Movies

My Relationship With My Son Was Failing. A Horror Movie Turned It Around.

Horror movies give his fears shape, but don’t hit too close to home.

A father and son sit on a couch watching Poltergeist on TV.
The family that screams together stays together. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I was taken aback when my 10-year-old son asked to watch a scary movie.

Every October, I watch a horror movie a day—everything from classics like Nosferatu and Creature From the Black Lagoon to new films like The Conjuring and Get Out. I fell in love with horror movies when, at the tender age of 9, I first watched The Exorcist. My dad said it was the scariest movie ever made. I was shocked by how funny I found the movie to be. I giggled at how over-the-top some of the scenes were, and belly-laughed when what I suspected to be green pea soup was thrown across the screen. I did not find the movie to be scary in the slightest. Quite the opposite: There was something about it that appealed to me, that I found in an odd way comforting.

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I sought out other movies I was too young to watch: the original Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Blacula. I was never frightened by the movies, but I got hooked on the genre. So, with my history of watching a horror movie a day in October, I was not surprised when Quinn, my son, wanted to watch scary movies with me.

I started him slow. Frankenweenie and The Nightmare Before Christmas were his entrees into the genre. He found them spooky, but not scary. He said he wanted to be frightened. Upping the ante, I introduced him to the classic Universal monster movies. He liked Frankenstein but, to my chagrin, found Dracula to be too slow. All the while he said he wanted something truly scary. We progressed further. The Goonies and Gremlins he loved, but he found Hocus Pocus to be, in his own words, “too silly.” (I agreed.) However, when he said he wanted to make the jump to actual scary movies, it gave me pause. At this point he was just 9 and would be turning 10 soon. It was the time that I, at his age, made the jump to legitimately scary movies, but that was the ’80s—and I wondered if my parents had made a mistake allowing me to see those films too soon.

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After months of deliberation on my part (and pestering on his), I decided to give it a shot. We watched Poltergeist—one of the few movies that terrified me as a kid. The whole time I watched him out the corner of my eye, expecting him to cover his face or need a break from the film. I was shocked to find that he was completely unfazed. Once it was over, I discovered, to my surprise, that he did not find it scary … not even a little bit. But watching it together did do something else. It got us talking.

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Quinn is not the most communicative kid—at least not with me. He does not talk much about his feelings, and when I ask him about his day, I’m lucky if I get more than “It was good.” Most of our conversations center on two things we both deeply love, comic books and video games, but at that point we rarely talked about anything deeper. This film changed that.

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After the credits rolled, Quinn and I shared a moment that felt like it came straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: We talked about his feelings.

“I’d be scared if I was taken by ghosts,” he said.

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I was not sure that “the Beast” from the movie was a ghost, but I rolled with it. “Why?”

He looked at the TV thoughtfully. “Because I’d be away from you.”

That simple exchange turned into a 30-minute conversation about how he would feel if separated from me. This was one of the first times he ever allowed himself to be so vulnerable, and once he was done, he got up, went into his bedroom, and played Ratchet & Clank as if nothing had happened. I felt like the film had unlocked a door into his mind.

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Quinn kept asking to watch movies, and after, he wanted to talk about how the movie affected him. Over the next year, we would watch edited versions of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Conjuring. After each film, he would say that the movie was not very scary but we would still discuss how the movie affected him emotionally.

I then understood what was happening. It was so obvious that I should have seen it before.

Horror movies touch something primal in us. At their best, they force the watcher to confront the danger in the mundane, the unspeakable in the familiar. What Quinn was responding to was the fact that these films were helping him work through emotions he had not yet felt comfortable expressing. They were helping him come to terms with fear he felt, but did not feel comfortable expressing.

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When the pandemic hit, we began watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. We got 20 minutes into the film when he wanted to turn it off. He did not want to talk about why he did not want to continue the film, but talking to him months later, I began to suspect that he did not want to finish the movie because the film was too close to real life. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are clearly not real; they do not threaten his day-to-day life. Contagion hit too close to home.

Quinn and I still watch horror movies every October. They are either rated PG-13 or edited for content. He does not like to watch them alone. Instead, he likes to curl up beside me, lay his head on my shoulder, and watch them early in the day. We never watch them after dark because, for all his tough talk about not being scared, he does not like to watch spooky things after the sun goes down. That reminds me that he is a tough kid, but he is a kid nevertheless.

I grew up without a father. So, I wanted to make sure that I had a good relationship with my son. I thought I was failing in that department until the day we watched a scary movie together. All I needed was the help of Poltergeist and whatever the hell the Beast was to bring me and Quinn closer together.

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