Scary Fun from PARANORMAN To CORALINE to Where The Wild Things Are

Children’s Books and Films Filled with Thrills and Chills

Posted by administrator | August 9, 2012
PARANORMAN | Good, Scary Fun

If Norman Babcock, the title character in PARANORMAN, teaches us anything, it is that children are more resilient than we think when it comes things that go bump in the night. Like most eleven-year-olds, Norman takes zombies, witches and ghosts in his stride. The film, like an amusement park ride, is filled with terrifying, ghoulish, icky, scary things, but really it’s all just scary fun. Like many of the classic films it references, PARANORMAN sees the world from a kid’s point of view, a perspective in which everything is possible, even if scary. As director Chris Butler explained, “In this fun rollercoaster ride, there would also be what kids contend with on a daily basis in the real world – fitting in, facing bullying – as well as something they don’t usually face; a zombie invasion.” And like with any good rollercoaster ride, children just pick themselves up and go back for more of the same, please. It’s more often than not the parents who disembark a little greenish around the gills. Indeed PARANORMAN taps into the exquisite fun of being scared, that giddy adrenalin-spiked thrill that fuels Halloween, haunted houses, comic books, camp-fire stories, and the following children’s books and films.

CORALINE | The Adventure of Being Scared

Nominated for an Academy Award, Henry Selick’s stop-motion adventure CORALINE was adapted from British author Neil Gaiman’s classic children’s book of the same name. The story recounts the adventures of Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning), a young girl, who has recently moved into a new home with her parents who, for the moment, are too busy for her. In exploring her new home, Coraline finds a passage to a parallel universe. In this amazing “Other World,” filled with magical toys that fly, wondrous gardens, and, of course, “other” parents, Coraline finds everything to be better than her own reality. But there’s one small catch: In order to stay in this garden of delights, she must have her eyes replaced with buttons. And her Other Mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) has just the sewing kit to perform the gruesome task. Kids, by all accounts, are not nearly as grossed out as their parents by this particular prospect, caught up as they are in Henry Selick’s delirious 3D stop-motion animation. On his own blog, Gaiman addresses how children relate to his ghoulish whimsy, stating, “As a general rule, Coraline the book is much creepier for adults than it is for kids, who tend to read it as an adventure.” Indeed, the quote from G.K. Chesterton with which he starts the book explains why kids love CORALINE: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

Goosebumps | The Safety of Scary Stories

Undoubtedly no one has raised more goose bumps on kids (and their parents) than the widely successful kid horror writer Robert Lawrence Stine. Over the last two decades, he has written more than 300 novels, making him the world’s most prolific in the genre of children’s horror fiction. The most famous of these are the wildly popular Goosebumps books, a series of 120-page tales aimed to scare kids between the ages of seven and 12, and which, according to its publisher, Scholastic, have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide. While each book has different characters, different plot lines, and different locations, they share two things – the kids survive in the end and the stories are meant to be scary fun. In his second book in the series, Stay Out of the Basement, a brother and sister must fix the mess created by their eccentric botanist dad who has been doing some crazy experiments with plants and DNA in the cellar. In the series' ninth book, Welcome to Camp Nightmare, a group of kids survive horror after horror at a summer camp only to find out what all their ordeals were really setting them up for at the end. As Stine told the Daily Beast, “These books are to scare kids and that’s it. There are no real problems; there’s not even divorce. My rule is they have to know it is a creepy fantasy and couldn’t really happen.” But why do kids want to be scared? For Stine, there is something paradoxically reassuring about horror. As he mentioned in a special interview on his publisher’s site, “Everyone enjoys a good scare — if he or she is safe at the same time. Reading horror novels is like riding a rollercoaster. It's thrilling and frightening — but you know you're okay the whole while.”

Roald Dahl | Making Those Who Scare Us Pay

While Roald Dahl wrote everything from essays and short stories to TV scripts and film screenplays, he’s perhaps best known for his sophisticated children’s novels, eclectic books that mixed equal parts wit, whimsy and weirdness. Many of his works, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox, have both become classics of children literature and been adapted into films. His stories, mostly told from the point of view of kids, focus on children –– who strangely appear much more mature than the adults –– whose dire predicaments have more often than not been caused by ill-mannered, mean-spirited or otherwise very bad grown ups. In his 1988 Matilda, the heroine, Matilda Wormwood, is neglected by her parents and abused by her sadistic headmistress, whom in the end Matilda wreaks retribution upon when she discovers her telekinetic powers. In Dahl’s 1983 The Witches, the young hero, after his parents are killed in a car crash, is raised by his grandmother, who continually tells him about witches and how to destroy them. This anti-witch schooling proves prescient when he and his grandmother find themselves accidentally booked at an English hotel that’s also housing a witches convention. It’s there that the boy learns of a top-secret plan to annihilate the world’s children by witches (who naturally hate children), and conceives a way to turn the plan against them. And in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sweet-natured Charlie finds himself ultimately tortured by the bitter candy capitalist. But just as kids are tormented by forces beyond their control, each in his or her own way ultimately overcomes his/her adult oppressor, albeit often in very violent ways. And it was these violent bursts of retribution that kids often told Dahl were their favorite parts. As Dahl related to the New York Times, “Children love to be spooked, to be made to giggle. They like a touch of the macabre as long as it’s funny too. They don’t relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy. And my nastiness is never gratuitous. It’s retribution. Beastly people must be punished."

Where the Wild Things Are | What the Scary Things Looks Like

When Maurice Sendak's children’s fantasy Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1965, some teachers, parents and reviewers were aghast. They were shocked by the gruesomeness of the fantasy and the overall threat of being eaten alive. One famed child psychologist remarked in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion…To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion.” But children loved the tale of Max, all dressed up in his wolf pajamas, who travels to an enchanted island where he proves himself the fiercest creature and dances a wild rumpus with the monsters after being crowned “the king of all wild things.” The book went on to receive a number of awards including the prestigious Caldecott Medal for the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year. And the book, now a classic, has been adapted into an animated short, an opera, and a feature-length film by Spike Jonze, as well as inspiring any number of other artists and writers.  An iconoclast to the end, Sendak (who died this year) insisted that he spoke (and drew) truth to children, even if that truth was sometimes a bit scary. He told The New Yorker, “I am trying to draw the way children feel—or, rather, the way I imagine they feel. It’s the way I know I felt as a child.” His belief that he spoke for the children often put him at odds with their parents. When one mother told him that her son screamed every time she read Sendak’s masterpiece to him, Sendak remembered to Hornbook, “And I answer, did she hate her kid? Is that why she was tormenting her with this book?"

The Goonies | Ganging up on Scary Fun

In making PARANORMAN, director Chris Butler cites many of Amblin Entertainment's films, like Richard Donner’s The Goonies, as a major influence, not simply because they are scary fun, but also because they “had spark, warmth, and affection – and they didn’t condescend to kids.” Set in a coastal town in Oregon, where a group of misfit kids stumble on a treasure map that sets off a breakneck series of Indiana Jones-style adventures, The Goonies is the kind of film that gets played at young kids’ sleepover parties by parents who remember this entertaining blast from the past. After all, as the New York Times noted in its review, The Goonies “has every imaginable funhouse flourish. It has crooks, bats, cobwebs, skeletons, a lovable monster, an underground grotto and a treasure hidden by some of the most considerate, clue-loving pirates who ever lived.” The story for The Goonies was written by Spielberg, supposedly when he couldn’t sleep during a business trip, and was turned into a screenplay by his friend Chris Columbus.  Like Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes, Back to the Future and other mid 1980s films created by Spielberg’s production company Amblin, The Goonies was another boy-centric adventure, but with a difference. Rather than a single hero, the film is all about a ragtag team of kids working together, not unlike the talent Spielberg pulled together under his company logo. For all its scary, amusement-park thrills, the film’s theme of friends sticking together no matter what stuck with its audience. Decades later there is a fan site that allows devotees to relive the film and its production with other “goonies,” and at The Many Faces of… The Goonies one can learn how “to start a Kid Gang” by studying “the greatest kid gang of all time: The Goonies.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events | One Good Scare Deserves Another

Perhaps no title for a children’s book has more clearly laid out its plot than the title of the 13-volume collection called A Series of Unfortunate Events, penned by the suspiciously false-sounding writer Lemony Snicket. The series follows the misadventures of three children, the Baudelaire Orphans, whose parents are killed in a fire that destroys their home. After being sent to live with a distant relative named Count Olaf, they quickly learn of his nefarious plans to do away with them and get his hands on their inheritance. In book after book, from A Bad Beginning and continuing to The End, they are fooled by Olaf’s genius for disguise, and must use all their talents for invention to escape his evil clutches. The stories were actually written by Daniel Handler, a novelist who agreed to try children’s literature after his publisher turned down his sexy new novel. While children’s books were new to Handler, misery wasn’t. As he explained to the AV Club, “The way that the stories go in the Snicket books is just the way stories naturally go to me. They're full of misery, and yet the misery ends up being slightly hilarious.” Recognizing that the scary events described in his book could be seen as traumatic, Handler further wrote warnings (with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek), instructing potential readers, “If you are interested in reading a book with a happy ending, you would be better off reading some other book." Strangely, the more the narrator protested, the more kids ran to buy the books. But as children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus notices about the Snicket books, “'There is great fun to be had in terror… They're not excessively dark…except humorously so. They go to the safe edge –– an edge with a railing.''

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit | Hare-Raising Fun

Co-directors Nick Park and Steve Box have often referred to their 2005 gem Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit as the world's "first vegetarian horror film." Made by British claymation masters Aardman Animations for DreamWorks, this is the only full-length film so far to feature those endearing stop-motion characters, the eccentric inventor Wallace and his often-perplexed silent dog Gromit. Here, they try to rescue a village plagued by a mutant rabbit right before the annual vegetable competition. The original idea for the film came from Universal’s black-and-white classic horror films, like the 1931 Frankenstein and 1935 Werewolf of London. "They're all filled with blood and guts and we thought that that could really suit Wallace and Gromit's world because it's absurd,” explains Park.  “It's about people locking up their vegetables rather than their children." As absurd and fun as the claymation horror of a giant rabbit was, the real thing proved both a bit shocking and ironic. A year after the film was made, news came from the Northeast British town of Felton that a ravenous giant rabbit had ripped up dozens of prize-winning leeks and turnips. A Felton resident told the BBC News, "It is absolutely massive. I have seen its prints and they are huge, bigger than a deer. It is a brute of a thing.” Gardeners described the rabbit as having one ear larger than the other and villagers were so hopping mad they brought in sharp-shooters to kill the varmint on sight. In the end, the beast succumbed to the real rabbit’s curse. It was run over by a car.

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein | The Monster Mash

As many parents will tell you, the classic horror films of the 1930s and 40s are great sources of entertainment for today’s younger generation. Not graphic enough to be scary any more, they can still deliver a campy jolt or two. And if it’s scary fun you are after, there is no better place to start than the 1948 Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, one of cinema’s great monster mashes. Made by horror factory Universal Pictures, this ghoulish comedy sees the bumbling Bud and Lou bump up against many of the studio’s very own icons, including Count Dracula played by Béla Lugosi himself, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman and Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein's monster. There's even a token appearance by the Invisible Man, whose disembodied voice is recognizable as that of Vincent Price. The box-office success of this strange cast prompted more monster mashups: Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Just as with Mel Brooks' equally winning Young Frankenstein (which came out in 1974), Abbot and Costello’s film resisted the temptation to make the monsters themselves creatures of ridicule. The laughs come when we learn whose brains are within the monster.

The Mouse House of Horrors | Walt Disney’s Scary Moments

It might seem odd to mention horror in the same breath as the studio most closely identified with wholesome family entertainment. But in truth the parade of scary moments from Disney films could easily overflow the waiting room of any New York psychoanalyst. For many children, their most traumatic cinematic moment is watching the titled fawn turned into an orphan when hunters kill her mother in Disney’s 1942 Bambi. The Oedipal scenario would be repeated in Disney’s 1994 The Lion King. And there’s the scene from Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio when the puppet-turned-boy finds that the seemingly amusement park world of Pleasure Island is a trap in which boys are turned into donkeys and sold to work in a salt mine. Disney’s 1951 animated interpretation of Alice In Wonderland shares Lewis Carroll’s zest for blood-thirsty queens and Cheshire cats fading into black. Such moments continue up until Toy Story 3, when Woody and his pals find themselves thrown into the inferno of a trash compactor. But perhaps one of the most scary moments is the 1983 live-action adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. This gothic spookfest is about a pair of 13-year-old boys who visit an evil carnival presided over by a sinister Jonathan Pryce, who at one point squeezes his hand until blood drips both through his fingers – and from one of the boy’s heads. Another scene, as described by Janet Maslin in her New York Times review, “features about 100 tarantulas creeping into one boy's bedroom and, needless to say, creeping all over the boy as well.” Yet despite all of these scary moments, Disney’s world remains the happiest place on earth for kids. As cultural historian Warren Sussman suggests, “The Disney world is a world out of order…and yet the result is not a nightmare world of pity and terror, a tragic world, but a world of fun and fantasy with ultimate wish-fulfillment, ultimate reinforcement of traditional values.”

Tim Burton | Fear is all Relative

Perhaps no modern director relishes scary, nightmarish stories and set-ups as much as Tim Burton. Indeed many of his films – Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Sleepy Hollow and Alice In Wonderland – make Burton the perfect choice for anyone programming a Halloween Night frightfest. While some adults have questioned whether his overtly nightmarish animated films might be too scary for kids, Burton thinks it’s a matter of perspective. As he pointed in an interview, if he had to show either When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Viva Las Vegas to his own kids, a child might easily yell, “ ‘Oh my God! Elvis and Ann-Margret are about to kiss!!!’ He'd freak out, you know?” On the other hand, Corpse Bride might sound terrifying, but according to Burton, “It’s basically a love story, an emotional story [with] humor. And like any kind of fable or fairy tale, there may be elements that are somewhat unsettling. But that's part of the history of those kinds of stories.”

More From Focus Features:

Norman and Alvin
A Brief History of Stop-Motion
Making PARANORMAN, frame by frame.
ParaNorman | In  the Studios
In the Studios
PARANORMAN’s unique vision reflects the animation studio that created it.
Kodi Smit-McPhee | Finding His Voice
Kodi Smit-McPhee
An in-depth look at the young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Norman.
Casey Affleck | Finding a Voice for the Kids
Casey Affleck
An editorial slideshow about the life and career of Casey Affleck, the voice of Mitch in PARANORMAN.

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