Killing Monsters

Our Children's Need For Fantasy, Heroism, and Make-Believe Violence


By Gerard Jones

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Children choose their heroes more carefully than we think. From Pokemon to the rapper Eminem, pop-culture icons are not simply commercial pied pipers who practice mass hypnosis on our youth. Indeed, argues the author of this lively and persuasive paean to the power of popular culture, even violent and trashy entertainment gives children something they need, something that can help both boys and girls develop in a healthy way. Drawing on a wealth of true stories, many gleaned from the fascinating workshops he conducts, and basing his claims on extensive research, including interviews with psychologists and educators, Gerard Jones explains why validating our children’s fantasies teaches them to trust their own emotions, helps them build stronger selves, leaves them less at the mercy of the pop-culture industry, and strengthens parent-child bonds. Jones has written for the Spider-Man, Superman, and X-Men comic books and created the Haunted Man series for the Web. He has also explored the cultural meanings of comic books and sitcoms in two well-received books. In Killing Monsters he presents a fresh look at children’s fantasies, the entertainment industry, and violence in the modern imagination. This reassuring book, as entertaining as it is provocative, offers all of us-parents, teachers, policymakers, media critics-new ways to understand the challenges and rewards of explosive material. News From Killing Monsters: Packing a toy gun can be good for your son-or daughter. Contrary to public opinion, research shows that make-believe violence actually helps kids cope with fears. Explosive entertainment should be a family affair. Scary TV shows can have a bad effect when children have no chance to discuss them openly with adults. It’s crucial to trust kids’ desires. What excites them is usually a sign of what they need emotionally. Violent fantasy is one of the best ways for kids to deal with the violence they see in real life.


Killing Monsters

Also by Gerard Jones

Honey, I’m Home
The Comic Book Heroes
(with Will Jacobs)
The Beaver Papers (with Will Jacobs)

Killing Monsters

Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence

Gerard Jones
Foreword by Dr. Lynn Ponton, M.D.

To my son,
Nicholas Jones,
hoping to give you a slightly saner world.


Jonathan, a ten year-old boy clutching his favorite stuffed animal, a three-legged giraffe, cracks a toothless smile as he waves good-bye. He has just spent his afternoon killing people. During our hour together he has thrown hundreds of animals and soldiers from the upper tower of my toy castle, crashed a flying dragon so hard into its sturdy stone wall that a visible crack has appeared, and created a raging fire that has slaughtered all the people who were trying to save the others. He has said very little during this intense hour, only once breaking his silence when he whispered, “It’s a killing world,” as a mother tried to save her newborn baby from the growing flames. This week, Jonathan has been only one of several children who blew up buildings, fired up blazes, and crashed airplanes. Jonathan’s therapy session with me, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, has taken place only three days after September 11, 2001.

Several months before, Jonathan had played violent games obsessively. His dad had tried to limit the activity, until I discovered that Jonathan was trying to cope with a bully at school. As he worked through that conflict, his violent play decreased. Then, after the 11th, it increased again dramatically. Jonathan told me that he was pretty scared after the terrorist activities. In fact, the only time that he wasn’t scared was when he was playing scary games–then he felt okay.

Killing games gave Jonathan control over events where he and others felt none and, perhaps even more important, they gave him control over his own feelings. With these games Jonathan no longer felt as helpless. He was not as scared of others or of his own feelings.

As a psychiatrist, I see on a daily basis that frightening and violent ideas, images, and fantasies are vital parts of children’s minds. The images of September 11th fueled Jonathan’s fantasies and spurred his play, but they also helped him understand what had just happened in the world. Playing with violent images frightened but also soothed him, helping him feel strong enough to handle what had happened.

Killing games have much to tell us about the worlds of children and teenagers. It is important that we try to listen. Gerard Jones’s book, Killing Monsters, helps us do just that. Listen. And it is not easy to listen to the violent stories that fill the lives of our children. It is far easier to pretend that these themes either don’t exist or should be completely eliminated.

What role do violent themes and entertainment play in children’s lives? What value do they have? In this powerful and important book, Jones helps us not only to listen but to ask the right questions. As a researcher of popular culture, a former comic book writer, a game maker, and equally important, a parent, he has listened to children and teens who love scary games and movies. He has run storytelling workshops with girls who idolize Buffy the Vampire Slayer and boys who play Doom. In Killing Monsters, he helps us discover the power and the magic that our children see in violent superheroes. He also helps us ask questions about the risks, the real risks. When do these “games” make our children more violent? Which children are at risk?

And–most important–what, if anything, can and should be done about that risk?

Gerard Jones’s reassuring book offers all of us–parents, teachers, policymakers, and media critics–new ways to understand the challenges and rewards of fantasy violence in the modern imagination.

Lynn Ponton, M.D.,
Author of The Romance of Risk:
Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do


I’ve been astonished and gratified at the eagerness of so many people within the educational, medical, psychological, entertainment, and parental communities to help me make this book a reality. Each one of those experiences has reminded me of how people of the most diverse and divided opinions can be brought together by passion for children, concern for the future, and the simple joy of trying to understand how people work–and each one has reminded me of how a little empathy and honesty can knock down the greatest rhetorical and emotional barriers.

Among those who gave their time to increase my understanding were Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the Claremont Universities, Dr. William Damon of Stanford University, Dr. Lenore Terr of the University of California–San Francisco, Dr. Ralph DiClementi of Emory University, Dr. Donald F. Roberts of Stanford University, Dr. Stuart Fischoff of California State University–Los Angeles, Dr. Jib Fowles of the University of Houston, Dr. Edwin H. Cook of the University of Chicago, Dr. Donna Mitroff of ABC Family, Dr. Helen Smith of ViolentKids. com, Dr. Roben Torosyan of New School University, and Dr. Rachel Lauer, the late chief psychologist of the New York City Schools.

Dr. Lynn Ponton of the University of California–San Francisco, Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner of New York University and Dr. Nancy Marks were exceptionally generous in reading and critiquing chapters, as well as in sharing insights from their work and family lives. Dr. Melanie Moore gave me much help in the book’s earliest stages. I’m also very grateful to the many clinical psychologists who shared with me their hard-viii won understandings of children, adolescents, and adults, particularly Diane Stern, Dr. Jonathon Gray, Christa Donaldson, Dr. Phyllis Shul-man, Dr. Valerie Hearn, Ilene Wolf, Susan Frankel, and Eric Stein; and to the many concerned parents who’ve brought me their experiences and insights, especially Heidi Anderson, Leslie Fetchen, Martha Thomases, Jean Blanc, Joe Filice, Susan Stapczynski, and Gina Weinberg. Thanks to the many teachers who let me into their classrooms and talked with me about their students, with special nods to Rebecca Field, Alice Hong, and the remarkable faculty of Live Oak School; and to those who shared their early experiences with entertainment and fantasy with me, particularly Sarah Holm, Ruben Diaz, Ray Portillo, Janice Cohen, Oscar Munoz, and Mary Cotter. All the stories in this book are true, although some of my sources have asked me to change names and sometimes a biographical detail or two in the interest of privacy. Most of all, I’m grateful to the hundreds of kids and teenagers who have shared their stories, games, and fantasies with me over the past several years, both within and outside my formal workshops. Many of them asked me to use their real names; alas, out of respect to the schools, teachers, and other students I’ve had to hew to a policy of anonymity regarding the workshops. I encourage them all to continue with the creative pursuits that will get their names into print in even more gratifying ways.

Many people provided just the right story, insight, information, or encouragement at just the right moment: Michael Chabon, Mick LaSalle, Sam Hamm, Henry Selick, Dr. Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto, Dr. Craig Anderson of the University of Iowa, Dr. Henry Jenkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Jeanne Funk of the University of Toledo, Dr. James McGee of Shepard- Pratt Hospital, Dr. Thomas Brod of the University of California at Los Angeles, Marc Laidlaw of Valve Software, Lana Nichols, Will Jacobs, David Kleeman of the American Center for Children and Media, Annette Roman and Dallas Middaugh of Viz Communications, Elizabeth Thoman of the Center for Media Literacy, Dr. Hubert Jessup of MediaScope, Christopher Perrius and others from the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center, Doug Lowenstein and Carolyn Rauch of the International Digital Software Association, Anna Home, OBE, of the BBC and the Children’s Film and Television Foundation, and the many officers and supporters of the glorious CineMagic Festival in Belfast.

Jo Ann Miller has been an extraordinary editor on a book that was never easy. With her wisdom, compassion, and a firm hand, she helped shape every page of this manuscript. Jennifer Swearingen helped enormously with the perceptivity of her copyediting. Vince Beiser of Mother Jones orchestrated the book’s first public presentation. Carol Mann encouraged me to write this book from the moment the idea first tumbled from my mouth, and put great thought and work into making it real.

I must thank, most of all, the mentors of my own family. I grew up surrounded by dedicated public school teachers: my father, Russell Jones, my mother, Leslie Jones, and my big brother, Ray Jones. They all impressed upon me early the importance not only of teaching young people what we know, but also of respecting what young people know, want, and have to tell us. My mother hated even the most imaginary violence, but in the end her respect for people and their experiences always overwhelmed whatever preconceptions she held. We talked at length about this book all through her final battle with cancer. She died after reading only a few of my chapters, but her strength and compassion were with me through the end.

My son, Nicky Jones, was remarkably patient and enthusiastic about Daddy’s allconsuming project, even when it took me away from him too many times or left me preoccupied when we were together. His storytelling, playing, explaining, and drawing were my richest source of inspiration throughout the work.

No one, however, was more valuable, more essential, to me through this demanding task than Jennie Kajiko, my friend, my partner, my reality check, my first wife and my second, the finest coparent a man could ask for. Through the most painful and wonderful growth, she has been my constant companion in this exploration of the power of honesty and empathy.

Gerard Jones, February, 2002

Being Strong

My first memory is of tearing the monster’s arm off. I had crossed the sea to the hall of these warriors who were being terrorized by a nocturnal beast, boasted over mead that only I could slay it, pretended to sleep until the monster crept in to devour a warrior–and when it came to seize me I leapt up, seized its massive arm in my grip of steel, and held on as we battled through the hall, smashing the wooden walls with our fury, until at last in desperation it tore itself loose of its own limb and fled, bleeding and screaming, mortally wounded to its lair in the fens.

Quite a feat for a five-year-old.

When I was old enough to go to kindergarten, my mother went back to college to get her teaching credential. She hadn’t had a lot of high culture in her own upbringing and she made sure that I was more fortunate: she tacked prints from the Metropolitan Museum to all the walls in the house and read classic literature to me at bedtime. She tried Stevenson’s poems, Gulliver’s Travels, Chaucer’s Reynard. It all rolled off me. If I hadn’t asked her about all this decades later, I’d never have known. The only one I remembered was Beowulf, with its pagan, barbarian monster-slayer of a hero.

He was a terrible role model. He didn’t do any of the things we want our children’s heroes to teach: didn’t discuss solutions with the group, didn’t think first of the safety of others, didn’t try to catch the monster without harming it. He bragged, he bullied, he killed, and he even let his allies be devoured to further his plan. Yet, it was Beowulf I wanted to be, and Beowulf I became. I made my mom read it to me over and over, and I caught her when she tried to glide past the most gruesome parts (“The demon clutched a sleeping thane in his swift assault, tore him in pieces, bit through the bones, gulped the blood, and gobbled the flesh . . . ”). I carved scenes from his battles into my Playskool blocks with a ballpoint pen and rearranged them in every possible narrative order. Running naked from the bath across the polyester carpet I thumped my skinny chest and roared, “Foe against foe, I’ll fight the death!”

I was no warrior in real life. I was a mama’s boy. I liked to play in the house and the backyard, liked kids who were my age but not when they got too wild. The prospect of kindergarten terrified me, and so did knowing that my mom was going to be away from home much of every day. But at home, in my own world, I could tear a pillow off the bed with a “rrrrrrarrr!” and see the monster Grendel fleeing in terror.

“You were an adorable barbarian,” my mom said, helping me dig through a box of my childhood artwork. I found a yellowing pad covered with stick-figure warriors grimacing and flexing their muscles–loaf-like bubbles protruding from line-thin arms–at toothy monsters. I remembered striking that pose–and how strong I felt. Then, with a mock sigh, my mother added, “But I did so want you to be cultured.”

As it turned out, I did grow up fairly cultured–or civilized, at least. I was as cooperative, bookish, and conscientious as my parents could have wanted. But I carried that monster-slaying hero inside me the whole time. First as fantasy: Beowulf gave way to King Kong, then Batman, then James Bond. As I outgrew fantasies, he became a scholarly interest. At one point, I quit college for a series of intensive workshops and study tours with Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. By my thirties, I was building a reputation as a historian and analyst of popular culture, and among my books was The Comic Book Heroes. That book excited comic book editors enough that they invited me to try writing superhero stories myself. I did, and I turned out to be good at it. Soon I was writing for heroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, creating new heroes and helping adapt them into video games, cartoon series, and action figures, writing action screenplays for Warner Brothers and Fox. Apparently that hero was still alive in me.

Even in becoming a superhero writer, however, I consciously resisted what I saw as the crassness and violence of cheap entertainment. I downplayed fight scenes and stressed intellectual content. My comic books earned citations from parent councils and antidefamation societies. I mentored kids who wanted to write and draw comics, and I worked hard to meet my readers and learn what they were getting out of my stories. That’s what led me to a comics convention in Chicago in 1994 and to a conversation that turned my relationship with action heroes in a whole new direction.

The line of autograph seekers, mostly teenage boys, had finally moved through. I was leaning back for some shoptalk with the other writers at the table when I saw her. She looked about thirteen, bespectacled, plainly dressed, grimly shy, a girl I’d have expected to be reading an English fantasy novel or diving precociously into Jane Eyre. She was standing about thirty feet away. Staring at me.

“Can I help you?” I asked. She lurched over to me as though some invisible parent had a hand on her back.“Are you Gerard Jones?” she asked. I looked at the name tag on my chest and feigned surprise: “Well yeah–I am!” An old convention trick meant to make the kids laugh, but she kept her eyes fixed on me without a glimmer of emotion and said, “I just want to tell you that Freex is, in my opinion, the best comic book ever.”

Freex was a writer’s nightmare. Readers liked my subtle characters and challenging ideas but complained that my stories were too mild. They wanted extremes of emotion and wild fight scenes like those in X-Men. Freex was my effort to give them that without lowering my standards. I loved my idea: teenage runaways, cut off from the world by their deforming superpowers, who form a sort of street gang for mutual protection. I cared about teenage runaways, knew people who worked with them, wanted to capture their struggles in superheroic form. I was excited about trying to mix naturalistic teen dialogue with ferocious battles on the city streets. But my scripts just wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get the character scenes to flow smoothly into the fights. The heroes’ rage felt forced. The violence felt gratuitous. I’d never devoted much thought to what makes fantasy combat work or why it spoke to me in my own youth. I was too uncomfortable with rage and violence. I couldn’t feel what my Freex should feel. I began to make peace with the thought that this just wasn’t a story I should have been writing. The readers seemed to agree with me: sales were dropping, and not one fan had mentioned it at the convention–until this girl said it was the best comic ever.

I asked her why, and as she talked about Freex, her shyness dissolved. Her name was Sharon. She lived in a small Wisconsin town with her parents, whom she loved, and she had friends, but there was no one who really shared her interests. She read a lot, both comics and real books. She insisted that her life was perfect, but I thought that she protested too much. I sensed constraint, timidity, a depressed quality, a tensely contained anger–feelings that resonated with my memories of my own thirteenth year. She loved the Freex for the variety of their personalities and their clashing emotions. I expected her favorite to be the shy Angelica, but she preferred Lewis, the charismatic jock-leader whose anger made his body lose form. I said, “It sounds like the character development scenes must be your favorites.”

“No!” she said. It was the most animated I’d seen her. “It’s the fights!

“The fights?” I asked. “That’s where you can see the feelings they have for each other,” she said. “The way Michael goes crazy when he thinks Angela’s in danger. Or Val’s angry at Ray, but then she instantly turns her anger against the villain instead, so you know she really cares about him.” She paused to find a word. “That’s when you see their passion. And their passion is what really makes them powerful!”

I asked her what she felt in those scenes. “Well,” she said awkwardly. “I’m them when I’m reading about them, right? So . . . I’m powerful.” And that, apparently, was as deep as she wanted to go into her own feelings. She thanked me again for Freex, and she left.

Sharon made me take a hard look at my own biases. I’d seen fight scenes as a necessary evil to induce kids to read the more valuable contents of my stories–but now I’d made the most meaningful contact with a reader of my career through the fights. The characters, plots, and themes mattered, but the truly affecting, truly transformative element of the story was the violence itself. The violence had helped a timid adolescent tap into her own bottled-up emotionality and discover a feeling of personal power.

I felt uneasy with that: what message was I sending kids like Sharon? I ran the question by my friend Anne, an English professor and a widely published authority on changing images of gender and the body in mass culture.

“Look,” she said. “You touched that girl’s life. You gave her something that means something to her. And that’s as valuable as anything you can do.”

Then Anne told me about her own adolescence in the 1980s: painful home life, estranged from her parents, drinking and jail at thirteen, a suicide attempt, out on her own at fifteen, fistfights, petty crime, crashing with friends in tough inner-city neighborhoods. What spoke to her at the very worst of it was pop culture: angry punk, death metal, Goth style, violent horror movies.“Not much I’d defend now as ‘good,’” she said. “But when things felt absolutely black I discovered this stuff, and it showed me I wasn’t alone with these feelings. I had words, or at least images, for what I was feeling. And I found other people who were into them. When I was in a club or a movie or listening to a tape with my friends, I didn’t want to kill myself any more.” Some of the others in her group drifted to dead ends, but she was one of several who formed punk bands, played with Goth-inspired art and stories, and found their way to college.

“The main thing that drew me to college was the community I hoped I could find of people with similar interests,” she said. “It was partly the music and the rest of the ‘junk culture’ that showed me there could be communities like that. I don’t know where your comic book might take that girl at the convention. But that ‘passion’ she mentioned is part of her life now. It’s in her memory. It’ll always be there, and somehow it’ll keep coming back, and it’ll give her something.”

Sharon gave me something, too: a new career. I returned to my studies of American culture, but now with a focus on what aggressive fantasies mean to young people and what roles they play in personal development. I found that shockingly little had been written about it. For all the decades of psychological research attempting to prove that entertainment violence makes children more aggressive, or desensitizes them, or distorts their views of reality, very few studies have asked why they love it or what good it might do them. Hardly any, in fact, have even asked when or why it has a negative effect or how potential negative effects might be ameliorated. Bruno Bettelheim had summed up a great deal of psychiatric research on the benefits of violent fairy tales in his Uses of Enchantment, but even he had dismissed mass entertainment out of hand–even though the fantasies, the themes, and the violence of that entertainment often echoed fairy tales and even though it obviously resonated powerfully with millions of modern children.

So I interviewed psychiatrists, pediatricians, family therapists, teachers, screenwriters, game designers, and parents. I read the research. I asked children and teenagers what stories, movies, songs, and games they loved and what they meant to them. I dug back through my own growing up. I watched my son as he tackled the challenges of toddlerhood, preschool, and elementary school, choosing fantasies and entertainment to help him along the way. I gathered hundreds of stories of young people who had benefited from superhero comics, action movies, cartoons, shoot-’emup video games, and angry rap and rock songs. I found stories of kids who’d used them badly, too, and others who’d needed adult help to use them well. But mostly I found young people using fantasies of combat in order to feel stronger, to access their emotions, to take control of their anxieties, to calm themselves down in the face of real violence, to fight their way through emotional challenges and lift themselves to new developmental levels.

During those same years, however, criticisms of entertainment violence became steadily more intense. The news was replete with stories of teenage violence (even though juvenile crime rates were dropping rapidly), and many of those stories drew connections between the crimes and movies, songs, or video games. The boys who killed their classmates and themselves at Columbine High School were discovered to have loved the video game Doom, and its influence soon dominated speculation on what might have influenced them. Congressional committees excoriated the entertainment industry. Prominent psychologists testified that video violence had been proven harmful to children. In March 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged doctors to monitor their young patients’ exposure to media violence and warn parents of its dangers.

That same month, I found myself addressing a roomful of psychiatrists about Pokémon. I wasn’t expecting to come out of it very well liked.

As adults were debating the dangers of the media, the schoolyards of America were being swept by the most intense and most universal kid craze I’d ever seen. And it was a true product of kid culture. I began hearing about this strange universe of battling pet monsters from preschoolers and middle schoolers, boys and girls, computer nerds and blossoming jocks, months before the Nintendo marketing machine caught on to what it had. I was fascinated. This new world was noisy and combative, but it was also warm and fuzzy and funny and infernally complex, and kids were weaving it into every sort of fantasy and game. When Viz Communications asked me to help adapt the Japanese Pokémon comic book and comic strip franchise to the American market, I jumped at the chance.

My unusual position as a creator of superheroes, an analyst of children’s entertainment, and an American interpreter of that global fantasy fad landed me on NPR’s Fresh Air,


On Sale
Aug 4, 2008
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Gerard Jones

About the Author

Gerard Jones is a writer whose credits include the New York Times, Harper’s, Batman and Spider-Man comics, and Pokémon cartoons. Recently, he has developed the Art & Story Workshops for children and spoken on fantasy, aggression, and the media at institutions around the country. He is the author of Honey, I’m Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream and The Comic Book Heroes. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.

Learn more about this author