This article reminds me of Bruno Bettleheim’s discussions on grisly fairy tales, and how such fantasies help children learn how to deal with fears. In fact, my 12-year-old son recently found my copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and took it to school to read. The other kids kept borrowing it.
However, there are two things our boys have never been allowed: guns, and horror movies. Even before I left the US for Canada, I was horrified by the easy availability of guns in the US. I still am. Our boys have never had so much as water pistols. Unlike what I’ve heard from other parents, they never devised toy guns on their own, either.
What I also dislike, and our boys seem to dislike as well, are violent stories that elevate anxiety without any purpose beyond perhaps a jolt or nervous giggle. Let’s face it, a lot of slasher movies and action thrillers have no plot to speak of, much less character development. They’re a kind of pornography.
Americans seem to prize a certain edginess, and I wonder how much of that is a cultivated state of anxiety. Canadians tend to be more reflective — okay, except for David Cronenberg — and more interested in group solutions rather than individual solutions. Canadians would, I think, be puzzled by talk about children’s “natural aggression.”
Gerard Jones responds:
Thanks for the comparison to Bettleheim, Penney. Obviously his work informs mine. When I was growing up, the Grimms tales were in disfavor among well-intentioned liberal parents just as violent pop culture was, so I never read them as a child. After I read “The Uses of Enchantment” in my late teens, however, I sought them out, and have been fascinated ever since with the similarities and differences between traditional violent stories and pop-culture violence — specifically the question of whether movies, comic books, and the like meet the emotional needs of modern people in the way oral traditions met those of our ancestors (which, to an extent, they do).
But we disagree about toy guns. Real guns are too readily available in the US. But imaginary guns aren’t real guns, and there is no real-life connection between a child’s love of the former and anyone’s use of the latter.
We accept the truism that “children have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy.” But where violence is concerned it’s often the adults who have the trouble. To a child, a gun is a miraculous object, an extension of personal power across space, a wand that can destroy fears with the squeeze of a finger. To the adult who forbids toy guns in the house, who shrieks, “Not at people!” even when the pistol is only a pointed finger, the gun is a reminder of gruesome news stories. We slap our symbolism, wrongly and unfairly, onto our children’s. For us, the result is distrust of our own sons and daughters. For them, it’s confusion about the power, danger, and acceptability of their own inner narratives.
Not all kids want toy guns, or point their fingers and make shooting noises, but an awful lot of them do. My editor at Basic Books tells the story of a little boy in her son’s Greenwich Village preschool, raised by pacifist liberal parents who kept all combat toys as far away from him as possible, who nonetheless, during Passover, bit his matzoh into the shape of a gun and went around saying “bang bang.” But kids who do such things show no greater tendency toward later violence than the relatively few kids who don’t.
What matters most is to trust the child. Whatever a boy or girl does, pretends, or loves to play with points to his or her real needs and emotions. Unless there are clear signs that a child is acting out in a destructive way, the best thing we can do to help that child integrate his or her desire for power and fantasies of destruction is to facilitate them, acknowledge them, and play along with them. Don’t be afraid. Encourage the child to bring even the scariest fantasies to you. Even if those fantasies involve toy guns that remind us of the horror of real guns, or gory slasher attacks that appear, to parents, to have no purpose but agitation.
I would like to thank Jones for raising the point that fantasy can play an important role in children’s emotional development, validating their feelings of anger and need for empowerment. All emotions are valid and need to be expressed, not repressed; and I believe that learning healthy forms of expression is the key to a functional person.
It is important to note, though, that not all media violence is of the same kind. Stories that have “lofty messages of benevolence” can fulfill the need for an outlet while demonstrating responsibility. We need to teach children how to use their anger in effective, self-empowering ways. I may be enraged enough at the driver who cuts me off to want to run him off the road, but an effective member of society might channel that anger into the energy needed to petition the township for stricter road signs and law enforcement. The latter can really be much more personally fulfilling.
Violence in the course of instruction is a lesson about the world we live in, about the individual’s sense of self, about the ways in which we can trust and vent our emotions effectively. But please don’t mistake this for the forms of entertainment that encourage senseless destruction and gore for the sake of gore. There can honestly be a balance in the rate at which we expose children to these things as they grow and a responsibility in the way we portray them.
Gerard Jones responds:
I agree, Kathleen: Moral and instructive narratives have real value. I gained from them in my days as a comics fan, and I tried to impart them to most of the superhero stories I wrote professionally. But I’ve found over time that what matters most isn’t the instructive content of the story but the symbolic, emotional content. What matters most for children is the very process of identifying with a combative or aggressive protagonist (or antagonist), feeling the feelings that come up through vicarious immersion in a conflictive story, and then owning those feelings, sharing them with others, and integrating them into an expanded self. Young people often miss or ignore a story’s moral functions, but still benefit hugely from fantasied participation in imaginary conflict.
Sometimes instructional elements can actually weaken a story’s emotional benefit by coming between the audience and the vital, symbolic guts of the make-believe conflict, or leading the storytellers away from the primal violent fantasy that inspired the story in the first place. Stories can be both emotionally valuable and instructive, but often stories that make no effort at instructive value have more developmental value for young people than stories that do.
Which brings us back to slasher films. Most of those movies do have plots, and the plots usually have an implicit moral, but it’s a moral I find repugnant: that sex, attention-seeking, self-assertion, and adolescent daring are bad and should be rewarded with death. The typical slasher plots sets up a group of young people and then has the villain kill them in sequence until only one or a very few are left alive; the kids who die are usually the ones who’ve just had sex, or are very popular or self-involved, or take risks, while the ones who survive are the timid, chaste “good girls” (or, sometimes, boys). The moral reflects cultural biases that teenagers shouldn’t assert themselves, defy norms, pursue personal pleasure, or break from the group.
It’s a mistake, however, to think that the pubescent fans of these movies are only having their anxieties heightened and internalizing a few represssive messages. Many teenagers are scared, troubled, and confused by the urges they feel suddenly exploding through their bodies. Many are painfully torn between asserting themselves as independent, sexual, quasi-adults and staying safe and sound in the family home as “good kids.” They come to fear their own desires and fantasize about the dire consequences of them. Horror movies help them externalize those fears, giving the fears a symbolic form — a form usually shared with peers — that can lift them out of the cycle of internalized, unspoken obsession. Once the ultimate fears and ultimate desires have been vicariously experienced, they can both be woven into a more balanced view of the world and oneself. Most adolescents who go through a phase of watching slasher movies come out of it more comfortable with themselves as teenagers.
Which isn’t to say that everyone reacts the same way. Many kids (and adults) are simply scared and agitated by such movies. Younger children, especially, may derive nothing but increased anxiety from explicit violence. I believe strongly in the idea of age appropriateness. And some people do become hooked on the the thrills of the horror movie and have a hard time cycling through them, usually because they haven’t learned effective ways of expressing or integrating their scariest feelings.
But again, my core advice is to trust the child: If an adolescent is powerfully drawn to slasher movies, or any other stories apparently without any instructional value, it’s because those stories are giving her something that she craves; and, therefore, something that she needs emotionally and developmentally. If the taste becomes an obsession, or she starts to act out in ways that are destructive to herself or others, then it’s time to take some action; not necessarily forbidding the stories, but certainly trying to find out what the stories are triggering.
Read last week’s discussion on this topic.