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Science says Disney films have a dark psychological side effect

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Kayleigh Dray
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It’s a fact well established that everyone who has ever existed has a favourite Disney film (it’s true, we checked with everyone).

But, whether you’re a fan of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Groove, Frozen, Hercules or something else entirely, you’ll no doubt have noticed that all Disney films share a recurring theme. And no, we’re not talking about that “happy ever after” vibe.

We’re talking about, y’know, death. The theme of death. Cheery, huh?



A new study published in OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying explores the way in which death is portrayed in children's films, and found that characters are more than twice as likely to die in films for young viewers than in films aimed at adults.

And, let’s face it, they aren’t wrong: remember when Mufasa was hurled from that cliff in The Lion King? Mother Gothel plummeting from her tower in Tangled? Bambi’s mum being shot by a hunter? Ray being stamped to death by a voodoo witch doctor in The Princess and the Frog? Claude Frollo being dropped from the rooftops of Notre Dame by a demon-eyed gargoyle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Literally anyone else that Walt Disney decided to bump off in a strange and unusual way?

Like we say, death. Lots of death. But, somewhat surprisingly, being exposed to all this bloodshed as a child actually has a beneficial psychological side effect.

via GIPHY

As study leader Professor Kelly Tenzek explains: “These films can be used as conversation starters for difficult and what are oftentimes taboo topics like death and dying.

“These are important conversations to have with children, but waiting until the end of life is way too late and can lead to a poor end-of-life experience.”



Tenzek goes on to add that the deaths in Disney films can actually help children relate to death – and, perhaps more importantly, to process their feelings of grief in a healthy way.

“We believe Disney and Pixar films are popular and accessible for children and adults so a difficult conversation can begin in a less threatening way earlier in life,” she said.

It’s a good idea, then, for adults to use Disney films as an opportunity to discuss death with their children as they get older.

“We acknowledge a child's psychological development is important when considering these discussions,” says Tenzek. “It's not our intent to have these conversations with a three-year-old, but as children mature, then the films fit naturally into that growth.”

It’s also worth remembering that, while Disney deals in a plethora of death scenes, studio bosses have a preferred “kill method” when it comes to the Gastons, Captain Hooks and Wicked Queens of the world: they all fall down.

Why? Because having a villain fall to their death excuses the hero from having to kill them with their own bare hands.

This vindicates the good guy or gal entirely. Firstly, it makes sure they're not guilty of first degree murder (avoiding any complicated, non-family-film-friendly paperwork, arrests or trials) and secondly, it means that they’re still strong hero material – impressionable young viewers are never left with the impression that murder is the answer.

After all, everyone is subject to gravity. And it’s nobody’s fault if gravity happens to do the hero’s job for them now is it?

Images: Rex Features

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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