On Raising Geeky Kids: A Reflection on Fantasy and Horror Films

01/09/2013 By Shawn Burns

As part of my attempt to raise Erin as a geek, we’ve been reading The Hobbit at night. She knew that there was a movie coming out, and has wanted to see it, but I told her we’d have to read the book first. She agreed, and we’ve been picking at it for a few months now, on nights when she doesn’t have books from school to read.

Emily and I saw the movie, and before we did we let Erin know that if it was too scary for little kids, she wouldn’t be able to see it, which turns out to be the case. (It’s also just overall geared toward adults who care about boring things being boring interspersed with violent things and an occasional jokey moment for kids. I do not understand the balance at all. I did not like it as an adaptation or even as a movie.) Erin was, understandably, devastated.

It’s a weird line to draw, the one about violence in media, or scary themes, and one that I bump up against again and again. The kids just watched the original Star Wars trilogy, which isn’t exactly non-violent. And they watch scary-gothic-horror styled movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, and Frankenweenie. But maybe they’re not ready yet for someone to behead someone else with a sword. (In support of this: Erin caught a moment of the Body of Proof season finale I was watching on Hulu a couple of months ago, right when Dana Delany finds the brain has been removed from a dead body, and I spent a long time explaining things like movie props and Egyptian burial rites to her. She would not just let me say “nevermind”, and I didn’t want her worrying about someone actually going around stealing brains.)

My own childhood was, well, less restricted might be a thoughtful way to put it; neglectful might be a different way. I remember watching The Beastmaster when I wasn’t much older than Erin is now.

Though it’s not the most violent fantasy movie ever, it’s still not a hug-fest. I also remember seeing Cat’s Eye at the drive-in with my parents, and Christine, and as I got older we saw more and more horror films. Next to the horror films, the fantasy movies I was watching when I was about Erin’s age, like Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, and Krull were utterly tame. The Hobbit isn’t much more violent than those (and might actually be less violent and scary than Conan was; it’s hard to remember), but it’s still not something we’ll let the kids see until they’re older. We’re just going to raise them differently than I was raised, in that respect.

My parents seemed to want me to see every possible horror movie they could find, or maybe I bugged them to watch and wore down their defenses. (I know how eroding a child’s pleas can be.) Only a few ever really disturbed me. Pet Sematary was one of them. Something about that cat, and about a murderous toddler, just creeped me right out. I don’t even want to watch it now. The other was about a guy who goes to a farm, and he thinks there’s something in the water that’s making the family there turn into mindless, gross things. I only remember three scenes from it: the family is sitting around a table eating chicken, and I think the chicken was raw, and gross-looking; the mother is sewing, and whatever she is sewing she ends up sewing right into her hand; the guy is in the back of a police car, yelling at kids playing in lawn sprinklers in a suburban neighbhourhood that “it” is in the water. The sewing scene in particular has always stuck with me, as well as the fact that the “guy” in it was Jon Schneider, whom I recognized from watching The Dukes of Hazzard.” I think I wanted to see it because he was in it.

Despite my young exposure to violent fantasy and horror films, I turned out alright. Didn’t I? Well, I turned out to be a geek, anyway. But what if I’m only a geek because I saw the raw chicken movie when I was a kid? I like my geekiness, and I want my kids to like the things I like, among the other things they end up liking in their lives, because I…well…because I like them. That’s a reason, isn’t it? If I were an old football player, I’d want my kids to like football. Just wanting them to like it doesn’t also imply rejecting them if they don’t, or being unwilling or unable to relate to them. But if they like the things I like that’s a bond.

I sent my mom the complete set of Doctor Who DVDs for Christmas, because I like Doctor Who and because I was sure she would like it too. (It turns out she was already watching the show, and loved it, but wasn’t very far along yet. So, I pretty much win at Christmas.) I sent my dad an old copy of a Strategy & Tactics magazine from the 80’s, a duplicate of one that he had when I was a kid, the one he used to introduce me to tabletop strategy games like Squad Leader. I bought those presents for my parents because I’m a geek, and because I’m the geek they made. A lot of my geekiness is my own, but I can trace a straight line back to them, and yes, in a way, back to their permissiveness about movies, back to seeing the raw chicken movie or Conan when I was young.

It’s a fine line to walk, I think. We’re doing okay, but what if seeing The Hobbit while young is the difference between Erin buying me socks for Christmas when I’m 60, and her buying me the Firefly: Seasons 2-7 box set instead? (I can hope.)

Thankfully, there is a stopgap, at least where The Hobbit is concerned: the Rankin/Bass animated version from 1977:

We ordered a DVD copy online. As soon as we finish the book, it’s going in the DVD player. It will have to do. I remember watching it when I was a kid anyway. It’s just one of the many things that went in to making me a geek.

P.S. The raw chicken movie with John Schneider? It’s called The Curse. And it stars Wil Wheaton. GEEK ALL THE THINGS.