No respectable film buff is going to suggest that it’s been a bad few years for kids’ movies. So long as the geniuses at Pixar are still around, movie-going children will be consistently treated to pictures that strike a remarkably effective balance between amusing entertainment and substantial, dramatic storytelling that actually appeals to the whole family, and not just the Happy Meal crowd.

However, for those of us who remember growing up on The Wizard of Oz, E.T., and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, we’ve noticed something missing from the current trend of children’s entertainment: pure, creepy, horror. Not cheap shocks, but the kind of lurking unsease that lingers in your mind like a joke you’re not quite sure you understood, but are desperate to figure out. Sure, such movies as Toy Story 3 may feature their fair share of thrills, and Tim Burton’s take on the Willy Wonka story may be overtly bizarre, but the earlier classics often possessed an indescribable, unsettling quality that, rather than seeming like the kind of element that ought to be removed from films aimed towards kids, instead seems to capture an essential aspect of the childhood experience.

Children’s Games?

Looking back, it seems for many of us that childhood was, for the most part, all fun and games. And, compared to our lives now, that was probably the case. It’s just a problem that we didn’t know it at the time.

As much as we may forget it, kids, for whatever reason, like to be scared. When was the last time you told scary stories with your friends, perhaps huddled around a campfire? Or found an old Oujia board and genuinely tried to conjure the spirits of the dead? Most gainfully employed adults find little time and little reason to participate in such activities, but during that first decade of our lives, these are the kind of pastimes that are as reasonable as playing hide and seek.

It’s interesting to note that a lot of the movies which appeal to this fascination don’t seem to be designed for that purpose. E.T. is meant to be a heartwarming science-fiction tale, but Spielberg definitely have an entire generation nightmares with that scene when Elliot finds a “goblin” in his backyard. The same can be said about the living trees or flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. And of course, don’t forget that humanity-condemning ”angel” from The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Modern CGI fails to replicate this unsettling quality. The dynamic realism it allows for erases that foreign quality that often resulted from limited special effects back in the day. Today’s flying monkeys might look more impressive, but they’d be sanitized by ILM.

Deep in the Woods

However, what the past generation of filmmakers did do consciously was acknowledge that, for a child, the world seems like an endlessly threatening place. Rational adults objectively know the world is dangerous, but most of us have survived easily enough to be comfortable. Young children are still getting to know just what is possible and what isn’t. For them, the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t threatening because she subconsciously speaks to some deep psychological fear. She’s scary because she is an evil witch who can kill you. As kids, we kind of believe someone like her might exist.

None of this is to say that there aren’t any filmmakers working today who appreciate this truth. Guillermo del Toro, through such films as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan Labyrinth, has displayed a strong talent for recognizing the fears of childhood and putting them up on the screen. Those aren’t exactly kids’ movies, but he at least understands how children actually feel when they are growing up.

We need the people who are creating sophisticated storytelling for children to recognize this aspect of childhood and tell stories that reflect it. Some of the most enduring children’s tales feature real danger for the young protagonists.

It all boils down to the “Hansel and Gretel” story. Two children lost in the woods come across an evil witch and have to get out in order to survive. It may be simple, but it speaks to a timeless anxiety.

A Reason?

Why are these films necessary? There’s probably no great psychological justification, other than it builds characters and gives us things to be scared about for years to come. And that’s fun! And it makes it easier for parents to discipline their kids.

Yes, kids will grow up fine without them (possibly even slightly more sane). We simply need them because, as it has been pointed out, kids like to be scared, and so do adults who know how to hold on to that wonder of a child.

Yeah, the wonder of a child. We do like to speak of that quality, don’t we? We are certain that kids can see the magic in just about everything, whereas adults are too concerned with “practical” preoccupations.

Well, children do see magic in everything. They’re just not sure if it is being used for good or for evil.