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Are Horror Movies Bad for Kids and Their Mental Health?
By Paul Asay
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Where do we begin with horror movies? Sometimes staying away completely from the horror genre is best for our families and kids. Yet, with an appropriate and healthy perspective, there can be valuable lessons within some of the darkest places.

Are horror movies bad for us? Each year, October renews the conversation and demands answers to this question. When you watch movies for a living, you soon discover that October is horror film season. And horror movies, obviously, come with a bunch of unique issues and problems. But are they just flat-out bad?

It’s a good question, and one that some of you might be asking. In fact, the other day, a Plugged In reader contacted me and asked if we’ve ever given a horror movie a good review.

The answer? It’s tricky.

Understanding the Appeal of Horror Movies

First of all, the purpose of a horror movie is to scare you, right? That’s probably not the moviegoing experience we’d be likely to encourage. Better to walk out inspired to be a better person than be inspired to check the back seat of your car for serial killers, right?

In addition, most horror movies try to scare through some pretty problematic content and disturbing images. We know that those images can stick with you for a while—even a lifetime. (Some movies I saw as a kid are still with me all those years later. And they cause me a little unease during dark, quiet nights.) And then, of course, there’s the supernatural aspect that lots of Christians steer well clear of. There are movies with a demonic or ghostly hook that might encourage an unhealthy fascination with the occult.

So, yes, it can be difficult for Plugged In to say, “Yes, take the kiddies to Halloween 34: The Bride of Halloween!

And yet.

I’ve dealt with depression for much of my life. And I’ve written in this very space about how movies are a strange, but often strangely encouraging, part of that journey.

Some movies, such the The Lord of the Rings films, can inspire people like me—and really, anyone going through tough stuff—to push through. But other films, movies that we’d never be able to give a Plugged In family stamp of approval to, have helped in their own weird ways, too.

Horror Movies and Mental Health

When I describe what depression’s like to someone, I often compare it to the horror movie tropes I’ve seen. It can feel, at times, like cinematic-style possession. Something that takes over your ability to think and act as you’d like, that turns you into something that you’re not. Also, it can act as a matinee vampire. Sucking away your ability to enjoy what you used to enjoy, to isolate you from those who love you. It can feel, at times, like a haunted house: Something other is stalking the hallways of your mind. And you never know when it might attack.

Of course this dynamic isn’t just isolated to issues of mental illness. Many a problem can find comparisons in fright flicks. Deadlines can feel like a shark circling in the water. Family issues can make my world shake like a cheap disaster pic. So in an unexpected way, horror movies give me language, and a frame of reference, that help me communicate more clearly what I feel.

And sometimes, those movies can even be a tool to process the real-life horrors I might be facing—to look at issues and problems in a different way.

Folks in the business of making horror movies often understand that dynamic—and honestly, they always have. Sure, some horror flicks are just an excuse to unleash a few jump scares. Also, they aim to earn a few million bucks from unwitting teens. But many tap into fears we have, individually or collectively, and perhaps help us to grapple with them.

In the 1920s and 30s, science and technology were radically transforming the world. Some believed that science, not faith, held all the answers. Frankenstein, made in 1931, reminded us to not turn science into a god itself. Early movies built around Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula (including 1922’s Nosferatu) reminded us of realities—and evils—that science often underplayed and has no ability to combat. Godzilla was originally a cautionary tale against nuclear power and war. It was something that its creators in Japan had tragically some experience with. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made in 1956, is seen as a Cold War Metaphor—the “body snatchers” being stand-ins for the soul-sucking communist threat.

Warnings and Concerns

And the beat goes on. The Babadook is not only a really creepy, bothersome movie: It’s a purposeful take on mental illness. We’ve seen a lot of impactful movies about Alzheimer’s and dementia lately (one of which, The Father, earned Anthony Hopkins an Oscar). But for me, the most impactful was actually a little-seen horror movie called Relic. The Netflix series Black Mirror is just filled with problematic content. But if it wasn’t, its cautionary fables warning against technological excess would sound a lot like we at Plugged In might say.

And some horror stories can even inspire as they scare. A Quiet Place, which I’d classify as a horror flick, features enough strong elements in it to even earn a place on our “Best Movies for Adults” list back in 2019.

Spiritual Effects

And some—dealing as they do most explicitly with good and evil, with light and darkness—remind us of a greater truth. They remind us that while terrors (real and imagined) do sometimes haunt us, there’s a God who can deal with such monsters. A God who, truth be told, already has.

Horror is a complicated genre, to be sure. Some people will never watch a horror movie, and they’ll never want to. Others will look at all the problems the genre comes with and steer well clear. Still others will think about their kids potentially waking up at 3 a.m. with nightmares and say, “No Hocus Pocus 2 for our family!”

And that’s all fine. Great, even.

Still, some viewers will see glimmers of positivity in this complex genre. Some will recognise that the dark, monster-filled nights it brings can sometimes lead to a brighter morning. Sometimes terror can remind us of the One who dispels all terror, and who tells us, in whispered Scripture, “Be not afraid.”

​© 2022 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

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