Evil Kids in the Horror Genre: Why Do They Scare Us So Much?
Sugar and spice and everything nasty and not very nice; that's the usual scenario when evil kids go out to play in the horror genre. But there's something not quite right here. Children in real life rarely have power over adults (unless they are royalty or Disney-channel stars), while in the horror genre they wield enough power to make any and all adults quake in fear or drop dead. How can this be? What elements combine to turn all that sugar sour and comforting cinnamon spice into hot pepper? Why do they scare us so much, or traumatize us, or make us wish they would go away and play with their nastiness somewhere else? From zombie kids to Satan's pride of joy, from juvenile serial killers to mutant offspring, the little evil ones bedevil us.
The following members of The League of Tana Tea Drinkers lend their thoughts on the subject for your edification pleasure.
Vault of Horror talks about the evil destruction of childhood:
For the longest time, horror films and the concept of childhood have had a complex relationship. This has much to do with the fact that one of the central themes of all horror entertainment—if not the central theme—is the corruption/destruction of good by evil.
Childhood as an ideal represents nothing as much as innocence in its purest form. And innocence itself is the ultimate distillation of “good”. Perhaps this is why both creators and audiences alike have often had something of a difficult time dealing with it within the horror medium. Because childhood represents the ultimate good, the corruption/destruction of that good is the most extreme form of evil that most of us can imagine. Very often it is simply too much to bear.
This is why, for as long as horror films have been around, the ultimate taboo, the one area most have avoided like the plague, has been the murder of children. True, there have been notable exceptions over the years, movies like Frankenstein (1931), The Blob (1988) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). But for the most part, filmmakers keep away from it, as exemplified most vividly in some of the Friday the 13th movies, in which Jason will literally walk past the beds of sleeping campers and keep his focus on the counselors. For most of us, violence against children is something we don’t really want to see in horror movies. It’s not fun or entertaining, and unfortunately, all too painful and real.
Which brings me to the original topic: Evil kids in the horror genre. Ruling out the literal destruction of the child, the closest most horror creators choose to come is the destruction of childhood. If horror is all about the corruption of good, then the corruption of the ultimate good, the innocence of childhood, is about as evil as it gets.
For this reason, the depiction of evil children stirs up deep feelings of dread and revulsion in many viewers. We innately perceive it as a gross affront to the natural order of things. Something within us senses this perversion, and recoils from it. Evil adults we can handle; most of us deal with them on an almost daily basis. But evil children? And by this I don’t mean the bratty kid on line at the grocery store who won’t shut up—I mean genuinely, truly evil children. An utterly alien concept.
Some of the genre’s finest works have mined this motherlode of subconscious terror: The Omen (1976), Halloween (1978), The Ring (2001), and most recently, The Orphanage (2007). It works to particular effect in William Friedkin’s masterpiece The Exorcist (1973), in which we literally witness the purest and most innocent little girl imaginable defiled and twisted by a wholly evil force into an obscene mockery of nature. Though flawed, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989) pulls off a powerful combination by presenting us with the ultimate taboo (death of a child), followed by the perversion of innocence, as the child returns in evil form.
In short, it is this underlying sense of profound and incomprehensible wrongness that causes us to fear the so-called “evil child” in horror movies. It is also the subconscious connection to the ultimate act of corruption—the literal corruption of the flesh itself, i.e. the death of the child. Sublimating this primordial horror in the form of corrupted childhood thus becomes a safer way to scare the crap out of us, without offending.
Kindertrauma shares thoughts on evil children and their power:
In normal day-to-day life, children are not that scary. They are not really at their intellectual peaks and they're easy to shove around and steal candy from. In movies though, particularly horror movies, you really don't want to mess with them. They operate in a gloriously luxurious state that only the absence of learned social conditioning can provide. I should make a distinction right away between "creepy" kids and killer kids. Creepy kids are more passive and may just show up to sing a song about how you're going to die or shove bloody images into your brain to freak you out. These kids are victims themselves and usually have way too much jump roping to do to stop and actively try to kill you. Most of their fright power is derived from whatever mangled teddy bear or doll they're clutching anyway.
The (for the most part) less supernatural "killer" kid, you can tell from their name, is way more interested in well,... killing. All nature vs. nurture arguments are chucked out the nearest window as soon as one of these kids arrives. They really have not spent enough time on our planet to be as pissed off as they are; they're just born bad like the Edsel and PlayStation 3. O.K., some of them may be from outer space, spent time in a toxic nuclear fog or possessed by an irate relative, but the important thing is that they hate your guts and they want to kill you. Overall, they make Dennis the Menace look like Ziggy.
In a culture that is obsessed with maintaining the purity of its youth, well at least up until they are thrown to the wolves at the local college, there is something innately transgressive about these little hellions with no accountability. I think if truth were told we feign our fear of these mini psychos to mask the vicarious thrill we derive from watching their (often hilarious) shenanigans. Even those of us who were raised in safe environments can easily recall moments from our youth where we were frustratingly devoid of anything resembling power. These early introductions to the limits of our control over the world are constantly being shaken awake in our adult lives whether we are aware of them or not. Watching a smaller creature take those who loom over him to exaggerated task satisfies our need for retroactive revenge and may be more about wish fulfillment than fear.
In real life, the killer child is rarely seen. Sure every once in a while one will pop up to kick up some debate about violence in the media, but it's not exactly a frequent occurrence. Still children do hold some kind of impossible to understand control over our psyches. I've lived long enough to witness their births transform friends of mine who were once like Sid and Nancy into Ozzie and Harriet clones overnight. Now to me, that's scary.
Gospel of the Living Dead talks about zombie children:
Many would argue that Karen (played by Kyra Schon), the girl zombie at the end of Night of the Living Dead (1968), is one of the most striking examples of an evil child in horror films. Here is a child who stabs her mother to death with a trowel, then eats her father. Her ghoulish face is iconic at horror cons, seen all over t-shirts, often without any label, since she is so well-known as a symbol of horror.
The similar scene in the sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) is harrowing, but much more subdued. Near the beginning of the film, Peter (played by Ken Foree) is savagely attacked by two growling, feral, zombie children. When they are finally fought off, they are discreetly shot off camera. The scene is subdued both because the violence is so much less, but more importantly, because the children have no connection to Peter. Just being attacked by one's own child would be much more monstrous than actually being murdered by a stranger.
In Dawn of the Dead, one of the main characters, Fran (played by Gaylen Ross), is said to be pregnant. Her condition plays no real role in the narrative, except as motive for her own survival, and as the topic of one chilling conversation, in which the male characters coldly discuss violating Fran by aborting the fetus without any consultation with her. But the horror of this pregnancy is astonishingly ramped up in the 2004 remake of the film, in which the bitten mother lapses into zombieism during labor, finally birthing a zombie baby which must be shot in the head along with its mother.
What do these haunting images show us about how horror works, or perhaps more fundamentally, about our attitudes toward children and parenthood? The images of larger children turning into ravening beasts is surely about loss of innocence, or the fragility of innocence. But as noted, this image is heightened and intensified when those children attack their parents, so there is something not just about innocence lost, but about betrayal of trust and violation of fundamental bonds between parents and children. It is Oedipal, in short, perhaps compounded by guilt on the parents' part that they did not protect the child from death and undeath. (Certainly this is seen in Karen's mother, who seems to willingly give herself over to her daughter's murderous wrath.)
In the case of the pregnancies, there are other dynamics. We have the ultimate perversion and loss of the promise of future life - a stillbirth, only worse. With the pregnant women, we also have the mystery of life and death. Pregnant women are odd, hybrid, liminal creatures - somehow two people in one, and the one might prove to be the death of the other. The presence of a pregnant woman in a narrative cannot help but disorient and nudge the audience to uncomfortable questions about life, even if nothing overtly supernatural or horrific happens - even natural pregnancy and birth is quite harrowing enough. Further, birth is a shocking, painful drama many of us have experienced or witnessed up close, unlike being stabbed to death or eaten alive, so the horror of pregnancy, like the horror of children gone bad, injects an element of the ordinary and everyday into the imaginary world of a zombie apocalypse.
Blogue Macabre examines supernatural evil children:
This topic comes up at a wonderful time for my blog as I am embarking on a tour of horror films and subgenres that look more deeply at the idea of what is it that scares us.
One of the may themes expressed in the horror genre is that of Evil Children and to expand that somewhat, I will include possessed or otherwise supernaturally afflicted children as I believe many aspects that make these films unsettling are closely related to that of inherently evil children. So what is it about Evil Children that scares us?
On my blog I have been thinking about the nature of fear lately and how Horror entertainment utilizes that. I have surmised that in order for a story to be effectively scary it must it must properly incorporate two types of fear. The first of these is conscious or rational fear. This I submit is not true fear, rather more of a concern or an uneasiness centering on an intangible thought, idea or concept. Death for example is a conscious fear that one must consider to effectively be scared by it, and ultimately the end results and not the act itself. For example “Is there something after I die or will everything I am disappear from existence? Is there a heaven or Hell and has my life been worthy if there is? What if the ancient Egyptians were right, and I’ll be showing up to the party without underwear or shoes and nothing more than a bad suit with a slit down the back for all eternity?” You get the idea. The purpose of rational fear in a story is to build suspense, it is the “what if” factor. Quite simply for a horror story to be scary it has to get into your head.
The other aspect of fear is subconscious or irrational fear. This is true fear. It causes the heart to race, adrenalin to be released and a degree of heightened awareness. If you don’t mind a phrase that frankly I’m tired of, it is the “fight-or-flight” response. Spiders, snakes, heights, clowns, dolls, lightning and thunder and so on, these are all fears or phobias that not everyone has but all exist with an often surprisingly frequency. True fear occurs entirely beyond an individual’s conscious rationale and completely precludes the “what if”, it is a purely physical reaction. Now keep in mind that this can and does exist beyond basic phobias and can occur in instances where under different stimulus would have no effect on the same individual. Add to that that someone whit such phobias can trigger true fear simply by thinking about it. Yes this muddies the water a bit, but I’m not a psychologist and I’ve already gone on well enough on this thought without really getting to the topic at hand, Evil Children.
So with all this talk of fear behind us, how does the idea of Evil Children come into play? It is my belief that it exists almost entirely as a conscious fear. As an irrational fear it is to obscure. While I certainly know people who dislike children, none of them to my knowledge has ever ran screaming out of a room in a fit of hysteria when one has walked in. In fact it is contrary to basic primeval nature where we are predisposed to care for our young. It is this same nature that makes the idea so horrific to the conscious mind. Children embody innocence and frailty. They are to be nurtured and protected. It is this deep seeded belief that makes crimes against children so despicable. Naturally as such a child that is neither frail nor innocent is an uncomfortable paradigm and an easy platform for horror as removing the audience from it’s comfort zone if the first rule of successful horror. It is this same protective nurturing desire that has mad movies such as Poltergeist and even The Exorcist successful franchises. Although the children herein are themselves not evil it is our nature to be offended at the dangers and atrocities they suffer. The fact that Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) was a child was crucial to The Exorcist and how effective the horror of the possession was. Similarly if Carol Anne was another teenager running and screaming from the ghosts, Poltergeist would have been a flop. Her childish innocence and the jeopardy that it placed her in was the whole point of the movie.
In films such as The Omen, and Children of the Corn to name but two, the children are no longer the victims; they are in fact the villains. While naturally the nurturing aspect occurs here too, children represent another common theme in horror that I would refer to as corrupted innocence. This would be where comfortable reassuring symbols usually associated with childhood are used as devices of horror such as clowns, dolls, imaginary friends and such. In this case it is childhood itself that is the symbol. In The Omen the parents are trapped with the fact their child, whom they are obligated naturally to love and protect, is at the same time evil itself, and as the parents come to realize this it is a truly horrific dilemma. In our culture we place such value on children, they are our legacy and the single greatest investment on life, and to be forced to destroy that not to mention the fact these are people and not simple objects.
Certainly there are other aspects and themes to be explored here as well, but I feel what I have outlined is likely the heart of what it is about the subgenre of Evil Children that we find so appealing.
TheoFantastique reflects on why evil children get under our skin:
In my view there are at least two primary reasons why we find evil children so repulsive and fascinating in horror. First, children represent our individual and collective future, both in terms of the continuance of our individual family lineage as well as in the continued existence of the human race. We want our progeny to reflect the best of our contribution to the human race, not detract from it in significant ways. Secondly, the presence of evil children challenges parents in how well they did or did not raise their child, which raises the spectre that they may have contributed to the evil conducted by their offspring. Both aspects are tremendously important and may reflect on a portion of our angst over kids in horror.
Related to the first instance, I recently caught a program that looked at the past and continuing legacy of Hitler both in terms of his family members while he was alive, as well as those contemporary Hitlers who have branched out from the dictator's family tree. Their connections to this evil individual had and have radical implications, both during World War II when a favored nephew was captured by the Russians in battle only to die in captivity due to the family connection to Hitler as a sinister uncle, and in the contemporary period where Hitler family members often live in seclusion. An evil child, or a child who at least grows up to become evil, taints our personal family lineage for generations to come.
In addition, there are the parental aspects of this topic, which may be even more disturbing than the question of lineage. Most parents try to do the best they can, and yet at times children turn out in ways which are less than the parenting ideal. This then leads to the nature vs. nurture debate as we wonder whether a child is born with "evil" inclinations or whether parental nurturing activities contributed to the negative state of affairs. In my casual reflection on this in light of horror films it seems like we tend toward an emphasis on the former prospect. In films like It's Alive (1974), or the classic Twilight Zone episode It's a Good Life (1961), we have examples of children born monstrously evil. Such scenarios, although terribly frightening for the parents and the public which serves as victims, is somehow palatable in that we would not blame the parents for some kind of genetic mutation. After all, our genetic code is inherited and out of our control (at least with present technology). Other films present scenarios where children are the result of a supernatural insertion of evil, both genetically and spiritually, into the human race. This can be found in films like Rosemary's Baby (1968), and The Omen (1976). In this scenario we are faced with a child who is the spawn of Satan, and that has to be worthy of a visit to Dr. Phil for parenting advice, but as a variation on the genetic mutation, it too provides parents with a plausible level of deniability. Far less frequent, however, is the cinematic depiction of evil in children as a result of parental failings. It is far more comforting, it seems, to blame nature rather than our nurture.
But regardless of the reasons why, and my meager thoughts are by no means the only considerations on this topic, evil children are a facet of horror that has contributed both to our paradoxical repulsion and enjoyment of them, as well as the success of films that explore the subject.
Unspeakable Horror speaks out on evil children:
Over the past two years as a horror blogger on Unspeakable Horror dot com, I've started to develop my own interpretive lens on the horror genre--a blend of quasi-Freudian literary theory and Jungian dream analysis with a healthy dose of reader response thrown into the mix. I think this interpretive strategy works very well when it comes to interpreting evil children in the horror genre.
In 1983, Twilight Zone: The Movie hit the theaters. I was ten-years-old at the time, and I was completely traumatized by the segment featuring little Anthony and the nightmarish world that he unleashed upon his prisoners. At the time, I didn't know anything about the original Twilight Zone episode with Billy Mumy or the short story by Jerome Bixby. Recently, I re-visited all three versions of It's a Good Life about evil little Anthony, the mind-reading boy who can make anything happen by wishing it into existence, and I've come to the conclusion that Anthony is like an embodiment of the id run amok. He is a figure that represents the buried child that exists inside the human psyche. But why is he so sinister? I believe the answer to that lies in the Freudian conception of repression, which also connects evil Anthony with another of my favorite evil children: Samara from The Ring, which I will get to in a couple of paragraphs.
A big part of my quasi-Freudian take on the horror genre is the assumption that all horror stories reflect anxieties, either societal anxieties or deeply-buried anxieties inside the psyche. I see the figure of Anthony representing different anxieties in the different versions, but in all three he is like an evil Bart Simpson (I read online that there is a Simpson's parody of the story, but I have yet to see it).
It's a Good Life represents the anxiety of what would happen if we gave over entirely to the rule of our inner id-child and its unadulterated drives and desires. After all, we all have a little bit of Anthony inside of us, wanting to wish people who piss us off into oblivion or into some twisted punishment to satisfy our desire for revenge. But for the normal human being, this desire for revenge is only momentary, kept in check by the other facets of the psyche, namely the ego. However, when the desires and drives of the Id are repressed into the subconscious mind for too long without release, they emerge later in other forms (neuroses and dreams). I would also argue that they emerge in fictional stories.
In the original short story by Jerome Bixby, Anthony seems to be the most Id-like, ruling all the remaining members of the town with his savage whims. In the television version starring Billy Mumy, I think the filmmakers also infused the story with a political message about succumbing to despotic rule. The character of Dan Hollis gives a speech about standing up to Anthony before Anthony turns him into a gruesome Jack-in-the-box and wishes him into the cornfield. I think this version is infused with a societal anxiety about Cold War fascism, and so Anthony represents both Id-gone-wild and a little fascist dictator. In a sense, Dan Hollis' attempt to stand up to Anthony represents standing up against political oppression. In the Joe Dante cinematic version, Anthony is transformed in some significant ways. In this version, Anthony changes over the course of the story. By the end, he allows himself to be guided by the schoolteacher who visits the house. In this sense, the Dante version is more like a coming-of-age story. Like the movement from childhood to adulthood, Anthony discovers how to control the drives and desires of the Id. In a sense, Anthony begins to form an ego in this version. This Anthony is also the most sadistic, homicidal, and creative out of the various versions (I love the cartoon subtext in Dante's version).
In Ring, the character of Samara also represents a kind of unrepentant, homicidal Id. Basically, Samara has been seriously abused--murdered by her own mother and buried deep in a well, which is a wonderful symbol for repression. Samara, like everything that is repressed, doesn't stay repressed. Instead, she bursts forth, unleashing fury and chaos, enacting her revenge against everyone who views the videotape.
I followed a similar kind of formula when I created Bartholomew for my forthcoming horror comic, Bartholomew of the Scissors. In a sense, Bartholomew is partly inspired by Anthony and partly inspired by Samara. He also unleashes chaos in revenge for being murdered and acts out homicidal and Id-like whims.
Of course, there are many more evil children to discuss. I was very traumatized by the little boy in Pet Semetary, who is also buried and reborn, which could be another image of repression. In addition, Damien from The Omen and Regan from The Exorcist are interesting evil children because they are channeling the big baddie himself, Satan. Perhaps a topic for another LOTT D discussion. I think evil children are a constant archetype in the horror genre because everyone has to repress their Id-like whims and desires, but what gets repressed doesn't stay buried--it comes out in our worst nightmares. In my opinion, that's exactly what a good horror story is in the first place.
So there you have it. Which evil children in the horror genre instigate your nightmares? Now go out and play.
Contributing LOTT D members for this article are: