I can't remember how old I was (maybe nine or 10?) when my mom showed me and a group of friends one of the early Halloween movies on a VCR. She had it recorded.
That seems crazy now. These days, it's national news when kids are traumatized by a cheesy horror movie. But at the time, nothing could be safer: What's less scary than a scary movie approved by your mother for viewing?
I've learned since then, from talking to friends and fellow parents, that introducing kids to horror movies is often a rite of passage—especially among Black and brown families. Maybe it's a kind of compartmentalization: The terror of a Michael Myers or a claw-hand-wielding Freddy Krueger can't compare to the cumulative trauma of daily life in America.
My mom loves a good horror movie, and as a teen, I became a huge horror fan, devouring Stephen King novels and developing my taste in scary movies. I loved Re-Animator, hated lame sequels like Jaws 3-D. I thought Silence of the Lambs deserved all of its Oscars, but I could take or leave most slasher movies, like the Friday the 13th series.
Horror appreciation runs in the family. My brother reviews scary movies and attends film festivals dedicated to the genre. And, eventually, one of my daughters got the bug. My 13-year-old and some of her friends often watch scary movies, whether at a theater or at home, as they did during a sleepover they had at my house earlier this year.
The movie they chose: Hereditary.
I don't know if you've seen that one, but it's one of the most effective and terrifying horror movies I've ever seen. Director Ari Aster (who also did great work with Midsommar), crafts an art film with genuine scares, a legendary lead performance from Toni Collette, and enough creepy vibes and on-point art design to keep this film lodged in your memory for years after you've seen it.
“There's something really powerful about sharing a scary experience with someone. It's why we ride roller coasters together, it's why natural disasters bring communities together, it's why we tell ghost stories around campfires.”
At the sleepover, the girls watched in my living room and about halfway through the movie, I poked my head into the room and asked, "Are you all scared yet?" They said the movie was creepy, but not very scary. They hadn't gotten to the scene, the shocking one in the middle of the film that puts all the dark stuff in motion. I waited.
Related: The 5 Scary Movie Movies, Ranked
Toward the end of the movie, when I came back in to see their reactions, the vibe of the room had changed completely. They jumped at a scare near the end and I had to smile. This was the same movie my brother came over to watch with me just so he could watch my reactions to what he also believes to be one of horror's greatest movies.
It doesn't seem very parental (and I am sure some will judge), but there's something really powerful about sharing a scary experience with someone. It's why we ride roller coasters together, it's why natural disasters bring communities together, it's why we tell ghost stories around campfires. Horror movies help us contextualize the things that give us anxiety and fear and give us a controlled way to examine them and experience catharsis. They can be, ironically, stress relievers.
My horror-fan daughter likes it when we see a scary movie together and she's a tough customer. She doesn't really find possession stories that terrifying; she thinks jump-scare movies like Smile aren't scary at all. I haven't shown her The Blair Witch Project, which haunted my dreams in the late 1990s, but I have a feeling she'd find it dated and boring.
My older daughter hates horror movies. Even though she was enjoying the plot of the HBO series The Last of Us, she gave up on it when the zombie scenes started giving her nightmares. Even the movie Beetlejuice left her unimpressed and a little disturbed. We bond over other things: music, theater, TV shows that don't feature gnarly zombies.
But my younger kid and I share the family horror gene. It's something we bond over all the time, especially when Halloween is coming and everybody around is more attuned to horror movies. And as she gets older, she's starting to come to me with recommendations of things I should check out. She's out there seeing movies I haven't even heard of, finding them on streaming and YouTube and probably TikTok.
On Friday, she's already got a ticket to see Five Nights at Freddy's with her friends. It promises to be a lot tamer than Hereditary; it's PG-13, for one thing.
I won't be there to see her reaction; for sure I'll hear about it later.
There's a lot of frightening things about parenting, but in our family, worrying about whether kids should be exposed to horror movies has never been one of them.