Horrific Images and Concepts in Kids’ Fiction

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Alison Lurie writes of twisted kid’s literature, “the great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life […] They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.”

What’s the use in scaring kids? Can disturbing imagery enhance a child’s reasoning skills and sensitivities? I think it’s important for children to learn how it feels to dread an upcoming event in fiction, because it allows them to empathize and identify with the struggles of others. Shel Silverstein does some of this work in his poem “Boa Constrictor.” You can hear Silverstein read the poem on Spotify here.

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“Hehehe c’mere kid, lemme read you poems”

Silverstein reads this particular poem with a sort of moaning sound in the back of his throat, and you get a sense of helplessness instead of his usual mirth. I mean, how often does children’s literature attempt to feel ominous? As a kid, I was horrified to discover the face behind Silverstein’s voice was even creepier than some of his poetry. He looked like a guy I would avoid eye contact with on a bus.

Media that built dread was such an integral part of my childhood (Ah, Real Monsters!, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps), and I admired and obsessed over works of fiction that could create a visceral sensation in the reader. When experiencing dark children’s fiction, there’s a wonderful sense that you’re not getting the full story, that something much more sinister is waiting in the shadows for you. This set-up also introduces kids to multi-layered narratives and encourages them to explore subtext.

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There’s so much at work in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It really deserves its own post.

The 1978 animated classic Watership Down scared the bejeezus out of me, and I still haven’t fully gotten over how wonderfully terrifying it is. In this sequence I took right out of Retrodome’s awesome review, children are introduced to claustrophobia, mania and the upheaval caused in large conflicts like warfare and genocide. The fact that this human, complex narrative plays out through animated bunnies is really  just icing on the creep-cake.

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The film opens with a religious origin story, as told by rabbits (making it a lapine faith system!). It’s disturbing  to hear the story of the universe in its infancy with no mention of humanity. The rabbity Christ stand-in is called El-ahrairah (el-uh-hair-AH), a name that rolls beautifully off the tongue and directly into one’s nightmares. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a cut of the animated prologue (the scariest part) online, but the audio has been dubbed onto a still shot of the film’s poster.

Scary highlights of the film (and the original novel, though I’d argue the film is more effective) include Fiver the rabbit-seer hallucinating a field soaked in blood, and Bigwig the macho-bunny almost choking to death on a wire.

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Big Wig’s pain illustrated here in horrific detail.

One scene in which the novel succeeds is Nuthanger Farm, where the protagonist-rabbits hide during a storm. Inside the warren on Nuthanger Farm, local rabbits have started creating art with which to define themselves. They are becoming increasingly human-like, eating the food given to them by the farmer and not helping those rabbits who end up caught in the farmer’s traps. This is harrowing to the protagonist rabbits, and it’s just as harrowing to child-readers, which is an impressive feat considering it’s just a depiction of culture shock. Watching works like Watership Down, young readers begin to understand that alienation and the threat to a culture are disturbing.

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When it comes to harrowing animation for children, it’s hard to discuss the canon without mentioning Maurice Sendak. His books are certainly chilling on their own, but Gene Deitch’s 1981 cartoon version of In The Night Kitchen ratchets the stakes up to a whole other level. My father was so tickled by my reaction to this cartoon that he tortured me during my childhood, making his eyes go dead and quoting, “in the niiiiIIIIGHT KITCHEN!” at me with increasing volume. Put simply, In the Night Kitchen is the story of a boy named Mickey who is sucked through the floorboards of his parents’ home until he arrives in a fanciful world where three identical bakers attempt merrily to cook him alive.

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Of course, it’s not a coincidence that the baker brothers resemble Hitler. As with most of Sendak’s work, Night Kitchen is a complicated allegory, this one referencing the WWII holocaust. To watch the mass killing of a people play out as one child’s twisted nightmare is shocking; luckily Sendak delivers his story with immense affection for Mickey. We fear for the kid, because he’s not 100% aware of how much danger he’s in. The fact that each character in the story seems pleased (or only moderately ruffled) by what’s happening is a wonderful set-up for dramatic irony. If we consider Night Kitchen as an introduction to dramatic irony and tension for kids, the effect is enhanced with the chefs’ refrain, “We bake cake, and nothing’s the matter!” Viewers obviously realize something is “the matter,” but the fact that the characters are attempting to conceal this is, for many children, their first interaction with a classic horror trope.

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Another favorite children’s allegory is the trajectory and character growth of “No Face” (or Kaonashi) in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. He’s usually a fan favorite in the Studio Ghibli world, because he’s largely non-verbal and is affectionate towards the film’s heroine, Chihiro. Ironically, it’s been theorized by film critics that No Face represents older male attention fixated on young girls, specifically in Japanese culture. Miyazaki himself has confirmed suspicions that the whole film is, in part, a commentary on child prostitution. This colors No Face’s repeated line, “I want Chihiro,” in a more sinister way. Even those critics who are not comfortable with No Face’s specific ties to pedophilia were quieted when Miyazaki released this statement: “Kaonashi is a metaphor, the libido that everybody secretly harbors. [He is] inside of everyone.”

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Depending on the reader’s comfort level, No Face can operate as a introduction to greed, obsession, lust, or an amalgamation of the inner forces that might drive a person to victimize someone else. Although we’re not asked to identify with No Face, we certainly experience his frustration on screen as his attempts to engage Chihiro are refused. As No Face grows physically, he mutates based on the people he keeps eating, and this change makes him more monstrous looking. There’s something interesting at play here, possibly recalling Dorian Gray, and the concepts of true ugliness and evil are potent.

Although I find Princess Mononoke much more heavy-handed in its imagery, there are a few examples of “mature themes” delivered through the actions of animated characters. I did not see this film until I was an adult, but the Great Forest Spirit in his many forms truly scared me to the bone. I said out-loud, “Oh no, no no no” as the thing turned its head toward the camera.

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This thing saw you litter, and it’s not happy about it.

The Great Forest Spirit is only called to consciousness because of the damage humans are inflicting on the planet, and this fact incites guilt in the viewer. The Spirit represents the power of nature, and our helplessness in the face of natural disasters. Giving that creeping threat an animated face is just so effective in making it feel real, and reaching children through its image is a bold move. The only character which approaches the Great Forest Spirit’s effectiveness in teaching a respect for nature is Hexxus in 1992’s Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest. Here’s a terrible-quality clip of Hexxus’ song “Toxic Love,” sung by Tim Curry:

The underappreciated show that really heralded sensations of dread and horror in me as a child was Courage the Cowardly Dog. The baddies of the week are always interesting and complex monsters, and there’s no sense of clear-cut good and evil in Courage. This keeps young viewers on their toes, and encourages them to question the motives of the sinister-looking characters Courage is constantly running into. Courage plants the idea that not everything in the world is precisely as it seems.

The sequences in Courage the Cowardly Dog are just breathtaking, and they never talk down to young viewers or attempt to unpack why certain images are immediately disturbing. In an episode meant to demonize the testing of cosmetics on animals, Courage is chased by a monstrously large gerbil through an underground river. The whole scene is set to haunting classical vocals.

In one episode, Courage dreams feverishly of a CGI character (disturbing because the rest of the show is animated old-school-style) who delivers one line in a monotone voice before disappearing. The line is “you’re not perfect.” I can’t for the life of me conjure up some important metaphor this character serves, but it’s certainly effective in startling the viewer.

Courage himself works as a stand-in for any sheltered child, as he lives in “The Middle of Nowhere” with his helpless parents, and he’s often the only one who reads dangerous situations correctly. There’s more dark humor in Courage than the rest of the works I’ve described, and this is just another useful facet in the show. Young viewers of the program are asked to discern between real threats and imagined ones, and they’re also allowed to make their own judgments as far as what’s funny, and what’s “going too far.”

Finally, a particular scene in Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland works well as horror directed towards children, because the terrible events which unfold are directly the fault of the film’s child protagonist Nemo. This is the most direct example I can recall of a twisted lesson embedded into animation; the image of a large, masculine father figure experiencing doubt, fear, and desperation is a deeply frightening one. The scene works so well because it illustrates guilt and anxiety in literal terms. Any child who’s kept a secret at the expense of others, or forgotten to do something important, can relate to Nemo.

Writing scary fiction for children is exciting because the ideal reader of horror hasn’t yet been conditioned to accept certain twists in reality. A young (or open-minded) viewer is a gift to any horror writer, and creepy fiction which assumes the most of its audience works so well when it’s crafted with care.

Does anyone have examples of films or cartoons written for young folks that scared you as a child?

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