“No,” my father said. “You’re not driving my car to see that crap. And you certainly can’t take Matt. He's too little to see a movie like that.”
As you probably know, The Exorcist was one of the most controversial films at the time, a terrifying thriller about demonic possession that included scenes of violence so graphic that people were running from the theaters. 60 Minutes did a special segment about the Exorcist phenomenon, showing footage of young people cowering in the lobbies, weeping, and shaking from the film’s disturbing imagery.
My father did not break. He didn’t even bend.
“Here's a movie you could all go see instead,” Mom said, going through the newspaper. “Where the Red Fern Grows. That sounds like a nice movie.”
No, that did not sound like a nice movie to me and certainly not to my brothers. We wanted to see The Exorcist. Still, we knew when we were beaten, and we reluctantly gave in and went to see Where the Red Fern Grows.
It was the most traumatizing experience of my life.
What a terrible film to show a child!
To this day, I am amazed at the number of so-called family-friendly films like Where the Red Fern Grows that are supposed to be “good” for little kids to see. Films like Kes and Ol’ Yeller and The Red Pony. As a child I was already in a constant state of panic about death, not so much my own but the death of those that I loved. By the time I was 20, I would lose two dogs, my grandfather, and three childhood friends, and all of those losses would rock my very foundation.
Was Where the Red Fern Grows supposed to prepare me for that kind of pain? Well, guess what, my friends--it didn’t. Watching someone you love die still hurts like hell. Why would I want to see a movie that recreated that unspeakable emotion? Worse, why would any right-thinking adult think it would be good for a child to see such a film?
I did not get to see The Exorcist for a few years. I think I was 14 or 15, and it was being televised on cable. I knew my father would forbid me to see it, so I had to be sneaky, watching it after dark, sitting very close to the TV in my room with the volume low so Dad couldn’t hear that it was playing.
That movie didn’t traumatize me for life. In fact, I thought it was the greatest horror movie ever made.
I love my parents, but in the summer of ‘74 their ideas about what kind of movie I should see were dead wrong. The Exorcist may be shocking, and it certainly had the potential to give me nightmares, but in my estimation there is nothing in that film that would have permanently scarred me, at least not to the extent that I was scarred by Where the Red Fern Grows.
I was raised in a devout Christian home, you see. When The Exorcist hit theaters, I was still years away from starting college and going through my “insufferable hipster iconoclast” period. As such, I still believed without a doubt in a generous and loving God that was all powerful. I also believed that if I loved this Deity with all my heart then no supernatural evil could touch me.
None of that mattered in the real world though because I believed in Jesus. The devil simply could not tpuch me, not like that. My unquestioning childlike faith inured me to the horrors of demonic possession.
Was The Exorcist terrifying? Oh yes, it was, at least when I was immersed in the real-time experience of it. But I did not walk away from The Exorcist with that inexorable lingering terror.
And lingering terror is the worst thing there is for a kid.
One of the reasons those classic horror films thrilled me is because there was a sense of closure at the end. Dracula got a stake through his heart, Frankenstein’s monster got burned to death, the Wolfman ate a silver bullet, and all was right with the world. I could go to bed in peace, comfortable in the knowledge that those monsters were not at large (at least not until the sequels). As such, there was no lingering terror, no matter how heart-stopping the actual film experience might have been. When the story faded to black and the lights came back up … I was safe.
And a sense of safety is the best thing there is for a kid.
Steve said that sense of relief, of absolute safety that he felt as he drifted off to sleep, was euphoric, almost addictive, and it made him a terrorphile for life.
I honestly believe the dopamine high of terror should be a part of every childhood experience … provided there is the refractory period of safety when it is all over. I covertly watched horror films in my room as a child and cowered in the throes of adrenaline-pounding horror, but the come-down at the end, when the horror was dispatched, made the ride all worth it. The euphoria of safety, as I say.
I did not sleep well after Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. For the first time in my life, I did not feel safe when the film was finished. The monsters were still at large, still looking for mere mortals to terrorize … and they could be just on the other side of my closet door.
[Note: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was broadcast two months before The Exorcist premiered. While The Exorcist is a timeless classic and still effective today, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has not aged well, looking downright campy by modern standards … but it was still the more frightening of the two films for me when I was young.]
I guess what it all comes down to--for me, anyway--is control. Everyone wants at least a sense that we are in control of things, and kids are no exception. As children grow and slowly grasp shards of their own independence, they need to feel that they have a mastery of a situation. They can endure almost anything if they can be assured of their own safety, which is what compels them to start experimenting with the more intense rides at Disney World. This is why The Exorcist didn’t bother me as a kid: I believed I had God on my side and had nothing to fear from the devil. Same with 90% of all horror movies I watched--the monsters were scary, but as long as the threat was dispatched in the denouement, we were cool. My sense of control was assured at the end of the ride.
I would go so far as to suggest that A Thief In the Night had more to do with my extended bout of agnosticism than The Exorcist ever could. The latter presented to me a world in which I had the illusion of control--Satan was real, but God wouldn’t let him touch me. The former had the opposite effect--God was real and when he got pissed he could and would touch me like a creepy uncle for as long as He wanted. A Thief In the Night was about loss of control, the absence of safety, and that is the real source of lingering terror. It is the foundation of mankind’s almost fanatical fear of the future and its tireless efforts to contain it.
When I finally did fall asleep, Freddy Krueger was the first thing to invade my dreams. In the dream, I was in the practice rooms in Beech Music Hall on the ESU campus, playing the piano, and suddenly Freddy’s boogered up face appeared in the observation window. I saw him … and I knew it was a dream … and I flung open the door and beat the living hell out of him, ultimately throwing him down two flights of stairs. It may have been a nightmare, but it was my nightmare, and in my dreams I still have control.
Oh, and here are some horrors you might want to avoid: Films about nuclear war (still a real probability even after the end of the Cold War). Films about real-life horrors like child molesters. Films about historical atrocities like the Holocaust. Films about terrorism. Films that involve graphic torture or abuse (I never really understand why torture-porn was ever a thing). Found footage films (just because they suck and they’re not real movies).
Of course, any film (The Road Warrior being the exception) where an animal we come to care about dies. Most kids these days could sit through a thousand Exorcists but one Red Fern will ruin their summer.