The Strengths of Child Protagonists in Horror

Stranger Things was the surprise hit of Netflix’ most recent run of original series. For those who have yet to see it, it follows a group of pre-teen boys named Mike, Lucas and Dustin as they try to uncover the fate of a friend who mysteriously went missing, aided in their quest only by a mysterious girl with telekinesis with the number 11 tattooed on her arm. The film features great scares, superb writing, and a wonderful atmosphere that recalls classic horror films and TV series from the late 70s and early 80s.

One of the stranger things about Stranger Things (teehee) is its main characters, all of whom are well rounded and multi dimensional. There is not a single wasted character or line. More interesting are the fact that the story at the center of it all is one about and starring children. Having children as the main characters in horror is a big risk, since horror is often geared towards adults with images of violence and occasional sexual content as well. However, having children as the main characters in horror films and television may be something that should be done more often for a number of reasons.

My first Stanley Kubrick film was The Shining. I watched it while on a Stephen King binge. I didn’t know who Kubrick was, was not as well versed in film as I am now, and had little interest in the movie other than checking another film off the list of the King library. An impressionable 11 year old, I was completely blown away by the film’s artistry and finesse. I’d never seen a scary movie like it before.

One of the things that carried me through the film was the protagonist, young Danny. Though Jack Torrance is the main character, he’s still the villain. The hero of the film is Danny. As a kid, I enjoyed watching him outwit his demented father, and slowly unravel the mysteries of the overlook hotel. He gave the young me someone to relate to, and more importantly, Danny made the movie far scarier, as did the children in Stranger Things.

That a child is immediately threatened in Stranger Things makes the series far more unsettling than simply throwing in the usual horror trope of dumb scientists or teens in a parked car. Nobody cares about those people because they are cardboard cutouts who are there for the sole purpose of dying. Everyone cares about a kid, in particular a fleshed out character like Will Byers in Stranger Things.

Unlike the cheap exploitive use of dead children in Alien vs. Predator Requiem (my opinion of which is no secret to any of you) Will is immediately set up to be a likable character, so once the creature snatches him, viewers are immediately drawn in and want to see how the story will end, however horrible it may be. This is especially true of children who may have tuned in, and you have a guaranteed pool of repeat viewers.

The themes of horror deal with themes of death and loss of innocence, things that kids need to know they will face sooner or later. After a certain point, shielding children from these themes becomes unfair, and leaves them ill prepared for life’s challenges. Sometimes these themes are snuck into children’s films. Most Disney films feature the death of a parent that will serve to traumatize its young audience for years to come, but it should be no surprise that it doesn’t reach the same extent as horror.

Sad fact about life is there are no guaranteed happy endings. One of the primary purposes of horror is to help people deal with life’s woes by scaring the pants off them with the things we all fear, death, loss of loved ones, life irrevocably changed and being ill suited for the challenges that face us all. Learning this is best done when we’re all still young, so there is better time to adjust. The characters of Stranger Things come from all walks of life, from a sheriff recovering from the death of his daughter to to high school kids in a love triangle. In other words, they’re dealing with the things that Mike, Lucas and Dustin will eventually have to face, things which are a good deal scarier than any monster.

I’ve always felt the intentions of horror are noble. Far from being a cheap genre based on shock, horror done right is about the ills of life, putting them out in the open to make them easier to swallow. It’s children who need to learn that most of all, and horror may help communicate the ideas better than we can say them. Having children face these issues on the screen will do a lot more help than watching teenagers face them.

But the most important thing of all is what does horror deal with? It deals with things like monsters, ghosts, aliens, things that children absolutely love. We’ve all seen kids play with toys and tell stories of ghosts, aliens and monsters, and many of us did that ourselves at one time or another. Adults (at least the boring ones) tend to lose interest in such things over time. Kids are the ones who love these things, so why not give them the real thing instead of the horror decaf that most children are exposed to? And what better way to do it than with characters they can relate to, other kids? In a horror story, a child can help a young viewer through the macabre. Horror really appeals the most to children, so filling the genre with its biggest fans seems like a no brainer.

And then there are those of us who first became interested in horror as children, who were taken to that dark place of cinema and television and found there was much to love in the shadows. Watching children go on that journey as we did can be a very poignant thing, because it was like watching ourselves grow up all over again. That’s why I came back day after day to finish Stranger Things.