There is something inherently off putting when children are the main focus in a horror film. We see children as a source of innocence, naivety, we want to protect them and shield them from all the evil in the world as much as we can. But what horror (or the other sub genres like thrillers, dramas) presents to us that sometimes the evil can linger within the child. It’s the idea of nature vs. nurture, how we raise the children versus the environment they are pushed in. It’s something you don’t see often in horror today. And considering the state of the world these days, we won’t for a good while. Throwing a child(ren) character in horror is a surprise. Maybe not as much now…
So we’re going to talk about a more serious topic, get you think about a new topic.
This idea has been lingering in my brain for quite some time. I want to say around the time I started to work on the top 10 favorites episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Between that show and Goosebumps, children and young adults are the main focus.They are the audience. RL Stine, the creator and writer of the Goosebumps books stated that when he writes for his young audience, “When I write for kids, I have to make sure they know what can’t happen. They have to know it’s a fantasy. But when I write for adults, they have to think it’s real. Every detail has to be real or they won’t buy it.” Now that you have read this quote, think back to the various books and adaptations of Goosebumps. Hell, it even works for AYAOTD. There has to be a good amount of fantasy to make the audience feel comfortable knowing “oh this really can’t happen”.
But as I was looking through my own collection of films and realized that despite growing up around these times, there’s a handful in my collection of putting children and young adults within a horror film’s surroundings where there is no fantasy. There is no “this can’t happen” because… there’s a small amount of truth and validity that says otherwise.
Let’s lump them into two categories: the films where they are unknowingly surrounded by danger and at the other end of the spectrum, they themselves are the danger.
The latter will be discussed first.
In 1993, a film called The Good Son (image above) was released starring a young Elijah Wood as Mark Henry, a young boy who is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle after his mother had died. The film also stars Macaulay Culkin as Henry, a cousin to Mark who… displays a disturbing amount of psychopathic behavior and as a fascination with death. It was here that I was exposed to the concepts of how children can be capable of evil.
A young Michael Myers slaughters his sister for no apparent reason in John Carpenter’s Halloween and is mostly addressed as “evil”, having the blackest eyes. Alice, Sweet Alice (right image) tackles the idea of whether or not the main character was indeed influential in letting someone do the dirty work for her a la the death of her sister, estranged father and attempted murder of a family friend in a priest. Could Village of the Damned fall into the same category? Or The Brood, which is a mother’s anger manifested through her children with scars and deformed. How about Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, children and young people bound together to worship “he who walks behind the rows” and as many examples I can give (The Omen, Sinister, Goodnight Mommy, Pet Sematary), this category is the one that I wonder is the one most people would be against. Because it goes against what we have been taught as a culture, we as the audience doesn’t know to digest it.
When you go to the opposite end of the spectrum to protect and shield children from harm’s way, there’s still the uncomfortable-ness present but not as much as the other. The nuture presents itself. If we can save the kids, we did our job. If we can steer our kids from the dangerous pathway, we as a society did good. Stephen King’s IT, The Mist, Cujo and Stand By Me qualifies, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, Hereditary (I consider it a thriller with horror elements), The Night of the Hunter, Halloween 4, The People Under the Stairs, The Sixth Sense, Poltergeist and… I have exhausted myself.
In conclusion, children in horror represents this deep suppression of fear having to turn on something we associate with innocence or purity. We are forced to confront ourselves on what we as a society would do. We have to fight against the umbrellas we put over our heads: “nature” which is your behavior dictated by genetics or “nurture”, the behavior developed due to your surroundings/environment.
Just remember these are horror movies that are to either reflect what’s going on in society or take us from reality. The longer you think about this subject, the harder the answer will be.