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My children are being raised by two parents who have a deep love for movies, and introducing our children to the films we love has been one of the most rewarding parts of parenting for me and my husband.
As our kids grow, we can show them movies with more complicated plots, interesting characters, and, at times, intense scenes. To help emotionally prepare them for what might scare them, we talk a lot about “movie magic” and what goes on behind the scenes to make scarier scenes effective. We are not showing them inappropriate material. Just media that pushes their sense of comfort a bit. Disney’s “Haunted Mansion,” which I took my two oldest children to see in the theater, skirts that line.
Research suggests that thrillers, and even horror films, can help relieve anxiety by allowing the viewer to practice emotional regulation. Researchers at the National Library of Medicine found that horror fans were more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations,” they wrote.
Anecdotally, I’ve found that watching scary movies helps put things in perspective. An upcoming deadline, or text from a boss that reads, “We need to talk,” doesn’t seem nearly as terrifying after I’ve watched Toni Collete’s demise in “Hereditary.”
I want my children — now 11, 8 and 4 — to have the emotional regulation skills they will need to navigate adulthood, and experts believe exposure to some scarier media can help. Shelli Dry, a pediatric occupational therapist, told Parents magazine, “Healthy fear ... helps develop a little bit of resilience in the child because it lets them practice being scared and then recovering from being scared.”
But my children are not ready for the horror-movie big leagues yet, even with their “movie magic” understanding. I’ve experienced enough haunting images that have kept me up at night as a grown-up, and so I’m not willing to expose my kids to anything that might stick with them beyond the final credits. We are only dipping our toes into the deeper, scarier end of the made-for-kids movie pool, which is where “Haunted Mansion” swims.
“Haunted Mansion,” rated PG-13 for “some thematic elements and scary action,” is based on the Disneyland ride of the same name. The movie features a mother, played by Rosario Dawson, and her son, played by Chase Dillon, who move into a haunted home in Louisiana and learn they cannot leave. They enlist the help of a priest, a disenchanted ghost hunter and a medium to help rid the house of ghosts and, of course, shenanigans ensue.
When I take my kids to movies made for their demographic, my standard for the cinema becomes “entertaining enough.” In a lifetime of consuming children’s movies, I’ve seen maybe a handful that I would call really good — a few by Pixar and “Paddington 2.” Most are completely fine by my adult cinephile standards and terrific by my kids’ standards, which is great because that’s who these movies are for. If they have a good time and I stay awake, it’s a win.
It’s unrealistic, in my opinion, to expect a masterpiece from a movie based on a theme park ride (sorry, “Pirates of the Caribbean” fans), and “Haunted Mansion” is no masterpiece. There are plenty of flaws — obvious product placement, a run time 30 minutes too long, and a bizarre Jared Leto casting — but it was better than I expected, thanks in large part to the performances of LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish.
And “Haunted Mansion” accomplished what I hoped it would — scaring my two oldest kids just enough.
The scary moments are only jump-in-your-seat scares. One of the mansion’s haunts will flash on the screen and then disappear, a suit of armor will change position in a room between cuts, and a figure will briefly appear in a mirror. When the ghosts’ faces are revealed, they look more like muppets than deceased humans, and even the Hatbox Ghost — the movie’s supposed scariest villain — reads like a cartoon. Nine hundred and ninety-eight of the ghosts are friendly and just want to live their best lives in the mansion. One just wants to watch “The Perfect Catch” on TV.
“Haunted Mansion” is true to the beloved Disneyland ride, which never gets any scarier than the elongated walls and hanging silhouette of the mansion lobby.
What makes the scariest movies terrifying is their roots in plausibility. Family dramas slowly spin into supernatural terrors, home renovations unlock trapped demons, and women look for a place to stay, then meet their violent ends. We can all see ourselves in the beginning situations of these films, making their terrifying conclusions feel within the realm of possibility.
This is not the case with “Haunted Mansion.”
It begins with the premise that a mother and son move into a mansion they immediately recognize is haunted and spend the next 120 minutes trying to solve that problem with the help of supporting characters who provide laughs, some emotional depth, namely Stanfield’s character reckoning with the grief of losing his wife, and star power from Hollywood heavy-hitters Jamie Lee Curtis and Danny DeVito.
No part of the movie ever felt close to reality and thereby it created a safe space. Even the seance scenes, which often serve as the backdrop for the horror genre’s most intense terrors, are well-lit and full of jokes. The screenplay nods to supernatural forces, but never dabbles in the actual darkness of those forces.
As we left the theater, my daughter said, “It was scary but not really scary.” Which is exactly what I had hoped.