Having nightmares about a kids’ movie that turned out a little more traumatic than expected is one of those common childhood touchstones most people share. (Looking at you, Large Marge.) It’s easy to assume that those scary scenes were more impactful because they were being watched by children, and that maturing sensibilities more than differences in subject matter are why that kind of fear is less common as kids grow up.
Nope! According to a study published by developmental psychologists in The BMJ, the truth is that successful children’s movies are just a lot more morbid and death-filled than films for adults. The study, lead by Canadian epidemiologist Ian Colman of the University of Ottawa, compared incidents of death and violence in 45 top-grossing G- and PG-rated movies with the top-grossing movies for adults in the same year. The researchers found that, for example, important characters in kids’ movies are three times more likely to be murdered than their adult counterparts.
Titled “CARTOONS KILL: Casualties In Animated Recreational Theater In An Objective Observational New Study Of Kids’ Introduction To Loss Of Life,” the study makes it clear that there’s no occupation more dangerous for a kid’s movie character than being a parent. Moms and dads in children’s movies are five times more likely to die, often by violent means. (Unsurprisingly, Disney movies represent a healthy chunk of this sample).
More disturbingly, Colman and his co-authors report that the psychological impact of these on-screen deaths are almost always glossed over. Out of the sampled films, only The Lion King treats the stages of the grieving process (“Denial,” “Anger,” “Pumbaa,” “Depression,” and “Elton John song”) with respect. So the next time you want to pop in a DVD to get your kids to quiet down, maybe skip past Finding Nemo (Mom gets eaten), Pocahontas (Dad gets shot at), or Bambi (Mom gets shot, then presumably eaten), and go with a nice Quentin Tarantino film instead.