KIDS AND TV
Watching Scary Movies Can Cause Lasting Trauma
Thinking of letting your kid watch a horror movie this Hallowe’en? Think again, says one University of Toronto prof… and thousands of adults who watched IT as kids
By Kristen Thompson. Published in Toronto Star, Sept. 7, 2017. Read online here
Twenty-seven years after literature’s most terrifying clown made his TV debut, Pennywise is back, this time on the big screen. And many of us who had no business watching the world’s scariest miniseries as kids in 1990 now have seeming heart attacks whenever the trailer for the new movie comes on.
It’s probably safe to say that thousands of 30-somethings who watched Stephen King’s It as children have grown up traumatized not only of the story — about a child-killing demon that takes the form of a clown named Pennywise — but of clowns in general. And maybe even storm drains. I can’t be the only one afraid of storm drains.
According Min Zhuo, a professor of physiology at the University of Toronto who specializes in fear and anxiety, this isn’t hyperbole.
That’s because watching a horror movie really can cause trauma, and the effects of that trauma — especially when experienced in childhood — can last into adulthood.
“Younger brains are more plastic, thus, the negative impact (of watching something scary) will be more dramatic,” said Zhuo, who admits to never having watched It himself, because he doesn’t like scary movies. “And this can have a long-term, negative impact on brains.”
The mini-series was particularly traumatizing for its young audience in part, Zhuo suggests, because the antagonist takes the guise of a clown — someone meant to be benign, and whom children are meant to love and trust.
“All these violent pictures, when they get into the brain, it’s not much different than experiencing (that violence) in real life.”
So for those of us who re-live that childhood trauma of watching It every time the ad comes on, Zhuo suggests our brains may have suffered a legitimate type of injury from watching the show as kids.
Zhuo said it may seem counterintuitive to watch scary movies — given fear is meant to be a safety mechanism telling us to avoid a situation. But he explained that happiness and fear are often coded in similar parts of our brain.
“It explains why some of us enjoy watching violent or scary movies,” he said. Or why some of us are adrenaline junkies. “We want to feel excitement. And scary movies do that.”
But when that excitement causes lasting trauma, then it’s time to reassess the level of fear you’re comfortable with.
Zhuo said one way to counter that fear is to avoid being exposed to it at all. So for those of us traumatized by Pennywise, for example, that literally means looking away when he shows his face in the ads. For others, it might mean not watching the remake at all.
And today’s kids curious of the colourful remake? Maybe mind the R rating — your adult self could thank you.
We all freak out down here
We asked Toronto Star readers to share the scary movies that still make them quake with fear today.
Darkness Falls ruined the tooth fairy for me. After watching that movie, I started throwing my baby teeth in the trash.
— Andrew Truong, Vaughan
ET. I’m still scarred by that guy.
— Katie Littlejohn, Kingston, Ont.
The original Halloween. The freaky white mask and that awesome yet terrifying music score.
— Jay Bork, Toronto
The Terminator — a terrifying & relentless killing machine! Why was I allowed to watch that movie at 10 years of age?
— Amanda Page, Ottawa
The Exorcist. Watched it mostly with my head under the blanket. Sadly, I was 13 and in high school at the time!
— David Singh, Toronto
The flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz scared me because I saw it too young. But the one that freaked me out but I watched it over and over anyways — the drunk screaming skeleton from The Last Unicorn. I can still hear it in my head.
— Kiera Thompson, Port Hope, Ont.
The Never Ending Story. My parents took me to see it and we had to leave the theatre in the middle of it I was so terrified. I still can’t watch it to this day.
— Andrea Perez Cosio, Toronto
Big Trouble In Little China. My brother watched it constantly and I always seemed to walk in when Kurt Russell was fighting “bad guys” in a dark alley. As a kid I thought it was dark and violent, little did I know until recently that the movie is a comedy.
— Kristy Boyne, Vancouver
The scariest movie was when I snuck down and watched Poltergeist. The scene that haunted me was when the little boy was swallowed by the tree. I had a tree right outside my bedroom window and for weeks I was terrified of it — especially when the wind would scratch the branches against the window. And the worst was I couldn’t say anything about how scared I was because I knew I wasn’t allowed to watch that movie.
— Megan Beetstra, Vancouver
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