Should We Scare Our Kids This Halloween? (2024)

One parent thinks it’s okay to show a 7-year-old Jaws. Another rails against neighbors who meet trick-or-treaters with jump scares. Who’s right about kids and horror? According to science, both of them.

Margee Kerr, a sociologist who teaches and conducts research at the University of Pittsburgh, is the author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Kerr has spent years investigating the upsides of fright and learned a good deal about its potential pitfalls in the process. She and other experts say that kids can benefit from scary experiences under the right conditions. Some of those conditions are the same for all children, producing a few general rules, while others vary based on individual needs and preferences.

What benefits can come from being scared?

Kerr says children can like being scared for a bunch of reasons: physiological, social and psychological. First, there’s a natural high that comes with the flood of endorphins and adrenaline triggered by flipping one’s nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. “It does pack a big neurochemical punch,” she says, “and in the absence of real threat … that can feel like you are a superhero and are just ready for anything.” Her research shows that horror can also result in decreased brain activity, taking individuals “out of their everyday heads.”

Only a handful of other experiences, including meditation and exercise, produce a similar neurological effect. When Kerr and colleagues conducted a study of adults at a haunted house, participants who reported being stressed, tired or bored beforehand tended to experience a boost in mood. She hasn't done similar research with children or teens but believes they may also use scary experiences to escape worries and tension.

Humans of all ages tend to better remember times when emotions ran high, and they can feel a sense of solidarity when undergoing stress alongside someone they trust, Kerr says, leading to bonding.

The grown-up participants in her study also reported “feeling like they had learned about themselves and challenged their fears,” experiencing “a sense of achievement and growth.” That upside of being scared may be even more important for kids, who endure so much powerlessness that even small opportunities to feel competent can lift their self-esteem.

Scary experiences offer a low-cost way for children and adolescents to confront specific fears and fear itself, Kerr says, similar to how rough-and-tumble play offers a low-risk way to explore aggression.

Lana Holmes, LCP, at the Center for Inclusive Therapy and Wellness explains, “Knowing they’re physically safe and still having that physiological reaction, kids can learn that, even if your body and brain are going on all alarms, you can still be able to do what you have to do.” They can learn to distinguish a real threat from something that just feels like one. Let’s say a friend announces he’s super mad at you but won’t tell you why until the bus ride home. Through the rest of the day, your hands might shake, your intestines go wonky; you feel like you’re going to pass out. Kids who have practice with these physical manifestations of uncertainty, who know that this type of emotional and physical discomfort eventually fades, can remind themselves that it won’t kill them.

Successfully regulating their emotions increases self-awareness, resilience, and self-reliance. In this way, horror helps “build up our treasure chest of memories of times where we did it, and we made it, and we persevered through,” Kerr says.

Why do some people like scary experiences more than others?

Coltan Scrivner, a research scientist at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark and the author of a forthcoming book on horror, says he wanted to study “the weird things that humans do, one of which is scaring themselves for fun.” That’s not just about horror films and haunted houses. “Games like hide-and-seek or tag are at their core kind of scary,” he says, “those are really basic predator-prey interactions.”

He wondered why some seek out “scary play” more than others. It’s not because they lack empathy, a common misconception about adult horror film devotees who in reality score lower in cold-heartedness. Rather, enjoyment of scary experiences seems to owe to a grab-bag of genetic predispositions and life experiences.

Horror helps build up our treasure chest of memories of times where we did it, and we made it, and we persevered through.

Some of it is about what level of arousal hits our personal sweet spot. Research in adults shows that we all have a “just right” amount of stimulation and surprise, with not enough being too boring and too much feeling overwhelming. That set-point likely has to do with neurochemical differences: some of us have more receptors in certain areas of the brain and release more of certain hormones, Scrivner says. People he calls “sensation seekers and adrenaline junkies” have a high set-point, and they tend to like horror movies the same way they like roller coasters and bungee jumping — most of us know that thrill-seeking kid who’s first to climb a fence or dive off the highest platform!

But Scrivner’s research shows that many of those who frequent haunted houses don’t fit that description. There are “white knucklers” who experience unpleasant emotions while watching, and afterwards nightmares and rumination, but report learning about themselves. And so they do it again.

And then we have “dark copers,” people who use horror as a way to cope with life’s challenges. Among this group are those suffering from anxiety, which explains why fans of horror movies in another study were more likely to score high in the personality trait “neuroticism.” A youth mental health crisis, accelerated by the pandemic, has left 32% of 13- to 18-year-olds struggling with anxiety, by one government estimate. Scaring themselves may serve as an outlet for this group, and might even explain the popularity of Stranger Things.

How would that work? Scrivner offers theories — beyond the benefits that Kerr catalogs — about what horror can give them, starting with a safe space where it feels “right” to be experiencing anxiety. “Feeling anxious while I’m eating ice cream or watching a comedy can be unnerving; feeling anxious while I’m watching a horror movie or running through a haunted house feels normal,” he says.

Scrivner also says horror can allow a child or adolescent to control their anxiety. They’re choosing those fight-or-flight symptoms rather than being blindsided by them, they have the predictability that comes with climbing music and mirror shots and they can use levers to ratchet down intensity, like covering their eyes or turning down the volume.

They’re choosing those fight-or-flight symptoms rather than being blindsided by them.

Scrivner also points to literature in adults who have experienced trauma. Sometimes they self-trigger in order to make meaning of their past, and older children and teens might use horror to do that too.

Dr. Holmes says these theories make sense from where she sits as a mental health expert and adds that horror films can help adolescents process racial trauma. When Black characters survive, she says, “It can give you resilience in terms of seeing characters you identify with being able to overcome these horrors and atrocities.” Films that explicitly address racial dynamics, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out or a series like Lovecraft Country, she says, “open up this window to see people tackling racism as this monster, this literal horror.”

What are the conditions for a successful scary experience?

But horror can also go very wrong for children. Dr. Holmes starts with a few bright-line rules: “I would strongly advise parents not to show children and adolescents extreme horror films that are notorious for ultra-violent and disturbing scenes,” she says. Parents should also steer clear of suicide plot lines, since “research shows that media depictions of suicide can lead to an increase in suicidal behavior.” Holmes says movies and shows that glorify a villain and their behavior also aren’t appropriate for kids, especially when there are plenty of scary movies that feature “final girls” and other resilient characters who survive by being “resourceful, compassionate, tenacious, collaborative, intelligent and selfless.”

These experts point to three other preconditions for a successful scary experience: consent, safety and adult scaffolding.

“Don’t force your kids to go through a haunted house,” Kerr says. “The moment that our autonomy is taken away, even if we feel it’s taken away, it just changes everything, including how our body continues to respond to the stress.”

Dr. Holmes agrees: “They have to be able to fully, enthusiastically assent or consent.” That means no tricking them into it, no shaming, no pressuring. “Give them the opportunity to back out,” she says, “You can’t be like, ‘We started this so you’re gonna have to finish’” — especially since research suggests that the same person can enjoy horror on some days and not others.

Watch out for coercion from siblings and friends. “That kid is not going to have a good time,” Kerr says. “In fact, that kid is likely to have a really bad time and feel really badly about themselves.”

That said, “people don’t always feel the way they think they will feel, [and] kids don’t always have a good grasp of what they can handle,” Scrivner says. He agrees that we should listen to our kids but also says, “As long as they feel they have a safe base, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of encouragement to try challenging things.”

“Safe” is key. “It’s important that they never feel a sense that they are truly in danger … that they are alone,” Kerr says, since “making fear safe is what allows you to lean in and experience those psychological benefits.”

That applies to the who, what, when, where, and how of the experience.

Kids have to be old enough to truly understand it’s fake. Dr. Holmes warns against showing scary movies to very young kids. She recommends avoiding days when a child is sleep-deprived or going through a transition. Remember the finding that a scary experience can promote bonding? It can also do the opposite if you’re with someone you don’t trust completely. “It kind of works to bring people who are close closer, but people who are apart further apart,” Kerr says. So if siblings have just had a fight or a parent is trying to reconnect after an estrangement, a horror movie marathon probably isn’t a good idea.

Dr. Holmes is a big fan of “making sure there is an adult to supervise and help them process.” That includes starting slow with what she calls a “gateway” film, meaning family-friendly scary movies like Hocus Pocus or the series of books Scrivner is a fan of, Goosebumps.

The ability to control external factors is also key. “If you go to a haunted house, you don’t have a lot of control over how intense it is,” Scrivner says. “If you’re reading a scary book … you can read it in a public place, or with the lights on, or during the daytime, or look up spoilers, or just put the book down.”

If you decide to watch a film, try the popular spoiler sites “Where’s the Jump?” and “Does the Dog Die?” Give your child the opportunity to ask questions and walk them through that process of self-awareness: “Are your palms sweaty? Mine are.” Scrivner wants parents to watch out for what the research has dubbed “masking smiles.” Your child might be smiling while suffering, so keep a close eye on their body language too. You can also turn the intensity down a notch by reminding them that the movie is fake or “highlighting the absurdity of something,” as Kerr puts it. Try saying, “My heart is racing now, but that will go away when the movie ends.”

Dr. Holmes adds, “Horror films are often allegories of the horrendous things that people experience in real life,” so parents should be prepared to address the trauma, grief and injustice that inspired the themes of the movie.

And you must ensure kids feel free to say, “This is too much for me.” Dr. Holmes recommends offering to watch a film in bits and pieces. She says you can agree to avoid a movie or subgenre altogether — it’s possible that movies with witches are fine, but ghosts get under their skin. You can tell your child, “There’s something about this that makes your brain just go, ‘Nah,’ and we need to respect that.”

She’s also careful to remind parents that while horror theoretically and anecdotally offers therapeutic value, there’s no established evidence base supporting its use for treatment of anxiety. A trained mental health professional should always be your first stop. That said, “horror movies have been unfairly maligned,” Holmes believes.

There’s proven value to risky and scary play, these experts are saying. But the research, taken as a whole, points less to “you should do this with your kids,” and more to “under the right conditions, horror can be worth a try.”

Should We Scare Our Kids This Halloween? (2024)
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