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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Evil Kids in the Horror Genre: Why Do They Scare Us So Much?

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 so 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, it's 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.

This post was my contribution to a much more extended article on the topic of evil children in horror by The League of Tana Tea Drinkers that was published today by BlogCritics Magazine. Read it here.

8 comments:

Wes Fierce said...

I was still too young to go to R rated movies when Pet Sematary came out, but I remember the only thing all the big kids talked about when they got back from that movie was the baby's shoe flying through the air. I was fascinated by the idea. lol.

B-Sol said...

It really was a big deal. The loss of a child is a common theme with Stephen King, he's admitted it has to do with his own fear of losing his children.

gord said...

It wasn't the kid in Pet Semetary that freaked me out, it was that crazy girl in the attic. God, that was THE most horrifying thing I have ever experienced (when 6 or 7) in my many years of horror enjoyment.

Garg the Unzola said...

Kids are evil enough in real life as it is.

Anonymous said...

RayRay - Stephen King does dwell on the death of children or their evil corruption many times. Besides Pet Semetary, there is the threat of child death in Cujo, the brutal murders of children in The Shining, the blood thirsty lot in Children of the Corn, and the corruption of the innocent by family and peers in Carrie with attendant revenge.

Dove said...

Yes and in the book Cujo the child does actually die. But movies tend to prefer prettier endings. The creepy re-animated toddler in Pet Sematary is really quite scary and even a more recent watching of it still had me freaking a little. I think you hit upon it though that it is that loss of innocence that gets to us the most.

Great article.

B-Sol said...

Thanks Dove!

Nickolaus Pacione said...

I remember when I saw The Blob when it was on cable in 1990 -- I was going holy shit< at a kid fatality in the movie. I don't do kid fatalities myself as a writer but I am toying with an evil kid story myself. That is one of the most fucked up remakes I ever seen and it's one of the most shocking ever done in there. I read Cujo in high school as I got this as a hardcover when I was 15 years old. When I do the kid genre -- I have them encountering archaic characters like what I did with Wandering In Darkness where I did a supernatural horror story at my own expense playing off a nightmare sequence I had when I was 29 years old seeing myself at 25-26 when I was 16 years old.

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