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Defanged Horrors

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"It's not too scary, I think it's just scary enough."
Roger Ebert on Harry Potter's suitability for kids

A good scare in a controlled environment can be a lot of fun. Horror movies and roller coasters make their money based on this truth. Well, kids like to be scared as well, and books and movies are produced to do just that.

Defanged Horror is a genre of horror created with kids in mind. However, it has to tread a fine line: being genuinely frightening to children without being too scary and without causing their parents any undue concern, so the standard scares of adult horror are not an option here.

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Instead Defanged Horror will rely on turning the children's imaginations against them. The monster will be vaguely described. The consequences of venturing into a forbidden area will only be hinted at. Victims of the threat will simply disappear rather than having a Kid Hero stumble across their mutilated corpses. And as scary as things get, things will just about always turn out okay.

This is by no means a put-down of the genre. Hardcore stuff like Se7en or Silent Hill is not really suitable for giving ten-year-olds a good Halloween scare. This is simply the media version of the campfire or sleepover ghost story. If it's done badly, though, the movie often comes across as simply cheesy.

On occasion, Defanged Horrors can be scarier than the explicit kind. This happens when what the average imagination can come up with when the details are left to the audience's imagination is scarier than what the average Slasher Movie will come up with. Of course, sometimes, you can scare kids — or anyone, for that matter — without even trying, and what is a pleasant little spinetingler for one child may give another scream-yourself-awake nightmares. We all have different thresholds.

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Strangely, it is often the adults that they are toning it down for, not the kids. As the above paragraph mentions, kids will probably find Defanged Horrors (done well) and normal horror movies equally scary. It's just the parents that'll complain if their children watch a movie with blood in it, meaning less money.

When this shows up in a video game, it will usually be in a Big Boo's Haunt type area.

Related to The Taming of the Grue, which may be an eventual byproduct of this. Can overlap with Nothing Is Scarier, where being unable to see anything scary is what makes it frightening. Contrast Adult Fear.


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Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Mon Colle Knights has one episode where Prince Eccentro gets possessed by a vampire before seizing Professor Hiragi hostage. The Knights must fight their way through a castle filled with zombies, suits of armor, Frankenstein monsters, and more. Saban switched this episode around with a much earlier one, which is understandable (i.e. to tie in with Halloween, which isn't celebrated in Japan).
  • Pokémon uses this sometimes, such as in episodes featuring Ghost Pokémon.
  • Sgt. Frog. A yukata-clad ghost lives in the Hinata family's basement, Fuyuki is a big fan of the occult, and episodes of the manga and anime center around spooky story contests among the main characters and their friends.
  • The Digimon Adventure episode The Call Of Dagomon was essentially a kid-friendly version of a Cthulhu Mythos story.
  • Spirited Away takes place entirely in a world full of spirits who dislike humans. Both of Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs after eating some of the food there. And that's just the beginning of it all.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. The citizens of Halloween Town are various monsters whose job is to scare people, but when they are not working, they are quite friendly and pleasant (with the exception of the Big Bad Oogie Boogie and his three minions).
  • The Brave Little Toaster has several scenes that would be outright Gorn if it wasn't happening to household appliances. Especially the scene in the shady parts-salesmen's shop, which is played exactly like a horror scene. Practically lampshaded in the following musical number, which directly compares the current situation to a number of old horror films.
  • Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit plays out as a monster movie, except the monster is a vegetarian, killing vegetables instead of humans.
  • Laika are known for making stop-motion animated movies that tend to push the envelope on how scary a kids' movie can get. Their first two movies, Coraline and ParaNorman are the most overt examples, being effectively child-appropriate horror movies. Their third and fourth films, The Box Trolls and Kubo and the Two Strings, are more Dark Fantasy. Averted with their fifth feature, Missing Link, which is a Buddy Picture Road Movie.
  • Fantasia's memorable "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence, which depicts demons and ghosts celebrating to the classic strains of Modeste Mussorgsky. It helps that, aside from dancing around, they don't actually do anything, and there's never any threat of innocent people being hurt. Additionally, the sequence ends with the tolling of a church bell, and the demons returning to sleep as a procession of churchgoers with lanterns walk by while Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" plays, signalling the restoration of order and the triumph of good over evil. Many children found this disappointing, preferring the energy and excitement of the diabolical revelry to the pious solemnity of the final scene.
    • To a lesser extent, the earlier sequence set to Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" features a ferocious battle between a stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus rex, and then a sequence of all the dinosaurs dying out in an arid desert. Not quite horror movie imagery, but still a lot more intense than most kids are used to, and at the time, it was considered to have some of the most spectacular and lifelike dinosaurs ever put on screen.
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. While the Mr. Toad segment of the story is a pretty light-hearted Funny Animal story, the second part of the movie - a broadly-faithful adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - is full of this trope. It's packed with autumnal imagery, even featuring a Halloween party and a fun, spooky song by Bing Crosby, and climaxes with a spectacular chase scene with the Headless Horseman pursuing Ichabod through a dark forest. But the movie ends on a scene showing Ichabod safe and happy, and an observant child will pick up on the hints that there was never any real danger in the first place.
  • Sleeping Beauty has elements of this, too. Its villain, Maleficent, is often considered Disney's best villain, and the scene where she hypnotizes Aurora into pricking her finger on a spinning wheel has an eerie, nightmarish feel to it. The climactic scene where Maleficent invokes "all the powers of Hell" and turns into a dragon was perhaps the most exciting final battle scene yet made in a children's movie at the time, and provides a pretty literal instance of G.K. Chesterton's famous line (see below under Real Life).
  • The Black Cauldron was a critical and commercial flop at the time, and the cult following it's built up in the years since is mostly because of the scarier bits, particularly John Hurt's performance as the sinister Horned King.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Tower of Terror film, based on the theme park ride.
  • Another one based on a ride at Disney Theme Parks, The Haunted Mansion (starring Eddie Murphy) has a backstory involving murder and even suicide, but it's still a pretty light-hearted family adventure movie.
  • The Watcher in the Woods film. No real gore, the fear is in what we don't see.
  • Tim Burton owes quite a bit of his career to this trope, especially during his early years as a director (mid-1980s to early '90s) when he was commonly thought of as a slightly unconventional children's filmmaker. This blew up in his face a little when Batman Returns flopped: Burton tried to be "funny-scary" and overshot the mark, becoming too grim and unpleasant for general audiences, though the movie's tone is weird and specific enough that it's become a bit of a Cult Classic today.
  • The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West managed to be remembered as one of the scariest - and most iconic - villains in cinematic history, even while appearing in a very family-friendly fantasy musical. She never really does anything particularly violent (aside from trying to burn the Scarecrow and threatening to drown Toto), and she has the rather petty goal of trying to reclaim her dead sister's ruby-encrusted shoes. But with Margaret Hamilton's gleefully psychotic performance, combined with some deeply unsettling makeup and prosthetics, well... There's a damn good reason so many kids are terrified of her. Often being the first "scary" villain that kids see in a movie helps too.
  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, much like the books it loosely adapts, was lauded by many critics as an excellent introduction to the horror genre for the PG-13 audience.

    Gamebooks 
  • The "Adrenalina" series (of two books) by Brazilian author Lilian Spyriano as well. The names and cover art are already indicative — Coração Acelerando ("Heart Going Faster") and Sobressalto ("Jolt", as in Jump Scare). Both are Gamebooks, the former set in a forest and the latter in the city. Both go all the way in the Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror, particularly has most endings are kinda tranquil given what you get on the path: for instance, the protagonist feels an evil presence on the elevator going back to his apartment... but arrives safe at home, where his maid says: "Throw away this underwear! You're too old for me to accept washing it!"
  • There are a few Mad Libs books that deal with ghost stories, horror movies, and the like, such as Spooky, Silly Mad Libs and Night Of The Living Mad Libs, but the basic format of the game - together with their watered-down descriptions of the plots to horror movies - ensure that the results will be more Surreal Humor than anything genuinely frightening.

    Literature 
  • Bunnicula, a parody of horror literature, is about the eponymous Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane rabbit which Chester the cat tries to convince the protagonist, Harold the dog, is a vampire.
  • Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, and the film adaptation also by Henry Selick. According to Gaiman, at least, adults find it much scarier than children do, because children tend not to pick up on the implied Adult Fears.
  • Goosebumps. The stories tread a very fine line, often threatening something truly horrible (usually in vague language), but not actually going through with it.
    • Taken quite literally with the story Vampire Breath: one of the elder vampires wore fanged dentures because he had no teeth.
    • In one of the Give Yourself Goosebumps books, you could end up in an endless maze that is supposed to contain various monsters. What you get are things like a slow-moving Frankenstein's monster and a toothless werewolf. Your character outright tells the creator that you think his monsters are lame.
  • The humorously-titled Deadtime Stories, which followed the Goosebumps formula.
  • The earlier Harry Potter books, as per the page quote. The later ones dispense with the "defanged" aspect altogether.
  • Deltora Quest, despite its Medieval European Fantasy setting, eschewed a lot of the standard fantasy races and monsters in favour of a much stranger Dark Fantasy world, featuring:
  • The "De Griezelbus" series by the Dutch author Paul van Loon are a perfect example of this. Almost every installment deals with a group of kids who are forced to listen to the stories of the werewolf, and later vampire/undead writer P. Onnoval, with a climax at the end of each book. The stories are a combination of horror clichés like vampires, werewolves, etc. and a great deal of suspense and most stories leave the end open, leaving you to wonder what happened.
  • The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, along with its sequels, is about a boy who hears rumors that a certain teacher or school staff is a monster who terrorizes children in a nasty yet Bloodlessly childish and twisted hilarious manner. In the end, it is revealed that the rumors are false and the teacher is fun and child-loving. Black Lagoon Adventures, a chapter book series, does keep the staff as actual monsters, but they don't do anything scary (and no one minds them) and the conflicts presented are Real Life everyday problems a child would face.
  • The Bailey School Kids features a quartet of schoolchildren who constantly run into horror-movie monsters who want nothing more than to... teach and/or coach sports? Of course, the entire premise is Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, so the people they run into could be just plain old weird, rather than out-and-out paranormal.
  • Roald Dahl featured Defanged Horrors in a lot of his children's stories, but The Witches - a story about a young boy and his grandmother taking on a conspiracy of child-murdering Wicked Witches - may be his only book to take the full plunge into this genre.
  • All over the place in the children's book series Bat Pat and its animated adaptation.
  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels, although the illustrations were unsettling enough to cause a lot of controversy at the time, with detractors arguing that they were too scary for kids. Even some adults find the original artwork horrifying. A later rerelease replaced them with much tamer illustrations, which actually earned some backlash from fans of the books, who liked the original, creepier pictures. While the stories themselves are mostly pretty good (if, at times, a little familiar), it's the artwork people really remember.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Goosebumps TV adaptation.
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which uses the framing device of a group of friends telling scary stories around a campfire in order to convey stories of a similar calibre. Notably the series happens to have genuinely unsettling endings that would be right at home in a fanged horror series, most infamously one where a kid befriends the creature living in the basement by feeding it a bully and agrees to keep feeding it, starting with his own sister, in exchange for whatever he wants.
  • Another literal example, but also a parody: the Monty Python's Flying Circus episode "You're No Fun Anymore" features various uses of the title phrase. One of these is a parody of Hammer Horror films, with Count Dracula (played by Graham Chapman) looming menacingly over a sleeping woman. He goes in for a bite...and his fangs fall out. The woman wakes up, looks at him, and says, "You're no fun anymore."
  • Space (the Canadian equivalent of the Sci-fi channel) used to have short segments they'd play between shows to fill up their Canadian content requirements. One of the segments was a Blair Witch style 'recovered footage' short story, where we'd watch regular home movies that invariably took a turn for the strange. These where all done without explicitly showing anything evil, for instance, the family who are driving along only to be knocked out and awaken in a vast, empty, rock-strewn wasteland. The second was far scarier and was the tale of a crypt in the middle of a lost-graveyard containing... something. We aren't shown what it is, as our cameraman refuses to go down. But needless to say, whatever it is, it starts haunting him, and that Tome of Eldritch Lore his friend recovered before 'disappearing' isn't helping matters.
  • Doctor Who is a strange example of this. On the one hand, it's a show filled with cheesy CGI and a handful of mild jump scares. On the other hand, some of the villains can be genuinely scary even to adults.
    • The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances two-parter takes a fairly traditional zombie movie plot and alters it so there's no blood and no deaths. And it's possibly the creepiest bit of programming ever to be aired on daytime television.
    • Blink gives it a run for its money; it's terrifying, considering there are almost no special effects and only two character deaths, both of which are peaceful, non-violent, and off-screen. In it, the villains are angel statues which move only when they're not being observed. So long as you're looking at them, you're safe - unless, of course, you blink...
    • The Silence and the Vashta Nerada are also both disturbing. The Silence combine a fairly unsettling costume with a very creative premise (you forget about them the minute you look away) and the Vashta Nerada are a swarm of living shadows who eat victims alive in a split second. In fact, any episode written by Steven Moffat during Russell T. Davies' tenure as showrunner will probably have an original and terrifying villain.
  • The Haunting Hour
  • Wishbone's adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities made the guillotine a menacing specter using only cabbages.
  • House of Anubis

    Pinball 
  • Despite the name, Gottlieb's Haunted House has no truly frightening aspects, and the horrors are downplayed to a family-friendly level.

    Theme Parks 
  • The Haunted Mansion at Disney Theme Parks has always strived for just the right balance of fun and scary. This has resulted in more than a few redesigns and revisions to account for changing times, and different versions of the ride across the parks also have to account for different cultural sensibilities, too. Hence, the version in Paris, Phantom Manor, is Darker and Edgier than the others, while the Hong Kong Mystic Manor is Lighter and Softer.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean plays in a similar manner, starting off in a dark bayou and being taken down a waterfall into a cove full of skeletons. The child fears are tossed aside when Yo Ho! (A Pirate's Life For Me) kicks in.

    Video Games 
  • Banjo-Kazooie features a witch who wants to steal the beauty of the hero's sister as the main antagonist. Her lair, filled with things like cobwebs, cauldrons, and goblins, comprises the main section of the game. This trope is especially in play in Mad Monster Mansion.
  • Snowboard Kids 2 features a course called Haunted House.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
    • The entire series has places with ghosts (especially spherical ones called Boos). Most of these are in haunted houses with suitably creepy music, but there are also places such as a haunted forest, a sewer system, and at least two sunken ships. Bowser is also known to reside in a gothic castle at the end of most games.
    • Luigi's Mansion revolves around this trope from beginning to end.
  • Hollow Knight: A game with a story about a Hate Plague that's consuming a kingdom, with all sorts of terrifying monsters lurking in ancient caves, and horrifyingly amoral villains. The game also stars a cute bug as The Hero, and there are a lot of friendly characters that not only are concerned about their well-being but actually go to great lengths to help you and can have their kindness returned to them. Oh, and the Power of Friendship wins in the end. Unless, of course, you go for the DLC ending, in which you win by becoming an Eldritch Abomination.
  • Pokémon: Certain Pokédex entries in the series (especially about Ghost Pokémon) are this trope. For example, Gengar likes to imitate people's shadows under a full moon, and then laugh at their fright, Banette was a doll who seeks revenge on the child who disowned it, Dusclops traps anyone who looks into its eye into a void, and so on. Of course, none of this actually happens in-game. Some of it averts this, however, such as Hypno being a prime example of Adult Fear. Usually, the Pokédex is considered a prime source of nightmare fuel.
  • Sonic Heroes: The Hang Castle and Mystic Mansion zones.
  • JumpStart Adventures 4th Grade: Haunted Island is this trope of the Survival Horror genre. The gist of the game is you are a 4th grader who is alone on a haunted island trying to rescue the rest of their class from a witch who has turned them into monsters. Of course, everything is trying to scare you on the island - Fortunately, you can't actually die, but a lot of kids who played the game were quite scared by its atmosphere.
  • Star Wars Droidworks went this route, despite not being outright labeled as such. After the training missions are finished, you get to apply what you learned in several new missions, but this time the Empire's assassin droids are running around, and they will hunt you down unless you manage to outwit them. These droids have a fairly dumb AI, contrasting their chilling taunts, but the droid you build can't be equipped with any kind of shielding or weapons, let alone game-saving. What caught many kids off guard is that despite numerous hintings of the droids' presence in the missions, it's never stated that they're actually there until you see one face-to-face.
  • Spooky's Jump Scare Mansion embraces this from the word go: the titular ghost greets you at the door looking like something out of Adventure Time, and the titular jump scares are nothing more than harmless and frankly adorable cardboard popouts of skeletons, ghosts, and the like. After the fiftieth room, this rapidly gets subverted, with genuinely scary monsters and Apocalyptic Logs of the last people to be here.
  • The "Gamer" minigame from Game and Wario is Five Nights at Freddy's for kids. You play as 9-volt as he tries to game past his bedtime, but he has to watch for his mother, who you must watch on the TV by paying attention to various cues and not being faked out by false cues. Said mother becomes a creepy gray shadow with flashlight eyes, much of the cues involve suspenseful "Psycho" Strings, and she can invade 9-volt's room with this playing.

    Web Original 
  • BIONICLE web serials. Especially Tuyet's death.
  • Primarygames.com used to have a game called “Attack of the Mutant Artificial Christmas Trees”. In it, you threw snowballs at the trees to defeat them. If you hit the elf, one of your Christmas lights would burn out. The game ended when all the lights burnt out. The evil trees had menacing faces and robotic arms, and said things like “Christmas is cancelled” and “bah humbug” in creepy deep voices, along with growling noises. The main menu featured the elf promoting the use of real trees rather than artificial ones: “Nothing says Christmas more than a real tree”.
    • Also on Primarygames was a Tetris-style game called “Shrunken Heads”. The heads had to be matched according to both their color and eyes in order to progress. While the heads looked somewhat adorable, they made gross gagging and grunting noises when they were dropped.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender has lots of very well done instances of kiddy horror.
    • The poster boy for Defanged Horrors would certainly be Koh the Facestealer, a massive centipede demon that steals faces. The faceless monkey in front of his lair is a genuine scare, but it's his voice and his words which are genuinely spine chilling.
    • The keeper of the library in the desert is just a very large owl, that's actually very polite and friendly. But it's clearly not a mere mortal creature and it's made very clear that one should not abuse its trust. And when it eventually gets angry, things turn really scary.
    • The Blood Red Moon during the season 1 finale.
    • Even though it's clearly on the side of the good guys, the Ocean Spirit single-handedly (with Aang as a medium) destroying the entire Fire Nation Fleet and its troops, is really a terrible sight to behold. The fact that he's terribly pissed after the Moon Spirit is killed by Zhao helps a lot to drive the hammer home.
    • There's no blood or corpses on screen the entire time, but it's explicitly mentioned many times how relatives died in battle or were executed by soldiers, and it's shown how soldiers abuse helpless farmers or how benders are put to forced labor in concentration camps. There's even a full-scale genocide and open discussions about assassinating the Big Bad. If there's a way to expose eight years old responsibly to these topics, Avatar probably comes closer to it than anything else.
    • The scene with Hama when she talks about bloodbending with such pride and pleasure also counts.
    • The fate of, uh, Zuko's face in "The Storm" is a good use of three different kinds of discretion shot to get the point across while still being (sort of) family-friendly. As the Discretion Shot summary states, things can be a lot more horrifying to the fertile imagination if you don't show it.
    • The creepy smile of Jo Dee.
  • Aaahh!!! Real Monsters is a series about, well, monsters that scare humans. All of their "scare scenes" are very effective in showing how the monsters scare humans without scaring the audience in the process, mostly through giving said monsters individual personalities and motives (they're only doing it to complete school, and stay alive).
  • Teen Titans did this on occasion, such as when Raven pulled Dr. Light into some sort of dark vortex within her cloak, and when he came out he was curled up in the fetal position muttering, "S-so cold. Make it stop. Please make it stop." The episode "Haunted" also ranks up there as one of the creepiest pieces of Western Animation targeted towards kids. They took Slade, a villain who's already creepy in his own right, and left the audience constantly unsure whether he was Back from the Dead and torturing Robin, or whether Robin had gone insane and was mutilating himself. The truth is somewhere in between.
  • While not borderline scary (at least for the older folks), Danny entering the Ghost Zone for the first time in Danny Phantom was deliberately given an atmospheric, spooky, and naturally ghoulish feel to it; they were really emphasizing just how vastly different this world is compared to Earth. Of course, it's always a little disturbing when numerous skeletons pop out of graves and try to latch onto you.
  • This trope is the whole point of Scooby-Doo. Especially the movies Zombie Island and Witch's Ghost, where the monsters the main characters confront are real, instead of disguised human criminals.
    • In “Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf”, Dracula needs a werewolf for his car race. He turns Shaggy into one and promises Shaggy, Scooby, Scrappy, and Googie their freedom if they win. Of course, the monsters don’t play fair, and Dracula’s wife Vanna is too oblivious to really be of help.
    • Miss Grimwood, the monster kids, and their parents in “Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School” are kind enough. Revolta and Creeper, however, not so much. Plus the Well-Dweller who Scrappy plays ball with looks rather unsettling.
      • Shaggy’s evil mirror clone is definitely NOT de-fanged. Especially when he traps the real Shaggy in the mirror and the girls had been hypnotized by Revolta, with Elsa revealing Revolta’s plan to turn the girls evil permanently at midnight. It’s up to Scrappy to save Shaggy (in a rather comical way).
  • The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.
  • Gravity Falls, though like Courage (mentioned below) it will often take its Surreal Horror elements much further than desired.
  • Courage the Cowardly Dog, which often turned the Surreal Horror up a bit too much, and we all learned the hard way that you can't unsee this stuff...
  • Some episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic including "Stare Master" and "Lesson Zero" show things like petrification and nervous breakdowns, respectively. It got ratcheted up considerably later seasons, albeit not without crossing the line, most notably with the graphic on-screen death of an antagonist.
  • While The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy was generally more of a wacky Black Comedy than an actual horror show, it was never afraid to go for genuine scares, particularly in the Grim & Evil era. For example, "Son of Nergal" is an atmospheric The Thing (1982) homage where most of the child characters are slowly killed off, with their frozen corpses shown prominently.

    Real Life 
  • In Japan, a popular children's game is kimodameshi, where kids have to accomplish some minor task in a creepy yet safe environment. Adult guardians will be lurking about to make things interesting for the participating children. Essentially this is a less malign version of the American haunted-house tradition; there are no maniacs with chainsaws in a kimodameshi, but there are mysterious lights and noises, and ghosts wearing white shirts splattered with red ink. Their imagination does the rest.
  • Deemed necessary by G. K. Chesterton:
    "Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."

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