‘Handle with Scare’ – What You Need to Know about the Horror Genre
Last Updated on 16th March 2023
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Today’s children and young people are engaging with content that would have seemed unbelievable when their parents were their age. It can make it difficult for their parents and carers to decide what is ‘age appropriate’ and what is not. This is especially true for horror, a popular genre that uses the shocking and the scary to impact its viewers.
We’re taking a look at what the horror genre is in the digital world, as well as the risks parents, carers, and safeguarding professionals should be aware of. Keep reading if you dare…
It is important to remember that every child has a different tolerance for horror. However, these tolerances may change as a child matures, so they may be more or less impacted by ‘scary’ things over time. Check-in with those in your care regularly around the things they are ‘afraid’ of to ensure they feel supported. This will help them increase their confidence and awareness when encountering scary situations or things on their own.
What is it?
The horror genre is a style of entertainment that is designed to shock, scare, and provoke its audience. It can be split into various sub-genres (such as gothic, paranormal, and slasher) but the aim is almost always the same – to frighten its audience. There are multiple forms horror can appear in, such as:
Films – movies (e.g. The Exorcist, Annabelle)
Series – television programs (e.g. The Twilight Zone, Squid Game)
Games – videogames or board games (e.g. Resident Evil, Poppy Playtime)
Important Note: a lot of media found within horror is rated for a more mature, adult audience. Even something meant for younger audiences that is ‘inspired by’ this source material could include themes or situations that may be inappropriate for young people.
You’ve probably heard about the hit Netflix franchise Stranger Things. This 80s nostalgia series features some of the most popular ‘child actors’ of our time, such as Millie Bobby Brown, and some older fan favourites, like Winona Ryder. It has been running since its premiere in July 2016, and has consistently influenced wider cultural trends both online and offline. On top of the show itself, there are multiple novels, games, and apps that have been released.
Stranger Things takes much of its inspiration from other horror films and stories like Carrie, It, and Alien, even getting a favourited nod from horror novelist Stephen King himself. Things like jump scares, monstrous creatures, and supernatural beings appear regularly – but it also subverts what the audience expects to see when they watch something ‘scary’ by including sympathetic characters, complex storylines, and reoccurring jokes. Many have considered the series to be a ‘spooky and playful’ introduction to horror.
Since its release, children and young people have connected strongly with the show, especially as its main characters are young – the first season’s plot centres on 12 to 16 year olds. Even though the characters face off against threats from other worlds, they also struggle with normal issues for people their age, like crushes, hormones, and bullying. This makes Stranger Things extremely relatable for children and young people (as well as anyone who remembers what it’s like to be a preteen or teenager!). Viewers may feel like they have grown up with the characters throughout the years, which can result in a heightened emotional attachment to the series.
After the release of Season 4 (part one) on May 27, 2022, some parents were concerned that the latest instalment is “more disturbing than others” and could be scarier for younger audiences. The first episode alone includes images of dead children, distressing bullying incidents, and the unexpected, gruesome murder of a teenaged character. Netflix did add a content warning to the beginning of the episode in response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which happened three days before the season’s release.
All four seasons of Stranger Things are rated 15 by the BBFC for including subjects like strong language, sexual activity, excessive violence, and depictions of substance abuse. ‘Part Two’ of Season 4 is releasing across the world on Friday, July 1st, 2022.
Is it appropriate for children to watch?
It is up to parents and carers to decide whether Stranger Things is an appropriate show for their nchildren to watch. It’s important to keep in mind that content from the show is easily accessible through platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where other users are posting reaction videos or clips from episodes. Remember: even if you restrict your child from watching Stranger Things, they may be able to access content on other platforms.
Why is the horror genre so popular?
Its popularity has expanded over the last few years, branching into other genres (e.g. science fiction) to become more acceptable for a wider digital audience. This has led to a more diverse variety of horror that consumers can choose from.
Streaming platforms like Netflix push horror shows as being the ‘biggest and scariest’ available.
Social media like TikTok feature trends that involve clips or recreations of scenes from the horror genre.
Video platforms like YouTube have thousands of videos of livestreamers reacting to horror games, shows, and films.
Gaming creation systems like Roblox allow users to create their own games based on characters and situations found in horror.
As many of these characters and stories are part of pop culture, it is extremely easy to find related content on most online platforms – even with parental controls enabled. Some of this content can be disturbing if a child is not expecting it or if they are more vulnerable to this genre.
Why is horror appealing to children and young people?
Younger audiences may find the appeal is directly tied to the ‘panicked’ feeling of witnessing scary situations, or of seeing relatable characters face off against ‘bad guys’. They may also feel:
The thrill of danger – Children and young people can say they were brave enough to play, watch, or read the piece and survive to the end. This can inspire a game of “chicken” in which others can feel a compulsive need to show they are not a coward by also engaging with it.
Community engagement – Groups of friends may interact with this content collectively for enjoyment or for ‘dares’. There is also a high-level of community involvement around horror, which can make someone feel like they are a part of something if they are isolated or lonely.
A sense of urgency – The heightened anxiety that comes with engagement, such as the feeling of being chased or watched, makes players want to solve the mystery or get to the end that much faster. The scarier the character or threat, the more satisfying it is to complete or ‘conquer’ it.
Breaking the rules – If young children or teenagers feel they shouldn’t play or watch something, chances are they will want to do it even more. They may also experience a ‘fear of missing out’ (aka ‘FOMO’) if all their friends are talking about it, which could encourage them to seek it out.
An emotional outlet – Even though most of this content is stressful and produces ‘unnecessary’ anxiety, it also invokes strong emotions and often shows a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Some people may feel this allows them to express their emotions in a helpful way.
Potential risks and concerns
There are multiple risks that may come from children and young people being exposed to frightening content before they are prepared, such as:
Viewing disturbing content – Much of the online horror content could be considered disturbing or unsettling, especially for younger children. Even if something is meant to be age-appropriate, it could be inspired by content that is not, which could encourage underage viewing.
Added anxiety and stress – Children and young people are still growing and learning. They may not be at a level of emotional maturity that would be able to process frightening content, even if they view it intentionally. They may also struggle to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Intrusive or unsettling thoughts – Everyone has the ‘thing that goes bump in the night.’ If children decide to look up anything online, some of these characters (e.g. Vecna from Stranger Things) could cause nightmares and could interrupt family sleep patterns.
Developing new fears – The manipulation of everyday places (e.g. playgrounds, forests) or occurrences (e.g. flickering lights, creaking pipes) into haunting grounds for horror characters threatens the sense of security a child feels. They may suddenly be terrified of something that had never been a worry before.
Every child is different. Some may genuinely enjoy horror and not struggle with any lasting feelings of fear or panic in response. Many of these characters (e.g. Slender Man, Eleven, Squid Game guards) have even become popular Halloween or fancy dress costume choices for children. However, if a child is worried or anxious after engaging with horror, they may be:
DISTRACTED – Find it hard to focus or concentrate on normal tasks.
WITHDRAWN – Appear quieter, lonelier, or ‘zoned out’.
UNINTERESTED – Experience a sudden change in appetite or favourite past times.
TIRED – Due to sleep disturbances (i.e. bed wetting, restlessness) or nightmares.
EMOTIONAL – Exhibit angry, irritable, or teary behaviours.
NERVOUS – This can physically manifest in fidgeting, tummy aches, or headaches.
FEARFUL – React nervously or claim to have new fears of places or situations.
If your child is exhibiting these behaviours, it does not mean that they are reacting to something scary. However, if the child in your care comes across something scary or disturbing online, encourage them to:
what they are doing and turn off their screen/switch off device
to take a breath and try to stay calm
about something else that makes them happy
to an adult they trust about what they saw and how it made them feel
Reassure your child that they are safe. Repeating that reassurance in different environments may be necessary if your child seems fixated on their fear. It may be helpful to remind them that horror characters like Slender Man are simply stories intended to frighten. Remind them that it’s okay to be afraid, and that they are not alone.
Discuss permissions with your child. Ultimately, you know your child best. If they ask you to watch or play something that might be scary, consider each child on an individual level. It might be appropriate for them to engage. It could even be best for you to watch/play whatever it is together to ensure they don’t become overwhelmed.
Be ready to talk (if they need to). It’s important your child knows they can come and speak to you without fear of judgement or consequence. If necessary, ask them to show or tell you what they have found, and follow appropriate reporting procedures on platforms if you are concerned.
Keep the conversation going. Ask them about the content they are watching online, and if anything they’ve seen has ever made them or their friends upset or scared. Try not to mention anything by name. Asking your child if they’ve watched or read something might encourage them to be curious and seek out answers on their own, which could be harmful to them.
Remind them who is on their side. Use our Trusted Adult Resources to teach children and young people about the importance of seeking help from trusted people if something worries or upset them. Even if it isn’t you, the most important thing is ensuring those in your care are protected from harm. They may choose to share with you further down the line!
Don’t minimise how they’re feeling. If your child is having nightmares or is anxious about something they’ve watched, acknowledge their feelings and have a conversation about how they can express them in a healthy way. You can use our emotions journal to help your child describe complex emotions such as fear or worry in a way that is not overwhelming to them.
Check in with other parents. If you want to know what your young person’s friends are watching, connecting with their parents will help you find an answer quietly. It might also help you decide on what horror to allow those in your care to engage with!