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Children in Horror Films: The Kids Are Not Alright

Children in Horror Films: The Kids Are Not Alright

Your 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.

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