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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

TV shows are rolling out the spooky stuff for Halloween, trying to lure viewers who crave a good scare. But, of course, when it comes to children's programming, you always have to wonder what's might be too scary?

NPR's Elizabeth Blair wonders how the writers and producers of kids' TV know when they've crossed the line.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: I was about eight or nine the first time a TV show did more than just scare me. "Dark Shadows" petrified me.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dark Shadows")

Ms. ALEXANDRA MOLTKE (Actress): (as Victoria Winters) Two innocent children are about to be drawn tighter into a web of terror neither can understand.

BLAIR: Do you remember the first time a TV show really scared you?

Ms. LAUREN LEVINE (Senior Vice President, Nickelodeon): Oh, totally.

BLAIR: For Lauren Levine is a senior vice president at Nickelodeon.

Ms. LEVINE: It was "Doctor Who" in the U.K. on BBC. And, you know, I'd watch it from behind the couch.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Doctor Who")

Unidentified Man #1: Daleks.

BLAIR: Lauren Levine says she became almost addicted to that feeling of being scared. She says children today are no different.

Ms. LEVINE: You know, the first game that they ever play is hide-and-seek, which scares them to death. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEVINE: And the suspense that they thrive on is something we can't forget.

BLAIR: And there's plenty of suspense in a new feature on Nickelodeon called "The Boy Who Cried Werewolf."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Boy Who Cried Werewolf")

Unidentified Man #2: Hello.

BLAIR: Haunted mansion? Check. Creepy hidden lab?

(Soundbite of movie, "The Boy Who Cried Werewolf")

Unidentified Child #1: You know, maybe we shouldn't be in here.

BLAIR: Check.

Ms. LEVINE: I mean we really try and play off every sort of old movie horror cliche.

BLAIR: "The Boy Who Cried Werewolf" is a comedy...

(Soundbite of movie, "The Boy Who Cried Werewolf")

Unidentified Child #1: I can't shoot my sister. Do you know how much trouble I'd get in?

BLAIR: ...but the werewolves are scary.

(Soundbite of growling)

BLAIR: How do you know when something is too scary?

Ms. LEVINE: When the kid screams and runs out of the room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: That's Nickelodeon. Over at PBS, they're more cautious and calculating.

Ms. JACQUI DEEGAN (Executive Producer, "Arthur"): We've had advisors and educators help us apply parameters to all the shows that really do help make the shows not too scary.

BLAIR: Jacqui Deegan is an executive producer on "Arthur." One of its Halloween episodes is about how kids react differently to things that are supposed to be scary - Arthur being the most afraid of a comic book, called "The Grotesquely Grim Bunny." It gives him nightmares.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Arthur")

Unidentified Child #2: You want me to go into the City of Doom?

BLAIR: Jacqui Deegan says the animators got a little overenthusiastic.

Ms. DEEGAN: They did their jobs so well that there were definitely places where I felt like we needed to start pulling it back. For example, there was a doctor who had a knife in his hand, and I asked our wonderful director, Greg Bailey, who's been on the show since the beginning, you know, can we please change it? And he just drew it himself. Now it's not knife anymore but it's just kind of a vaguely menacing unidentifiable implement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: The fact that the scary doctor is animated also lessens the threat, says longtime children's-TV writer Ken Scarborough.

Mr. KEN SCARBOROUGH (Head Writer, "Martha Speaks"): One of the reasons kids respond to animation is that it is abstract from reality. It's not the Wicked Witch of the West standing there saying, you know, I'm going to get you. It's brightly colored. It's your friends. It's the people you see everyday.

BLAIR: The friends in the "Martha Speaks" Halloween episode tell each other ghost stories on a rainy day.

(Soundbite of thunder and rain)

BLAIR: Head writer Ken Scarborough says they used the episode to teach words like phantom and ominous.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Martha Speaks")

Unidentified Child #3: Did you hear it, Martha, that ominous sound in the darkness?

BLAIR: Ken Scarborough says you never really know what's going to scare kids. He learned that the hard way several years ago. When he worked on "Arthur," an episode had the bossy girl Francine accept a bet that she could be nice for one week.

Mr. SCARBOROUGH: And so, you could see her bottling up her feelings all week and not saying anything mean. And the brainy kid said, you know, that's not good, and he showed the other kids what could happen. He shook up a bottle of soda pop. And the top flew off.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Arthur")

(Soundbite of fizzing and groaning)

BLAIR: Then in the kids' fantasies, Francine's head pops off and goes flying through the air, landing in a family's yard.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Arthur")

Unidentified Child #4: Wow. Mommy! Some kid's head fell in our yard!

Mr. SCARBOROUGH: And kids, it terrified them. Terrified them. We had letters up and down.

BLAIR: Scarborough says what was meant as a joke became a lesson in writing TV for kids.

Mr. SCARBOROUGH: The scary episode is not going to scare kids. What's going to scare them is the show the next day that's about something completely innocuous.

BLAIR: Something that Scarborough says even the best advisers might miss.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: If there's a kids' show or a book, or really anything at all that scared you and the creators probably did not plan it to, you can tell us your tale of terror at our pop culture blog, Monkey See. It's at NPR.org.

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