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How to Terrify Children

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“Too scary!” my four year-old daughter wails.

She shuts her eyes tight as I lead her to the “safe” part of the Halloween super store. The section with the costumes that make her smile—princesses and cupcakes.

But to get there we had to walk past zombie babies, haunted dolls, and bloody limbs. I steered her away from a crawling mechanized corpse.

I know what you’re thinking. Why would I even bring her inside this kind of place?

Because my 8 year-old son had begged for entry. I scuttled her to the kid section while he laughed at the Emoji costumes and the Trump and Clinton masks.

I watched him frown at some dangling heads before turning away.

During October there’s no reliable way to avoid this stuff. I can’t get my kids home from school without passing a house that has a bunch of those very heads hanging from the front awning.

Halloween is more for the grown-ups than it is for our kiddos.

We’ve forgotten what life was like before our awareness of zombies. Before faux decapitated bodies were par for the course.

Our culture revels in everything terrifying at Halloween and our children just have to deal.

There’s no way to take them trick-or-treating through their own neighborhoods without running into the macabre. A few houses down, my neighbors have a full-size skeleton horse and rider on their front lawn. It’s an epic display, though my daughter freaked out when she first saw it.

My oldest son got used to me saying “nothing scary or violent” as he searched for his costume. He finally got to be something called “The Pumpkin Maniac” on the last year he felt like dressing up. I caved and let him carry the skull-adorned scythe that came with it even though that prop was both “scary and violent.”

My two youngest are not at that stage yet. They’re not interested in anything scary though I know my 8 year-old son feels pressure to be okay with gore, however fake. He knows he should walk easy into the Halloween aisle stocked with hatchets and chainsaws and masks with large teeth.

My daughter settled on being “Little Red Riding Hood” a while back. She fell in love with the lush red cape when we stumbled on the costume in a store. When I searched online for accessories I was bombarded with sexed-up versions. Garter belts. Mini dresses with corsets. I should have known. There was even a sexy Big Bad Wolf costume.

My 8 year-old eventually decided to be the wolf—so his costume would match his sister’s. I’ve seen this boy stick his tongue out at her when he thinks I’m not looking, and then other times he’ll indulge in her tea parties and other sweetnesses he’s barely outgrown. He’s on a cusp that Halloween forces him to confront. That line between fear and nonchalance.

Choosing a Halloween costume is about forging an identity.

For weeks, kids at his school had smuggled in pictures or costume packaging. The Headless Horseman. Several iterations of Spiderman. “Someone had a mask with blood on it,” my son announced when I gave him my edict: “nothing scary or violent.” He’s a third-grader, but my rule clashes with the rest of the world he sees. A culture that revels in the scary and the violent, openly, every October.

The creepy and the grisly become quotidian. Normal. Children can choose severed fingers as party favors. Graves and tombstones stab into lawns. Blood spills. The former academic in me knows that “horror” is all about outing everything that’s usually kept hidden and in the dark in our culture—fears and fetishes. Everything repressed bursts forth. Our children may as well get used to it. But mine don’t want to. Not yet.

An easy breakdown of Little Red Riding Hood, like all Grimm’s fairy tales, reveals a tale that is, at heart, gruesome and scary.

Even without the wolf gobbling everybody up, Little Red Riding Hood is a stalker tale about getting lost.

I should have realized this before I bought their costumes. Why didn’t I think this through?

I overheard my children chatting during their costume dress rehearsal a few days before Halloween.

“I’m not scary,” my son told my daughter, as he fastened on the wolf head piece.

“I know,” she said.

“I’m the big good wolf,” he told her, “I’m not bad.”

“You’re the big GOOD wolf,” she laughed with relief.

Here they were fixing Halloween all on their own. Rewriting the myths of the fairy tale that demanded they be adversarial.

“I’ll protect you from the scary stuff,” my son was telling her, “when we go out trick-or-treating, just don’t look at it. Look away.” She already had practice closing her eyes.

All of our children do. They are figuring out how to deal with a world naturally violent and scary. They know they are good. Cynicism eludes them. Until they figure out, like the rest of us grown-ups, how to be nonchalant about violence. How to accept how normal the world is when it’s scary.

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3 Comments:

  1. Alisa Bair says:

    Molly, you always manage to give us all so much to think about, and to elicit your readers’ personal experience. (A sign of a wonderful writer and person.)
    I wonder if people ever think deeply about what they decorate with for Halloween – things we decry and detest in the media, but secretly relish as pretend fun when we dress up and have at it on this holiday. Five weeks after our pastor officiated at Kelly’s funeral, his house across the street suddenly became decorated with skulls and R.I.P. tombstones all over the yard. It pierced me to the marrow. For his family, such fun and scary atmosphere. For me, a haunting mockery of what had become a sacred altar.

    There should be Halloween for Sensitive Souls. I’m with your daughter – bring on the princesses and cupcakes!

    • Molly says:

      Halloween for Sensitive Souls! How perfect! I think that most cultures have these kinds of macabre festivals–almost as a way to control fear, to cope with our horrors and griefs. Our lack of control in the face of them. I know horror films can be read as powerful commentaries on culture. Their violent imagery representing what can’t often be expressed. (Zombies have been read as the silent masses, and alternately, as controlled or oppressed populations.) But at this time of year, we are insensitive to children who haven’t developed the wherewithal to look further. To get the fun or irony.

      You’ve made me aware that it’s not just children. It’s anyone with a closer relationship to horror and the loss that accompanies it.. Pretend violence may do more damage than the catharsis it promises.

      I remembered the October bulletin board when Phin was in day care. One of the workers, young and childless, made a graveyard with tombstones marked with each child’s name. (In September, the names appeared on apples, in November, leaves.) The moment parents saw the board at pick-up, they gasped. Some cried. My heart fell like a stone. The display was quickly removed. An apology issued. But it hits on the very affront you had to endure across from your very home. I am sorry.

      Our culture is lately up-in-arms over “triggers,” over “over”-sensitivity across the board. Some rail against the “over”-offended, but really it’s an elaborate protection. To protect against the notion that to endure or accept “sensitivities” will weaken or contaminate. Then they have to be “sensitive” too. They have to confront what a gravestone actually represents: unimaginable loss.

      I am ever sympathetic to yours. And I thank you for always reading what I write. Love from your fellow Sensitive Soul.

  2. Alisa Bair says:

    Oh, and your son taking on the Good Wolf…. just beautiful.


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