Halloween is getting closer. The second week of ‘Ween has begun and I’m feeling quite festive so I thought I would put up some of the thesis I wrote. I’ll put it up in 3 parts and then I’ll discuss it and answer any questions anyone might have about it and the reasons I write horror and my thoughts on the genre, where it has been and where it’s going. But first the thesis paper to give you some background.
Effects of Horror on Children
The LDS Church can be a scary place for young children. I had an experience that stayed with me for a long time and still lingers in my mind as a moment that I can define as fear and horror. I remember being about five or six-years-old with my parents, visiting friends who lived in another ward. It was time for Primary, but I didn’t want to go as I w
as shy and didn’t know anyone.
I remember standing by some cloakrooms holding my Dad’s trouser leg. The cloakroom had two entrances and you could go in one entrance, walk to the back, around the corner, and come out of the other entrance. A scary looking old woman tried to pick me up, telling me she wanted to take me to Primary. I refused and backed away from her, letting go of my Dad’s leg. I ran down to the back of the cloak rooms and she chased me. I managed to reach the other entrance and to what I thought would be safety where my Dad was still standing, but when I got there, he was gone. I ran back through the entrance I had first gone through and the woman was there in the back waiting to grab me. She picked me up and took me to Primary as I kicked and screamed. Ever since, I can recall the exact sequence of events and the exact feelings and emotions I was feeling, despite being so young. A few years ago, I even incorporated the experience into a horror story.
The point of my retelling this story is my fascination with how children perceive and deal with scary or horrific experiences in their lives, and how it is portrayed in the media. Even now in my early thirties, I have this fear of being taken away, a fear of helplessness that I do not have control of my body. Researching this kind of phenomenon led me to an event experienced by American author, Edith Wharton.
Effects of horror on adults rather than children
When Wharton was 9-years-old, she suffered from typhoid fever and was committed to her bed for many weeks with only books for entertainment. One of these books had such an effect on Wharton that she had a relapse and when she recovered, the book haunted her for many years. Wharton said in a collection of autobiographical writings, “I had been naturally a fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say – and even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark indefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking and threatening” (Wharton, Cahill 1994:11). Due to this almost physical fear, Wharton would have a debilitating fear when it came to returning home and having to wait on the doorstep until the door was opened. If there were any delay in the door opening she would be seized by a “choking agony of terror” (Wharton, Cahill 1994:11). This whole response came from reading a book about robbers and ghosts.
While the above experience does seem extreme, it is nevertheless common and experienced by mass audiences of children who have access to more than books in this day and age, like movies, television, and the internet. Joanne Cantor in her paper on “Why Movie Horror Lives On,” mentions other effects of these experiences on adults. Cantor talks about there being a higher percentage of waking effects of movies on adults than sleep disturbances. Horror movies affected more adults while they were awake and doing everyday things. For example, some adults have difficulty swimming in lakes, pools and oceans after watching Jaws. Some had unease when confronted with clowns, televisions and trees after Poltergeist and others experienced anxiety when home alone after Scream. Cantor attests to the enduring power of emotional memory, even when the viewer is aware of the response.
The point of my research was to find out more about the effects of horrific experiences on children and how they deal with that, but I realized, there is no ethical way of testing any of the theories out there. Should children be subjected to horrific images and media so that long and short-term effects can be deduced? Definitely not.
Cantor found that a large number of the adults studied, who were affected by a movie, still had lingering memories of the experience. The top four movies mentioned by a majority of those tested are: Poltergeist, Jaws, The Blair Witch Project and Scream. Also, the majority of those in the study admitted to viewing those movies between the ages of three and eleven-years-old (Cantor p294).