“Hello, good morning, dear baby,” I said upon entering my 3½-year-old daughter’s room the other day. She looked up from the bed and curled her fingers into claws, hissing: “I’m not your baby! I’m a vampire baby! I’ll suck your blood!” “Oh, of course,” I tried to play along. “Where’s my other baby, then?” “I put her under the mattress!” J. said, with glee. “She has some books and toys, to look at, but she cannot come out! Never!”
This is what it’s been like in our house, for the past half-year: vampires, skeletons, zombies, ghosts of all descriptions. It’s hard to believe that it was only last year that I was still quietly flipping past the story in Days With Frog and Toad about the Old Dark Frog, a mythical woods creature who eats frog children, thinking, “I don’t want to give her any ideas.” Between then and now, we made the mistake of letting her watch The Simpsons with us. She figured out from the episode preview images that there were “spooky” episodes; we uneasily allowed her to watch one; she realized how uneasy we were and started insisting on seeing only Treehouses of Horror. “I promise, I’m not scared!” she said, probably 40 times.
The dam burst. Now, the Old Dark Frog is nothing. Here are some creepy, scary, spooky things J. now likes: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas; the book In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, with its tales of heads kept on by ribbons and pirate ghosts haunting bedrooms; the music of Iron Maiden; every Halloween decoration on neighborhood lawns and fences, the bloodier the better; a crew of little Day of the Dead skeleton figurines we’ve bought her one by one from a local gift shop; and composer Jeff Wayne’s 1978 album version of The War of the Worlds, with its thrilling, bombastic theme announcing the arrival of the Martians.
I thought, before becoming a parent, that my job would be to shield my child from things that might scare her. I imagined that she would be like me—afraid of innocuous things, like the creature from E.T., in need of a cultural guardian to keep all her toys, books, and shows happy and positive. I didn’t realize that as she got old enough to have opinions about the media she wants to consume, she might insist that she wants to be scared—that she’d seek out the things that scare her. What is “horror,” anyway, to a 3-year-old? And how much spooky is too much spooky?
It was a little difficult to figure out how to pose this question to an actual expert. There are many people who study the effects of consuming violent media on children, but what I’m talking about is not really violence—though sometimes violence might be involved (ah, Itchy and Scratchy). There are people who study children’s evolving understanding of death, but in a lot of the scary media J. likes, death is only implied, not real. In many cases, that implication soars right over her darling little head.
A lot of creepy stuff, I’m realizing, relies on the viewer having a bank of experiences and previously consumed media to mentally reference. J. loves to ask Alexa for a playlist of Haunted House Sounds that we discovered by chance one day. On one of those tracks, over the sound of a pounding heartbeat, there’s a woman whispering “HELP ME!,” and “I’ve got to get out of here!” To me, it’s scary, because I’m imagining what that person might be trapped with, there in the haunted house. To J., who has little in the way of cultural repertoire to fill in that hole, it’s just “that spooky lady.” She likes to sit in her room in the mornings sometimes, listening to Haunted House Sounds and “reading” books.
I am making a new effort to talk more to J. about what’s real, and what’s not, in the spooky lands she visits. That’s because I spoke with Emily Hopkins, a psychologist who studies how small children distinguish between fiction and reality. “Generally they’re pretty good at telling real from pretend, but they can get tripped up in certain situations and circumstances,” she said. “Even when kids start to pretend at about 18 months or so, they seem to understand the difference; if they’re pretending that a block is a chocolate chip cookie, they don’t try to take a bite out of the wooden block.”
By 3, 4, or 5, kids can usually say whether impossible things happening in a book are real. “If there’s magic, or things that violate what they know about the real world, that’s what helps them to understand that those characters are probably not real. If a character in the book flies, or something, they’ll say, ‘That person can’t really exist in real life,’ ” Hopkins said. But if an adult tries, on purpose, to confuse them—Hopkins mentions the fact that a lot of kids believe in Santa Claus—they can be confused. Conversely, kids use information from adults to find out if things are real: Hopkins mentioned studies that show that kids do believe in things they can’t see, like germs, when they have been told they are there.
Hopkins also mentioned the known fact that kids use play to think through things that are difficult or scary. That way kids can “work through it in a low-risk way, process it without having to actually experience it themselves.” There may be something inside J. that she hasn’t been able to express yet that gets something from all this talk about vampires.
My friend C., who has another J., who is now 7 and has loved spooky stuff since toddlerhood, has had more time to watch this interest develop, and to come up with theories about what it all means. C. thinks that for her child, certain creepy stories appeal because they can be about trying to understand other people who seem very distant from one’s self. C. mentioned that J. has always loved The Addams Family: “They have this creepy flavor, but they’re all very kind and loving to each other. They’re a supportive loving family that’s just into weird stuff.”
This older J. also likes fictional antiheroes and bullies. (My J. has developed her own affinity for Too-Tall Grizzly, Moe, Nelson Muntz, and Sammy Watts; these J.s, it seems, are birds of a feather.) C. thinks liking those characters is one way for her J. to think through empathy. “She’s really interested in how they’re different from her, how they can be like her, how they can be loving or bridge the gaps,” C. said. That’s probably why Jack Skellington, the (anti)hero of Nightmare Before Christmas, appeals to both her daughter and mine: Jack is a baddie who specializes in spooky, but there’s something in his heart that yearns for the purity of Christmas.
In comparing and contrasting our experiences raising goth preschoolers, I started to see how my own J.’s relative lack of fear around the spooky stuff may change, as she grows up and understands more about the world. There’s a Halloween house in C.’s neighborhood—a residence that puts up extensive lawn decorations. Over the years, C. has seen her daughter’s feelings about this place change. Three years ago, the homeowners added a new animatronic figure: a baby doll, in a shroud, that talks. First it says, sweetly, “Come play with me,” and then, in an evil voice: “I’m going to eat your soul!” “We call it ‘the Bad Baby,’ ” C. says.
C. has been able to mark her daughter’s changing psychology by her reaction to the Bad Baby. At first, her J. just liked it. The next year, at 4 or 5, she said (C. paraphrased): “What’s up with the Bad Baby? Why do you think the Bad Baby is nice, then mean?” Then the next year, it was: “I’m scared of the Bad Baby.” The year after: “I don’t want to go near the Bad Baby. Do we need to walk by it?”
So perhaps the answer to the question, “How do I know how spooky is too spooky for my baby vampire?” is “Try things, and see.” We screened the 1990 movie version of The Witches on a rainy Sunday afternoon recently, and it turns out that my unafraid child can get scared. In the beginning sequence, a grandmother tells a boy about her experience with witches, growing up in her small Norwegian village. In the flashback sequence, a witch, living in disguise as a normal person, fixes her eye on a small girl and decides she must have her. She kidnaps her and puts her in a painting the girl’s family has in their house. As the years pass by, the girl ages and moves around the painting and finally dies, but her family never sees her again in the flesh.
J. was not having it. Because she’s 3 going on 4, and not quite a reliable narrator when it comes to her own interior state, I don’t know why she asked us to turn it off. Maybe when she’s 7, she’ll tell me.