Into The Woods: Why Scary Movies Are Good For Our Children

14/01/2015 13:21 | Updated 20 May 2015

Shocked family in cinema

Over the Christmas holidays, we got to spend some rare time together as a family. All five of us, watching the telly. Together.

It doesn't happen often. Our children, aged 13, 10 and seven, are far more interested in computer games than television, but at my insistence, I wanted to re-create the kind of Christmas I had when I was growing up: to share with them the viewing experiences of my own childhood in the '70s, when the world seemed a safer place and films were wholly innocent.

And so we settled in front of the gogglebox, popcorn-filled bowls on laps, and watched the first of those films, Pinocchio.

As we watched and munched, it increasingly began to dawn on me that perhaps this Disney classic wasn't as simplistically lovely as I'd remembered.

And my eyebrows raised as I looked at my wife and said: "Jeez. I don't remember it being this DARK."

On the surface, it's an animated story about a puppet who comes to life and is mentored about morality by a cricket (Jiminy) in a top hat.

But the plot is way more complex than that.

In a nutshell: A lonely carpenter (Geppetto) longs for a child. Pitying him, a benevolent fairy gives his freshly carved puppet sentience – but the puppet has to prove himself good and worthy to earn the full gift of life i.e. to become a flesh and bones boy.

But then Geppetto sends his longed-for son to school - alone - on his first day only for the boy to be kidnapped by two child traffickers who sell him to a puppet theatre where he was locked in a cage and forced to perform.

Jeez, indeed. It was at this point that our youngest son, hugging a cushion, looked at me and said: "He's going to be alright isn't he?"

Then he crawled across the settee and nuzzled himself under my wing as he watched little Pinocchio being swallowed by a whale.

"It's only a film," I reassured him.

But IS it only a film?

Over the next few days, we all watched a number of 'family' films – all classics – that had themes that would put the willies up the most insensitive child.

See if you can guess the movies that go with these plots:

1) During a walk in the woods, a youngster watches in horror as his mum is savagely mown down by gunmen.

2) A mother is locked up and called insane after she defends her son from bullies who were taunting him because of his big ears.

3) A mum and dad are forced to sell their children to an evil trader who plans to have them skinned alive.

4) A stepmother, jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty, orders her to be killed and the girl's heart brought to her in a jewelled box.

And this sub-plot....

5) Two friends get lost and end up in the hands of a ruthless abuser and torturer.

That's a pretty scary collection of stories, I'm sure you'll agree: kidnap, child trafficking, slavery, murder, false imprisonment, bullying, mutilation, abuse and torture.

Hardly what you'd call family viewing. Hardly fodder for the eyes of young children.

But before you report me to social services for exposing my kids to this stuff, let me tell you that these are the plots of some of the most classic family films ever made:

Number (1) for example, is Bambi (1941)

2) Dumbo (1941)

3) One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

4) Sleeping Beauty (1959)

and the more modern

5) Toy Story (1995)

Which begs the question: with all the horrors in society – writ large most recently by this week's terror attacks in Paris – should we be exposing our children to such messages? After all, the world is a scary enough place as it is, no?

British actress and new mum (to baby Hazel) Emily Blunt, 31, thinks we should.

In fact, she believes that today's kids are coddled by too many sanitised modern stories and fairy tales.

She told the Guardian: "Most schools in America only do the first act of the play, where everything is happy ever after. And it's just sad that we're choosing to coddle our children that way, because no one's more perceptive than a child."

She added: "Bambi loses his mother, Dumbo is wrenched away from his mother, who is chained up and tormented and bullied. It used to be darker and more challenging.

"Nobody goes through life unscathed. If you want to fairy tale the shit out of everything, you're doing everyone a disservice."

Which is why Emily was so drawn to a starring role in the new Disney movie Into The Woods – released this week - alongside Meryl Streep, James Corden, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp.

The film is an adaptation of the subversive Stephen Sonheim stage musical which sees a host of Brothers Grimm fairy tales merge.

At its heart, is a childless couple - a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily), who set out to end a curse placed on them by a vengeful witch (played by the legendary Meryl).

The Witch offers to lift the curse, but only if the Baker and his Wife obtain four items for her: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

The Witch's demands eventually bring the Baker and his Wife into contact with Jack, who is selling his beloved cow Milky White and to whom the Baker offers magic beans left him by his father (which were stolen from the Witch) which grow into a large beanstalk; with Red Riding Hood, whose ruby cape the couple notices when she stops to buy sweets on her way to grandmother's house; with Rapunzel, the Witch's adopted daughter whose tower the Baker's Wife passes in the woods; and with Cinderella, who also runs into the Baker's Wife while fleeing from the pursuing Prince.

And thus, the Baker and his Wife finally are able to gather the items necessary to break the spell and each of the other characters receive their 'happy endings': Cinderella and Rapunzel marry their Princes; Jack provides for his mother by stealing riches from the Giant in the sky, and kills the pursuing Giant by cutting down the beanstalk; Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are saved from the Big Bad Wolf by the Baker; and the Witch regains her youth and beauty after drinking the potion.

Which is where the plot takes a sinister turn – and an orgy of infidelity, murder, revenge and retribution ensues. Including, in one grisly scene, one of the characters getting her eyes pecked out by crows.

It sounds terrifying, doesn't it? Totally unsuitable for young children.

Yet the British Board of Film Classification gives in a PG rating – Parental Guidance – which means: "A film is suitable for general viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children. A PG film should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older. Parents should consider whether the content may upset younger, or more sensitive, children."

Will I be taking my kids to see it, including the seven-year-old who whimpered when Pinocchio was locked in a cage by the evil puppetmaster Stromboli?

You betcha. At the risk of sounding like my own dad, a viewing diet of Pinocchio, Bambi and Dumbo never did me any harm. And I don't think for a second that seeing Little Red Riding Hood (amongst others) coming to mischief will torment my son for the rest of his days (it can't possibly be worse that seeing a wolf dressed as a grandmother sitting up in bed, surely?).

No, scary is good for our cosseted generation of children. Even if the real world is full of evil, challenging morality tales help our kids learn about what's right and wrong and what's good and bad. And that real life doesn't always have a happy ending.

Although in this case, it does. A week after watching Pinocchio, my youngest son came home from his first day at school with his book bag bulging with new reads.

One of them was about the wooden toy who learned right from wrong and became a boy.

"What made you choose that?" I asked him.

And he just shrugged. Emily Blunt is right: no-one's more perceptive than a child.


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