Perhaps the most important lesson for a young girl is on her emerging sexuality- like death and taxes, the biological clock cares not if one is ready for it to strike. When a girl goes through puberty, suddenly making her sexually viable for adult men, not only does her body change but as does the way the world reacts to her. It becomes possible that the same man who had treated her with genuine care and empathy now has his own biologically-driven agenda- complete with duplicitous intentions. Watch a clumsy man talk confidently to a child but fumble nervously with a sexually mature woman- also with puberty comes power.
However, not every lesson can be taught. One learns to be patient only through experience- patience is a lesson that cannot be taught. While you can try to tell a little girl on the cusp of puberty that her world is about to change, drastically, and that this new world comes with its share of dangers, it may be easier for her to process this through the subconscious language of the fairy tale.
Fairy Tales are written to speak to the emotional language of children- to present a problem that is both vague and foreign on the surface, but highly relatable to the child’s subconscious fears, and then to provide the child with practical, cautionary advice for problems yet to come or coping strategies for problems which have no solution.
In John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece “Halloween” (1978), Laurie Strode may not be ready for male sexuality, but it’s certainly ready for her.
Unlike movies that came after “Halloween,” Carpenter wasn’t trying to moralize sexuality- Laurie’s friends aren’t killed because they have sex, but they have sex to draw a contrast between teenage girls who are sexually realized and the virginal, pre-sexual Laurie. At seventeen years old, it’s possible that a late-bloomer may have only just become biologically mature while her friends had gone through puberty much sooner-thus having more time to mentally process the shift from girl to woman.
While Laurie is interested in boys, she doesn’t yet possess the sexual confidence to interact with them as men. When she learns that friend Annie told Ben Tramer of the crush Laurie has on him, she makes Annie promise to tell Tramer that it was all a big joke- despite Tramer’s interest in her. It isn’t that Laurie fears rejection- it’s the interaction itself, and all that comes with it, that makes her uncomfortable.
Michael Myers serves as a stand-in for male sexuality. Unlike the inescapable dread of Freddy Krueger, or the force-of-nature that is Jason Voorhees, Myers is a voyeuristic stalker as much as he’s a murderer. Before attempting to kill the girls, he follows them around Haddonfield and watches them from afar- always with exaggerated heavy breathing, as if he’s sexually aroused. The act of murder is Myers’ replacement for rape- he penetrates his victims with a butcher knife.
“Halloween II” (1981) slickly makes reference to the original’s dynamic of a virgin being stalked by a rapist with its ironic use of “Mr. Sandman” as the movie opens:
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen
Give him the word that I’m not a rover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over
Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
In a perfect world, Laurie would have been matched-up with an equally inexperienced Ben Tramer, going on ice cream socials and movie dates, as Laurie slowly grows comfortable with male interaction. However, our world is too often imperfect- and Mr. Sandman brings her Michael Myers instead.
“Little Red Riding Hood” also serves as a cautionary tale for pre-pubescent girls warning against the dangers of the adult world. On the way to her grandmother’s cottage, Little Red Riding Hood encounters the Big Bad Wolf- her first experience with danger- and curiously tells him where she’s going. By the time she gets there, the Wolf has already eaten her grandmother and dressed-up in the grandmother’s clothing to trick her.
Although the wolf could have immediately eaten the little girl too, he doesn’t, and instead begins a kind of flirtation with her as she gradually discovers that it isn’t her grandmother at all:
“Oh, grandmother, what big ears you have!”
“All the better to hear you with.”
“Oh, grandmother, what big eyes you have!”
“All the better to see you with.”
“Oh, grandmother, what big hands you have!”
“All the better to grab you with!”
“Oh, grandmother, what a horribly big mouth you have!”
“All the better to eat you with!”
Like all children, Little Red Riding Hood has a complex relationship with the adult world. Equally afraid and intrigued, she invites the wolf to pursue her. Similarly, there is a fascination in her fear as she realizes that it’s not her grandmother- the caregiver- at the cottage. Little Red Riding Hood subconsciously wants to break away from the safety of her life as a child, but is unaware of the new dangers present in womanhood- the adult world- which time is pulling closer, and like Laurie Strode, doesn’t care whether she’s ready or not.
While some fairy tales function as cautionary advice for the pre-pubescent child as they grow toward adulthood, others serve as coping strategies to manage a child’s emotions. Speaking to a girl’s unconscious emotional state, “Cinderella” is meant to diminish a younger sister’s anxiety in seeing her older sisters blossom sexually and attract mates before she has her own chance to do so- before the biological clock has a chance to strike.
“Cinderella” still resonates with girls because it’s written in their own emotional language. What girl doesn’t feel like Cinderella- unfairly put upon and abused- even in-spite of typical living conditions? “Cinderella” can be translated into a far more realistic story once the emotional language is decoded:
Cinderella, the youngest of three sisters, feels alienated from the women in her family due to their fully-realized womanhood- a journey which she is only just beginning. To Cinderella, this feels unfair, at best, and cruel and abusive, at worst. In looking at her older, sexually-realized sisters, Cinderella has anxiety over the possibility that she won’t grow into womanhood and thus will never have the chance to attract a husband.
As time progresses, Cinderella eventually goes through puberty and is allowed to attend local mixers. However, since she is between childhood and adulthood, there are limitations on her freedom- Cinderella has a curfew. Like all teenagers, she hates this and is sure things are “just getting good” by the time she has to go home. No matter, though- despite everything, her Prince still finds her, and like most women, Cinderella gets married and lives “happily ever after.”
For young girls, whom everything will very likely work out well for just by virtue of their own existence, the story of “Cinderella” serves to sooth their emotional state and diminish anxieties over their future. While not every young girl will meet a literal prince, or even a princely young man, it’s best she view her husband like one anyway- “Cinderella” was not written with a divorce-culture in mind.
The take-away of “Cinderella” is for a girl to realize that everything good will come in due time, that a quality man will find her interesting and unique, and their wedding will cause bells to “ring throughout the land.”
The deeper end of emotional trauma for children is a fear of death and of the loss of a parent. While there doesn’t exist an easy way to bring these fears to manageable terms- even for adults- a child can begin to internalize the reality of death and loss through story.
The modern world has made no room for death- and thus, leaves little space for the modern human to understand and internalize death as a part of life. Death doesn’t fit the consumer narrative or the modern aesthetic, and as such, we are ill-prepared to handle notions of our own eventual death or the deaths of our parents.
When Don Bluth made animated movies for children, he would intentionally write an emotionally draining second-act. When I saw “An American Tale” (1986) as a kid, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater when the little mouse is lead to believe his parents abandoned him. Parental abandonment, of course, is every child’s greatest fear- in addition to being a difficult eventuality. While things work out for the mouse, dealing with the sadness and dread this issue demands, even in the short-term, is ultimately healthy for a child developing emotional resiliency. Compare this to the modern children’s movie where the anthropomorphized airplane who’s ill-suited for racing wins races, or the little bunny ill-suited for police work becomes a police officer- gone is the idea of using the ninety-minutes to aid in developing an emotional tool-kit, replaced by monetizable self-esteem infomercials.
Horror movies can give a child space to deal with their fears in the realm of fantasy while they subconsciously work on bringing the eventual reality of those fears to manageable terms.
In Wes Craven’s forgotten masterpiece “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994), the hidden-narrative presents a child who is able to move toward coming to terms with the loss of his father through the use of story and fantasy.
A forerunner to the meta-horror trend that Craven would help launch with “Scream” (1996), and serving as one of the era’s last slashers (if it could even truly be considered a slasher), “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” takes place in a world where Craven, Robert Englund, and Heather Langenkamp- looking absolutely stunning- are playing themselves; a world where “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is just a horror movie franchise. Heather begins having Freddy nightmares when it’s revealed that her husband, a movie effects artist, is helping design a new glove for a Freddy sequel that Craven is writing.
Things take a dark turn when husband Chase dies in a car accident. Heather believes he was murdered by Freddy, who is coming for her son, Dylan, next.
Certain that Freddy Krueger is going to kill her son, she goes to Wes Craven for help. Craven explains that Krueger is an ancient supernatural entity that was drawn to the “Nightmare” films because he liked the raw evil of the Freddy Krueger character- which served to contain it. The entity was content existing in a treacherous, frightening fantasy realm- but this fantasy was watered down and became too familiar and not very scary, so the entity escaped to reality.
If it sounds like Craven is taking shots at the Looney Tunes-inspired “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” (1991), that’s because he is- Freddy had gradually become a joke. What had began as a truly frightening modern monster had become sanitized for commercialization- Freddy Krueger squirt guns and stuffies, waving to an audience of toddlers, with a knife-glove meant for molesting them to death, at the Universal Street Parade- imagine a bumbling Wicked Witch of the West taking pratfalls; it doesn’t work.
Because Freddy wasn’t contained in fantasy meant to scare us, he’s become unleashed in reality able to harm us.
Craven is again pointing to the efficacy of horror as a modern means of dealing with the anxieties connected to our fear of death- and modernity’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of death. When Dylan begins having bizarre psychotic episodes, the doctor’s chief concern is if Heather is showing Dylan her horror movies- not the obvious source of trauma.
The ending of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) has Nancy turning her back on Freddy, taking away the power Freddy had over her, acknowledging that Freddy only ever existed as a dream. And Nancy was right, if you didn’t already know- “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in its entirety is Nancy’s nightmare. Like a fairy tale, Craven had a simple lesson at the core of the movie- don’t let your fears control you.
And, if you didn’t know, Craven plays the same hand with “New Nightmare.” The bulk of the movie is Nancy’s nightmare as she grapples with the death of her husband- something so overwhelming that it’s easier to initially deal with by framing it in terms of fantasy, and creating an evil puppet-master for her and her son to come together and defeat.
Life without story could be broken down into a series of bullet point instructions, which may seem efficient but would prove ineffective- people need the space and distance that that fantasy can provide. That same space and distance can afford someone the time to mentally process the fears, anxieties, and grief which are overwhelming and incomprehensible. Stories for children need to be more than losers winning despite being losers- stories for children need to begin helping them develop their emotional tool-kit or else there will one day be a world of adults unable to cope with everything that is inevitable.