by Robyn Banks
CW: contains strong imagery of graphic and horrorific nature
Children have always had a pivotal role in the Horror genre. Often presented as the reason for the eventual defeat of the monster or villain, they demonstrate something we can physically see in our day to day lives and, for the most part, wholeheartedly love. However, children are not always the point of redemption in Horror. There have been a number of movies which juxtapose the role of the child against the norm, and present the child as the very reason that the horror exists. this paradoxical use of the child, I’d argue, is in fact even more frightening than usual because of the breaking of the naturally presumed innocence of child that is usually presented to us.
One of the first movies that springs to mind is Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Could Kill a Child? (1976). This chilling European horror tells the tale of a small Spanish island taken over by children who are viciously murdering the adults who previously lived there, and attempting to murder the protagonists who have arrived on holiday. This movie, as can be seen in the trailer, shows the way in which the presumed innocence of a child is shattered by the demonic way that they look to kill adults, and the way in which they enjoy doing it. The movie also sets out a moral question that has haunted movies following this trope since their inception: if push came to shove, could you really kill a child? Traditionally it is only the very worst in society that would ever harm a child, as seen in Wes Craven’s classic Nightmare on Elm Street, but this is subverted to make the question a genuine matter of life or death, as opposed to one of social or moral standing.
A better known use of this idea is The Omen (1976). The movie centres around Damien, a child with supernatural powers who can both control and torment people at its very will. The horror of the power of the child, who is both equally loved and despised by various characters throughout the film, stands out because of the age of Damien, who is only 5 years. This is terrifying because at such a young age a child is only expected to be innocent and loving, and to have that expectation not only questioned but entirely shattered by his actions, it horrifies the audience even more.
This is also seen in what is arguably one of the best horror movies of all time, The Exorcist (1973). Whilst the main villain may be the demon inside the child, the horror is played out through the way the once innocent child is transformed into pure demon, attacking family members and wishing death upon others. Both The Omen and the Exorcist came out within years of each other but both reinforce a fear of the child and the way that a child’s innocence can be stripped from them so quickly and so violently, especially when that violence is aimed to directly at their parents.
Most recently, two films that have stood out in their use of the child as a point of horror are The Orphanage (2007) and 2014’s Goodnight Mommy. The former explores the way in which a child’s imagination can be their scariest trait , with the main antagonist presenting a horror that most adults don’t understand. This allows to explore the psyche of a child and see how, when it is distorted as the antagonists, it offers horrifying outcomes when played out in real life. The latter, arguably the best of the modern movies to use this trope, explores the same style of ideas with twins, who star as both the main protagonists and antagonists suffering from what is presented as a unnamed syndrome or illness after their mother slips into depression after a serious facial operation. The movie shows again how quickly children’s innocence can slip away and when it does, how they can be both equally cruel and horrifying in their actions.
Both The Orphanage and Goodnight Mommy show us the chilling ways that a child’s imagination can very quickly slip into something more horrifying if the world around them changes too drastically. In these movies the child or children end up committing acts that leave the audience asking questions of the children around them, be it their own or ones they know. This question is probably what scares audiences the most, precisely as they never expect to have to question the innocence of a child, seeing them instead as a potential threat.
The examples given above show different ways in which children can be used as effective antagonists in horror films. All demonstrate the horror of the loss of innocence in children but each leaves different questions at the end. Who Could Kill a Child asks you the moral question nobody wants to answer and challenges the preconception of the answer in society. The Omen and Exorcist question the role the loss of innocence has in turning your child into a demon who only wishes to do the worst to you, literally in both cases. Finally The Orphanage and Goodnight Mommy make you question the role a child’s imagination can have in turning them evil and encouraging them to do evil things, with both movies exploring the psyche of its children after they have experienced traumatic events in their lives they don’t truly understand.
The real kicker in all of them is that the audience is left questioning, even just for a short moment, if children are as horrifying as they’re presented, and what can be done about it. And it is in that moment of doubt that these Horror movies are absolutely perfect.
Featured image: REX)(
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