I found this short PSA from Finland on the Internet some time ago. You can access it by clicking on the image below. I should warn you that it's quite disturbing. It presents Mother's Day (and Father's Day as well) as seen through a glass darkly. (I should warn everyone that most of the videos presented here will be unnerving, and viewer discretion is strongly advised, particularly for young ones.)
I don't have much comment on the ad itself; you will agree or disagree with it as you see fit. I think it's a striking and truthful piece of work; you may disagree. The comments on the film are enlightening; I find a great deal of defensiveness and justification among many, so in some ways I believe the ad will only be preaching to the choir, as it were. More's the pity.
As for my own thoughts, I have witnessed the random cruelty many adults find humorous to inflict upon young ones from my time at the Six Flags America Halloween event in Washington DC ; I've shaken my head at those that feel it within their right to genuinely frighten their children. (Not, I repeat, scare with a good-natured jump or startlement that comprises what we in the haunt industry refer to as a “good scare”; one in which there is a shriek and then laughter.
No, I'm referring to absolutely terrified youngsters being dragged by laughing parents up to a masked macabre figure with the cries “Take him! Take Him! Eat him!” or other such sentiments while the child screams in abject fear.) I've had parents scold me when I answer a youngster truthfully that yes, that exhibit is very scary, because the parents had been trying to coax the child inside.
I don't know why they behave this way, but they do. And they seem to forget the expressions found on the faces of the youngsters in the PSA; that the world to many at a certain age is a fearfully huge, loud and garish place. They trust their parents and parental figures to keep the darkness away, and are dumbfounded when they add to the terrors instead of alleviating them. For those who feel I'm not talking about them; Sir or Madam, I may indeed be talking about you. I would ask you to look to your consciences, but I would be doubtful.
In any case…what I found most striking about the PSA is the use of Horror imagery to make its point. Not so surprising to me, as I've often commented on the power of the Dark Fantastic when used as allegory. What often disturbs has the ability to resonate in memory long after the work has been seen and thought to be forgotten.
Public Service Announcements have long used stark, morbid or terrifying visions to make their point, particularly during the 1960s and 70s. Here's a particularly frightening one concerning heroin addiction that gave many a child nightmares (and some adults as well, I'm certain.)
There's so much unsettling about this ad, from the young girl's matter-of-fact sing-song voice to the idiot clacking of the monkey against the white background. Some have suggested, quite persuasively, that this ad was the forerunner of the now-famous online ‘shriek' videos.
There were other uncomfortable images from the 1960s; I've been unable to find the one about drunk driver that commended the drunk driver “…for reducing the size of our classrooms.” As the camera pans through an elementary schoolroom, we see a coffin where a child's desk should be sitting among the studying youngsters. Or the one for Radio Free Europe, featuring the young boy mouthing political slogans, wearing a lock and chain around his head. Very unnerving…
Here's one from several years later, the 1980s, but no less frightening.
And this very effective one from the same time decade, with its grim finale.
Of course, it isn't simply past ads that use disturbing images. This is a powerful current ad for the dangers of anorexia.
I've written in the past about the use of Horror in the mainstream; how many are drawn to its power to instantly galvanize and arrest, to cut through a viewer's defenses with an immediate, visceral reaction. As many authors in the genre point out, Horror isn't actually a category; it's an emotion, and the best artists – not only filmmakers and writers, but musicians, painters, sculptors, and the rest - find a pressure point that they can manipulate to produce the strongest possible response.
As I mentioned in my April 2012 essay, some artists, not familiar with the rich history and power of the Dark Fantastic, use the emotion superficially or ineptly, not truly respecting the genre. But when it's used well - and I believe these ads use it very well - then it can convey in a single image an impact that pages of dialogue couldn't impart.
Which is probably why so many writers not normally associated with the field return to its discipline time and again to great effect; Dickens with his murderer Magwitch in the graveyard at night, Twain and his body of Huck Finn's father on the abandoned houseboat, Shakespeare and his bloody corpse of Caesar returning to haunt Brutus's dreams, Crane and his young soldier's discovery of the rotting corpse beneath the trees. Each one of these work - “Great Expectations”, “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn”, “Julius Caesar” and “The Red Badge Of Courage” - are not remotely considered Horror, but Horror is the engine that powers their most memorable moments.
In their marvelous essay in the collection “Cut! Horror Writers On Horror Films”, authors Craig Spector and John Skipp list many of the mainstream movies that have individual moments or a reoccurring theme of Horror that runs through them: the madness and obsession that stalks the Gothic streets of AMADEUS, the horse's head in the producer's bed from THE GODFATHER, the steam-filled garish streets of New York's bowery in TAXI DRIVER, the musical death-filled hallucinations of ALL THAT JAZZ, the blood-drenched hospital corridors in THE KILLING FIELDS.
None of these are by any stretch of the imagination “Horror” films; the sequences in them do not bear any resemblance to what is traditionally considered “Horror”, and the reactions sought by the filmmakers are not the same ones desired by the creators of HALLOWEEN or DAWN OF THE DEAD, by they horrify all the same.
Fear is the mainspring that runs the machinery of such drama, and Horror is the key that winds it. It is the one universal emotion, left deep in the recesses of the consciousness from eons before, when firelight and darkness gave rise to myth and the early tropes of terror, touchplates that have been handed down through race memory to become the universal archetypes. Every soul of humanity has experienced it; it is the one common trait for generations. It's no surprise that it packs such a wallop.
One of the more surprising places to find terror used so well is in children's literature and entertainment. The classic faerie tales, meant originally for adults, are filled with images as grim as any chainsaw massacre, in Texas or otherwise. Hansel and Gretel and the witch, with her ovens for cooking children. Snow White and the Huntsman with the knife to cut her heart out. The birds that attack Cinderella's sisters and peck their eyes from their heads. The stories are filled with grue, so much so that some parents refuse to read the unpurged texts.
Movies and television also contain images certain to terrify. Is there a child of any certain age that doesn't remember the nightmarish boat ride from WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY with its screaming, horrible pictures on the tunnel walls? Or the conflagration that Bambi and his father race through in the conclusion of the film? Perhaps it's the manic laughter of the Scarecrow as he races through Romney Marsh; the bellowing roar of Monstro the Whale as he bears down on Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket's raft, or the terrible transformation of the boys into braying donkeys. Or maybe it's the final battle in the rain soaked night between Captain Nemo and the crew of the Nautilus against the giant squid, or the growl of the Abominable Snowman pursuing Rudolph , Yukon Cornelius and Herby across the Arctic ice.
Walt Disney has been criticized quite unfairly, in my opinion, for ‘sanitizing' the traditional fairy tales and glossing over much of the disturbing and darker moments, but few understand that he introduced a generation of youngsters to these still recognizable stories and filled them with fearful, frightening moments that first introduced youngsters to the thrills and chills that would possibly lead them to other moments of the Dark fantastic as they grew older.
More than a few modern authors, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and many others point to a Disney film as their first enticing exposure to Horror. Walt Disney, as much as any storytelling living or dead (with Jim Henson perhaps a close second) truly understood the mechanics of creating dread, fear and wonder, and how seamlessly they weave together in a child's imagination.
Now wait a moment, Carpathian! I hear you saying. Not long ago, at the beginning of this very essay, you criticized adults for frightening children, and now you praise somebody who practiced it regularly?
Yes. Yes, I do. Because that is the dichotomy; some scares are quite good for children, and most children long to be scared. But that's a discussion for next time, my Friends. Join me next month when we'll pick up again from this very spot.
NOTE: Just as I was uploading this essay, I came across this ingenious ad online. Although it doesn't use Horror as the PSAs do above, I find it so ingenious, remarkable and compassionate that I wanted to draw your attention to it. You can read the article and see a short video by clicking on the image below.