Horrorland is a new column within Cinema Quarantino, the Hassle’s ongoing series of alternative streaming picks for the self-quarantined and the socially distanced, in which Hassle film staff writer Alexis den Boggende delves into the ins, outs, and deeper meanings within the horror genre.
THE FILMS: Casper (1995) dir. Brad Silberling / The Haunted Mansion (2003) dir. Rob Minkoff / Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) dir. André Øvredal
THE STREAMER: Amazon Prime
Allowing kids access to the horror genre has long been condemned by adults. From angry PTA moms to fervid social groups, horror is often protested and marked as “offensive” and “inappropriate” for children. In the 1990s, books like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy were yanked off of shelves and out of children’s backpacks from coast-to-coast. Parents argued against these books in schools, libraries, and Scholastic book sales—there were even “series appropriateness hearings” that were aired on C-SPAN, where enraged parents could rant and rave about how these books were damaging their kids.
As the years went on, this concern emerged into the film world, too; countless parents have argued that horror will give their children anxiety for years and years, and will ultimately affect their development Come October, articles of that nature pop up on sites like Psychology Today and The Guardian, where parents have a digital platform to forewarn others about exposing their kids to horror. The issue is, those who protest these movies and books don’t know the first thing about the very material they are so against. They don’t understand that these mediums teach their kids more than they could ever imagine.
Fear and death—and by extension, horror—are primal; they are some of the most honest, core elements of the human experience. When we shield children from them, we are censoring and restricting them from the truth and the world around them. Horror teaches them about countless things—folklore, history, fear, and themselves. How will they grow if they don’t understand their fears? How will they learn about life if they don’t understand the naturality of death? Above all, taking away a child’s right to learn is censorship, and manipulative. If reading books like Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is enjoyable for them and encourages them to read, why take them away? If films like Corpse Bride and Gremlins are something that a child is entertained by, why take them away?
Now, don’t get me wrong—am I saying to introduce a child to Saw, or Leatherface? No—but an introduction to age-appropriate horror is a vital part of a child’s growth. Let’s take a look at three horror films that were received critically by parents for their dark overtones at the time they were released, and why they’re still necessary for kids to see today.
DIR. BRAD SILBERLING
Casper is the underrated film from your childhood that you vaguely remember. Maybe you remember the wistful, haunting piano theme from James Horner’s soundtrack or Casper’s famous line, “Can I keep you?” Or maybe you don’t remember all that much. But, when you casually catch it on Freeform’s 31 Nights of Halloween one night as an adult years later, it awakens something deep inside and hits you harder than you expected. A melancholic film with dark, heavy overtones thinly veiled as a children’s movie, Casper stands the test of time, teaching its young audience about the naturality of death and the grief that follows.
The film spins the story of Kathleen “Kat” Harvey (Christina Ricci), the teenage daughter of the self-proclaimed paranormal psychiatrist and newly widowed Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman). Kat is reluctant and frustrated when her father uproots her—yet again—to move to Friendship, Maine, to stay at Whipstaff Manor. They’re there to make contact and exorcise the ghosts haunting the sprawling seaside art deco mansion, per order of the greedy Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty), who is convinced that the house harbors a fortune. While moving into the cobweb-laced estate, Kat and her father have a frightening encounter with Whipstaff’s resident ghosts—teen Casper, and his obnoxious uncles, Stretch, Stinkie, and Fatso. As time goes on, Kat and Casper form an impregnable bond as Kat struggles with the recent death of her mother and bullying from the kids at her new school.
You see Kat attempt to cope with her mother’s absence throughout the film. She tells Casper what her mother smelled like, how she missed hearing her make breakfast downstairs, how she put on her lipstick, and the affectionate saying she used to tell Kat before tucking her into bed. Kat reveals to the young ghost that she’s afraid she’s starting to forget all of those things. Kat’s worried that as she grows older, her mother will become nothing more than a faded memory.
Casper has minor comedic moments, as children’s films often do, but, at the root of it, the film’s subject matter is death and coping with the loss of a parent– something that children may, unfortunately, have to face early in life. These two subjects are interwoven throughout the film carefully and form its structure. Like Kat, we see these themes highlighted in the character of James. Kat and James are constantly on the road because he cannot let his wife, Amelia, go. Originally a psychiatrist, James quit his job and became a “paranormal psychiatrist” to try and contact Amelia. “You’re not gonna find her,” Kat bitterly says to him as they drive cross-country to Maine in a packed, old station wagon. “Mom’s gone.”
As the film goes on, it grows more noticeable that Kat’s father is seriously struggling with his wife’s death; his physical appearance declines, he becomes weary and hopeless, and he grapples with raising Kat on his own. At the end of the film, Amelia appears to James as a seraph, assuring him that he is raising Kat well, but needs to stop looking for her. She implores him to move on, as he and Kat loved her so well in life, she has no unfinished business to stay for on Earth. The scene is, for me, one of the most moving in any children’s film. It analyzes the loss of a loved one, what you wish you could say to them, and learning to accept death and understand that it is okay to move on when they’ve gone.
Casper, too, struggles with his losses. In a beautiful sequence where Casper takes Kat to a nearby lighthouse, Kat asks Casper what it’s like to die. Casper tells her it’s like being born, only backward, and that he cannot remember anything from his own life. “Not how old you were? Not what school you went to, or your favorite song?” Kat asks. “Not even your dad?” Casper says no, he doesn’t remember anything. When Kat asks why, he simply says, “When you’re a ghost, life doesn’t matter anymore, so you forget.” It’s an incredibly heavy sequence where Kat learns what the process of dying is like, just as Casper copes with the loss of memory of his life and his parent.
When Kat and Casper go up into the attic of Whipstaff, Casper finds a sled. In a memorable and heartbreaking monologue, he recalls the details of his death, having gotten ill with pneumonia after staying out too late in the winter. When he died, his father could not accept it when he began seeing Casper’s ghost and began trying to invent the machine that would allow his son to live again. He was deemed insane and committed for the rest of his life. This sequence, similar to the lighthouse scene, tackles the loss of a parent, of life, and the struggle that we have with grief and acceptance of death.
Casper is a moving and beautiful children’s horror film that, while packing in some scares, sheds light on the inevitability of death and grief, two things that we will all experience as we go through life.
THE HAUNTED MANSION (2003)
DIR. ROB MINKOFF
It’s no secret that Disney’s The Haunted Mansion is widely disregarded due to its “unoriginal” premise and Eddie Murphy’s lackluster performance. Though the film does follow the classic “horror-comedy” structure, there are much deeper and more ghastly elements to it than you’d expect. Seeing this film in theaters scared the hell out of me as a kid, but it always stuck with me because of its dark themes of racism, death, and grief. This film, in my opinion, does not get the credit it deserves.
The plot follows the Evers family, headed by workaholic real estate agent father Jim (Eddie Murphy). While on the way to a weekend getaway, Jim can’t resist a possible client and detours his family to see an old New Orleans mansion that dates back to the 1800s.
The mansion’s owner, Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker)—flanked by his creepy manservant, Ramsley (Terrance Stamp)—wants to tear down and sell the mansion, much to Jim’s wife, Sarah’s (Marsha Thomason), surprise. Unbeknownst to the Evers family, Gracey is a ghost that has lured them there under pretenses. He is convinced that Sarah is the reincarnation of his lost love, Elizabeth, who he believes committed suicide years prior. Following Elizabeth’s death, Gracey, too, committed suicide, hanging himself from the rafters of the mansion.
All of the ghosts in and around the mansion—from the waitstaff to the cemetery—are all trapped on Earth and cannot leave until the curse is broken, which may only occur if Elizabeth and Gracey are reunited again. Ramsley convinces Gracey that they must marry and poison Sarah; then, she may die and join him in the afterlife, thus breaking the curse.
When Ramsley tells Sarah of this plan, she is horrified and naturally refuses. He throws Jim out of the mansion and threatens her children if she does not go through with the wedding. Reluctantly, she puts on the wedding gown and saunters to the altar in tears as as cryptic old organ plays the wedding march.
In the nick of time, Jim intervenes, telling Gracey that Elizabeth never poisoned herself years ago. Ramsley poisoned and killed her, as he believed their union to be an “abomination,” because Gracey was white and Elizabeth was black. In the 1870s in New Orleans, he says, interracial marriage was “unacceptable.” After Ramsley damns them “all to Hell” for getting in his way, lightning and thunder erupt through the night sky, sending demonic entities bursting through the mansion to encompass the servant. The fireplace hearth opens up into a firey pit, where a large, flaming serpent emerges and takes hold of Ramsley, dragging him to the depths of Hell.
Like Casper, the film is structured around death and grief, with Gracey struggling and unable to move on after the death of Elizabeth. It also touches upon suicide and murder; both are shown in the opening scene. Children need to understand what these things are, how to understand them, and how to process them—both are a part of life and they will see or hear about both as they grow up.
Above all, the most critical aspect of this film that kids will take away is its historical backstory. The film’s love story of an interracial couple is beneficial for children to see. The film teaches that we are all the same and we are all equal; love has no limits. Further, The Haunted Mansion‘s denunciation of racism is illustrated with Ramsley being quite literally yanked into a fiery pit by Satan for his hate crime.
Despite being negatively received by film critics, The Haunted Mansion is a film that has lessons to teach and themes darker—and more important—than you may imagine.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019)
DIR. ANDRÉ ØVREDAL
As I mentioned in the introduction of this article, Scary Stories’s book counterpart by the late and great Alvin Schwartz was highly condemned by adults throughout the 1990s. This continued through the 2000s, and they are still protested today, with the Scary Stories series #7 on the list of the Top 100 Challenged and Banned Books. When the film was produced last year by the innovative mind of visionary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage), parents felt no different.
The stories and the monsters we see on the screen come from Schwartz’s tirelessly researched book, which has origins rooted in folklore (in the back of the books, you can find Schwartz’s notes saying where and what legend each story comes from). Something incredible about his stories, and the movie, is that it educates children about different legends, myths, and cautionary tales from cultures that are different than their own; these narratives come from all over the world.
Not only does Scary Stories educate kids on folklore and other cultures, but it also teaches kids about death and facing their own fears, and understanding the root of those fears. Why are we afraid of the dark? Why are we afraid of that scarecrow, or a nest of spiders? It’s a film and book series about understanding yourself and learning how to conquer those fears. The film also set in the 60s during the peak of the Vietnam War—it touches upon draft-dodging, the fear of losing your life in war, its violence, and racism.
Scary Stories stays faithfully close to the brilliant, ink-laced monsters dreamed up by the book’s illustrator, Stephen Gammell. Featuring beloved stories like Harold, The Red Spot, The Dream, Me Tie Dough-ty Walker, and The Big Toe, Scary Stories follows quiet, teenage horror writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends when they awaken the spirit of an angry author on Halloween night in 1968.
One by one, the kids are targeted by the ghoul and her writing—beginning with Tommy (The Walking Dead‘s Austin Abrams), the sleazy, racist bully, who is killed when his family’s scarecrow, Harold, chases him down in a cornfield. Similarly to what we see in The Haunted Mansion, the film denounces racism and shows its child viewers that those who bully and harm others if they are different than themselves are quickly and brutally punished for it.
Horror is an important part of a child’s development; it’s giving them the ability to explore countless things—their fears, their creativity, history, death, grief, right from wrong, and folklore. It’s a unique genre that allows us to analyze and understand the human connection, the human experience, and the core of who we are as people.
Catch all three picks streaming now on Amazon Prime, and remember to support your local theatres!
dir. Brad Silberling
The Haunted Mansion
dir. Rob Minkoff
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
dir. André Øvredal
All films currently streaming on Amazon Prime
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.