Horror Movies and Your Teens

Filed under: Movies, Expert Advice: Teens

horror movies

Teens who watched horror films experienced an increase in anxiety. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is one of the most critically acclaimed horror movies of all time. But as scary as it still is, it positively pales in comparison to the grisly slash-and-torture horror movies such as the current "Saw" franchise.

Today's horror movies rely much more heavily on gore, special effects and the pairing of sex and violence.

Why this matters

A seminal University of Michigan study showed teens who watched horror films experienced an increase in anxiety. Other studies about violence have shown that immersion in violent content -- and today's horror movies are pretty much nonstop violence -- reduces empathy and makes violence less impactful. Sure, our kids know that the movies are fantasy, but their bodies process the fright and gore as if it were real.

It may be a time-honored tradition for younger teens to sneak into R-rated movies, but when they sneak into an R-rated slasher or "torture porn" movie, they receive images they just won't be able to get out of their head.

Today's horror films not only focus on darker themes, but they're full of extreme violence and sex. This is a dangerous combination, especially for impressionable teens. Many are just beginning to understand their newfound sexuality, and once grisly violence is shown in a sexual way, it's impossible to break that association. This isn't healthy.

Another big issue is the number of female victims in these dice 'em, slice 'em thrillers. Remember that media -- no matter how absurd or unrealistic -- still acts as a super peer. Do we really want to normalize helpless, wailing, battered women or encourage misogynistic behavior?

The facts

  • Horror movies are big business: The number of new films has increased steadily in the last decade
  • Since the 1999 release of The Sixth Sense, PG-13 horror has become a teen staple
  • R-rated horror movies often pair sex with grisly violence
What can you do?

What can you do if your teens just love horror movies? It's best to help them understand all the other messages they're getting along with the shock and gore. Before they go to see the latest bloodbath, talk to them about what's really going on:

  • Explore their take on the violence. They may know this is fantasy, but point out that in real life, gruesome things happen all too often. Do your kids think horror movies condone this violence?
  • Try to talk about how the movies show sex in a violent way. This is a tough discussion to have with a teen who doesn't want to hear the word "sex" from a parent. But take a moment to offer your values on the subject.
  • Check in about gender roles. How are the male characters portrayed differently than their female counterparts?
  • Offer alternatives. We have lists of other horror movies that will scare kids but not scar them.

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    AdviceMama Says:
    Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.
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