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Industry Report: Animation

Animation and youth audience: Horror in children’s culture and cinema


KIDS Regio publishes an article on how horror culture and understanding it can be a way for adults, parents, educators and content producers to get closer to the world of young people

Animation and youth audience: Horror in children’s culture and cinema

Danish superhero film for children Antboy – an example for exquisite children’s art house film

A child scared to death, a child too afraid to sleep, a child having nightmares, worrying and angry parents. Isn’t this what happens when children are exposed to horror content? Shouldn’t we protect them from all of it at all costs?

Despite the on-going debate around the topic, films and other media content aimed for young audiences, even for small children, seem to take more and more influences from the horror film culture and horror conventions. This is especially the case in animation; Monster’s inc. (2001) and Monsters’s inc 2 (2013), Hotel Transylvania (2012) and Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015), just to name few examples. Even a film targeted to the youngest children Postman Pat – the Movie (2014) includes horror elements and the villain of the story is a classical horror movie monster. Filmmakers trust that children have enough film literacy competences that they can read the conventions and references to understand the film and put them into perspective. These kinds of genre elements also enhance children’s media skills and help them to become more film literate. Augmenting children’s media skills and knowledge about film narration and genres also helps them to recognize what is best for them and how to protect oneself from content that one feels is unsuitable.

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“Digilore” and children’s own horror culture is a rich combination of oral, audio-visual and other media traditions

Horror content has fascinated children since the early cinema. In the UK horror films were very popular among children before censorship restricted children access to horror content. A man that was a horror culture heavy user as a child puts it like this: ”Children have a strange fascination for horror films. They’re afraid of them but they like them.” (Smith 2005, 58.) However, horror and scary stories have always been part of children’s culture. Children’s horror culture is a way to deal with fears, strengthen group identity and push the boundaries (Tucker 2008, 113).

Audio-visual horror roots itself in oral folklore in which horror stories have been living for ages. Oral horror tradition is alive and well also in an urban context. Children still tell ghost stories to each other and social media has become a new channel for children folklore. Interesting examples of this old phenomenon in new social media context are ghost story messages circulating on children’s smartphones. One of these cases was actually a story based on a Portuguese short horror film A Curva (2004). The film represents quite typical found footage horror – a genre which itself is a version of the oral horror tradition. The story has been circulating on Instagram with the following message: “I am Teresa Fidalgo and if you don’t post this on 20 other photos I will sleep with you forever,” (Kakkori 2014, Hooton 2014.) Here the popular circle letter tradition has taken a new form in new media and is being influenced by rich audio-visual horror culture. Laura Hokkanen (2014) calls this new way of transmitting traditions digilore, which means digitally created folklore. Regarding film culture, influences go both ways: digilore gives inspiration and ideas to (horror) filmmakers and horror film themes continue living their lives outside film screens in digilore. Hence it can be said that children’s own horror culture is a rich combination of oral, audio-visual and other media traditions. And it can also be seen, in children’s own culture “genres”, as a rebellious counterculture.

Battle between entertainment and education

The question should children’s film educate and raise children rather than entertain has been relevant since the birth of the film. At least in Europe it is sometimes common to divide children’s films into mainstream and art house films, which reflects European film culture in general. Two “Boys” from the European children film catalogue finely represent these two different sections: The Dutch Kauwboy (2012) is a widely awarded, exquisite children’s art house film and the Danish superhero film for children Antboy [+see also:
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 (2013) is an entertaining genre film with many references to popular culture familiar to children. The films are very different from each other, but both have some heavy themes and gloomy elements in them. They are good examples of how films from very different starting points can achieve something that gets close to young people’s world.

Horror as a genre has often been underrated from the viewpoint of education and educational children’s film ideal. Horror and violence in children’s films have also raised a moral panic, which has resulted in a paradigm that labels all horror and violent elements as a bad thing for the young audiences. This discussion has usually been going on under the paradigm of the child protection and is also related to age ratings. The whole history of censorship, age ratings and child protection is highly coloured by moral panic regarding the impact of films on young audiences (Sihvonen 2009, 218-219.) Age ratings or child protectionist censorship, are of course tightly connected to the content of children’s film and are highlighted especially in the case of horror content.

At the first glance children’s film and horror film seem to be very far away from each other, but surprisingly many thematic similarities can be found. For example a typical character in a children’s film, a motherless child, is quite similar to horror’s borderline figures like werewolves who are like orphans or lost children. (Sihvonen 1987, 100-101.) Probably the most famous family entertainment brand, the Disney animated feature film, also contains elements typical to horror genre. Amy M. Davis states that this is because Disney’s major source of stories have been classical fairy tales, which share many themes with classic horror films (Davis 2006, 22.) This remark also emphasizes close ties between horror fiction and oral folklore.

A very good example of using horror genre elements in children’s film is the Swedish film Ice Dragon (Isdraken, 2012), which also raises the theme of children’s right to their own culture and the empowerment, which comes with it. A more lyrical example of horror conventions in children’s film is the Finnish art house children’s film Iris (2011) where a girl protagonist’s terrifying nightmares depict a child’s coping with the questions of death and abandonment. At its best horror genre conventions can bring with them versatile ways to talk about various and also “difficult” topics in ways that children audiences can relate to. If the film culture expresses that it is interested in and respects young people’s own culture it’s more likely to get committed, interested audiences.

The article is published in co-operation with KIDS regio, lobby initiative for high quality and multi-faceted European Children’s Films.

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