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Scare Tactics

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After filming the spine-tingling shower scene in the 1960 Hitchcock thriller "Psycho," actress Janet Leigh was too petrified to set foot in a shower again. Although Leigh's fear may have been more intense than most, she was not alone. Most adults who witnessed the bathtub murder on the silver screen had at least one or two disturbing thoughts the next time they stepped into a warm shower.

Any parent can testify that children have similarly strong reactions to the television shows and movies they watch. But adults are often baffled by the sorts of images and stories that strike fear in the youngest members of their households.

"How a child will respond to a particular television show or movie is not always intuitively obvious," says Joanne Cantor, a communication-arts professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Cantor has spent a career studying the emotional effects of media on children. Spanning 15 years, her studies have involved 1,200 children.

She has found that TV shows that seem harmless and even wholesome to adults, such as "Little House on the Prairie," can terrify some children. While at the same time, movies widely predicted to spawn nightmares in children--such as the made-for-TV movie "The Day After" about the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of the United States--tend to scare teenagers more than their younger brothers and sisters.

The bottom line, Cantor says, is that predicting what will frighten a child has everything to do with the child's age and developmental level.

Cantor took her cues from Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist whose work has grounded developmental theory in education. Piaget theorized that children move through distinct conceptual stages as they mature. For example, children at the "preoperational" stage, roughly ages 3 to 7, are egocentric and have difficulty imagining themselves in another's place. They respond more to how things look, and they have trouble understanding how physical forms can change shapes.

From 7 to 11, as children begin to move into what Piaget called the "concrete operational" stage, they become less egocentric. They begin to understand how things can be transformed, and they realize that surface appearances do not always reveal the whole story. They do not really comprehend abstract ideas, however, until they reach the "formal operational" stage in early adolescence.

A Fearsome Hulk

Cantor reasoned that these developmental characteristics might also influence the way children respond to media. She found a natural testing ground for her theory in the 1980s television show "The Incredible Hulk," which featured a mild-mannered scientist named David Banner who is transformed into an ugly, green-skinned Hulk to fight injustice.

"If I was right, very young children ought to be frightened by the show," Cantor says. "But I found out before I could thoroughly research it how right I was."

Her discovery came after she and her colleagues asked Madison-area parents to list television shows that had frightened their children in previous months. Some 40 percent of the parents of preschool-aged children in the survey named "The Incredible Hulk."

In a later experiment, the researchers showed clips from the show to two groups of children--3- to 5-year-olds and 9- to 11-year-olds. The events leading up to Hulk's emergence, she found, frightened the older children. The sight of the Hulk stepping in to save the day, however, relieved them.

The younger viewers, on the other hand, became even more afraid with the Hulk's appearance. "They did not understand that when David Banner comes to look like the Hulk, he still has the same underlying identity and retains the same benevolent goals and motivations," Cantor writes in Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, a 1994 book.

In another study, the researchers showed children of varying ages a set of four pictures. The pictures depicted a grandmotherly woman holding a cat; an ugly, old woman gently petting a cat; a grandmotherly woman angrily grabbing a cat; and a witch-like woman simply holding a cat. Children were asked to talk about the women in the pictures and to predict what they would do in a story.

"The younger children were much more affected by her appearance, independent of how she behaved," Cantor says. "Older children took into effect how kind or cruel she was."

As children grow older, Cantor has also found, the TV shows and movies that frighten them depict more realistic threats. That's when the house fires, murders, and rapes that take place on such shows as "Little House" spawn more horror. Children easily imagine such fates befalling them.

"As they get even older, children are more likely to respond to threats that occur in an abstract fashion," Cantor says.

To test this last theory, Cantor and her colleagues surveyed 161 Wisconsin parents a few days after the 1983 broadcast of "The Day After." Schools and national education groups, such as the National Education Association and Educators for Social Responsibility, had advised parents against letting children under 12 watch the movie.

But, among the 73 children Cantor found who had seen the movie, the oldest children were more upset than the youngest ones. As part of that poll, parents of the younger children were also asked if anything their children had seen in previous months had upset them more than the movie. They named the movies "Charlotte's Web" and "Bambi" and "the Count," a vampire-like character on "Sesame Street," among other children's media fare.

Facing Their Fears

Though the frights of the big--and little--screen may thrill some, Cantor says they can also be potentially harmful. When she asked 103 college students two years ago if anything they had seen on TV or at the movies had given them a scare as children, 96 of them wrote vivid, lengthy descriptions of their experiences.

Of that group, 30 percent said they had cried or screamed. Another 19 percent reported stomach problems, and 46 percent said they had trouble sleeping.

Nearly one-third of the group said the effects of their experience lasted more than a year, and another one-fourth reported that their fears had not yet disappeared. In a few instances, such fears can even grow into serious psychological problems.

"Prevention is a good goal," says Cantor, who has a 6-year-old at home herself. "Getting rid of a fear once it happens is a lot harder than preventing it."

Failing prevention, however, there are particular strategies that work best for each age group. Adults often try to soothe preschoolers' fears, for instance, by telling them that a horrifying character or happening is "not real." These words, however, often go right over young children's heads. Cantor says noncognitive strategies--a hug or a favorite toy--are more effective for this age group.

But, in the case of "The Incredible Hulk," Cantor found another approach also worked. Mister Rogers, the children's TV star, broadcast an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in which makeup artists gradually transformed actor Lou Ferrigno into the Hulk. The backstage secret seemed to decrease children's fright levels the next time they watched the show.

Older children's fears are better allayed by appeals to reason.

Cantor's views are somewhat at odds with those of renowned psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim contended that the macabre and terrifying creatures and events encountered in most fairy tales helped children resolve their own fears.

"But the thing about fairy tales is that usually they are read to children by parents," Cantor says. "If parents see children are upset, they can change the ending. The problem with shows like 'Little House on the Prairie' is that it just comes at you, and you don't have your mother there, and it doesn't necessarily ask you if you're ready for it or not."

Recently, Cantor has turned her attention to a more prominent media issue: television violence. She is taking part in a national independent study on TV violence, financed by the National Cable Television Association, which is scheduled to be released this month.

Her research on children's fright reactions to media has not been as hot a topic. Then again, Cantor reasons, Hollywood television and movie producers may already know what she has to say.

"When I see a Stephen Spielberg film like 'Poltergeist,' I feel he must have read my work because he knows exactly what buttons to push to frighten a child," Cantor says. "And the same is true of Disney."

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