisdom supported a trial by fire approach to everything (Just throw them in the water to teach kids how to swim), times have changed — and so have scary movies. Introducing or indulging a child's thirst for thrills isn't always that easy, especially this time of year. Parents need to protect their child's mental health from unnecessary fears and realize that R-rated movies are never harmless for a child in elementary school, says Shifrin. Children under the age of six really should be excluded from everything but the most benign Halloween movies such as It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown or Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie. By all means, never let your child see anything that frightens you.

Discerning the right type of scary movie, however, isn't just about ratings or even monsters. Sometimes seemingly harmless concepts like normal family conflict can upset a child or even fantastically improbable odds may become a source of stress. The Day After Tomorrow is an action-packed thriller, but may be overwhelming to a child afraid of thunderstorms and violent weather. Know your child's trigger points and avoid them. For instance, if it's bugs and spiders that set off your child's nightmares, Arachnophobia is a good movie to skip.

Reactions, says Shifrin will vary depending on the ages of the child. "Most of us can remember scary movies form our youth or adulthood that messed with our minds. Our physiologic reactions to these movies, hair standing up on end, holding our breath, screams, heart racing, sweating, are all symptoms that occur with real life scares and violence. So no question movies can be intense, too intense for young children. I always tell parents that if you allow your children to watch Nightmare on Elm Street there will be lots of nightmares on your street."

Screen films ahead of time to make sure the movie is age-appropriate for your child. Movies such as The Haunted Mansion are pretty harmless scary fun save for a few monster faces, but if you're prepared for what's coming, you can have your child cover their eyes until the ugly images are gone. Having a favorite stuffed animal or something to squeeze isn't a bad idea either. After all, hiding behind a pillow is part of the fun.

Let your child be the decision maker here. The key is giving your child a real sense of control and if things get too scary, you can turn it off. Dr. Stasburger recommends that parents check out the book, Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them, from Joanne Cantor for more information on the topic. When in doubt about a movie, he says, avoid the problem — and the movie entirely.

If you notice a change in normal behavior, say more than the usual resistance at bedtime or a major change in sleeping and eating patterns, then clearly, things have gone too far.

Don't let your guard down just because your kids are teens. "As kids get older, they build a bit of a tolerance for fear and sometimes feel the need to "raise the bar" — so things get gorier and gorier in order to get the same thrill," says Shifrin. "Psychologists have been concerned in the last decade or so with the tolerance levels of young people for violence and gore.  They have definitely become de-sensitized too much of it due to over-exposure via television and video games."

If your older child seems to be a fan of gorier stuff, it isn't all bad news. Shan has made a successful career with his thrilling book series and says most kids will put their darker fantasies behind them.

"Children love to experiment, to explore to ask everything of the world, as they mature, they change, they settle into themselves, they find their place in the world. There's a limited time in which we can truly appreciate horror, in which we can allow our imaginations to run wild and give ourselves deliciously creepy nightmares. Horror for children is a big, exciting playground — and I'm all in favour of giving them the best possible places to play!"

Scary Movie tips and recommendations:
  • Try to gauge the maturity level of your child and pick movies accordingly.
  • Check movie reviews at and for detailed information.
  • Don't focus just on monsters. Children at most ages are scared of the dark, being alone and being injured.The eight and over crowd can be just as scared of death and separation from loved ones.
  • Everything old is new. Revert to the classics, which can be thrilling, but not as realistic as some of the cutting edge special effects in movies today.
  • Don't gear the movie toward the oldest kid in the room. Teens and younger kids should have their own separate viewings. Be certain that younger kids aren't dared into watching something they don't want to or that they're sneaking peaks at teen selections.
  • Humor goes a long way in scary movies to break the mood and the tension. Films like Tremors or Ghostbusters are good for thrills and laughs.

The eight and older crowd may enjoy:

The Witches (1990, PG)
A young boy must thwart a convention of age-old witches, even when he’s been transformed into a mouse. Based on the book by Roald Dahl .

Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, PG)
A visual feast of stop-motion animation from director Tim Burton, an expert in all things Halloween.

Ghostbusters (1984, PG)
A group of paranormal scientists start a business to banish ghosts and end up saving the world. A great way to laugh your way into the world of scary movies.

Monster House (2006-PG)
A trio of teens must do battle with a house that comes alive. Look for several nods to horror master Stephen King in this film featuring new computer animation and Real D Cinema digital 3-D technology.

Monsters Inc. (2001-G)
Turns out that the monsters of Monstropolis are afraid of humans . Even though the city is powered by fear, the monsters soon learn that laughter is the best answer. A gentle and appropriate first “scary” movie. 

Hotel Transylvania (2012, PG)
This Dracula isn’t the scary monster of movies past—he’s a resort owner, organizing dances and birthday parties for his teen daughter who longs to see the real world. And like any dad, he goes into overprotective mode when a young hitchhiker finds the resort

Frankenweenie (2012, PG)
School science fair will never be the same after a young Victor Frankenstein decides he can’t live without his beloved pet dog Sparky. A remake of the Tim Burton short with all of the expected gothic pageantry from the director.

Wallace & Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005, G)
Nick Park's Oscar-winning stop animation film is a hilarious send up of the horror genre as Wallace and his faithful canine companion try to figure out who is stealing the local produce.

The Goonies (1985, PG):
Kids on a search for a missing treasure discover more than they bargained for and learn that even behind a scary face can be a very kind heart.

Hocus Pocus (1993, PG)
A newcomer to the town of Salem inadvertently brings back three nasty witches on Halloween night.

Tweens might go for:

Arachnophobia (1990, PG-13)
Not a fan of the creepy crawlies? This film will either cure you or send you into full-blown spider phobia, aka Arachnophobia.  When a South American killer spider finds its way to a small California community, it breeds and sets lose a killer new breed.

Tremors (1990, PG-13)
Two hapless ranchers save their small town from a deadly invasion of mutant, underground worms.

Beetlejuice (1988, PG)
Tim Burton proves that a love of the macabre still has some heart underneath it all in this special-effects classic.

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (2010, G)
A boy obsessed with monsters is thrilled when his family inherits a castle in Romania, but everyone in the family gets more than they bargained for.

Young Frankenstein (1974, PG)
The epitome of Mel Brook's warped sense of humor; he takes the horror classic and gives it his own unique touch.

Spiderwick Chronicles (2008, PG)
A dysfunctional family moves into a relative's home only to discover a big family secret, including a secret world of faeries and monsters.

Jumanji (1995, PG)
Board games have never been more exciting in this fast-paced action adventure, special effects extravaganza.

Teens may not be too jaded for:

The Blob
(1988, R)
A remake of the 50s horror classic, this film spawned a new love for and approach to the genre. It also marks the beginning of tough female horror heroines.

The Lady in Black (2012, PG-13)
Daniel Radcliffe stars as a young lawyer who discovers that a ghost is terrorizing the locals in a remote village in England.

The Lost Boys (1997, R)
Two brothers discover that their new home in a seaside town is infested with vampires.

Mothman Prophecies
(2002, PG-13)
Not your typical horror movie, but a super creepy tale big on both the supernatural and the suspense with stellar performances all around.

The Mummy (1999, PG-13)
Special effects and action take center stage in this update on the classic, but there's plenty of romance and fun thrown in as well.

Fright Night (2012, R)
A high schooler fights a neighboring vampire with the help of a Vegas magician, played by Dr. Who’s David Tennant.  A clever redo that serves up some real scares.

Ghost Story (1981, R)
A group of old men gather to tell ghost stories as a way to forget their secret past. But the past doesn't stay buried, and it's up to the next generation to solve the mystery. Featuring an all-star cast of some of Hollywood's greatest.

Sleepy Hollow (1999, R)
Johnny Depp + Tim Burton + Headless Horseman = gore galore amidst the classic Washington Irving classic.

War of the Worlds (2005, PG-13)
Science fiction alien invasion as only Stephen Spielberg can do it. A nail-biting tale ensues, as one family fights for survival against alien tripods.

The Frighteners (1996, R)
After a traumatic experience a man who sees ghosts scams the locals until a real paranormal mystery threatens the town.


About the Author
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about TV and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.


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