Children in Horror Films: The Kids Are Not Alright

Children in Horror Films: The Kids Are Not Alright

nullYour life is going along normally, and then it happens: you
or someone you love suddenly finds that something is growing inside, a life
form that feeds.  In the morning you are
nauseous, and as it grows you shift uncomfortably through the night, struggling
to sleep.  You feel it moving inside you,
shifting, kicking, altering your moods, influencing your thoughts.  And then, finally, after nine long months, it
wants to get out.  You want this too,
desperately, but the emergence is violent, excruciating, prolonged.  After what seems like days of pain, you hear
a cry, a wail, from the just opened mouth of a being who is at once a part of
you and utterly alien.  As it grows, it
begins to do things, without warning, without discernible motive: knocking a
juice glass off the table, pulling kitty’s tail, hitting another child on the
playground.  When scolded, it cries, and
you feel guilty for being so harsh, until later, with little provocation, it
breaks into a fit of rage, screaming, kicking. 
Gradually, you become isolated, a veil drawn between you and the friends
you used to see; you sleep poorly, awakened by cries; even your spouse seems
far away, separated by the daily and nightly routine of caring for the
child who has taken over your life.

Is it any wonder there are so many horror movies about
children?  We regard children with pious
adoration, yet lurking just beneath this reverence is a sense of dread, an
awareness of how little we really know about our kids.  And for every family sitcom or melodrama
celebrating the wonders of parenting and childhood, there is a horror film that
dwells in the child’s dark shadow.

The mainstream rebirth of the horror film in the seventies
happened through a child.  Linda Blair’s
uncanny performance as the possessed twelve-year-old Regan McNeil in The Exorcist (1973) remains one of the
iconic moments in the genre’s history, making audiences squirm as they watch
a loving daughter turn into a bile-spewing monster.  The transformation is so horrifying because
we first experience the parental love of Ellyn Burstyn’s Chris through
touchingly candid moments of mother-daughter laughing and cuddling.  As Regan is taken through a nightmarish
battery of painful tests to discover why her personality is changing, we
experience these horrors from both mother’s and daughter’s perspective.  Yet when Regan goes entirely over to the dark
side, she becomes another being altogether, one that we have only glimpsed in
isolated moments.  Although the tale is
one of demonic possession, it works because we have all seen such isolated moments
of uncanny child behavior—talking to no one, staring into the distance,
inexplicable bursts of anger—and wondered what it meant.

Before The Exorcist
there was Rosemary’s Baby (1966),
which focused on how a child can take one’s life over even before it’s
born.  Roman Polanski’s vision is a
powerfully feminist one, as the narrative focuses on the ways in which a
woman’s body can be appropriated by men. 
John Cassevete’s Guy Woodhouse essentially sells his wife’s womb to the
devil in exchange for a boost in his acting career, and while the supernatural
element is strong, his betrayal serves as a metaphor for all of the selfish
reasons men might have for wanting children—either for public prestige or for
want of an heir, a kind of immortality. 
As Mia Farrow’s Rosemary grows increasingly ill, however, we enter the
special hell that for some women is the experience of pregnancy.  Stymied at every turn as she seeks personal
and professional help, the film frustrates our and Rosemary’s need to discover
whether her fears are real or only in her head. 
Yet when she finally discovers the truth, Rosemary’s acceptance of her
child is at once touching and repulsive, and we are left with the feeling that
the mother-child bond is something unknowable, uncanny.

Larry Cohen’s masterpiece It’s Alive follows a similar arc, as Frank and Lenore Davis are
initially repulsed by, but gradually learn to love, their monstrous
progeny.  The film begins with one of the
most horrifying portrayals of childbirth ever filmed, with a delivery room strewn
with gore, and as the fanged, clawed child escapes, the body count grows.  Desperate for sustenance, he attacks a
milkman, feeding on fresh meat along with that more traditional baby food, milk. Indeed, a
stream of milk and blood flows from the delivery truck, a raw image of the fluids with which mothers have always sustained their children.  Yet somehow out of these horrors comes love. As Frank comes to understand and even embrace the creature he produced, the
film miraculously transforms into a moving meditation on the strange powers of
parental affection.

For the record, I must confess that I have never had such
feelings. My wife and I remain happily childless, and have no urge to change
that.  The topic came up when we got to
the ticket counter to see George Ratliffe’s criminally-underrated Joshua (2007), and the usher asked, “Um,
do you have kids?”  “No,” I replied.  “Are you thinking of ever having kids?”
“Definitely not,” said my wife, laughing. 
The usher smiled and said, “Then you’re going to love this film!”  And certainly nothing I have seen better
expresses all of the reasons one might not want to have a child.  Vera Farmiga gives a magnificent performance
as a mother who tries, but fails, to love creepy son Joshua.  As she nurses their second child, a girl, the
older boy’s behavior grows increasingly strange, as he asks questions about
embalming techniques and hovers around his baby sister’s crib in the dark.  Sensing his parents’ growing fear of him, he
digs out old videotapes of his childhood, and discovers that as a baby he
nearly drove his mother insane with his incessant crying and screaming.  As his behavior grows more disturbing, father
Sam Rockwell begins to unravel, and Joshua knows just how to push him over the
edge without incurring any blame.

The precocious monster theme is fairly prevalent in child
horror films, but most compelling is the apocalyptic subgenre that imagines
such children taking over the world. 
Perhaps the best example is Village
of the Damned
(1960), which manages to conjure a fully realized alternate
world of dread in merely 77 minutes. 
Everyone in the quiet English village of Midwich simultaneously falls
asleep, after which unexplained event all of the women of childbearing age
discover themselves to be pregnant. 
Later, they all give birth on the same day, to children with golden eyes
and pale blonde hair, somewhere between alien humanoids and Nazi youth.  Their uncanny mental powers place them in the
realm of science fiction, yet the fears they evoke—of our growing obsolescence
and eventual replacement by a new generation, better adapted to a changing
world—are very real.

More subtle and ultimately more troubling is the
slow-creeping apocalypse imagined in the Spanish horror film, Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), in which a
young English couple on vacation make the mistake of visiting an island where
the children have violently seized power from the adults.  Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador cunningly
opens the film with a montage of black and white photographs of child-victims
of war, juxtaposed with data recording the number of children fallen victim to
the world’s major conflicts.  Although we
share the English couple’s horrified point of view as they struggle to survive
against the malicious onslaught of a new breed of children, we have also been
shown how little right we have to the sovereign power of adulthood.  The film lays bare the naked self-interest
and condescension that lies beneath our sentimental reverence of childhood and
self-aggrandizement of parenthood, as we discover that the real answer to the
question asked by the film’s title is: adults.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Raised in Fear: Horror Films as Schoolyard Lore

Raised in Fear: Horror Films as Schoolyard Lore


All I really need to know about fear I learned in elementary school. Before I ever saw a horror film, I had acquired an extensive knowledge of the genre’s main visual icons.  More vital than any knowledge instilled in our classroom was the information we exchanged at recess, or on the bus.  Besides highly confused descriptions of sexual reproduction, the bits of knowledge most eagerly exchanged were meticulously detailed descriptions of horror films.  These movies took on legendary status in inverse proportion to the number of kids who had actually seen them.  The kid whose irresponsible parents unwisely took him to see The Exorcist might have been psychologically scarred for life, but among third graders he could become, for a time, a kind of schoolyard prophet.  When strict parents intervened, someone’s older brother or sister would always be eager to terrify their younger siblings with lurid retellings of the most horrific moments from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or I Spit on Your Grave.  The bearers of this precious knowledge provided me with a rich vocabulary of terror that has stood me well over time.   

Horror is a genre founded on suspense, and much of this suspense begins outside the theater.  From the commercial end, film studios have created a virtual subgenre of promotional material—from salacious posters to sensationalistic radio and television spots to tautly edited trailers—that is often more satisfying than the films it promotes. Such promotional tools, as much as they might serve the interests of capitalism, are in fact the most recent manifestation of a far older cultural tradition. In earlier centuries, before a circus, freak show, or menagerie came to town, heralds carrying broadsides and placards describing or illustrating the chief attractions would march through town, building anticipation which then spread by word of mouth. More than any other genre, the horror film is the true heir of this carnivalesque tradition, since the sense of anticipation and suspense is so clearly part of horror’s narrative structure. The tension we feel as we wait for a protagonist to find out what’s behind the door is all the more intense when the waiting begins with a trailer or poster image. 

nullBy the time I actually came to see Jaws, I was well acquainted with all of the film’s main events, told with a series of images that rivaled the most lurid frames of a 1950s horror comic. “Oh, man, how about when the woman’s skinny dipping at night! She’s all naked, right, only you can’t really see much ’cause it’s so dark; but anyway, she’s swimming and she sticks one leg up in the air and then it sinks into the water. Then that music starts, you know, da-duh, da-duh, and they show what it looks like underwater and you’re looking up, you know like you’re the shark looking up at her swimming and then you can see a little bit more of her nakedness but then they show her face, and she, like, disappears for a second, like she’s pulled under. Then it happens again and she starts screamin’. Then, oh man, she starts jerkin’ around, this way and that way, and then she slides way over until she smacks into this buoy, and then you’re like, oh man she made it, but then, no, she gets pulled off again and dragged around and then she’s, like, totally dead.” To an eager audience of children, this is not a spoiler: it’s an appetizer.

When I finally got to see the film for myself, my enjoyment of these and other foretold moments was actually enhanced by the verbal previews. Although I was an avid and attentive viewer, I have to admit there were things I might have missed had I not been fully prepared to appreciate them. My classmates astutely noted, for instance, not just that the sailing coach’s leg sinks to the bottom, but that it is cut off just above the knee, that a cloud of blood seeps from the ragged flesh where it was cut off, and, most importantly, that “it still had its sneaker on, can you believe that?” Another classmate took time to notice that, shortly before the Kittner boy is devoured, accompanied by “a huge, like, air bubble of blood,” a boy throwing sticks into the water for his dog suddenly notices that the dog is missing. Once I became a supposedly more sophisticated filmgoer, I marveled at the virtuoso dolly zoom effect that accompanies Chief Brody’s horrified realization of the shark’s attack. But without the guidance of a perceptive schoolyard critic, I might have overlooked that poignant detail of a boy calling into the sea for his lost dog.

Over the years our visual vocabulary grew. Piece by piece, our anatomy lessons added “spinning heads,” “still-beating hearts,” “guts spilling out,” “guts being eaten,” “guts on the floor,” “guts hanging from a hook,” “green puke,” “face melting off,” “eyes popping out,” “drill going into his forehead,” “arms reaching out of the grave,” “head on a stick,” and the one that confused me as much as it horrified me, “masturbating with a crucifix.” Every slight variation on the general theme of dismemberment and penetration was told in meticulous detail. Linda Blair’s head didn’t just spin around in The Exorcist, it turned slowly to the right, like she was looking away from the priest, and then turned slowly around to the sound of bones cracking and then completed the turn and snapped into place. Her puke wasn’t just green, it was green like the color of Apple Jolly Ranchers. What is most remarkable about such descriptions is how little exaggeration was involved. Children are generally known as tellers of tall tales, but when recounting scenes from horror films, they were as anatomically precise as forensic pathologists, as closely attuned to performative nuances as anthropologists in the field, and as keenly attentive to subtle variations of color, light, and shadow as art collectors. 

Those who experienced such schoolyard exchanges know that there was nothing especially cruel or violent about them.  Scenes of graphic violence were recounted not with sadism but with a sense of wonder. By describing such images, we were bearing witness to how strange and awful the world could be: not awful in its contemporary sense, but in the more archaic sense of awe-inspiring.  By telling one another about these things, we strengthened our sense of community and kinship. Iona and Peter Opie have gathered an extensive record of what they call “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,” noting the infinitely rich continuities and variations between the kinds of songs, rhymes, chants, and stories children have told across generations.  From them we learn that, long before children were describing grotesque scenes from horror films, they were chanting lines like “Tell tale tit, / Your tongue shall be slit, / And all the dogs in the town / Shall have a little bit.” Invoking such violent imagery doesn’t beget violence: it’s when we lose the sense of community and camaraderie such imagery fosters that we become sad, angry, and, sadly, sometimes terribly violent. Behind most school shootings is a story of alienation and loneliness.

nullMy classmates weren’t simply discussing films when they described them at recess: they were engaging in a form of storytelling as old as oral culture itself. Like the folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm and others, these narratives were structured around horrifically vivid images.  Folklorists have recorded infinite cultural and ethnic variations on the meme we know as “Little Red Riding Hood,” but they all have one element in common: a catechism between a child and a disguised monster that progresses from innocent “big eyes” to suspiciously “big ears” to terribly “big teeth” that threaten to “eat you up.” The protagonist might be a little boy in one version, a girl in another; the victim might be eaten and then cut out of the wolf by a huntsman, or she might outwit the wolf and escape; the moral of the story might be that we shouldn’t stray from the path or talk to strangers, or there might not be any moral at all. Every element of the story can be changed but not the progression from eyes to ears to teeth that can eat you: these words distill what is perhaps the most fundamental experience of horror any of us ever have.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.