Turn the TV over to Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon and you’ll be barraged with a vibrant, glittery, bubblegum world of bug-eyed smiles and digestible dialogue. It’s a far cry from the dark, surreal, oft-nightmarish content of just 20 years ago. Maybe the networks decided that the world today is scary enough without Courage The Cowardly Dog. Maybe they figured the news is horrific enough. But, according to horror artist Zane Whitener, that’s exactly why kids need horror.
In a new video essay, Whitener remembers the joys ‘90s kids knew all too well: Halloween, the Scholastic book fair, the thrill of opening a new Goosebumps book. Horror was everywhere in children’s popular culture. We grew up with ghoulish shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. We counted the days until we could watch Halloweentown and Hocus Pocus on TV. We fought over copies of Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at the school library. We spent nights lying awake reliving in our minds the stories we had consumed, watching our closet doors and holding our breath, feeling the shadows creeping, and waiting. And those nights didn’t stop us from doing it all over again.
Whitener suggests that it was the controversy surrounding the Harry Potter craze that led to the demise of children’s horror in the early 2000s. The scale of the franchise, he says, was enough to breed sufficient backlash to fuel a countermovement to shield kids from all things spooky. It was a regression back to the pre-’90s mentality that forced Tim Burton out of Disney, and which led Disney to later release The Nightmare Before Christmas under Touchstone (though it later reclaimed it after it became a hit). That movie’s an almost perfect microcosm of the genre, which took decades to surface, became wildly popular overnight, only to be brushed under the rug by children’s entertainment tycoons.
The problem, according to Whitener, is that protecting kids from horror won’t protect them from fear. Kids are already afraid. They see evil in the dark places beneath their beds and in their closets. They see it in costumed adults and spooky looking houses, hear it in the wind. And kids these days have more to be afraid of than what’s lurking in their cellars. They’re growing up in a world that locks up children like them, a world in which people are senselessly killed by those hired to protect them. They sit through demonstrations of what to do when an armed killer enters the place where they spend most of their time.
Horror, Whitener posits, doesn’t add to those fears, but helps kids confront existing fears in a way they can understand, often by using allegory and metaphor. It distorts their fears into something they can beat. The protagonists in horror stories typically use their imagination and brains to combat evil forces in the world around them. They fight back and, in the end, they win. It sends kids a message that though there is something wrong in the world, they can overcome it. It’s a message of hope that might be even more beneficial now than it was in the ‘90s.
Goosebumps author R.L. Stine knows all too well how powerful that message can be, having used horror to confront his own childhood fears, and his old fears to inform his horror stories. Check out our 2017 interview to hear how Stone went from being afraid of everything to finding horror funny.