Saw this story about “The Shining” twins — the actresses who played the creepy Grady sisters in the movie version of Stephen King’s classic apparently attended a screening of Dr. Strangelove, and that’s apparently news. It’s worth watching just for the brief clip of little Danny Torrance zooming around the corner of a hall in the Overlook Hotel, only to come face-to-face with the ghostly sisters.
That clip got me thinking, however. It’s no big revelation to observe that, for better or worse, horror writers (and films) often use children in order to help induce chills, thrills, and sometimes terror. Generally, children are used in two ways: one, as potential or actual victims of whatever evil the author has created, and two, as the perpetrator of the evil, the child that is somehow “wrong.”
I’m interested in exploring the latter in this post.
Perhaps the contemporary master of this technique is Stephen King. King often uses children as representations of innocence and/or power (think IT), but he is not averse to using them as vessels for his particular brand of horror. In addition to the aforementioned Grady sisters, perhaps his most famous use of this trope is the short story “Children of the Corn” (which spawned a subsequent movie franchise). The basic framework of an abandoned town, haunted by children who worship a creature known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” and who sacrifice adults to this creature, combines the creepiness of primeval wickedness with the awful spectacle of kids turning on their elders.
King utilizes evil children in other works. One of the scariest scenes in ‘SALEM’S LOT, for example, is when the young, vampiric Danny Glick appears at Mark Petrie’s window, scratching to be let in. Some may quibble over whether the characters in ‘SALEM’S LOT are realistic, but it’s hard to argue that this scene isn’t frightening. Hard to imagine anything more devastating then turning a child into a raving, blood-sucking machine.
And then, of course, there’s Gage Creed from PET SEMATARY. One nightmare — the death of a child — overshadowed by another — his evil reincarnation.
And there are many other examples: Damien in THE OMEN, Regan MacNeil THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY’S BABY, one of the twins in Thomas Tryon’s THE OTHER, Frank in Iain Banks’ THE WASP FAMILY. More recently there’s Michel from Herman Koch’s THE DINNER and Rosalind from Tana French’s IN THE WOODS. The list goes on-and-on.
So what is it about evil children that attract authors and readers? To some extent, of course, it’s simply that taking a symbol of innocence and turning it upside down is inherently unsettling. Horror seeks to disrupt, to unsettle, and there’s perhaps nothing more unsettling than seeing a willfully malevolent child. And I think it reminds us that children are not just wind-up toys. They are people too (kind of like Soylent Green) and they have thoughts and feelings. Who knows what goes on behind those wide-eyes?
But I think, at least for parents, there may be something else going on. If you are a Red Sox fan, you know that one of the team’s television announcers, former player Jerry Remy, has decided to return to broadcasting after his son was arrested for allegedly murdering his girlfriend. The decision carried some controversy, with some believing Jerry’s return was insensitive, and others defending Jerry’s right to his career.
What strikes me is how devastating it must be to be the parent of a child who goes so wrong. Of course, this pales in comparison to the pain felt by parents of the murdered young woman (and I by no means intend to at all slight the real victims of this tragedy). But I think most parents secretly dread that somehow their child will turn out bad, maybe not evil, but unsuccessful, not “normal” in some way. And I think horror stories driven by evil children tap into that fear just a bit. All parents fear losing their children, of course. But it’s also hard to imagine your child becoming a murderer, or a drug addict, or any of the other myriad ways people can go wrong.
Horror stories take that fear and magnify it, turning your child into murderous ghosts, sons of Satan, pathological savages, allowing us to experience the dread and fear vicariously.
After all, that could never happen to us.