“Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” slashed its way into theaters Feb. 15, bringing terror and wrecking childhood memories on the big screen. The horror film features the beloved Pooh bear and Piglet as killers tormenting a college-aged Christopher Robin.
As copyright protections run out, more childhood characters fall into the public domain. Works published from 1923–1978 are protected for 95 years. After that time span, the characters can be adapted and used in new ways.
Part 1: Adaptations of children media
First-year RTVF major Aluna Herrera said horror adaptations of children’s toys make a movie sell because it reaches a broader audience. She described it as playing to the audience by taking Winnie the Pooh and turning it into a film for adults.
“You’re using a character that is already known and people are going to be curious about this and want to watch it,” Herrera said. “There’s a lot of reusing of ideas in movies and turning a previously innocent, sweet character into this horrible figure.”
Northwestern University radio, television and film (RTVF) Associate Professor Spencer Parsons said subversion does not appeal to him, he still called himself an “offender” in creating adult adaptations of children’s media. He described one film he directed, “Saturday Morning Massacre,” as a Scooby Doo parody.
“I was trying to filter that idea into thinking about what is inappropriate in our adult lives about hanging on to childhood dreams,” Parsons said. “There’s a tendency in movies to want to extend the magic and wonder of childhood into adulthood. Certainly there’s a part of me that wants to do that, but I also find that in myself to be kind of dangerous.”
Part 2: Childhood innocence
Dominic Pioter, who teaches a course on fairy tales and horror at Kirkwood High School in Kirkwood, Missouri, disagrees. He said that while horror movies can be traumatizing, preserving the innocence of childhood is impossible.
“It’s all precarious,” Pioter said. “It’s all tentative. Innocence is not entirely pure. You can’t ever protect someone or live in a glass box forever. Eventually, it will crack. Eventually, you will grow out, open the door and you’ll leave.”
Elly McCausland, professor of English literature at Ghent University, researched children’s adaptations of the King Arthur legend for her Ph.D. She said some scholars argue the concept of the innocent child is a societal need.
“Humans are depraved, flawed and messed up creatures,” McCausland said. “We put all of that wish fulfillment onto the child, and that is why we desperately need to believe in the child as innocent because if the child is not innocent, then we have nothing left to see as pure and untainted.”
A young child in a horror film, like Danny in “The Shining,” is an “uncanny juxtaposition” of an innocent child and horrific images, according to McCausland. Pioter said that horror as a genre often takes on contrasts like this.
“Part of horror’s job is to pervert the expected, what’s comfortable,” Pioter said. “I think it is supposed to make us uncomfortable and make us feel something visceral in our bodies.”
Part 3: Exploitation media
Pioter said he has grown an appreciation for horror movies after watching so many and can determine if a film is worth his time. He said some fall into the category of exploitation media, a genre whose subject matter attracts audiences regardless of quality. Despite hesitations, Pioter said he would watch “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” to look for moments where the film is “messy and art.”
“You don’t know if what you’re going to see is going to give you an image that will stay there forever or make you see something in a different way,” Pioter said. “As long as the movie is well done and it’s not a bunch of trash that’s just trying to be exploitative or sensational, sometimes those searing images are really powerful.”
Most of “Winnie-the-Pooh” author A. A. Milne’s characters became public domain in January 2022. This means they can now become new forms of intellectual property — like turning formerly lovable bears into murderers.
“In a strictly capitalist sense, it’s easier to sell something that people already know than something that they don’t know,” Parsons said.
Parsons said part of the change to horror with Winnie the Pooh is about putting a childhood figure into that genre, but it also deals with creating new intellectual property with those characters in horror.
First-year RTVF major Luca Hirsch said horror has become “derivative.” He said filmmakers need to get viewers, but thinks they should be cautious of producing exploitative media.
“If we just think purely about box office, we’d have ‘Avengers: Endgame 1,’ ‘Avengers: Endgame 2,’ ‘Avatar 8,’ ‘Avatar 10,’" Hirsch said. “It’s gonna become a clusterf— of nothingness.”
Parsons called exploitation films a “crassly capitalistic enterprise.” He said the current movie culture will support these films because people will always show up, even just for a laugh.
“If there are other properties coming into public domain soon and the Winnie-the-Pooh movie is at all successful, then we will see a cycle of these kinds of children’s lit adaptations into horror or other inappropriate adult genre spaces,” Parsons said. “There’s no doubt about that, and that’s because of the workings of exploitation in our commercial culture.”
Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern