I was quite happy when I married a woman who had a son from a previous marriage. Gavyn was only three at the time, and as his father lived twelve hours away, I looked forward to teaching him how to play catch. I know the joy that playing catch with your dad can bring, and I wanted Gavyn to experience that.
The first time I gave Gavyn a baseball, he held it up, stared at it for a minute in silence, then said, “Where did you find the monster eyeball?”
“It’s a baseball,” I laughed. “You throw it.”
“Oh.” He dropped it on the ground as though he suddenly realized he was holding a cat turd and walked off. I had a pretty good idea that playing catch wasn’t in Gavyn’s immediate future.
What is in Gavyn’s immediate future is apparently an Armageddon between humans and zombies. I base this on his unceasing questions:
“How do you kill a zombie?”
“You shoot it in the head.”
“With a little gun or a big gun?”
“Probably a shotgun,” I say.
“What if you don’t have a gun?”
“You can usually outrun them.”
“Mom says they can’t climb stairs. Is that true?” He pulls up a chair next to me where I am trying to work.
“I don’t know.”
“Mom says you can kill them with a shovel.”
“Maybe if you hit one hard enough.”
“I’d rather have a gun,” he says, looking out the window toward the woods, as if expecting the zombie hordes to arrive at any moment.
I wouldn’t find this conversation so distressing if Gavyn were on the cusp of puberty, but the boy is only six and a half. Already he has a firm grasp on the classic monsters – vampires, werewolves, ghosts of all varieties – and a few of the more recent classics, such as Chucky, Freddy Krueger, and to a lesser extent, Jason.
I do not like scary movies. I do not like gore. I don’t even like having a shot of Novocaine at the dentist’s. My son’s room looks like a dungeon year round – monster masks on the wall, shirts embroidered with pumpkins, costumes of all varieties, fake blood, fake knives, fake cobwebs, fake tombstones – it is a constant Halloween-apalooza.
When I was a kid, my room was decked out in Star Wars or G.I. Joe. My twin daughters have their room soaked in all things pink and Barbie. By contrast, my son seems a little weird. And I say this as a man who, prior to being married, lived alone with seven cats. I think I have a good grasp on weird.
I’ve consulted the various parenting handbooks – my son does not torture animals or play with matches, and so I have found these books to be of little help. He is, in fact, one of the most gentle children I’ve ever encountered. But when friends come over to visit, he comes bursting out of his room, dressed up like Freddy Krueger (in a costume he put together himself, with a glove that has bent paper clips taped to the fingertips), and pretending to slash everyone to shreds. Gavyn likes scary things and being scared.
I honestly worry about him for a variety of reasons. How much violence should I allow him to see? Wile E. Coyote is pretty violent with the Roadrunner; those old Disney movies contain a certain degree of violence (and sexual innuendo – when the old man takes Pinocchio and the other young boys to the Island of Pleasure where they indulge on cigars – that’s some seriously creepy business); and in the middle of the day I can turn on the television and see the cops of Law & Order SVU discussing violent sexual crimes so depraved it makes me question the First Amendment. And we all know that oft-reported statistic of how many televised murders a child will see by the age of eighteen in the United States (16,000 according to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 1999). The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”
How much violence should I allow him to see? Also, I worry about me. Things never turn out well for step-parents in horror films or on any of the Law & Order franchises.
But my son doesn’t watch network television – we have standards of decency in my household. The only time he sees anything violent is when I allow him to watch Shaun of the Dead or Scream, and he’s never allowed to watch them alone. Plus, I think those movies are sufficiently ridiculous to the point that it’s clear they are not real. He and I have had extensive talks about actors and special effects and what a Foley artist does. Plus, I would never allow him to watch something like Saw; it was my dad who showed him A Nightmare on Elm Street.
“What’s the big deal?” he said to me when I chastised him for it. “Johnny Depp is in it. Gavyn loves those pirate films he does.”
“It’s about a dude who kills kids in their dreams.”
“What does he know? He’s six. All he knows is that it’s the pirate guy.”
My dad was born just prior to World War Two. He grew up thrilled by movies featuring singing cowboys. I do not think my father has a grasp on how sophisticated small children have become since I was born in 1973.
I cannot help but recall Lenny Bruce’s routine about the fact that he would rather his child watch a stag film than a movie with a lot of violence, because at least in the stag film the kids would be seeing people loving and hugging each other, as opposed to killing one another. In theory, I agree with his point. Logically, I know that there are more choices than just porn or violence.
I also know that society evolves. Miley Cyrus would have been hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities had she appeared on television in the 1950s in her quasi-provocative attire. What’s not acceptable to one generation usually becomes part of the mainstream for the next. However, violence and fear – even the pretend kind – falls into a strange gray area.
My son truly loves Halloween, perhaps more so than even Christmas, and it seems impossible to separate some element of violence from Halloween. I mean, it is a holiday that celebrates the dead. And yet people do look askance at me in the video store when Gavyn requests to see a film that features, “people killing a lot of werewolves, ’cause they’re the hardest monster to kill.” I would like to think the wayward looks are because everyone knows that the Chupacabra is actually the most difficult creature to kill, but I can’t help but feel thoroughly judged as someone out to warp his child’s mind with violence and horror. I often wish to look at those pious people and say, “I tried the baseball. He thought it was a monster’s eye,” but I don’t want to invite more condemnation into my life.
This time of year my son exhibits a similar excitement to those grown-ups equally ecstatic over the commencement of football season. He sees the Halloween knick-knacks and costumes appearing in the stores. He knows the weather is changing, and that soon everyone around him will be celebrating all the nightmarish ghouls that he indulges year-round.
We stood amidst an aisle of costumes in Target the other evening. Gavyn has already decided that he will be paying homage to zombies this year, but he likes to look at what’s available, just for the pleasure of looking. There was a girl about Gavyn’s age on the same aisle, arguing with her mother over her choice of attire for Halloween:
“But I want to be a witch!” she said, gritting her teeth at her mom.
My son truly loves Halloween, perhaps more so than even Christmas. “Witches aren’t nice. Don’t you want to be a princess?”
The girl fixed a menacing gaze on her mother, and her voice sounded like a pixie version of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. “I hate princesses. I want to turn them all into goats!”
The mother looked up at me and then sighed. I suspect had I not been there, her daughter would have been treated to a different response altogether. When I looked around, Gavyn was gone.
I found him on the next aisle, biting his fingernails and looking panicked.
“We need to go. That girl scares me. I think she could really turn her mom into a goat.”
“Maybe,” I say, taking his hand, “but not us.”
We walked along, passing by the hardware section.
“Can you kill a witch with a shovel?” he asked.
“No, but you can kill them with a house.”
“Is there a movie about that?”
“Well, Gavyn,” I said, “you just happen to be in luck.”
Article photo: Shanon Poole