Sunday, July 03, 2005

Batman Begins: Fear and the Five Year Old

Roger Ebert’s “Answer Man” column recently featured a question regarding the new Batman film, “Batman Begins”. The inquiry concerned children attending the film, and stated that “I felt sort for them because the movie contained nothing that might appeal to 8 years and younger” and went on to ask “Aren’t comic books at heart really meant for children?”

I believe that one of the key misunderstandings of raising children in North America is the idea that children must be shielded from experiences or stories which might frighten or disturb them. It is my opinion, which presently remains supported only by anecdotal evidence, that facing fear and pain is a rite of passage all children must undergo in order to become well adjusted adults.

We understand the concept well enough as it relates to everyday pains and fears; a bullying two year old transforms quickly enough into caterwauling victim if their blows are returned, the family cat communicates that it is not a squeeze toy effectively with its claws, we grasp the gravity of looking both ways before crossing the road when we see the devastation an automobile can do to a porcupine pulped on the highway.
When it comes to the fears and pains of the psyche and imagination, we are not so tolerant of letting experience act as the teacher. I experienced this in the life of a young man I babysat as a boy. Around age five and six, he longed for stories and films about dinosaurs, or great disasters, but was prohibited from partaking in this subject matter save in the safest of fashions. An academic approach to these topics was suitable, while watching “Jurassic Park” was not. As an adolescent, he struggled with stuttering and was fearful of new experiences. I wondered if it wasn’t because he’d never had the chance to conquer the fears inside through the stories that frighten.

I’ve noted that many boys in the early elementary grades gravitate toward this subject matter almost independent of their upbringing. It’s why Godzilla captures the imaginations of this age group so well – it’s the perfect combination of the dinosaur/mass destruction idea.

I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the first inklings of mortality. It will be a long time until the child will fully understand that they are indeed, mortal, as the driving habits of most teens will attest, but at the same time as my grandfather passed away, I became infatuated with the sinking of the Titanic, the Hindenburg explosion and other sundry disasters described in a hardcover book I was given for my birthday titled “Disasters of the 20th century.” I was under the impression this was a preoccupation unique to me until I worked as a teacher’s assistant in a grade one classroom.

Books about disasters, volcanoes, and other apocalyptically styled events fascinate the age group. It may even be linked to the desire for dinosaurs, apart from the obvious love for things scaly and slimy at this age. “Look Mike,” one student said, pointing to a picture of a fiery comet hurtling out of a bright blue sky toward unsuspecting stegosauri, “this is how the dinosaurs all died.”

Children also love monsters; the classics are always the best. The Frankenstein monster, Dracula, werewolves and ghosts remain a source of terrible wonder for children. I owned a book of Frankenstein as a child that scared me so bad I was afraid to take it off the shelf. One of my favorite comic books as a kid was a single issue I traded other comics for; the “hero” was “The Tarantula” a spider-creature who preyed upon the criminal element.

As we pass from childhood into adolescence, our fears change and mature. The classic monsters will no longer do; more subtle or shocking fare is required. Teens show their bravado in huddled clusters in darkened theaters or living rooms, challenging themselves to endure films such as “The Exorcist” or “The Ring” or any number of slasher films. No other group is as interested in thrillers and horror as the teenager. The informal ritual of renting a scary movie when parents are away seems to be a rite of passage, wherein young people define themselves.

When I was still in junior high, I read Stephen King’s “Pet Semetary” which so effectively frightened me that I found myself sleeping at the foot of my parents’ bed. Despite the deep fear brought on by the novel, I continued to read King’s works, returning to the source of my terror as it were. Like most teens, I still harbored the vestiges of childhood fears such as the dark, or of being alone in the woods.

Children and young people enjoy being scared. It’s why they ride rollercoasters. It’s a way of testing their limits, metaphorically seeing how far beyond the campfire they can walk on a night when there’s no moon to light the way. When a child or teen is not given the option to test these limits of fear within a safe environment, I believe their growth to maturity is impeded.

Films and books are safe ways for children and young people to test these limits. Too often parents are quick to remove material they believe will frighten their children. I am thankful my parents were brave enough to let me test these boundaries, and caring enough to let me do it while I was still under their roof; they gave me the ability to scare the living hell out of myself, and also the forum in which to discuss it afterwards.

The new Batman film has a lot to offer an eight year old. I wonder if the person who wrote to Ebert actually polled the children they’d see in the theater. While I can’t speak for all children, I know that, while it likely would have frightened me at points, in the same way that seeing the Nazi's dying horrible deaths at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" did, I'd have loved every minute of the overall story.

We all have an innate curiosity to see what lies in the shadows. The irrational fears of childhood are the soul’s nightmare playground to prepare us for the shocks and tremors of adult life.