Scary Censorship

Who decides what’s appropriate for child eyeballs?


When Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was first published in 1981, conservative parents across the country protested its content so much that the book, along with its subsequent sequels, became the most contested book series of the nineties. The consensus of those protesting was that the book targeted an audience much younger than appropriate for its “mature” content and imagery. 20 years or so after this controversy, HarperCollins released a new edition of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in 2010. The stories (thankfully) went unchanged, but Alvin Schwartz’s beloved preadolescent novel lost the key component of its popularity: Stephen Gammell’s graphic, disturbing illustrations. The startlingly surreal black-and-white pencil drawings by Gammell were replaced with Brett Helquist’s less scary, more cartoonish story depictions, and this has sparked a controversy amongst fans of the childhood classic—those who grew up reading the book under covers with a flashlight, terrified by the pictures, but excited nonetheless. Parental groups have always tried to lobby support for censorship, especially regarding content that includes violence, death, or grotesque imagery, but in their excessive concern over appropriate visual media, they neglect the interests of their children.

Jin Yoo / Kitsch Artist
Jin Yoo / Kitsch Artist

I remember when I picked up a 99-cent copy of the book in elementary school. Schwartz’s story of Harold the human-skinning scarecrow or the hook-wearing serial killer called “The Hook Man” were unsettling, but they could not compare to the disturbing illustrations. The images of inhuman faces, torn limbs, and ghostly figures gave the visual sensation of watching a horror movie, without the realistic violence that would have overwhelmed most ten-year-olds. As a child, I was simultaneously excited and horrified by the pictures. Initially shocked by the gruesome imagery, something would compel me to look back at them, flipping through the book in the hopes that there would be more. Perhaps that’s why Schwartz’s books also appealed to preadolescent readers: they provided the quick rush of excitement sought from horror through the illustrations, but avoided prolonged exposure to gore and violence that may have shocked an unaccustomed young viewer. I found Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark after realizing that the influx of violence and gore in horror films was too overwhelming for my preadolescent mind. Schwartz’s books gave me an adrenaline rush without the sensory realism of horror films; I couldn’t see people die in the books or hear their screams like I could in movies. However, as children mature into teenagers, this realism disintegrates and we increasingly are able to see films as simply fantasy. Simple horror like Schwartz’s books, children’s shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog, and cheesy Disney Channel original movies like Don’t Look Under the Bed (which was also banned, by the way) not only give children what they’re looking for, but also introduce horror so that as we mature we can willingly move deeper into the genre without being disturbed. By substituting Helquist’s illustrations, the books lose their ability to serve as an effective transition into visual horror as a genre that Scary Stories originally provided to its readers. Preadolescents with a desire for horror imagery will grow into adolescents with an even greater desire for horror. But due to limited exposure to such a genre, they prolong the development of something like a horror coping mechanism that explains why viewers can watch horror movies and other imagery with no long-term psychological disturbances.

By attempting to remove horror imagery, those who support censoring it fail to recognize young viewers’ legitimate psychological need for excitement. From childhood to early adulthood, we have a heightened craving for emotional stimulation, or what psychologist Marvin Zuckerman refers to as “sensation seeking.” This constant quest for excitement manifests itself in activities ranging from drug use to skydiving to watching horror movies that all, in different ways, provide adrenaline rushes. Since most people can’t jump off a bridge on a daily or weekly basis, one of the most accessible ways to feel these rushes is through unrealistic thriller or horror films that provide not only escapism, but a degree of violence and gore that instinctively appeals to us.

It’s the violence that concerns people, however. Horror, as a genre, faces particular criticism from parents and other defenders of media censorship because of its depiction of bad behavior and extreme violence. Defenders of horror censorship argue that such gruesome imagery can damage psychological development during youth in various ways, from encouraging acute anxiety to increased desensitization and dehumanization that may lead to sociopathic tendencies. By attempting to save the young viewers from burgeoning psychological problems, critics inadvertently prevent adolescents from learning to cope with violence.

Jin Yoo / Kitsch Artist
Jin Yoo / Kitsch Artist

In 2011, the British Board for Film Classification completely banned screening or distribution of the horror film sequel The Human Centipede II, believing that it could inflict “psychological harm” upon its viewers. The Board argued that “there is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalized, degraded, and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience.” But how does viewing these so-called brutal acts on screen translate to pleasure for the audience? Saying the audience feels “pleasure” implies that they enjoy watching human mutilation and torture. There is a difference, however, between enjoying such acts, and watching them simply to feel a rush of adrenaline, also acknowledging that the film is entirely unrealistic. Frequently, when viewers witness a particularly atrocious act in a horror film, they will look away because the imagery is too grotesque for their own appreciation. This shows a certain degree of human sensitivity even while watching horror films, and such an example may show that while people watch horror films, it’s not the violent action that appeals to them, but the fear, disgust, and simultaneous thrill of seeing what they hope to never witness in real life.

The rise of mass media from the fifties onward through television, cinema, and consumer-accessible literature has inspired psychologists to formulate correlations between viewing media violence and acting out based on media violence. These conclusions range from arguments of increased social aggressions to more bold assertions that horror films encourage gruesome murders. One major case supporting these arguments is the 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger in England, where he was abducted by two 10-year-old boys, tortured, and killed. Some British tabloids at the time argued that the murder was supposedly inspired by the horror film Child’s Play 3, because Bulger was splashed with blue paint while tortured, which the killer doll Chucky had also done in the film. Apparently one of the killers’ fathers had rented the film a few months prior to the murder, but it was never confirmed whether or not his son actually watched it. Additionally, the boys had shown signs of long-term psychological issues after extensive professional analysis, so there is a tenuous connection between viewing such a film, and acting out based on the violence it portrayed.

In the past 20 years, psychologists have released studies arguing that no correlation exists between media violence and realistic violence, because media has risen and expanded in the past half-century or so beyond horror films alone. Psychologist Barrie Gunter published a study in the American Behavioral Scientist, an academic journal, in 2008, stating that violence has increased with the rise of popular media, but media has such a vast variety of subcategories that it’s impossible to isolate actual violence with its fictional portrayal. While horror films have skyrocketed in popularity since the mid-20th century, so have television news programs that bombard viewers with headlines and images of violence—in this case, real violence. The fantastical element of horror lit and films appeals to its audience, because even in a particularly violent scene, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that all of it is fake, that it is still fundamentally fiction. In news stories, however, there is no fantasy, but there is a firm insistence on open, uncensored reporting. Censors can overlook the psychological harm or provocative social maliciousness of Libyans beating dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s body after his death (as was shown with video footage in 2011), so they shouldn’t fear the danger of a bad Chucky sequel.

Horror’s other main appeal comes from its ability to graciously remind viewers of their own comfortable privilege. Danny Boyle’s horror film 28 Days Later visualizes the effects of a zombie apocalypse realistically enough to greatly disturb us, but even greater is our relief after the film ends and we remember that mysterious pandemic viruses don’t exist (except for one recently discovered in Siberia, but let’s ignore that for now). In a world full of complaining, horror films encourage us to contrast our lives to those of the characters and remember our own blessings.

Still, one has to wonder just how well we can control children’s exposure to violent media. It would be impossible to determine a strict age limit at which horror can be deemed appropriate. And whether parents like it or not, the desire for adrenaline combined with growing peer influence increases the likelihood that preadolescents will develop an interest in horror and visual violence, so adults shouldn’t be surprised to find their children discretely seeking out more daring forms of media as they grow older.

Despite significant evidence that disproves social and emotional harm from fictional violence, parental groups probably won’t stop lobbying for censorship. It may stem from their own ignorance, or simply the inherent desire to shield their children’s eyes from anything unsafe, but overcoming parental restrictions is the key issue for every adolescent coming-of-age. In any case, the digital age has made censorship more difficult, considering that most media is now readily available on the web. It’s no longer difficult to find unrated versions of horror films online, and old editions of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, while expensive, are available on Amazon and other bookselling sites. So, whether the censoring boards ban certain films or not, with the prevalence of media on the Internet, no one’s going to care whether the movie they’re illegally streaming is banned or not.

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