Deaths—many of them gruesome—have played a prominent role in children’s stories for centuries. Psychologists have long debated whether these depictions are potentially traumatic for young readers and viewers, or whether they help youngsters work through their own fears, as Bruno Bettelheim famously argued in The Uses of Enchantment.
So how many fatalities can be found in the favorite medium of today’s tots: animated films? New research in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) finds the answer is: a lot.
“Rather than being the innocuous form of entertainment they are assumed to be,” writes a research team led by Ian Colman, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, “children’s animated films are rife with on-screen death and murder.”
How rife? To find out, the researchers looked at the 45 such movies with the highest box-office revenues (indexed for inflation). The oldest of these was 1937’s Snow White; the most recent, 2013’s Frozen. They compared each of these films with the two highest-grossing film dramas of the year they were released.
"Children’s animated films, rather than being innocuous alternatives to the gore and carnage typical of American films, are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem."
The researchers tracked “the elapsed time of the film at which the first on-screen death of an important character occurred,” and also noted whether the death was a murder.
They found "the risk of death of important characters was higher in children's animated films than dramatic films for the same year." So, they add, was the risk of a character being murdered.
Specifically, the main characters in the top-grossing cartoons were 2.5 times as likely to die as their counterparts in adult-themed dramas. (It’s worth noting here that the adult films used as comparisons were “dramas,” as defined by the Internet Movie Database. They were not action or adventure films, which presumably contained far higher body counts.)
“Children’s animated films, rather than being innocuous alternatives to the gore and carnage typical of American films, are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem,” the researchers conclude. They add that this has been true since at least the 1930s, “when Snow White’s stepmother, the evil queen, was struck by lightning, forced off a cliff, and crushed by a boulder while being chased by seven vengeful dwarves.”
As that wording suggests, the paper is written in a rather alarmist tone, at least by research-study standards. Colman and his colleagues are clearly troubled by their findings.
But, buried in the middle of a long paragraph, they concede that “Effects of exposure to animated depictions of death have not been studied.” Unlike violent video game play, which has been examined extensively, there’s no evidence of psychological harm caused by, say, the death of Bambi’s mother.
That doesn’t stop the researchers, however, from noting that the “death of a parent can be a particularly difficult theme for children to face,” and adding that “Repeatedly facing this fear on screen could be particularly traumatic for children, especially if they are unprepared.”
It's also possible that such fears are rolling around in children’s minds anyway, and seeing the difficult subject dealt with in films that ultimately have happy endings provides welcome reassurance. We’ll need research to find out.
Colman and his colleagues concede that films have the potential to help kids come to terms with death. They specifically point to The Lion King, “which portrays the protagonist experiencing a complex grieving process, and eventually arriving at a healthy acceptance of his father’s death, even forgiving his father’s murderer.”
Of course, dealing with that sort of dark subject matter requires a heart-to-heart, parent-child talk. In an era when the DVD player has become a makeshift babysitter, it’s worth reminding parents that many animated films contain plot twists that children may find disturbing and want—or need—to discuss.
The reality of death isn’t something you want to hide from children, but it’s not something they should be expected to process on their own.