You're Scared Cuz You had Helicopter Parents, But Horror can Help
Updated: Jan 15
The world has been a scary place for a lot of people lately.
Not one of us were completely spared from 2020. Even I can admit that come March, I was fearing the end. Everyone was going to get sick and die, the stores would run out of food, the majority government party was going to initiate a coup and turn Canada into a dictatorship. And my kids were NEVER going back to school!
I went a little insane. I know. But I think we all did.
Some people have yet to come in out of that deep end. They have switched into fight or flight mode and can’t shake the feeling that there is a boogeyman around every corner.
It makes me wonder though if we have always been this way. Has humankind always been so easily spooked?
Surely, this is not the scariest year that has ever come to pass. We like to think that 2020 is something special, but it’s not.
My grandmother lived through the great depression and WW2 (75 million dead). She was raising kids during the Asian flu 1957 (1.1 million dead), the Hong Kong flu 1968 (1-4 million estimated dead), the worst of the AIDS pandemic (spanning decades and killing 35 million so far), and now COVID-19, sitting at 1.8 million.
I’m sure all those moments in history were pretty damn scary. But did we react with the same level of fear that is seen today?
There is an interesting article here that says perhaps we did, but because of other historical factors that fear was mitigated somewhat. At least during the flues of 57’ and 68'. (The Lancet)
But what about before that?
Like during the Spanish flu that killed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 of those in the USA alone. Or any mass killers of the last few hundred years: Measles, Smallpox, Cholera, Yellow fever, Scarlet fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Whooping cough, Rubella, Diphtheria. Those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
What about way back during the infamous Black Plague which killed off a third of Europe’s population at the time, 25 million people. Was the fear as palpable then as it is now? Or at least as it was early this year? Was it worse?
Were people screaming at others during these crises if they did not wear a mask or keep their distance? Were others railing against their governments for fear of having whatever freedoms they enjoyed taken away from them?
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to take a poke at anyone's response to COVID. I am simply asking a question out of curiosity.
Although I will say, while I think it is good to have a healthy fear response, I don’t believe it is ever good to let that fear get the better of you. Bad things happen when people become afraid and let that fear rule them, influence all the decisions they make at the detriment of reason and kindness. It wasn't a calm resolve that burned women at the stake for witchcraft.
(I lied. I am going to take a poke at some people's response to COVID. If you were one of those people freaking out about toilet paper, you are NOT a survivor. You are someone who lets fear make your decisions for you. What if the world were actually ending, and you stocked up on TP!?! Not food, not medicine, not weapons. You stashed toilet paper. Well good for you. You are dead, but at least you have a marginally cleaner ass than those of us who will live.)
Let’s take a step back into Medieval times. Imagine everyone around you is sick, many are dying, covered in weeping boils, their fingers black as if they have had reached down into the depths of hell and touched the fiery brimstone. It had to have been terrifying. But was it? I mean in a time where you live and die by the sword in service to a nobleman who couldn’t give a rats ass about you, where you were 10x more likely to be murdered than you are today, where rape and domestic violence were par for the course of being a woman, where everyone was armed at all times because there was no police force. War, genocide, starvation, were always a threat, let alone the fact that the mere weather could easily kill you. Lord help you if you were unlucky enough to be a kid. And don’t get me started on how scary childbirth would have been for young women (I say young because let’s face it, most didn’t make it into cronehood. If you lived into your 40’s you were a BOSS). (HistoryExtra)
Is it any wonder medieval art looked like this?
And these types of images were hung in churches, the community gathering places. Medieval peoples didn’t shy away from horrific subjects, and they were not about to shield their children from them.
“Close thine eyes, sweetie, tis too horrific for your young mind.”
Why bother? That child probably had seen worse at home anyway. Probably had the scars to prove it.
From early on in history, “children’s stories” took the form of brutal and terrifying horror tales, meant to get the point across quickly. You follow the rules, and you do the right thing, or else you are maimed. You don’t get a second chance, and perhaps the best lesson of all that was taught to medieval children was: People suck.
Actually, this has been taught to children right up until our modern era. Where we now read our kids sweet stories of positivity, and understanding, and friendship. Yes, we still have stranger danger and all that, but let’s face it, kids are largely shielded from the evils of the world now.
Take the story of the Pied Piper for instance. It has been told in some form or another, at least in the town of Hamelin, since the 13th century.
It became a true children’s story in the Victorian era with Robert Browning’s poem, written for his son. In a quick summary, the town of Hamelin is infested with rats, and they don’t know what to do. They make a deal with a strange piper to get rid of them, but when he does, they renege on their deal. The piper then takes the town’s children away to...well...die. They do.
Click on the video, and you can listen to the poem in its entirety as I embarrassingly recorded it for my daughter (whose voice is in the background near the end, having had quite enough of quiet time!). While you listen, enjoy this completely random clown tormenting some kids, because Wix blog won't let me upload audio alone, only videos.
You. Are. Welcome....
(Videos by cottonbro from Pexels)
It is not a story often told to children in the modern era, and when it is, the worst of it is almost always omitted.
It was criticized in Victorian times too, you’ll be happy to hear, but not because of the fact a whole town’s worth of children danced to their death, but because of how the rats were described!
Another thing that should be noted is that the Pied Piper story is based in reality, and it seems that it served not only as a warning to future generations of children to not follow strangers but also an admonishment of the Hamelin adults—they were to blame for their children’s demise.
“....it is almost universally agreed that a version of this event really did happen in the town of Hamelin, Germany, around 1284. The earliest known record of this story is from the town of Hamelin itself, where a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin depicts the tale. The window dates to around 1300, and although it was destroyed in 1660, copies of the window survive from the intervening period. The Lueneburg manuscript (c. 1440 – 50), relates:
“In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”
(I suggest reading the entire post link above. A very interesting read.)
Now there are many theories about what may have actually happened to the children, from the plague to being sent away by their parents, or...you know...being murdered by some brightly colored lunatic, as the Lueneburg manuscript quote suggests.
These stories had real-world consequences for the children of the times to which they were read.
Another such story is the even more famous, Little Red Riding Hood.
I urge you to find the original (or as close as you can get to it). The earliest Perrault version was published in Paris 1697, however, there is evidence that this and other fairy tales have origins much earlier and would have been told through classical and medieval periods alike. The level of gruesomeness also probably changed with the time periods it was told in.
There is a really cool article here that discusses the origins of Little Red Riding Hood, possibly going back all the way to the 1st century. We know that the brothers Grimm believed this to be the case as well. (LiveScience)
In the Perrault version, it is less detailed in the horror but the ending is not a happy one as it is in later versions. Even the Grimm retelling ended with the wolf getting his. Although, it was a bloodbath—closer to the modern horror movie than the modern children’s story.
But Perrault’s is also interesting in that it ends with a definitive moral told in his own words as if speaking directly to the child. He doesn’t speak down to them either; he discusses the dangers of the world directly…
“All the better to eat you up with."
And, saying these words, this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up.
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.
I don’t believe that the children hearing this would have been ignorant of what Perrault meant either. This is a story about a little girl who was taken and ravaged by a man who pretended to be kind and turned out to be a monster.
Now the Grimm version is so much better in my opinion for a few reasons. While being a warning for girls to be wary of the wolf in sheep’s clothing...or you know...grandma’s, it is also a visceral revenge story. The Brothers Grimm realized something that Perrault did not, children need catharsis about scary situations as much as any adult.
This is the end of the Grimm version.
"Oh, grandmother, what a horribly big mouth you have!"
"All the better to eat you with!" And with that he jumped out of bed, jumped on top of poor Little Red Cap, and ate her up. As soon as the wolf had finished this tasty bite, he climbed back into bed, fell asleep, and began to snore very loudly.
A huntsman was just passing by. He thought it strange that the old woman was snoring so loudly, so he decided to take a look. He stepped inside, and in the bed there lay the wolf that he had been hunting for such a long time. "He has eaten the grandmother, but perhaps she still can be saved. I won't shoot him," thought the huntsman. So he took a pair of scissors and cut open his belly.
He had cut only a few strokes when he saw the red cap shining through. He cut a little more, and the girl jumped out and cried, "Oh, I was so frightened! It was so dark inside the wolf's body!"
And then the grandmother came out alive as well. Then Little Red Cap fetched some large heavy stones. They filled the wolf's body with them, and when he woke up and tried to run away, the stones were so heavy that he fell down dead.
The three of them were happy. The huntsman took the wolf's pelt. The grandmother ate the cake and drank the wine that Little Red Cap had brought. And Little Red Cap thought to herself, "As long as I live, I will never leave the path and run off into the woods by myself if mother tells me not to."
Now, maybe it is the fact that I have a vivid imagination, but in my mind, the whole ending is downright gruesome. Satisfyingly so. The girl is eaten, the wolf is slowly cut open while still alive, the bloody girl emerges from his belly, then a very specific vengeance is carried out on the wolf. His belly is filled with rocks and then they release him. They watch him try to escape and fail until he eventually dies. It’s torturous. To be honest, the kind of torture that I might fantasize subjecting onto a predator that violated my own daughter.
And this, for the most part, is the pinnacle moment of any good horror. The part where the hero/victim overcomes. For the time, it made sense that Little Red Riding Hood be saved by a rough around the edges, hard-working “real-man,” Red’s innocence still mostly left intact but having learned her lesson. Whereas nowadays the story would end in a bloody reckoning between Red and the Wolf where she would emerge victorious but only after all of her innocence was stripped away—the End Girl.
But this story would not be shown or told to children. What kind of parent would subject their child to something deemed so mature! A good majority of parents these days would probably shy away from even telling their children the Grimm version or the Perrault version for that matter. The retellings we have now are watered-down versions of those in the past, getting across the point, but missing the mark entirely.
Not only are they hard for modern kids to relate to, but they also have no real catharsis, they no longer emotionally invest children in the way they were meant to.
Below is a quote from Bruno Bettelheim, writing about fairy tales and their importance to children in the introduction of his 1975’ book, The Uses of Enchantment.
“Just because his life is often bewildering to him, the child needs even more to be given the chance to understand himself in this complex world with which he must learn to cope. To be able to do so, the child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings. He needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order, and on that basis be able to create order in his life. He needs—and this hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our history—a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior, not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful to him.”
And he is right. Modern fairy tail renditions do still help kids understand their own feelings for the most part. Most kid's books do this on some level. And most make sense in the world we currently find ourselves.
But what of fear? Bone-rattling, keeps you awake at night hiding under the covers fear. What is our childhood outlet for learning to cope with these emotions?
It’s pretty clear that in the past, children had this in fairy tales. They were filled with abuse, and murder, and monsters, and bad parents. But not only did they present the scary things in life as actually relatably scary, but they also presented children with a real-life moral that served as the solution. A way to navigate out of the horror.
So yes, modern children’s stories help kids navigate their feelings, bullying, anger, loss, etc., they do not offer children a real way to navigate fear.
Kids' books that are scary, like Goosebumps, are amazing but do not have the same morally based means of escape. Not on that level (though I will say it’s probably the closest thing we’ve got now, maybe Roald Dahl books more so. The monsters are there for the sake of being monsters, they are not real monsters in disguise. They do not so readily translate into real-world situations.
Now that I'm thinking about it, Roald Dahl is great at doing this. Maybe I should write a post in the future about his books, but that is another day. A shining beacon of fear navigation for children—with humor.
Is there anything in the modern world that even comes close to doing that (other than Roald Dahl)?
Horror films, of course!
Good horror goes like this: People find themselves in an awful situation, they get punished for bad decisions and rewarded for good decisions. And I would argue good and bad decisions could also be classified into moral and immoral decisions. And the most righteous usually find themselves coming out on top.
And it’s incredibly satisfying to watch those who have made the wrong decisions get ripped to shreds, and watch your hero emerge to exact their bloody revenge on the greatest evil of them all!
Not only does it feel good to experience, but it also helps us cope with our own fear.
In his 2014 documentary, Why Horror?, journalist Tal Zimerman, an avid horror fan, took his mother, who hates horror, to watch some films in a lab setting to measure their different fear responses.
The experiment suggested that the two did not show differences in how much fear they experienced during the video (judging by heart rate and sciency things), however, there was a striking difference in how they reacted. The horror buff felt fear but was able to control the response. The horror newbie felt fear, but could not control the response. She ‘reacted’ more. She screamed, jumped, twitched, and covered her face.
Now, I realize that this is hardly a large controlled study, and there are a lot of variables here. However, I believe it makes sense. Any horror fan will tell you that they have become desensitized to certain things, and when they do watch something that legit scares them, they aren’t jumping off the couch, screaming, and carrying on.
This is such a large topic, I can’t possibly address it in this article. Many people have, like in the documentary above, and a quick google search will send you down a rabbit hole of information.
What I do want to discuss, though, is what this has to do with our children.
I find it odd frankly, considering our dark world history, that any adult would be deathly afraid of a horror film/book. I have known plenty. People who get physically sick when they get scared, will faint, or feel like they have a fever.
Since COVID, I find these same people on social media screaming and ranting that the sky is falling and we are all going to die even now, heading into the new year. I told you, I think we all had a moment where we got a little crazy, but where some of us had that newsreel fed feeling for a week or two, others STILL have it. And I think we need to blame our parents, and our parent's parents, and ourselves really. For not exposing us to truly scary stories when we were kids. For not teaching us how to be scared yet control the reaction.
We are in a society that allows us to live our lives relatively trauma-free. I think most of us have still experienced a share of real-life horror, lord knows I have, and I think you have too. But is it even comparable to the horrors our ancestors of old would have experienced?
I have Scotch, Irish, and Scandinavian heritage. I know full well that a good majority of my ancestors did not want to be my ancestors. I come from a proud line of Vikings, exiles, Scottish reivers, freedom fighters, rapists, warmongers, and hell, I’m even related to Colonel Armstrong Custer on his momma’s side.
Atrocities all around!
But hey. There are also a lot of heroes in my family line, great people who have put their lives on the line to help others during some really scary moments in history. I can’t say for sure, but I bet my ancestors did not shield their kids from all the bad things in life.
So to bring this around full circle. 2020 has been a scary time for a lot of people. Let’s not be ruled by fear in 2021.
Tell your children truly disturbing bedtime stories.
...just be prepared to get up at night and change the sheets….