How family-friendly scary movies like Hotel Transylvania and ParaNorman help kids confront the reality of death.
When DreamWorks scooped up the rights to countless children’s characters with the recent purchase of Classic Media, the Shrek makers gained the opportunity to revive everyone from Mr. Magoo to Gumby. But there’s one character that DreamWorks should think twice about bringing back because of the questions it’s always prompted. As Matt Groening once put it, “Who is Casper the Friendly Ghost the ghost of? Casper the Little Dead Boy?” Lisa provided one explanation in a Simpsons episode when Bart pointed out the character’s resemblance to Richie Rich. “Perhaps he realized how hollow the pursuit of money really is and took his own life,” his sister suggested.
For death to cast its shadow over a piece of children’s entertainment can be discomfiting to parents, keen as they are to shield their kids from life’s unpleasantness and monsters real or imagined. Yet Hollywood knows that youngsters have a seemingly insatiable appetite for movies and shows about things that go bump in the night. A new cartoon comedy populated by not-so-scary incarnations of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, Hotel Transylvania opens this weekend. The following week sees the release of Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s feature-length version of his early stop-motion short about a young science wiz who resurrects his beloved pooch. Another stop-motion animated film full of zombies, ghosts, and other creepy characters, ParaNorman has been delivering a similar mix of funny and creepy to viewers since its release late this summer.
All three movies seek to make something family-friendly out of characters and tropes more commonly associated with tales of horror and the supernatural. Essentially, they want children to laugh at what might otherwise make them scream. In that respect, they’re the contemporary equivalent of not just vintage Casper cartoons, but goofy old comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. With their many cheeky references to the scary fare of yesteryear, Frankenweenie and ParaNorman also evoke an era when horror movies were considered lowly kid stuff, before Night of the Living Dead and Hammer’s lurid brand of thrills gave the genre a harder edge at the end of the 1960s. By the time of the slasher boom of the late ’70s and ’80s, horror had shed its harmless-B-movie designation and acquired a more adult (or at least teenaged) viewership. Instead, today’s not-too-creepy-for-kiddies fare evokes a more wholesome tradition of horror, one we associate with Halloween fun rather than Leatherface.
Why kids enjoy the stuff isn’t hard to understand. Like the fairy tales famously analyzed by Bruno Bettelheim in the psychologist’s 1976 study, The Uses of Enchantment, stories that trade in macabre images and themes can have great value to young readers or viewers by providing a safe context for exploring and confronting fears. Comedic examples like Hotel Transylvania go one step further by presenting monsters in non-threatening terms. They can even be cuddly, like Mike and Sulley in Monsters, Inc., or Frankenweenie himself, who’s still cute despite the stitches and the bolts in his neck.
Yet even works that invest these elements with a spirit of fun have to contend with the real anxieties buried below the surface. As with the case of Casper, death is still a major character in this latest trio of films, a fact that makes them grimmer than their lively dispositions and visual inventiveness may suggest. In Hotel Transylvania, Dracula’s overprotective attitude towards his daughter is rooted in his grief over the loss of her mother, killed in a fire set by an angry mob of townspeople. (Actually, all three movies are far harder on humans with torches and pitchforks than they are on their misunderstood monsters.) Like the Mary Shelley story that inspired it, Frankenweenie is a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to cheat death and the unforeseen misfortunes that may occur should you succeed.
ParaNorman is the most morbid of the lot, as well as the most psychologically complex. Not only is its young hero continually forced to confront the reality of death (in one scene, he even wrestles a corpse), he must also learn about the inner fears and wounds that give birth to monsters in the first place. Tucked into the movie’s delightful stop-motion tomfoolery is the acknowledgment of the sorrow and suffering that produces ghosts, goblins, and other symbolic manifestations of urges and anxieties we work so hard to repress. And that’s a troubling lesson for kids and grown-ups alike. No wonder most of us would rather not know how Casper got that way.