Twenty-two years have passed since the first time I saw “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but there’s a scene in that movie I still can’t watch. I tried to do it on YouTube just now, but the best I could do was with one eye closed and the sound off.
If you’ve seen the movie, let me refresh your memory in three words: the cartoon shoe. (You can watch what I’m talking about here, although why would you want to?)
A sweet, puppy-like cartoon shoe snuggles up to the feet of the movie’s villain, Judge Doom. Then, without warning, he picks it up, carries it over to a vat full of acid, and slowly dips it to death. The shoe’s agonized screams become throttled whimpers as its mouth melts away. Ultimately, it’s reduced to dripping red goo on Judge Doom’s rubber glove.
That scene fucked me up when I was a kid.
My poor parents had no clue -- it was a PG-rated movie! Involving cartoon characters! -- so it was a staple rotation when babysitters and cousins came over. I sobbed the first time I saw it. From then on, I ran into the next room screaming and covered my ears whenever it was time for the shoe scene.
I admit it -- I’ve always been sensitive to these things. Even today, I plug my ears and make bovine noises of protest every time Theon Greyjoy gets tortured on “Game of Thrones.” But no amount of onscreen disemboweling can ever rival the amount of fear and grief I felt -- indeed, still feel -- about that scene in “Roger Rabbit” and few others I saw around the same time, including:
-The scene in “Hook” when Captain Hook throws one of his pirates into a chest full of scorpions;
-Bambi's mother, duh;
-And last but not least, "E.T." The entire movie. Something about that little guy just gave me the willies. I suppose if you had to pinpoint the moment when my terror actually became vomit, however, it'd be the mottled-and-dying-in-a-ditch scene.
To this day, these movies provide the stock images for almost all of my nightmares. I can't even think about them without shuddering. The same goes for a couple of books I read during those impressionable years.
When I was 9 or 10, I picked up Patricia Polacco's "Pink and Say," a picture book about two little boys who want to fight in the Civil War. Long story short, one of their moms is brutally murdered on the page. It ends with one of them getting hanged while the other starves in Andersonville Prison. I closed the book feeling like a bomb had gone off in my heart.
Also: who could forget Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell's "Scary Stories" trilogy? With those ILLUSTRATIONS. Christ.
A couple of years ago, in the bed of a tony Houston hotel, my sister got bitten on the thigh by a brown recluse spider. When she told me about the boil it created -- her voice loopy and a little slurred from painkillers -- I said, "At least it wasn't on your cheek?"
After a moment's silence, we both said "...like that GIRL! In the BOOK!" and jinxed each other. I don't think I need to elaborate for those of you who read "Scary Stories" at any point in your childhood, but lest you've forgotten:
I know I’m not the only one still traumatized by things like this. My friend “Laura,” a librarian in the UK, told me this: “I asked in my office, and EVERYONE ELSE said they can't see bunnies in the wild without thinking of horrific scenes from Watership Down (the movie) and feeling generally traumatized.”
A woman who works on my floor remembers cowering at “The Little Mermaid” when Ursula became huge and started cackling maniacally.
Another friend remembers being traumatized by “Cinderella,” but not so much because of “Cinderella” as because her father had forgotten that he’d recorded "Wild Orchid,” the 1989 Mickey Rourke soft-core pornography classic, on the same VHS tape. (“Needless to say, I have never bothered with Cinderella again but was pretty keen on Mickey Rourke,” she tells me.)
I apologize to all my fellow sensitive Sallies for making you wallow in these things. But I have a reason for bringing them up: I'm four and a half months pregnant, and I've begun to revisit everything I experienced as a child with the perspective of a clueless parent-to-be.
When my baby's ready to read picture books and watch movies, should I be on the lookout for scarring scenes like these? When is it appropriate to show kids stuff like this? Is it ever? Or would I be depriving him/her of something by withholding it?
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" still makes me want to cry, but the "Scary Stories" books were always quietly thrilling for me -- just scary enough, like doing backflips off the highest bar on the jungle gym. How will I figure out where that boundary is with my kid?
The person who’s given me the most useful advice so far is not a parent, but a mortician.
Caitlin “Ask a Mortician” Doughty, my friend and literary client, reminded me that kids are capable of understanding much more than most adults think.
“Childhood is a relatively new concept,” she wrote to me. “This idea that children should be protected from any and all negative stimuli that might upset their innocent kid-soul is a modern one.”
She continued, “There is a difference between torture porn (i.e. the shoe's death…) and the death of Bambi's mother or Littlefoot's mother in A Land Before Time. [Oh, God, how could I have forgotten that one?!] Both of the latter films show that death is always a real possibility, but after you've been very sad for a while, it is possible to find a new family, one that you've chosen.”
Caitlin is right, and her insight helped me begin to draw lines around where I will stand as a parent. I don’t want to shield my kids from biological reality, or from art that celebrates the beauty of real (i.e., mortal) life.
Pink and Say, “Bambi,” and another kid’s movie a friend of mine just made me remember -- “Dumbo” -- are about the things that endure past death: strength, love, hope.
Roger Rabbit? Not so much. Needless to say, I will never be ordering that DVD off of Amazon.
I can’t tell you for sure whether the scary books and movies I took in as a kid scarred me for life, or I merely found them scary because I was always going to be the sort of person scared by things like that. What I can tell you is that I still haven’t forgiven Steven Spielberg for E.T.
What do you all think? When it comes to kids’ entertainment, where is the line between healthy, age-appropriate recognition of human mortality and -- as Caitlin calls it -- “torture porn?”