Do you recall being scared as a child? The ostensibly innocuous collusions of image and experience that would, for whatever reason, terrify or distress you in ways that your adult self cannot possibly understand? What scares a child, what distresses a child, can so often be entirely blameless to adult eyes; something cute or casual, something without significance.
Do you recall how obsessively you recounted it? How your imagination would return to the experience again and again, often embellishing, often compounding, until it became the most impossible and absurd of waking nightmares? This is the nature of imagination and the nature of memory, which is informed by the same circuitry, part of the same engine.
These associations inform so much of us; what presume of ourselves, what we eventually become. And the associations that children form, via imaginations that have yet to be trammelled and ridiculed and disappointed into calcification, are often so much more vivid and varied; so much more real than those we experience later in life. It does not matter to the child that an adult informs them there is nothing in the dark; nothing under the bed, in the closet: they know in their hearts that this is a lie; that their fear is well founded, that adult logic does not apply. Furthermore, they learn to love it, in the light of day; to obsess and explore it in conversations with friends, in the games that they make out of the experience. Anyone who recalls the conversations they had as children; the little theatres they would make in which the dread, the terror, however contrived, felt so real, it was as though its subject might coalesce around them; rise from beneath the ground at their feet or lurch out of the shadows, will know this: however much they might lament or protest it at night, children are obsessed with the experience of fear. In healthy households, they are allowed to explore that obsession; to learn their own relationship to it via their own means. They are provided the stories, the toys, the games; the muster of imagination, to do so, and, in that experience, learn to at once assimilate and transcend it. One of the more insidious and corrosive aspects of (post) modern culture, certainly here in the Anglophone west, is that we attempt to shield children from these experiences, even in the entirely harmless realms of dreams, nightmares, fiction; their own imaginations, instead of allowing them to see that such contrivances cannot harm them; that they might, in fact, provide an entirely inconsequential arena in which these inalienable and inevitable human experiences might be explored, potential contexts blossoming as a result.
As with all things; all factors and aspects of human experience, it is when we are shielded from this, when we are told that it is wicked, evil, harmful to us, without any further context or explanation, that it becomes a matter of neurosis. No matter how earnestly our parents, our teachers, our cultures and societies attempt to insulate children against the darker facets of humanity, they will encounter them at some point, either in their own lives or in their own heads; their drives consisting of the same darkness, the same primary urges, desires and appetites as their potential adult selves, only in putative form; unshaped, without direction or context. Allowing them experience in these areas via media provides arenas in which they can explore them, know them; take a degree of command of them, in ways they otherwise would not. This is the purpose of subject matter that might be considered ostensibly “horrific” or disturbing, which has, consciously or otherwise, been a part of children’s media and storytelling since time out of mind.
Many, many writers and artists acknowledge this; seeming to recall their own experiences in that regard quite vividly. Be it the embellished and horrible fairy tales their grandmothers used to tell them, the nightmares they still recall from when they were barely out of their cribs, the VHS cover art that lodged in their imaginations when they visited the rental store, there is a persistent and abiding obsession amongst writers and artists of fantastical subject matter for this realm of experience.
Writer and director Guillermo del Toro is arguably pre-eminent in this regard, works such as the seminal Pan’s Labyrinth and its sibling, The Devil’s Backbone, exploring the relationship between inner, imaginative worlds of children and their relationship to the horrors of the outer and material. Children in his films, often the protagonists, are more legitimately child like in terms of their behaviour, their psychology, but also in terms of what they imagine and obsess over, than any Victorian reduction or adult distortion of childhood, which sadly pervades much of popular fiction and cinema (very, very often, children in fiction do not act or speak or function as children do; their writers have forgotten what it means to be a child, and have opted for a simplistic reduction thereof). In Pan’s Labyrinth, our protagonist is a young girl thrust into the heart of the Spanish Civil War, her Father dead (almost certainly murdered), her Mother having become the consort of a fascist general; a man of ogre-like status in her mind; one entirely without imagination, beyond the cruelties he deploys in his function as a brute, a dictator and a would-be king.
The girl is perverse, as children universally are, lying, taking pleasure in the distress she causes her adult keepers and captors, consistently undermining their demands of her through her escapades and refutations. Surrounded by waking horror, she does not so much retreat into, as super impose another reality over the one she knows; not an escape, as such, but a means of sifting and assimilating the horror. A fairy tale state of fawns and fairies, it is not a technicolour, Disney-style cartoon, but one as potentially horrific and ambiguous as the one it occasionally supplants; its denizens morally ambiguous, the fawn, who comes in the guise of a guide and shaman, at once beautiful and threatening, his every word seeming laced with deception, his twitching, ragged frame the stuff of childhood nightmares, though he consistently protests innocence. The girl’s relationship to him echoes that which she shares with all self fancied “authorities” in the waking or material world; she is immediately distrustful, questioning, questioning, though the fawn warns her of the consequences of doing so, even going so far as to disobey (notice that she technically fails two of the three “tasks” that he sets her, through her own inclination to disobedience). The film does not condemn her for this; if anything, it celebrates her wilfulness, it rewards her for being her own entity, even when the only hope her imagination can contrive is threatened as a result. Echoing ostensibly more comic films such as Labyrinth, the work emphasises the importance of claiming responsibility for one’s own imagination; taking control of it, even when it threatens and rails, even when it throws up horrors beyond countenance. It is a film that abhors surrender, to violence, to authority; that celebrates the utter necessity of rebellion, which children so completely embody, until such time as the world brutalises it out of them.
The horrific subject matter, the darkness and violence that the girl invests in her fantastical world, is a reflection of the world she lives every waking moment, the forms and states of her interior landscape subtly echoing those without. Nowhere is this more overt than in the instance of the Pale Man and his banquet hall, the composition of the set, even the camera shots, echoing those of an earlier scene in which her fascist Step Father presided over a banquet for the privileged and the sympathetic to his cause, whilst the men and women he purports to represent starve. The demonic, ogre-like entity called The Pale Man is how she perceives the man, but also any number of inchoate terrors; he is fear made manifest, and the grammar of the film subtly shifts at this moment into that of a nightmare, echoing horror cinema in terms of its pace and rhythm. This is the girl exploring her own terrors, her own fear; the potential consequences of her rebellion. Notice, that again, she disobeys, and, in disobeying, both succeeds and fails; she claims the key that the fawn sent her to, but also rouses the Pale Man, resulting in the gruesome deaths of her fairy guides and her own pursuit by the creature through its twisted, nightmare halls. The scene is one of pure nightmare imagery; something torn directly from the distressed minds of sleeping babes, echoing those which we barely recall in adulthood, for the most part, carrying as much metaphorical weight as it does terror or dread. It encapsulates the dynamic of the imagined and the actual more absolutely than any moment in the entire film; the point at which the fantastical echoes reality so completely, it becomes as lethal, as threatening. She survives this encounter, through her own wit, her own quick thinking and cleverness, and, in so doing, becomes insulated against imaginary fear; she has faced the manifestation of every personal demon, every monstrosity she has ever dreamed or glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. Even in the loss that follows, she does not become despondent; she has dealt with the horrors of her own imagination, conquered them, and emerged as something more; something beautiful.
That is the point of the sequence and of the film as a whole: imagination as a means of confrontation and transcendence rather than escape. It acknowledges that even the most seemingly innocent of material contains these elements; the witches and wolves and ogres of fairy tales, the threats of loss and starvation and devouring that pervade them. Even Disney films, cartoons; iconic childhood influences, which adults mistakenly preconceive as so innocent, almost universally contain certain elements that leave lasting scars, which oblige their audience to confront horrific or distressing material. From the Wicked Queen in Snow White, her transformation the very stuff of nightmares, to Judge Claude Frollo’s Hellfire sequence in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which demonic, hooded figures form from the shadows, the fire in the wall, condemning him for his apparent “sinful” desires towards the gypsy, Esmerelda, all include and explore imagery and situations that echo the universal horrors, the common nightmares, that pervade childhood, which adults conveniently forget as they grow and as perception distorts.
Neil Gaiman is particularly aware of this phenomena, exploring it in works that range from The Graveyard Book to Coraline, the former a children’s book that borrows subjects, settings and situations from a variety of established horror idioms (the eponymous graveyard, populated, as it is, with all manner of undead entities; vampires, zombies, ghosts and ghouls), but lampooning them; making the horrific and the grotesque fantastical and miraculous; things to marvel at and even seek solace in, certainly for the book’s protagonist: a boy who grows up amongst the undead in the same manner that The Jungle Book’s Mowgli does amongst wolves and panthers and bears. It is the outside world, the so called “normal,” which is threatening, dangerous and unpleasant; a place of casual cruelties and banal evil. In that, Gaiman explores a child’s relationship to what adults might preconceive as horrific, but which a child may not unless it is taught to do so, not to mention the adult world’s blithe acceptance of common or garden evils whilst railing against that which, ultimately, lacks significance or which might otherwise be beautiful and inspiring. In the film adaptation of Gaiman’s graphic novel, Coraline, we have yet another exploration of the darkness of a child’s imagination; what is essentially a horror film for children, in the same vein as the later Paranorman and Frankenweenie; films that borrow tropes and tricks from horror cinema, but use them to express pervasive childhood horrors. In the case of Coraline, arguably the most pervasive: that of losing one’s parents, but in a manner that is entirely exaggerated and fantastical: far from Coraline waking to find them gone, following a series of disagreements and disappointments, she finds a doorway to a fantastical realm in which faintly distorted versions of her parents live, a world that caters to and indulges her, but which slowly starts to supplant the “real” one, the “other Mother,” revealing beneath her perfection a neurotic, monstrous need for Coraline’s “love,” her presence and approval, until the monstrosity beneath makes itself known. The film, once again, explores notions of “getting what one wishes for,” of imagination and desire overwhelming those who experience them, colluding to make horrors from indulgence, and, in so doing, obliges the child (in this instance, Coraline) to engage with the “real” world on a more considered, “adult” level: it is not perfect, it is not there to indulge her. Anything that pretends otherwise is a sham, a confection, and likely a dangerous one, contrived to occlude something entirely more hostile. The film speaks not only to children in a manner that they will firmly understand (utilising imagery and language that is genuinely redolent of childhood distortions and nightmares, not merely some adult delusion thereof) but also echoes drives and fears that dog us through to adulthood, however sublimated, and thus proves equally distressing to adult eyes, placing them both in the position of Coraline and of her parents, who are uniquely flawed individuals and extremely flawed parents, in the manner that many in children’s media are not; this is not an instance of Coraline being spoiled or unnecessarily demanding, nor is it entirely a case of her parents being preoccupied and neglectful; it is a confluence of both; a truly adult situation expressed and explored using the imagery of childhood nightmares. It does not condescend to its audience, it does not present situations that are absolute. Even the “Other Mother” is not an entirely unsympathetic figure, monstrous as she becomes in the film’s closing quarters, but a melancholic projection of every dangerous, neurotic urge; every fear that a child might have concerning their parent. Coraline recognises that the relationships children have with their parents and their own imaginations is complex and often considerably stressful, not to mention disappointing, disturbing, even horrific at times, but that those experiences are essential and a necessary part of self development. By the film’s conclusion, Coraline realises that her parent’s imperfections are part of their humanity, whilst they begin to understand the degree of their daughter’s disappointment in them. It is the beginning of a healing process, as much horror, whether aimed at children or adults, often is.
Coraline echoes certain themes and concerns expressed in Clive Barker’s books for children, The Thief of Always and The Abarat; stories in which children are torn or tossed from the disappointments of day to day living; from banality, into worlds of fantastical oddity and indulgence, continuing traditions most popularly expressed through the likes of Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. In The Thief of Always, Harvey Swick is visited by a strange and surreal entity which invites him to Mr Hood’s Holiday House, a place where children come and live out their fantasies, the house indulging their every whim for play, for adventure, for appetite, its days running through seasons, from the spring of morning, the summer of afternoon, the autumn of evening and the winter of deep night, holidays such as Halloween and Christmas celebrated daily, and in ways that the material world simply cannot accommodate. Halloween in particular is a night of magic; the house and its grounds twisting, reorienting themselves, becoming places of genuine dread, but which the children scream and tumble through in utter joy at their own terror. A particularly iconic sequence involves Harvey being transmuted into a living bat creature to terrify his friend, Wendell, glorifying in the wind in his wings, in the terror he inspires, becoming a nightmare and falling in love with the condition, albeit temporarily. As with Coraline, perpetual indulgence and the exercise of imagination has its price: the house is a place of magic, informed by the imaginations of its guests, but, like those imaginations, which can just as readily throw up nightmares as fantasies, it is ambiguous: a place where imagination betrays its bearer, leads them into horrors they do not wish to play with or be a part of. More, it is, like the “Other Mother’s” realm of confection, a lie; an illusion cast to veil the house’s true purpose, which is the stealing of time and life. Every day that passes, with its fast flowing seasons, is a year in the outside world, the curiously absent Mr. Hood stealing life and experience from his guests to sustain his own wretched existence. In this, magic and imagination become simultaneously wondrous and the enemy; a source of as much horror as they are delight, and, once again, something that must be mastered; overcome and controlled, if those that experience it are to survive sane or intact.
Again, we have an example of fantasy sifting into horror; indulgence of childhood whims and the surrender to imagination bringing about very real danger. This is made acutely manifest when Harvey returns to the Holiday House after his initial escape with the intent of finding Mr. Hood and stealing back the years that have been taken from him. The house, formerly a place of revels, becomes one of horrors, echoing in a muted fashion those that occur throughout Barker’s more adult works. Once again, these are mere illusions; even the most horrible, the most overt; things that Harvey is forced to confront and conquer, before he comes before Mr. Hood himself.
Very often, this is how horrific material is presented and utilised within children’s media; sometimes in a classical, cautionary fashion (“Don’t stray from the path!”), but in more complex and (arguably) comprehensive works, as a means to confrontation and self revelation; it is a factor required for transcending certain less welcome elements of childhood itself; those that we must slough away and abandon if we are ever to truly grow and transform.
Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue of animations is rife with examples of exactly this theme, most notably in its Alice in Wonderland style classic, Spirited Away. Here, as in previous examples, children are not reduced to adult ideals; protagonist Chihiro is a fantastically flawed, disinterested and jaded little girl, who finds the comforts and certainties that inform her dissatisfaction, but which she clings to for want of imagining better, torn away when she and her parents stumble across a semi-mythical bath house for gods and spirits. There, she encounters all manner of fantastical and disturbing entities, from the bath house’s vast headed, witchly patron to the monstrous No Face; entities that are often as horrific as they are amazing, each of them providing a stepping stone for Chihiro to confront her own incapacities and transcend them. Through her experiences, Chihiro learns who and what she can be, what she can do, no longer the slothful and sluggish child of the film’s opening sequences. Through the ultimate childhood horror—the loss of one’s parents—, she becomes far more than she could have ever been while they were still close enough to cling to.
The film thereby echoes certain games that children traditionally play either with themselves or in the company of others; the fantastical theatres they project onto the reality around them, in which the difficulties and disappointments the world displays are played out, expressed in fantastical or horrific terms; as waking dreams, nightmares; in which they can evolve contextually in the same manner as both children and adults do via the experience of art, of stories.
This is why such experiences are utterly essential, for the spiritual and psychological well being of our species, and why certain cultural and political forces rail against the very fact of them: their predominance, their status within the wider engine, relies upon maintaining children and the adults they become at a particular baseline of operation: enough to be functional, not enough to imagine better, to question their place and purpose. This is what the distressing, the uncomfortable, the disturbing and horrific allows for, for adults certainly, but even more profoundly and tempestuously for children: it is the experience that can change a child’s entire mental topography, that can shift their tastes, their perceptions; their preconceptions of self. Those that attempt to shield or “protect” them from such experiences have no memory of what it is to be a child or pretend not to for their own—often not consciously acknowledged or defined—agendas, whereas those such as the creators detailed above recognise their essential nature, and seek to provide materials and contexts in which such explorations can occur.
Without that experience, we become vulnerable, both to the material horrors we will inevitably face in the course of our own lives (death and bereavement, separation, defeat, ridicule) but also in terms of our internal states; the imaginations that we have not learned to harness or utilise; which we have instead been conditioned to sublimate, which will express themselves regardless, often in corrosive and unwelcome ways, if not given proper vent.