In second grade, I was seated around a long, rectangular table with several of my classmates. The school day was about to end, and for our final assignment of the day, our teacher asked that we share some thoughts on a movie we watched recently. I let my classmates go first, patiently listening to their accounts of Disney princesses and Tim Allen doing whatever Tim Allen was doing, before it was my turn. “Well,” I said, “this weekend I watched a movie about a giant car crash, and after that, all these people died, and at the very, very end, this kid was barbequing with his parents, but BAM, it blew up and his arm landed on his mom’s plate.” Naturally, I was counseled shortly after in the front office, probed by administrators curious to know what possible movie I was talking about– “Final Destination 2, duh. Have you seen it?”
It goes without saying part of the responsibility of any parent is to monitor the media their children consume and ensure they’re watching age-appropriate content with requisite supervision. Indeed, it’s an enduring rite of passage to sneak into R-rated movies, rent, or stream something ostensibly taboo because, well, mom and dad aren’t likely to let you watch it. My childhood, however, and the childhoods of several others, I imagine, were quite different. By the time I had turned six, I had seen in their entirety Tales from the Darkside, Child’s Play 1-3, Halloween, Final Destination 1 and 2, The Haunting, and so many more horror movies it’s nearly impossible to remember them all. It never, ever seemed weird or unconventional to me. It just made sense that while my friends and their parents went to see Ice Princess in 2005, my mom and I were buying tickets for The Amityville Horror. When I was sent home from my friend Tyler’s house after we were caught watching Urban Legend during a slumber party, it was normal that my mom, instead of getting mad, simply asked what I thought of both Rebecca Gayheart and the movie.
We’re inclined as a society, I think, to denigrate the choices other parents make, particularly now in a digital age as visible as ours, and one of the easiest ways to deride other parents is to monitor the media choices they make for their children. It’s just an accepted truth, for instance, that R-rated horror films are beyond inappropriate for children, and that in allowing them to watch them, irreparable harm is being done. Despite my childhood, even I have been guilty of that passive judgment in the past. When I worked at the movie theater right after high school, I was just as likely as my coworkers to whisper and stare at the parents taking their young children to see You’re Next or The Purge. Those parents, I reasoned, were going to give their children nightmares, and myopic as I was, that was quite possibly the worst thing you could do to a child– the horror!
Yet in retrospect, and the older I get, I don’t think it was irresponsible for my mom to show me those movies, and more than anything, I think it was one of the most wonderful gifts she ever gave to me. Watching those movies as a young kid gave me the fortitude and resilience to contend with growing up gay in a small town. They showed me that outsiders and marginalized identities matter, that the bad guy can and will be beaten in time. They showed me how to conquer my fears, how to stand up to adversity, and how good triumphs in the end. Horror movies were with me when I came out, and they were with me when I walked across the stage to receive my master’s degree. Those memories and those movies were with me every time I felt like a little monster all my own, like a weirdo in my own body or in my own mind, memories like skipping the Superbowl in second grade to watch Jason X in the basement or forgoing boy’s night with my dad and brothers in third to watch some cool new movie my mom had rented from Blockbuster (it was Darkness Falls, by the way).
Those moments are enduring and meaningful. Some of the greatest memories my mom and I have made as I’ve grown up have revolved around horror movies. Whether it was seeing 2018’s Halloween together in theaters– our first-time seeing Michael on the big screen– or unwinding after last year’s Thanksgiving with 1987’s Blood Rage, those most potent memories I have are inextricable from the horror genre. You see, when parents expose their children to genre films at a young age, even those that are ostensibly inappropriate, it’s not that they’re behaving irresponsibly or selfishly, but rather that they’re creating a meaningful template for the rest of that child’s life and their relationship therein. They’re sharing something they love with their children in the hope that they might love it, too, and if they do, a nightmare or two matters naught in comparison to a lifetime of memories forged in gonzo gore and retro aesthetics.
So, thank you, mom, and thank you to all the parents just like you, because without you, life would be a whole lot scarier and a lot more boring than any movie you ever let me see.