Prolonged emotional response to childhood traumas
So why are the events experienced in childhood still prevalent in adulthood? Three things came to my attention. The first is very simple and comes from a quote by horror philosopher, Noël Carroll. “Like suspense novels and mystery novels, novels are denominated horrific in respect of their intended capacity to provoke a certain affective response. Indeed, the genres of suspense, mystery and horror derive their names from the affects there are intended to promote” (The Nature of Horror, Noël Carroll p2). There doesn’t seem to be an age limit tied to this quote. Each genre is and of itself an object to provoke emotion. Does this mean that the same things I found frightening as a child will always have an effect on me?
Joanne Cantor discusses the research of pioneering neural scientist, Joseph LeDoux, and what he calls ‘The Emotional Brain.’ LeDoux talks about a part of the human brain called the amygdale which contributes to ‘fight-or-flight’ responses. He says that “Evolution favors the survival of animals (including humans) that can quickly identify stimuli that are life-threatening and that immediately take defensive action” (Cantor p301). Frightening experiences had by children, or adults, are retained as a protection. A person subjected to frightening material will file the experience away in their emotional memory system so accurately that even years late, if faced with something similar, they will be prepared to act even if they had not even made a conscious effort to do so.
Cantor says, “Unconscious fear memories established through the amygdala appear to be indelibly burned into the brain. They are probably with us for life” (Cantor p301). This is, excuse the pun, particularly horrifying. The problem with this is that sometimes what we experience isn’t real and does not actually provide appropriate adjustment to the environment or situations being experienced. Cantor further explains that her studies confirmed that fictional entertainment of the horror genre, or any genre, can be more than just an amusement, or a diversion. “It can be life changing in more ways than many people expect” (Cantor p302).
I had never thought that my experience in an LDS cloakroom was so life-changing. My experience, Edith Wharton’s experience and the experiences of multiple children around the nation were and are life-changing ones. In this respect, when we think of children watching or reading horror, even horror aimed specifically for children, we don’t think of their experiences as life changing.
Horror from a child’s perspective
Children’s horror brings us to some really fascinating odds with what we class as adult horror. Specifically, author R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of books for children bring its own set of rules to what was discussed above. Stine’s main characters all seem to have similar traits, no matter what their hobbies or gender. Most of these characters are selfish, self-serving, envious and clamoring for envy, only concerned with winning, but always normal and the champion of what it is to be normal. In his article titled, “The World of Goosebumps,” Perry Nodelman says, “These books offer child readers a variation on Darwinism, based on the survival of the scariest: in a world where fear is power, you must learn to be the most frightening of all” (Nodelman p122).
When young, I was subjected to horror myself, in the form of books and movies. I was particularly a fan of Stephen King and R.L. Stine; King and all his adult horrors and Stine in his other book series, Point Horror. There were television shows for children such as Dramarama, Chocky and The Boy from Space with horror themes. I consumed them all and at one point or another, I can remember being scared and yet thrilled at the same time. One of the coping methods I remember adopting at an early age was to associate myself with antagonists.
This may sound odd, but Nodelman quotes Noël Carroll saying, “The emotional reactions of character…provide a set of instructions, or rather examples about the way in which the audience is to respond” (Nodelman p122). I don’t really remember there being any other way to respond than to be scared. I remember my parents taking me out of my class during the showing of The Boy from Space because it gave me nightmares.
Nodelman says that children should identify with the protagonist early so as to realize these rules and instruction on how to respond. This invitation to associate with protagonist was lost on me. I had the mindset that if I was to identify with anyone, it should be the antagonist. In my head, if I could get in with the antagonist and associate myself as some kind of ally or someone to be overlooked, I would be safe in whatever I read or watched. This was a form of empowering myself; making me a part of the fear. I admit, I am probably not the most normal case subject, but there is another element to the Goosebumps books that confirms my behavior when young; the normal that becomes abnormal. The ‘normal; children in Goosebumps sometimes become the monsters that they were so afraid of in the first place.
In most of his books, Nodelman tells us that Stine’s Goosebumps children can be empowered through fear. If they are not the ones overcoming or defeating the monsters that threaten their normal lives and in turn empowering themselves, they are becoming that which they feared but again being empowered because of their ability to then frighten others. Nodelman says that, “These books offer a double vision of the monstrous. It is both what one fears (because of frightening oneself), and what one must learn to desire (because of what is frightening to others)” (Nodelman p122). Is this a form of unnecessary survivalism? If it wasn’t for these books and TV shows, children wouldn’t need to empower themselves in this way. According to Cantor, they are just filling their brains with unconscious responses to fear later on in life.