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A “Family” Halloween?

by Christopher Gildemeister


Halloween is traditionally a time for children, a night of fun tinged with fantasy, costumes and candy…and a tiny dollop of fear, expressed by dressing up as fantastic monsters like witches, vampires and ghosts. In addition to playing pranks and trick-or-treating, many children celebrate the day by watching Halloween-themed movies. Those films intended specifically for children often incorporate such supernatural themes, like the Disney Channel’s long-running Halloweentown series of TV movies.


Many adults also enjoy horror films. Often the films intended for adults are more intense and graphic, with many being openly bloody and violent, and most having more frightening themes than do films intended for children. This may be because adults are more aware of the world, and require more realism to be effectively and entertainingly frightened. Hollywood has over the years produced, and continues to make available, movies that can entertain and “scare” a wide variety of ages and audiences, both child and adult, and those favoring both gentler and more graphic fare.


Especially around Halloween, the TV industry caters to all those seeking such thrills. Between now and October 31st, the various cable networks are offering viewers a gamut of horror films. Throughout October, Turner Classic Movies has been featuring a variety of classic horror films from acclaimed directors; and on Halloween night itself the network will show horror films featuring Boris Karloff, including such brilliant Val Lewton-produced masterpieces as The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead.  Reflecting different audience interests, AMC is concentrating on slasher movies like Friday the 13th, and on the 31st will run a marathon of the entire Halloween movie series. And NBC Universal’s dedicated horror network Chiller is rerunning episodes from horror-themed television programs ranging from the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Tales from the Crypt. These and other networks will continue to show a variety of horror-themed programming in anticipation of Halloween.


But no network is as schizophrenic in its approach to Halloween as the ABC Family channel. Over the course of two weeks beginning on October 19th, the network has been celebrating “13 Days of Halloween,” with a variety of monster-, supernatural- and horror-themed movies. Many of these are light-hearted, fun and appropriate for younger children. Among such movies featured during the festival are The Little Vampire, based on the children's fantasy series by German author Angela Sommer-Bodenburg; Scooby-Doo and Casper the Friendly Ghost, based on the long-running cartoon and comic-book series; and such original movies as Disney’s Hocus Pocus, the longtime favorite Teen Witch, and Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.


However, the network is also choosing to show several movies that are far from appropriate for young children, and which could terrify and even potentially traumatize them. Among these is the original Poltergeist. While an acclaimed horror film which was vastly popular upon its 1982 release, the movie features a young girl being abducted by ghosts. To many young children, who already fear “monsters under the bed” and similar anxieties, the potential of this film to genuinely frighten younger children should not be underestimated. ABC Family is showing Poltergeist at 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 CT/MT) on Halloween night.


The network’s other choices are even more questionable. On Friday, October 26th ABC Family showed the 2006 movie An American Haunting, a film characterized both by scenes of spectral possession similar to those found in The Exorcist, and a dark and disturbing plotline involving a father sexually molesting his own daughter.


And, most terrifying of all for young children, on Saturday, October 27th the network has scheduled Stephen King’s It, a drama involving young children attacked by a murderous force which manifests itself as a sewer-dwelling clown. Throughout the movie the clawed, fanged clown is responsible for multiple graphic and gory killings, with blood flowing copiously. The fact that children are the protagonists (and, in some cases, the victims) only compounds the potentially nightmare-inducing qualities of the film for young viewers. It, like An American Haunting, is being shown at 8:00 p.m. ET (7:00 p.m. CT/MT), where it will be easily accessible to children.


Many of those in the entertainment industry think that it is solely the responsibility of parents to monitor their children’s TV viewing, and to prevent youngsters from seeing anything potentially harmful. Such a stance allows programmers and media bosses to disclaim any responsibility for what they air, and to disregard the good of their viewing audience.


Many parents are cautious about what their children see, and do their best to monitor their children’s media activities. But when a network carries the word “Family” in its title, parents can be excused for letting down their guard, and for assuming that anything shown on such a channel will be safe and appropriate for their children. Most parents would not – and should not have to – rigorously scrutinize every item on the schedule of a self-proclaimed “Family” network.


ABC Family claims in its tagline slogan to be reflective of “A New Kind of Family.” But what kind of family would want their young children exposed to the terrifying, gory and graphic violence of It, or the deeply disturbing child molestation storyline of An American Haunting?


Coming on the heels of the open teen sexuality displayed on the network’s program Kyle XY and the underage drinking and sex orgies on its Greek, ABC Family’s decision to mix graphic and disturbing horror films with innocent, child-friendly movies like Hocus Pocus and E.T. demonstrates that the network does not have the best interests of either children or families in mind. The continued use of the word “Family” in such a context is grotesque and deceptive. The Disney-owned ABC Family network should either firmly commit to featuring safe and family-friendly programming…or drop the word “Family” from its title.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff: Aubree Bowling, Caroline Schulenburg, Josh Shirlen, Keith White, and Adam Shuler, under the direction of Dr. John Rattliff.

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