This post is sort of a follow up to our October 2nd post: “Glossy, Sticky, and Yikey.”

After I wrote that post, I started thinking: just how scary is “too” scary for children? I know that there must be a line between Bambi’s mother dying and “Alien v. Predator.” But where is that line, anyway?

Back in September, San Francisco played host to a Children’s Art and Literature FestivalI was astounded to discover that one of the performers (Jacqueline Lynaugh) in the festival studied under Bruno Bettelheim who is kinda Da Man in fairy tale studies.

Lynaugh is not afraid of the dark:

her plots include scary elements, both to create drama and to help children develop coping skills.

“Emotionally, children go on the journey with that character. They solve that problem with that character, and they find their way back home with that character. The child learns that that’s possible,” Lynaugh says. “In addition to going to a faraway place, once upon a time long ago, children learn how to deal with everyday problems and emotions.”

And, you know, it appears that the children love the festival.

In the same newspaper, Peter Hartlaub asks the same question I’m asking: when are children’s movies too scary? And he comes up with this:

There were several stories this summer pointing out the post-apocalpytic themes in “Wall*E,” but I don’t think anything in that movie — or “Igor” — were more frightening than scenes in “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal,” which were made by Mr. Happy himself. As for the darker movies in our childhoods, nothing in “The Secret of NIMH” approaches the creepy scariness of an unedited Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Even Beatrix Potter was a lot darker than the typical children’s films of today.

Right on, man. Nothing is scarier than David Bowie with that famous mullet:

Run! Run from the Mullet!!!

Run! Run from the Mullet!!!

(Incidentally, you should mosie on over to the Reviews section and check out my Review of Labyrinth).

(There will be mullets!)

Back to the topic at hand!

I found that this article from Education.Com seems to put it best:

But, will the gruff world represented in many fairy tales be too scary for your little one? “A parent is usually the best judge of her or his child’s ability to handle the stories, “ says Patte Kelley, Head of the Children’s Department at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. “For instance, my sons had no problems with written folktales or fantasy movies because they knew they were not real. I also recommend that parents read the stories themselves before reading them aloud to their child. Some familiar titles have elements missing in the Disney versions most people are familiar with.”

But then again:

Don’t worry that your child is missing out if you decide to read her a modern version of Cinderella rather than the original version, in which birds peck out the eyes of the cruel stepsisters. Many updated versions of classic stories, like The Little Mermaid, have kept the conflict of older versions while featuring bold and adventurous heroines. Seek out versions that appeal to you, and modify them in the telling. For example, Tatar says you could twist Sleeping Beauty into Sleeping Handsome or talk about what it means to wait. “We should keep changing them,” she says. “These were told around the fireside. They were never meant to be set in stone.”

First of all, I agree with the fact that we should change these tales. Of course they were never meant to be set in stone! Please, tweak away. You don’t even need my permission! This is what literature is all about. I totally agree with the sentiment of this article.

And yet…when does changing become censorship? I mean, Disney changed the elements that he didn’t like. He went around enhancing what he felt worked the best, and expunging what didn’t fit in with his vision. And for the most part, we recognize that he did fairy tales and their listeners a disservice. Because Disney’s versions are, in a certain extreme view of the matter, a form of brainwashing. I for one find him very distasteful.

So here we have another line. We solved the first one by saying that its basically a case-by-case basis. Know your kids. If they scare easy, bring out Bambi, and not Labyrinth.* But when does the natural evolution of the oral tradition turn into censorship? When do parents seeking to shelter their children start to become repressive?

Answer: I have no clue. Something tells me that there is something out there, some way to tell, some litmus test to differentiate evolution from censorship. But I don’t know what it is, at least not yet. My gut says that it has to do with the way the fairy tale is presented. One of the gucky things about Disney is that everyone now thinks that his Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty are the real tales. Or rather, the original tales, since there is no such thing as real. There is no such thing as original either, when you come right down to it. (Don’t you just love folklore studies? There’s never any solid ground, never, never, never!) But. People do seem to believe that Disney’s versions are the only ones. I have often heard people express surprise when I told them that no, it wasn’t always so, and that Cinderella’s sisters had their eyes hacked out by righteous birds.

So if you’re a parent deciding what to read your child, know your child. If they scare easily, by all means don’t give them chronic nightmares. But don’t raise them in a one-dimensional environment. Don’t, for the love of Pete, sanitize everything. And when they hit a more mature age (when they’re out of the night-light phase, but still think fairy tales are cool), introduce them to different, more mature fairy tales. They’ll learn about perspective, and they’ll become interested in their childhood world all over again.

You might even make a fairy tale scholar out of them, and have to pay for years and years of graduate school and PhD work. Now there’s something to look forward to!

*In the interest of full disclosure, I was a Labyrinth kind of child. More murder, more scare! Bring it on, baby, I’m five years old and I’m ready for you!