How dare Hollywood churn out a children's film that drives its audience to tears when heartless outsiders murder a beloved character?
How dare they kill Bambi's mom?
In 1942, many worried that the Disney cartoon would be too emotionally wrenching for kids. That concern resonates with parents nearly 70 years later as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the final and most violent installment in cinema's most popular franchise, opens Friday in movie theaters worldwide.
Angie Andresen hasn't decided whether she'll take her 9-year-old, Maggie, to see it, even though her daughter can't get enough of the J.K. Rowling series. She's seen only the first two movies, but started devouring the seven books in March and is so eager to finish the last one that she stayed up until the ripe ol' time of 10 o'clock one night last week.
Maggie admits that she was affected by the deaths of two major characters, but conversations with Mom while biking or being tucked in proved helpful.
"I was sad about parts, but we talked about it and I got over it," she said.
Maggie has seen the new movie's trailer, a loud, frantic affair with ominous music and bodies spiraling into fire. It looks "pretty spooky," she said, but she really wants to see the entire PG-13 film.
Mom's not on board. Yet.
"I'm not so concerned about death as a topic, because it's something we've dealt with as a family, but I am concerned about the violence," said Andresen, a vice president at the marketing firm Fleishman-Hillard.
"It's just so visual when it's on a big screen, and I'm worried about -- this may sound silly -- bad dreams," Andresen said. I remember when I was 12, my dad took me to see 'Poltergeist.' I had some nightmares after that."
Movies also gave a young Pete Hautman his fair share of sleepless nights. The Minnesota author of several acclaimed young-adult novels, including "Godless," Hautman remembers being terrorized at age 4 by "Bambi" and, strangely enough, "The Nutcracker."
"It was that 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.' I just started hysterically crying," he said. "It still freaks me out when I hear the music."
But Hautman doesn't have any regrets. He thinks being scared from time to time is a critical part of growing up.
"There's this fanatical protection of society, particularly in America and Europe, that's gotten to the point where kids aren't being allowed to develop a healthy psychology," he said. "I've got a friend who works with Outward Bound and he says they have more injuries every year, because the kids don't know what it's like to get hurt. They don't climb trees, they don't jump trains, so when they go out there and leap over a chasm and it doesn't work out, they think they can just hit the reset button. Better to find out where the line is in a movie theater or a book."
A Grimm history
Hautman has a personal stake in the debate. As a writer of fiction in which young teens confront adult issues, he faces critics who think today's literature is too graphic for its audience.
In a recent essay for the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon argued that "books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures."
But literature aimed at young ones didn't become gruesome overnight.
In 1952, literary scholar Geoffrey Handley-Taylor studied 200 traditional nursery rhymes and found eight references to murder, three drownings, nine cases of missing children and a decapitation.
Pioneering child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim defended ghastly fairy tales in his 1976 book "The Uses of Enchantment." Children learn to cope with their own fears, he argued, when they confront horrors at arm's length on the printed page.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court waded into the debate last month, ruling that video games cannot be censored. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that children's stories long have been steeped in violence.
"Grimm's fairy tales, for example, are grim indeed," Scalia wrote. "Cinderella's evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven."
Not for every kid
That doesn't mean your children should get the green light to see the next installment of "Scream."
Sarah Logan, a therapist at St. Paul's Center for Grief, Loss and Transition, said parents have to be mindful that every kid reacts differently to depictions of violence.
"We like to think they are resilient and will get over it, but you've got to remember that they don't yet have the skills to express trauma," she said. "I've seen a lot of kids that have significant behavioral changes after seeing violence. Not all, but some."
Liz Mahony isn't worried in the slightest. She's let her 11-year-old son, Jack, see all of the "Potter" movies, in large part because he has read all the books. Jack says he's been creeped out a few times in the theater, but he was emotionally prepared because he knew the scenes were coming. That doesn't mean a few tears haven't been shed when major characters die.
"You want to see empathy in your kid," said Mahony, a stay-at-home mother. "I'd be a lot more concerned if he didn't care."
Young Maggie Andresen is probably hoping for someone like Jack's mom to make a phone call on her behalf. In the meantime, her mother plans to tread carefully:
"I'm going to see what the reviews say and talk to my friends. I think it's fair to say we probably won't be lining up for the first midnight screening."
- Neal Justin
- Twitter: @nealjustin