Fright and Suspense in Children’s Theater

I’m currently working on an original project for a children’s theater group and the question keeps coming up in my mind: How frightening can a scene be when creating for children’s theater.

Many times while talking with the seedy underbelly of society (yes, I am referring to thespians, or as Stephen Dietz says in his Dracula; “that theater crowd”), the subject will come up of our favorite scenes we remember as a child. And in that conversation eventually it will come to the scenes that frightened us the most.

I used to think this was only MY experience, that I was frightened out of my wits by things that now seem borderline comical – but I have been enlightened that my experience has been common for tens of thousands of others as well.

A LIST OF SCENES FROM CHILDRENS STORIES THAT FRIGHTENED ME AS A CHILD

  • Wizard of Oz – Anytime the Wicked Witch of the West shows up – especially the first scene when she meets Dorothy, and ESPECIALLY when she sends her flying monkeys out. I think I was five years old when I watched this for the first time (I still heckle my Mother for the fact that she would not come sit with me and protect me from the witch!)
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – When that evil long nosed man in black tricks the two children into entering his candy wagon, which turns into a cage once they enter and they are rushed off to captivity.
  • In The Hall of the Mountain King – In first grade I saw a video of Grieg’s “In The Hall of the Mountain King” (which you might not know by the name, but would certainly know it once you heard it) – but they had a chorus singing the melody to “Witches in the Pumpkin Patch” and the witches danced around in a field. Very creepy. I think the adults who made it thought it was supposed to be cute – well, not to this first grader.
  • Pumpkin Head – Just the thought of Pumpkin Head brings a shiver down my spine to this day.
  • Mother Goose – We sang Mother Goose songs as kids and never thought a thing about it. It was great fun. Then one day you make the mistake of actually reading the words – EEGADS! It’s hideous.
  • A Christmas Carol – The Ghost of Christmas Future. In ANY version of the Dicken’s tale I would have to hide behind something and peek out every ten seconds or so.
  • Pinnochio – The whale didn’t scare me, but when Pinocchio gets donkey ears and all the kids turn to donkeys, then they start breying – THAT freaks me out. As a kid you don’t know it’s going to be better, you just know he’s a donkey. Even as a kid, imagining the biological process of turning into a donkey made me almost faint. Do your organs turn inside out? Yuck.
  • Snow White – When the Queen talks to the mirror, that mirror guy was very scary. When Snow White takes the apple and you’re yelling at the screen “No, don’t!” – but she does it anyway (every single time I watched it, which is upsetting she never learned). Then the henchmen take Snow White to the woods to cut out her heart? They don’t actually do it, but the Queen thinks they did and she’s ok with that. DOUBLE YUCK!
  • Fantasia – The whole thing.
  • Land of the Lost – Those darn Sleestak. They move so slow and make that creepy hissing sound, but what happens if they actually catch you? I think they put you in a web or something.
  • H.R. Pufnstuf – The opening scene before the show starts, when the happy pretty little boat turns black and scary. Then Witchie Poo was always scary. I had lots of nightmares as a kid that starred Witchie Poo – when she finally caught me I would wake up and not move for like ten minutes.
  • Sesame Street – Snuffleupagus, Snufflupugus, Snuffulupagus (different spellings). This goes under the “suspense” category. It was SO aggravating as a kid that only Big Bird could see Snufflupugus. I yelled at the screen really loud to, but to no avail.
  • The Ghost and Mr. Chicken – As a kid the organ playing in the mansion was frightening. And then to find out there was blood on the keys. Now when I watch this movie it’s very funny, but as a kid it was like going into a haunted house (which it was).
  • Fiddler on the Roof – The scene where the grandmother rises from the grave, sings a VERY scary song in that screechy spooky voice, then chases Tevya through the graveyard. I’m including it even though it’s not children’s theater, because that’s my #1 pick for a creepy scene.
  • That’s all I can think of right now. You might recognize some of these yourself and are might be saying “But that was FUNNY, he was scared of that?”

    I am very scared of heights, so I love going on rides that are very tall. I get white knuckles and can’t even speak while waiting for the ride to start. An example is the Tower of Terror at Disneyland’s California Adventure.

    “But”, you say, “I thought you said you were afraid of heights, so you mean you DON’T like going on tall rides.” No. well…I mean I don’t like it, but I DO go on them intentionally because it’s such a rush. To someone who’s not afraid of heights it’s just another ride, but to someone like me it’s something I fret about ALL DAY while at the park – and when it’s over, what a great feeling!

    There’s an exhiliration to these things once they are over. A feeling of accomplishment – you dared to do something and came out ok.

    And yes, I was the kid in swim class you laughed at because he was the last to jump off the diving board. (I’m still surprised I’m alive after that.)

    In children’s theater if there’s a happy ending to a suspenseful scene, should you let the audience know right away or leave them hanging? Is it mean to leave them hanging or part of the adrenalin ride? Fun question.

    You can fill a children’s presentation with morales and monologues on what is to be learned, but for me it’s the adrenalin moments that I remember. Looking at a mountain peak and saying “Yes, I’ve been there.” That’s a great feeling for a child.

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