The world can be divided into two groups of people — those who love the thrill of a good scary movie, and those who cannot handle them, nor do they want to. You’ve probably realized that kids are the same way. But when it comes to deciding what you should and shouldn’t let your child watch this Halloween, you might want a little bit more nuanced advice than that. Will you scar them for life by letting them watch your favorite horror film with you? Should you worry about a child who really wants to?
We looked at the research and spoke to two experts to get some answers.
Know your child
First of all, as with anything else, every child reacts to frightening things differently, and the age guidelines on movie ratings are just aggregate advice.
“You know your kid better than anybody else,” Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician, Harvard professor, and the director of the Center on Media and Child Health, told SheKnows. “If they’re a child that tends to be scared by things easily, it’s probably not a good idea until they’re a little bit older. Some kids have no problem with it.”
The research around kids who’ve watched scary movies backs this up. One well-known study asked college students about the horror films they watched as kids did show that they had caused negative effects such as anxiety in most, but half the students said those results had gone away within a week. Only 26 percent said they were still feeling the negative effects of that viewing in the long term. So, the key here is to make sure which category your child falls into, and that has more to do with temperament than age.
“If a child is prone to being anxious or prone to having nightmares and we know that about our children, then they have to wait a little bit longer,” Ron Stolberg, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor for the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, told us. “There are some other kids who are really young that love them. They think they’re fun and funny. It doesn’t faze them. They aren’t affected by death or violence or being scared, and it’s comforting and fun, and they love to talk about it. I’ve come across kids probably as young as 5 or 6 that love them, that don’t have any negative repercussions. And I’ve actually talked to 12-year-olds that can’t stay at a slumber party because they were watching a scary movie and they had to leave.”
Even movies other children find funny and adventurous can be frightfests for your child, and this is not an issue you want to push. (As someone who had to run out of a theater in the middle of a PG movie with a screaming child, I can tell you that nothing good comes of trying to persuade them to tough it out.)
Prepare for scares
If you do have an anxious kid who might still wind up watching a scary movie at a friend or family member’s house, Stolberg has a great trick for helping them out: spoilers. If you can find out what movie it will be in advance, use a source such as IMDb’s Parents Guide (find it in the “More” dropdown menu any movie’s page) that lists all the instances of violence, frights, sex, and profanity. Knowing what’s going to happen in advance will definitely make it less scary.
But won’t they be scarred for life?
Look, we all remember the scariest things we saw as kids — and some of us still think Jaws lurks in the ocean and the Blair Witch dwells in the forest. I had nightmares for weeks after I saw “Thriller” in first grade. But for the most part, we get over these things, and they are categorically not the same as real trauma.
“As soon as the child gets developmentally appropriate and has a little insight into movies and special effects, these kinds of things don’t impact them for the rest of their life,” Stolberg said. “They may actually remember the first time they watched a scary movie with their friends or the first time they saw a horror movie. And it is a special event or a fun memory, but it’s not a traumatic one.”
So, if your child watches the latest gory slasher pic or ghost movie (or just glimpses a trailer), they may wake up with nightmares, yes. They may remember what they saw for years. But they will be fine.
Liking scary movies is OK too
There’s also nothing inherently wrong with the kids who really enjoy a good scare. Rich suspects that some of us have a primal craving for the adrenaline rush we can get from horror and suspense.
“We live pretty protected lives, and that’s the way to vicariously get a little closer to that kind of tooth and nail survival that our ancestors all went through,” he said. “I suspect that’s pretty deeply embedded in our DNA somewhere.”
Watching something scary through a screen also gives the viewer a feeling of control over danger, even at a younger age. Rich has observed that some children will purposely watch something that scares them over and over again to make what they saw feel safer and manageable.
“We try to impose control over chaos,” Rich said of all viewers.
Think about violence
The official stance of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that parents should limit their children’s exposure to violence in movies, TV shows, online videos, and video games. This is because there is a correlation between viewing such violence and displaying aggressive or violent behavior. But there are some caveats to those findings.
“What we’ve learned is that for kids that have a tendency towards violence or aggression, watching or listening or talking about aggression and violence triggers them,” Stolberg explained. “But for the overwhelming majority of healthy kids, when they play violent video games or watch violence on TV or in a movie or see that aggression, it doesn’t trigger them. It doesn’t inherently train them to become aggressive or violent or to use to use rage as a tool.”
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In his practice, Stolberg has often come across families who have a tradition of watching horror films together, and you can’t discount the benefits of this bonding time. So, if watching Halloween or The Shining is how you connect to your kids, and you know they’re not prone to violence and aggression, go forth, he said.
On the other, other hand, you probably don’t want your kids becoming completely desensitized to watching violence or to the sexist tropes so common in horror movies.
Desensitization is so real, it’s even used by the military and police forces in training, Rich told us. It’s up to you as a parent to provide a voice of reason and context to what your kids and teens are watching.
“You want to keep communication open; you want to debrief on this stuff afterwards,” Rich said. “Because there are a lot of things … such as [the horror-movie trope] sex equals death — you want to process with kids so that they don’t say, ‘Well, that must be the way it is, because mom or dad never said anything about it, so that must be the reality.”
With many of the usual Halloween festivities canceled or altered considerably, it’s good to know that scary movies might still be on the schedule for some of you. Scaredy-cats like me and my kid will be over here doing very cheery arts and crafts and eating chocolate while listening to the “Monster Mash.”
What’s truly frightening is how parents don’t think twice before putting their kids in these tasteless costumes.