Horror films frequently provide commentary on the social fears and anxieties of their time. A universally recognized truth of horror is that
children can be terrifying–especially little girls. The
fact that images of young girls have continued terrifying audiences through the decades is indicative of social fears surrounding women’s power.
Analyses of “creepy children” in horror films usually claim that haunting, possessed,
monstrous children serve as social commentary on loss of innocence, and it would make sense that in a patriarchal society a little girl is the epitome of
innocence. It can’t be that simple, though. We wouldn’t be so shaken to the core by possessed, haunted, violent little girls if we were simply supposed to be longing for innocent times
Instead, these little girls embody society’s growing fears of female power and independence. Fearing a young girl is the antithesis of what we are
taught–stories of missing, kidnapped or sexually abused girls (at least white girls) get far more news coverage and
mass sympathy than stories of boy victims. Little girls are innocent and need protection. And what we understand now as being a common trope in horror
movies–the terrifying little girl–has its roots in the nineteenth century.
In the Victorian era, the ideal female was supposed to be pale, fainting-prone and home-bound. Feminist literary icons Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
write about this nineteenth-century ideal in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women:
At its most extreme, this nineteenth-century ideal of the frail, even sickly female ultimately led to the glorification of the dead or dying woman. The
most fruitful subject for literature, announced the American romancer Edgar Allan Poe in 1846, is ‘the death… of a beautiful woman’… But while dead women
were fascinating, dying girl-children were even more enthralling… These episodes seem to bring to the surface an extraordinary imperative that underlay
much of the nineteenth-century ideology of femininity: in one way or another, woman must be ‘killed’ into passivity for her to acquiesce in what Rousseau
and others considered her duty of self-abnegation ‘relative to men.’
The feminine “ideal” (and its relation to literature) coincided with women beginning the long fight for suffrage and individual rights. It’s no surprise,
then, that men wanted to symbolically kill off the woman so she could fulfill her ultimate passive role. There was something comforting about this
Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s, and the modern horror genre as we know it emerged and began evolving into something that provided social commentary
while playing on audiences’ deepest fears (the “other,” invasion, demonic possession, nuclear mutations and the end of the world were common enemies).
We know that horror films typically feature puritanical punishment/reward for promiscuous women/virgins (the “Final Girl” trope), and violence toward women or women needing to be rescued are common
themes. These themes comfort audiences, and confirm their need to keep women subjugated in their proper place. It’s no coincidence that the 50s
and 60s were seeing sweeping social change in America (the Pill, changing divorce laws, the ERA, and the lead-up to Roe v. Wade).
Terrifying little girls also make their debut in this era. Their mere presence in horror films spoke not only to audiences’ fears of children losing their
innocence, but also the intense fear that little girls–not yet even women–would have the power to overthrow men. These girl children of a generation of
women beginning a new fight for rights were terrifying–these girls would grow up knowing they could have power.
In 1956, The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark, genetically predisposed to be a sociopath, murders a
classmate and the janitor who suspects her. Her classmate–a boy–beats her in a penmanship contest, and she beats him to death with her tap shoes. A little
girl, in competition with a boy, loses, and kills. While Rhoda gets away with her crimes in the novel the film was based on, the Hays Code demanded that the film version “punished” her for her crimes and
she’s struck by lightning. It’s revealed that Rhoda’s sociopathic tendencies come from her maternal grandmother, a serial killer. This notion of female
murderous rage, passed down through generations and claiming boys/men as its victim, certainly reflects social fear at the time.
In 1968, Night of the Living Dead premiered. This zombie classic provided commentary on
racism/the Civil Rights movement, Cold War-era politics and critiqued America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. However, little Karen Cooper’s iconic scene
has long disturbed audiences the most. Infected by zombies, she eats her father and impales her mother with a trowel. A horror twist to an Oedipal tale,
one could see Karen as living out the gravest fears of those against the women’s movement/second-wave feminism. Possessed by a demon, she eats her father
(consumes the patriarchy) and kills her mother (overtaking her mother’s generation with masculine force).
Five years later, Roe v. Wade had been decided, and women could legally obtain first-trimester abortions. The Pill was legal, no-fault divorce was more
acceptable and women began flooding the workforce.
Meanwhile, on the big screen, sweet little Regan MacNeil–the daughter of an over-worked, atheist mother–becomes possessed by the devil. The Exorcist was based on a novel, which itself was based on the exorcism case of a little boy.
Of course, the novelist and filmmakers wanted audiences to be disturbed and terrified, so the sex of the possessed protagonist changed (would it be as
unsettling if it was a little boy?).
Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, goes to great lengths to help her daughter, and resorts to Catholicism when all else has failed. Regan reacts violently to
religious symbols, lashes out and kills priests, speaks in a masculine voice and masturbates with a crucifix. This certainly isn’t simply a “demonic
possession” horror film, especially since it was written and made into a film at the height of the fight for women’s rights and the Catholic church was an
adamant foe to reproductive rights. Only after Regan releases her demon, which possesses a priest (who flings himself out of a window to commit suicide),
does she regain her innocence and girlhood.
What her mother and her culture are embracing–atheism, working women, reproductive rights, sexual aggressiveness–can be seen as the “demons” that overcome
the innocent girl and kill men (and traditional religion).
These films are have terrified audiences for decades, and for good reason. The musical scores, the direction and the jarring images shock and terrify
audiences (and we “crave” this, according to Stephen King). However, these films also play
to society’s deepest fears about women and feminism. For little girls to be possessed is the ultimate fall.
Starting with the late-70s and 80s slasher films (and the growing Religious Right/Moral Majority in politics), the “Final Girl” reigned supreme, and the
promiscuous young woman would perish first. Masculinity (characterized with “monstrous” violence and strength) and femininity became natural enemies. These
fights on the big screen mirrored the fights in reality. The Equal Rights Amendment was pushed
out of favor and was never ratified, and a growing surge of conservatism and “family values” began dominating American rhetoric.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, we see a resurgence of the terrifying little girl. This time, she is serving as a warning to
In The Ring (the 2002 American adaptation of a 1998 Japanese film), Rachel Keller is a
journalist and a single mother. She unknowingly risks her son and his father’s lives by showing them a cursed videotape. A critic noted:
If she had never entered the public sphere and viewed the cassette in the first place, she would not have inadvertently caused Noah’s death, nor would she
have to potentially cause the death of another. Rachel would, perhaps, have been better off staying at home.
has often been the driving force behind horror plots. In her investigation into the video, she discovers the twisted, dark past of the video’s subject,
Samara, a young girl who started life troubled (her birthmother tried to drown her). Her adoptive mother drowns her in a well after Samara cannot be cured
of her psychosis. Her adoptive father, Rachel finds, locked Samara in an attic of their barn, and Samara left a clue of the well’s location behind yellow wallpaper (certainly a nod to Charlotte
Samara’s life was punctuated by drowning, which has throughout history been a way for women to commit suicide or be killed (symbolizing both the
suffocating nature of women’s roles and the return to the life-giving waters that women are often associated with). While Rachel “saves” Samara’s corpse
and gives her a proper burial, Samara didn’t want that. She rejected Rachel’s motherhood and infects Rachel’s son. Rachel–in her attempts to mother–cannot
seem to win.
The ambiguous ending suggests that Rachel may indeed save her son, but will have to harm another to do so. This idea of motherly self-sacrifice portrays
the one way that Rachel–single, working mother–can redeem herself. However, the parallel narrative of the dangers of silencing and “locking up” women is
loud and clear.
In 2009’s Orphan, Esther is a violent, overtly sexual orphan from Russia who is adopted by an
American family. Esther is “not nearly as innocent as she claims to be,” says the IMDB description. This story plays on the fear of the “other” in adopted
little girls (much like The Ring). In this film, Esther is actually an adult “trapped” in a child’s body. The clash of a childish yet adult female
(and culturally, little girls are somehow expected to embody adult sexuality yet be innocent and naive) again reiterates this fear of little girls with
unnatural and unnerving power. The drowning death of Esther, as her adoptive mother and sister flee, shows that Esther must be killed to be subdued. The
power of mother is highlighted, yet the film still plays on cultural fears of mothering through adoption and the deep, disturbing duality of childhood and
adulthood that girls are supposed to embody.
In the last 60 years, American culture has seen remarkable change and resistance to that change in regard to women’s roles. Horror films–which portray the
very core of society’s fears and anxieties–have reflected the fears of women’s social movements through the faces of terrifying little girls.
While nineteenth-century literature comforted audiences with the trope of a dead, beautiful woman, thus making her passive and frail (of course, we still do this), twentieth and twenty-first century horror films force audiences to come face to
face with murderous, demonic, murdered and psychotic little girls to parallel fears of women having economic, reproductive, marital, parental and
Little girls are supposed to be the epitome of all we hold dear–innocent, sweet, submissive and gentle. The Victorian Cult of Girlhood and Womanhood bleeds into the twenty-first century anti-feminist movements,
and these qualities are still revered. Horror films hold a mirror up to these ideals, distorting the images and scaring viewers in the process. The terror
that society feels while looking at these little girls echoes the terror it feels when confronted with changing gender norms and female power.
Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri. She is an editor and staff writer at Bitch Flicks. Leigh wrote “Mothers of Anarchy: Power, Control, and Care in
the Feminist Sphere” in
Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy
and her creative nonfiction and media criticism have been published at xoJane and fem2pt0. Leigh
lives on a small farm with her husband, dogs, cat and chickens. You can find her on Twitter.
Republished and edited with permission.