Monday, January 8, 2018

The Slow (Horrifying) Death of Innocence

Note the evolution of Pennywise, from the old film...
I was awakened, late in the night, by my son, who is thirteen. As his shadowed form stood over me, he was actually wringing his hands. He has had that habit since he was a baby, whenever he was nervous about something.

When I asked what was wrong, he told me he had just had an awful ("like, a really awful") nightmare. When I asked him what happened in the dream, he said it was "just random scary stuff." I gave him the usual unhelpful adult advice -- read a book; think pleasant thoughts, etc. A pat on the shoulder and a hug and he went back to bed.

A few minutes later, he was back, wringing his hands again, and he told me the contents of the dream. I won't recount them, for the sake of his privacy, but it was truly an awful dream. It gave me chills when he was telling me.

I thought about the dream for a while. It took me until he next day to realize what bothered me so much about it: it was the kind of nightmare I never would have had as a thirteen-year-old, because I had never been exposed to the level of intensity that was necessary to generate it. Because, back then I was a child, we still protected (in fact, could protect) our kids from things for which they may not have been ready.

I know what generated the dream: It was a YouTube clip my son showed me (earlier that night) from the movie It. In the clip, the clown guy, Pennywise (I haven't see the movie nor read the book), is talking to a boy by the sewer and he pulls in the boy's arm in and sinks his flayed and super-animalistic teeth into it, biting the arm off at the elbow. The boy crawls away as blood runs into the rainwater that is rushing by in the street and, then, the clown pulls the boy into the sewer to his doom.

My son found this on YouTube. If someone is naked in a YouTube clip, the warning about being eighteen pops up or the video is removed. No warning for this one. "God forbid," says the lingering ghost of out Puritan continental roots, "a kid see a pair of breasts or a rear-end, but, intense scenes of bloody violence? No biggie..."

That said, my kid can find anything anytime: videos of any kind of deviant, violent, sexist or angry sexuality are just waiting to be discovered as are images, videos and texts filled with hate and prejudice and general stupidity. No protection; no walls; no oversight. the new film.  And available to any six-year-old
who searches Google for "clowns."
Like every parent, my only recourse is to teach philosophies about morality and appropriateness and to monitor use the best I can. But, before this easy access to things both wonderful and horrifying existed, things were much easier for parents. To see a film that was rated R, before VCRs and "pay TV," a kid needed to sneak into a theater, which was decidedly harder than clicking a link. Porn? Maybe an uncle had Playboy hidden in the bathroom; maybe your friend found a tape and you watched it at a sleepover. But you didn't have sleepovers every night, twenty-four hours a day, filled with wall-to wall porn. And, maybe, you never saw porn...either ever or until you were a young adult.

This is not meant to be a "golden-age" piece. Some things "back then" were handled better. Some things were not. Some things were better more as a result of accidental circumstance than because of a "more caring" general society. I just know that, in the circumstance of growing up in the late seventies and eighties, I was allowed to be innocent a lot longer. (However, I will not leave this paragraph without noting that, in the interest of making things easy and profitable, virtually no consideration is being made, today, about what is "out there" and at our children's fingertips. Maybe something negligent about our society that was always there is just oozing out more readily now.)

The fodder for the kind of dream my son had the other night was not in my proverbial wheelhouse. I was chased by mysterious shadows and taunted by pale faces of Disneyesque witches. I wound up in school in my underwear and I woke up palpitating and sweating, having dreamed the death of a loved-one...but images of intense gore and sentiments of sadism and naked evil were not an ingredients in my mental stew.

Let's not be too happy about the availability of information and the freedom of unfettered expression the present age gives us. In so many ways, it is the slow (horrifying) death of youthful innocence.

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