Childhood Horrors

Sometime ago in the mists of the last century, there were only three TV networks. On holidays, you usually had the choice of a football game, a different football game, or the longest movies the network could find – usually Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music.  Chitty, an overly technicolor musical, scared the daylights out of me. As soon as that Childcatcher came prowling, I was behind the sofa holding my breath. Today’s kids would just send his photo to Instagram and beat him up.

Children see things differently. Some are easily spooked, some are skeptical from birth. Kids misunderstand and misinterpret things, and that alone can create unfounded horror.

Obviously, most children’s films try to avoid horror, but what’s marketed to kids is not always Barney and Big Bird – few Grimm’s Fairy Tales end happily ever after. Poltergeist –  ghosts, demons, peeling faces, and evil clowns in child-swallowing glowing closets – was only rated PG. PG, because PG-13 hadn’t been invented yet.

Young Sherlock Holmes (the food nightmare) scarred one of my children; to this day she won’t eat cream puffs. Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and its disembodied heads was another. Another didn’t trust Nazgûl (nor should you), and was terrified by Matilda. The 1971 Alastair Sim animated A Christmas Carol, with its writhing starving waifs and the faceless, voiceless Ghost of Christmas Future taints every incarnation I’ve seen since.

If your child likes spooky things and wants to be a part of the Addams family, here’s a list of kid’s films – honest! – that just might give your kid the shivers. If you have a child with a more sensitive nature, you might want to wait a few years on these:

Toy Story – Oh, doll-headed spider and hook-bodied Barbie, how we hate you! You may be Pixar, but you’re scary!

Coraline – Creepy button-eyed fake parents trying to steal a child?  Hmm….

Labyrinth – Sure, we adore Bowie, but these are Muppets who steal babies, chase girls with drill bits with intent to kill, and drop people into pits lined with talking disembodied hands. ‘Nuff said.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Disney likes to whistle and pretend this isn’t theirs, but Ray Bradbury didn’t edit the scariness out of his novel of two boys and an evil carnival run by Mr. Dark, complete with electrocutions and freakshow.

Who Framed Roger RabbitBut this is a comedy! you cry – and it is, until crying Toons get faced with The Dip. Be prepared for a talk on death.

Return to Oz – if the flying monkeys didn’t scare you, perhaps Dorothy’s electroshock treatments will.

Jumanji – sure, it’s a game, but a deadly one. Floors that swallow people are just some of the issues; the intensity and situations may be too much entirely for young viewers.

Harry Potter series – yes, the first one is a charming tale of an orphan boy who learns he’s a wizard, but the stories get darker, and major beloved characters start dying. By the third film, Voldemort is embodied evil and believably out to get Muggles. Like your child.

The Dark CrystalFraggle Rock it’s not. It’s a dark Muppet film with lots of dark themes. Preteens maybe, but there’s no Elmo to lighten it for the little kids.

Gremlins – another movie made before PG-13, so it was stuck with PG. Gremlins are cute little things until you feed them, and then they become psychopathic demons out to harm and kill.  If preteen horror films was a separate genre, this would be one of their cornerstones, along with perhaps The Witches, Watcher in the Woods, and Jaws (which is also only PG).

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – let’s face it, Roald Dahl is almost never nice to children. Here alone, he sucks them up pipes, dumps them down garbage chutes, and has them cornered by very scary men in dark alleys asking them to sell their souls for money. But the crowning touch cited by many critics is the boat ride  scene, all psychedelic and threatening – but that’s the way it is in the book, too – a disorienting journey where everyone believes Wonka’s looney.

Every parent knows their child best. Some kids like a scary movie, some kids will wind up sleeping in your bed for a week with all the lights on. If your kid shows interest in scary movies, these might be a gentler introduction over, say, The Exorcist. Just be aware that even a seemingly wholesome, kid-marketed movie can have some really scary moments when you least expect it.

Susan Reads: The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Every now and then a book comes along and all you can say is, “WOW!”

That’s my reaction to The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox.

Ever hear of the minotaur, the half-man, half bull that lived in the center of the labyrinth, built by King Minos on ancient Crete?  As with most myths, this was one of those partly based on fact.  There was a palace of Knossos, on ancient Crete (which lies in the middle of the Mediterranean), and there was a King Minos, although the name seems to have been a general title, not a specific person. His palace was huge, hundreds of rooms built, well, in a maze-like fashion. For reasons unknown, the palace burned down sometime between 1450 and 1400 BCE, or about 3400 years ago, and that marked the end of the great Minoan civilization. And this we know for fact because Arthur Evans dug up the palace in Heraklion, Crete, in 1900.

And he found a storeroom.

With more than 2000 written clay tablets, baked by fire, still sitting there.

But what script was it? It wasn’t Egyptian hieroglyphics. It wasn’t Phoenician. It was too old for Ancient Greek. Unraveling the mystery would shed light on Bronze-age European civilization.  Scholars worked on it for years, including one Antiquities professor of Brooklyn College, Alice Kober. Kober, with incredible intelligence, scientific method, and a knack for languages that was almost frightening, through extreme perseverance managed to work out the basics, realizing that the mysterious language – known as Linear B – was written left to right, had different endings for masculine and feminine, and was a syllabary – a language where each symbol (read ‘letter’, if you wish) stood for a syllable of a word, not an individual letter, much like Japanese kana does. Kober poured her life into decoding the script. She came very close, but died before she could finish it.

Enter Michael Ventris, a quirky little upstart twenty years younger, a lonely child prodigy who, like Kober, mastered languages the way a sponge absorbs water (because everyone should know ancient Hittite and Etruscan). Ventris had been intrigued by Linear B since he was 14, if not outright obsessed.  Untrained (he went to a trade school to become an architect, but never took a college class at all), he corresponded with some of the greatest scholars of ancient civilizations, read Kober’s papers, put ideas together, sometimes wrong but sometimes right, and just 18 months – 18 heartbreaking months after Kober’s death, broke through the code of Linear B – a writing system native to Crete, but bent to write an ancient Greek dialect 400 years older than Greek was thought to be. The discoveries of other, similar tablets also written in Linear B on the mainland of Greece and surrounding territories corroborated the information. A whole new era in historical understanding was broken open, and the timeline for civilization had to be pushed back to accommodate it.

This book reads like a fascinating detective novel.  I could not put it down.  It’s like watching the film of Titanic – you know the ending, but you’re gripping your seat the entire time anyway. Fox’s style is extremely easy to follow and to read – she drops little hints about what’s to come and then speeds ahead, and you can’t stop reading.  If you love ancient history, if you love languages, cryptology, biographies of women in science or just a really good story, then read this book. It was truly a pleasure to read it.