Eek!I can't remember exactly when it started, but at around 2 our daughter began to beg us to chase her. She wanted us to pretend to be a dragon or the "Backson" from Winnie the Pooh. A year later she still streaks the house with shrill cries every time my husband and I pretend to be the requested villain du jour, but now she'll mix it up, turning the tables to take on the role of the aggressor, puffing her chest out and saying, "Raaar, I'm T-Rex. Give me some meat."
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Which is funny, because we're vegetarians. But what's even more interesting is that she truly seems to want to be scared. And it turns out that's she not the only kid. Psychologist Paul Bloom showed 4 and 5 year olds footage of children reacting to films that were primarily concerned with either happiness, fear or a completely neutral topic, inspiring boredom.
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The 4 and 5 year olds preferred watching the faces of kids who were mirroring the events of the happy film. But their second choice was a bit of surprise: They liked watching the horror stricken faces of kids who were watching a scary film rather than the "safe" choice, kids watching a vanilla, neutral movie.
So what's going on here? There's the idea that children are learning about emotionally tricky landscapes and mastering the resulting anxieties by facing them, but Bloom has a more intriguing idea. "Parents automatically assume that children like stories with happy endings, like, The Little Engine That Could. But what about The Little Engine That Tried and Failed? It might be that children would find it perversely satisfying."
It may also be that kids who are playacting fear or are drawn to sinister plotlines in fiction and movies are just building up their database of emotions and figuring out what's a false threat as opposed to a real threat.
Consider what happens when you watch a movie about a deranged madman wielding a chainsaw. Your amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion, gets juiced up and sends out a cocktail of energizing hormones. At the same time your prefrontal cortex, the seat of rational thought, is sussing out the danger level. It tells you that what you're watching is just a movie and to settle. All this excitement is processed as reward, as in, "I'm not going to die. It's just a movie. I survived!"
Now the Backson or a fire-breathing dragon is no homicidal maniac, but they do have villain written all over them, and this means they're actually playing a role in cognitive development and what it means to consider and identify a threat.
Think of all the frightening fairytales that children have been read over and over again. There's a good reason dark narratives are so seductive. According to psychologist Keith Oatley, "Stories could indeed be a way of exploring the world without these terrible things that you are reading about actually happening to you ... and If we don't understand the world, then it's less likely that we're going to survive."