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NPR Arts & Life

Hollywood's Horror History — For Kids

In animated family films like <em>ParaNorman</em>, ghosts are more likely to cause laughter than shivers. Critic Bob Mondello explores how we got here from the Hollywood fright fests of the '30s.
In animated family films like <em>ParaNorman</em>, ghosts are more likely to cause laughter than shivers. Critic Bob Mondello explores how we got here from the Hollywood fright fests of the '30s.

Black-and-white horror movies: Our parents and grandparents grew up on them, and now Tim Burton's gleefully gruesome Frankenweenie will ensure they resonate for another generation.

My dad told me that he and his big brother had to sneak out of the house to see Frankenstein in 1931; Grandma thought they were too young. At 12 and 13, they had plenty of Bronx swagger, but as they huddled together in the far reaches of the balcony and Boris Karloff's "lifeless" fingers twitched for the first time, they were both scared shoutless.

My own first exposure to the Frankenstein story was comic: At about the age of 8, I saw the monster on TV, played this time by Glenn Strange, chasing Abbott and Costello. Decades later, my nephews were also introduced to him on TV — by Peter Boyle's tap-dancing monster in a broadcast of Young Frankenstein.

Now Tim Burton gives us the world's first stop-motion black-and-white IMAX movie: Frankenweenie, about an animated kid who reanimates his pooch, Sparky, after an auto accident.

What's happened to Frankenstein's monster has also happened to most of the creatures from Universal's horror vaults. Dracula, who runs an inn for monsters in the new kid flick Hotel Transylvania, has been so thoroughly eclipsed by his pop-culture cousins that should real vampires venture into an elementary schoolyard these days, they'd likely inspire more tweets than shrieks.

Same thing with werewolves, especially if they've been working on their washboard abs like Twilight's Taylor Lautner. And the hunchbacks, mummies and phantoms who used to haunt cathedrals and opera houses are all mere objects of fun these days, at least in films aimed at children.

Which is maybe as it should be: Parents don't want tykes traumatized on Halloween. But it's interesting how monsters have evolved into such tame kid's stuff since their '30s movie heyday. Credit that to a little animated poltergeist named Casper and his descendants.

Casper the Friendly Ghost started out as a movie cartoon in the 1940s, then graduated to TV, where he was soon joined by family-friendly Munsters and The Addams Family. Movies followed suit with critters of various nonthreatening sorts, from Wookies in Star Wars to ogres in the Shrek movies to a buddy act involving a big eye and a blue fur ball in Monsters, Inc.

In 2001, those last two pictures reset the whole kid flick genre by becoming the biggest computer-animated movies ever, at least up to that time. And that cued this current burst of movie-vault grave-robbing. Frankenweenie is an obvious riff on Frankenstein. Hotel Transylvania has Count Dracula playing host to critters from Wolfman to the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And ParaNorman centers on a kid who "sees dead people" in a distinctly Sixth Sense sort of way.

From each of these films, kids will get a little life lesson, while parents hear movie references, which is how kid flicks almost always work these days. No one expects children to know the star of the silent horror classic Nosferatu was a guy named Max Schreck, but cinema buffs might. In Frankenweenie, they'll also recognize camera angles, tracking shots, even whole scenes from the original Frankenstein, and some will even note that Winona Ryder is voicing a surly little girl who looks and (of course) sounds just like the character she played in another Tim Burton horror spoof, Beetlejuice.

It's worth noting that all these kid-flick monsters have the same purpose they did when they were terrifying older generations. They represent our fears — of the dark, of the unknown, of illness, of things unpredictable, feelings untameable. Which is why even the tamest of these new monster movies gets rated PG, not G.

The difference is, these monsters aren't designed to be scary; they're designed to be outwitted. Happily — although grown-ups are so hopelessly clueless that they sometimes don't even believe in monsters — kids are around to outfox them.

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