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One of the conversations we have ongoing right now at Casa De McWeeny is "how scary is too scary"?
It's an important question to ask. My wife is of the opinion that no scary movies is just about the perfect amount for kids who are 7 and 4 years old, respectively. I disagree. I think kids crave stories about monsters and that being scared is an important part of our maturation process as we start to digest the stories we're told.
I don't think you should jump right to "Dawn Of The Dead" for a 3-year-old, of course, but I do think there's a certain amount of anxiety and fear that is enjoyable, especially at a young age when films have a special power over us. You feel films in a different way as a kid. You're still learning about how the world works, and you're still trying to figure out adults, and you're using movies as one of the ways you start to really put those puzzle pieces together.
The question at the start of things is how do you introduce scary material to your kids, and we've experimented with it on several occasions. At the bottom of this article, you'll see links to where I wrote about an early screening of "The Dark Crystal" that absolutely infuriated two-year-old Allen. I wrote about scaring the crap out of both of them in a good way with "Jurassic Park," and their fascination with dinosaurs has only gotten more pronounced since that screening. I wrote about the existential fear that creeped in around the edges of a screening of "Close Encounters," and how I was unprepared for the fear that hit them. I wrote about both the Tim Burton LACMA exhibit and the first screening we had of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," and how those scares worked on them.
And in that "Jurassic Park" piece, I wrote briefly about a bad experience we had with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." That is the last movie I would think of as a traumatic horror film. In fact, the whole reason I tried the film for him is because it seemed like the right gateway movie. After all, he had this whole series of monster books that were given to him by his godfather when he was young, each one about a different monster or type of monster, and he was already very familiar with the iconography of the Universal monsters. I figured showing them a movie where the monsters were played mostly for laughs would be a good way to ease them in.
What I didn't count on was how much Toshi identified with Costello. When you think about it, Costello is basically just a big kid. And while the movie is often very funny, the monsters are mostly played straight. Toshi hung with it for a while, but there's a scene in the film where Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) has locked himself into his hotel room because he knows his transformation is upon him, and he doesn't want to hurt anyone. Costello goes to deliver some luggage in his room, not realizing that Talbot has already changed. As the Wolf Man shadowed Costello around the room, directly behind him, unobserved, Toshi couldn't take it anymore. He stood up and shook his head at me. "No. No, Daddy. I'll watch this when I'm seven." With that, he was gone.