While adults might pay for a cinema ticket to endure strong, bloody, gory horror of films such as Saw and Hostel, they aren’t the only audience for horror at the cinema. Films aimed at children have their fair share of scary moments, and always have. So how does the BBFC treat horror aimed at children?

In the BBFC Guidelines to the junior categories it notes that at PG there might be some scary moments, and it is worth remembering the ‘rollercoaster’ effect of some famous PG level films like Jurassic Park or Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Children’s film Coraline arrived at the BBFC with a PG category request. It was based on the popular, award-winning, children’s book by Neil Gaiman and is a stop-motion animated film in a similar style to The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.

It tells of Coraline, a feisty young girl whose busy parents often leave her on her own. One day, whilst exploring her new house, she finds a door that takes her to another world, an alternative universe where she lives with her ‘Other Mother’ and ‘Other Father’. These ‘Other’ parents seem perfect – they cook delicious food and lavish attention on ‘their’ daughter, and yet they are also slightly sinister with their buttons for eyes and desire to keep Coraline with them.

Examiners noted a general air of creepiness or spookiness running through the film. The eeriness starts in the opening credits which show close-up images of a raggedy doll being taken apart with medical precision and continues with the first sight of the ‘Other Mother’ and her button eyes. They also noted that as the film progresses the slight creepiness becomes increasingly menacing. Coraline is asked to consider replacing her own eyes with buttons so she can stay with the ‘Other Mother’ forever and when she refuses the ‘Other Mother’ reveals her true self, the Beldam, a huge spider-like creature. As Coraline tries to escape, everything becomes scary and dark – the garden full of snapping plants, her friendly Circus Master revealed to be a bundle of clothes filled with rats.  

At PG the BBFC Guidelines allow some element of ‘horror’ provided it meets the criteria that ‘frightening sequences’ are not ‘prolonged or intense’. Recently updated BBFC Guidelines go into even more detail about scary moments in children’s films in the ‘Main Issues’ section:

“Many children enjoy the excitement of scary sequences, but, where films are targeted at a younger audience, classification decisions will take into account such factors as the frequency, length and detail of scary scenes as well as horror effects, including music and sound, and whether there is a swift and reassuring outcome.”

Despite the scariness, the film features a number of ‘mitigating factors’ – elements which lessen the intensity of the more frightening scenes. These included moments of comedy and fun like silly songs, performances by dancing mice and the strange behaviour of the amusing and colourful neighbours. Additionally, a lot of emphasis is placed on the reassuring happy ending.

The characterisation of Coraline also offered a strong argument for placing the work at PG. Coraline is shown to be a resourceful, courageous girl who, although she may occasionally be scared, always manages to find a way out of a tricky situation and eventually succeeds in not only defeating the ‘Other Mother’ but also saves her own parents and returns home safely. The biggest consideration, perhaps, was the fact that in Coraline some of the scares come from people or places that should feel safe to children, for example their homes and parents. This was one of the reasons the examiners did not feel a U category would be suitable.

At PG the BBFC Guidelines also state that ‘fantasy settings may be a mitigating factor’ and Coraline certainly fits into the category of a fantasy film. The examiners recognised that the film’s central idea of a parallel world would be a familiar idea for a child audience well used to similar plot devices in fairy tales. The film’s fantastical elements: the talking cats, performing mice, and mothers with buttons for eyes, plus the fact that Coraline features animated models rather than human actors, all make it very clear that Coraline’s world is very different from the real world of the audience.

As well as the scary moments, examiners also noticed that there was one use of mild language as Coraline’s mother describes some rat droppings as ‘rat crap’ and a scene in which the overweight actress Miss Spink’s appears as a character from a painting wearing just a mermaid’s tail and some glittery stickers on her breasts.

A film with a PG classification is described by the BBFC as offering ‘General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children. Unaccompanied children of any age may watch. A PG film should not disturb a child aged around eight or older. However, parents are advised to consider whether the content may upset younger or more sensitive children.’

Bearing this in mind the BBFCinsight (the source of information about the film’s content which is displayed either on posters or the BBFC website) offered enough detail to warn parents about elements that might scare more sensitive young viewers.

The BBFCinsight stated the film ‘Contains mild threat and scary scenes and one use of mild language’ while the extended version went into more detail. The full BBFCinsight can be found as part of the film listing.

Not all parents agreed with the PG classification for Coraline, however, and some wrote to the BBFC to complain that their children had been scared by the film - some of them to the point of having to leave the cinema. Everyone who wrote in received a reply explaining all the reasons for the PG classification as the BBFC has a responsibility to take into account public opinions on the classification of films.

Coraline was also released in a 3D version, and Examiners watched and classified this too, as sometimes the format of a film may change the viewing experience. In the case of Coraline, both versions were given a PG classification.