Posted by Susan Doll on October 27, 2014
As Halloween week begins, horror fans look forward to an array of scary movies offered by cable television networks who promise marathons of new favorites and familiar classics. TCM joins this week’s fright fest by showcasing Dracula movies and horror anthologies on Tuesday, ghost stories on Thursday, and a full “24 Hours of Horror” on Halloween.
In the line of duty as a movie historian, I have watched films from all eras of horror—from the genre’s German Expressionist beginnings to contemporary Grand Guignol gore-fests like Saw. While my personal favorites are heavy on gothic atmosphere, I tend to feel the most anxiety during stories with murderous clowns, psycho ventriloquist dummies, and killer dolls. However, one type of horror tale freaks me out like no other—stories with creepy kids. I confess that I am not remotely maternal, and I am inclined to believe that children in real life are only one step removed from those in horror films. It’s just that most of the world is blinded by sentimentality and look upon children as bastions of innocence. In reality, the little whelps are only waiting for their chance to bash in our skulls so they can take over, forcing us to listen to Justin Bieber and watch endless Transformers sequels. Below are ten horror films that nearly did me in with their creepy kid characters.
Nature vs. nurture was a theme in The Bad Seed (1956) starring Patty McCormick as child sociopath Rhoda Penmark. Rhoda’s mother, Christine, suspects her sweet-faced, pig-tailed daughter murdered a classmate, prompting her to investigate her own parentage. The adopted Christine discovers her real mother had been a serial killer and she has passed on the bad seed to her child. The word “sociopath” is never used, but the film offers a fairly modern depiction of the symptoms of that disorder: Rhoda has no conscience and no understanding of emotions; she kills her puppy, which is a stepping stone toward murdering humans; and she gets her way by manipulating adults with her calculated little kid’s charm.
When I was little girl, my mother and I watched Village of the Damned on television while my father was at work. It frightened both of us, and this may have been the film that left me with a life-long aversion to creepy kids—onscreen and off. On seeing it again years later, I realized that the depiction of super-children as Aryan-looking blonds evoked Hitler’s plan for a master race, a subtext that would have resonated with audiences in 1960—just 15 years after WWII.
While The Bad Seed is a thriller, The Innocents—another film with seemingly virtuous children—is a traditional gothic ghost story based on Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr plays the new governess who is convinced that her two charges are possessed by the tainted ghosts of a former governess and valet. Without the use of elaborate make-up or special effects, director Jack Clayton made common household settings seem frightening and ordinary children evil. Of course, given my opinion of domesticity, this seemed more like a documentary.
Directed by Robert Mulligan, The Others (1972) is a little-known horror flick about twin boys who grow up on a farm with their grandmother. The twins are psychic like their grandmother, though one boy is evil and the other good. The twins make up a doppelganger, representing the duality of childhood: Kids are at once totally innocent and brutally self-absorbed.
Based on Stephen King’s novel, Salem’s Lot (1979) was originally a TV mini-series directed by horror auteur (horr-teur?) Tobe Hooper. There are many frightening moments in the series, but the most excruciating scene occurs after the adolescent friend of young Lance Kerwin has died and turned into a vampire. While Kerwin sleeps, the little-boy vampire hovers outside the second-story window, floating in mid-air and scratching on the glass with his newly long fingernails. He begs Kerwin to let him in, banking on their friendship while he was alive to persuade him to open the window. Salem’s Lot is yet another reason that I don’t like open curtains in my house, and I don’t look out a window at night—you just never know what’s on the other side.
The little girl turns into a ghoul and eats her parents in Night of the Living Dead (1968): Is it just me, or is this a metaphor for parenthood?
At once a horror story and a political allegory, Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) made me simultaneously fear the ghost child and feel great sympathy for him. This film not only proves how smart the genre can be but also showcases del Toro’s talents. All the more reason I was so disappointed in him for taking on Pacific Rim.
No list of creepy kids would be complete without the Grady girls from The Shining (1980)—the twin daughters of the hotel’s bartender who are doppelgangers for Danny and his imaginary friend Tony. Their empty expressions and dead eyes are the very essence of a ghostly apparition. Their subtle eeriness frightens me much more than Linda Blair’s overwrought make-up in The Exorcist. Don’t get me wrong: I love William Friedkin’s entry into the horror genre, but because I believe little Regan has disappeared to make way for the Devil, I just don’t think of her as a child. Creepy kids are creepy because they look like kids—once removed.
At the turn of the millennium, Japanese horror tales featuring deadly ghost children began to influence the genre. Pasty-faced, hollow-eyed Toshi Saeki of Ju-on was not only frightening because of his appearance but also because he could pop up anywhere—even outside the haunted house. When the ghosts do not follow the rules set forth by the genre, the effect is doubling unsettling for the audience. Ju-on was remade as The Grudge, which some critics dismissed as just a remake, but I found it equally as frightening.
The Ring, an American remake of the Japanese horror flick Ringu, was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Gore Verbinski. The subtext of the film is a swipe at our modern-day, high-tech society in which too-busy parents depend too much on electronic “babysitters”—in this case, television and videos. This mistake comes back to haunt them in the form of the ultra-creepy, stringy-haired Samara, who climbs out of television sets to destroy her next victim. You might want to re-think that Ipad or Smart phone for your six-year-old.
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