I had the pleasure of presenting this paper at the MAPACA Fall Conference in Philadelphia, 2011 on Lisa Miller’s Horror Panel. Afterwards, The Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association printed the work in their The Gazette. Unfortunately, the publication from that year is no longer available online, so I present it here. Enjoy:
The Kids Aren’t All Right:
Horror Movies Remind Us that Protecting Children at Home is an Illusion
by William D. Prystauk
© 2011, Crash Palace
To be successful, a horror movie must play off existing fears to extract that all important jolt from the audience. This means the basics: isolation, being surrounded by unreliable people, finding one’s self to be helpless (due to lack of phones, weapons or knowledge of surroundings), no escape routes, unforeseen threats and where the ordinary becomes Freud’s “the uncanny.” In addition, one of the most ordinary, and at times taken for granted elements in our lives, is the home. A home is our refuge, our fort – our protective womb. The place where we expect to be protected. Yet, this is most often exploited in horror movies where our beloved and sacred homes become prisons, torture chambers and tombs.
No wonder so many horrors are home based, where we see a family enter their new, happy house only to find it possessed, or haunted (by the ethereal or the corporeal). In these instances, especially with family based horror fair, such as Poltergeist or The Amityville Horror, the audience usually becomes invested in wanting to see the children saved from ghosts, demons and serial killers. Now that the protective walls of the home have been breached by outside forces or from internal netherworld forces, audiences long to sigh in relief as the children make it out alive, with the family unit intact, of course, thus increasing the suspense. Even many audience members without children of their own long to see the outcome where kids and teens survive to enjoy another day.
But what if the child is the source of horror? What if the ones we are sworn to protect – love to protect – bring us grief, pain and even death? To do this, we’ll look at three different movies that approach the issue from different perspectives: 1956’s The Bad Seed, 2002’s A Tale of Two Sisters and 2010’s The Last Exorcism.
The home protects each of us as if a womb – and this is not to feminize the home by any means. It is that the home nurtures us, helps us grow as if we are indeed in a womb manufactured outside the forces of nature. Therefore, whether young or old, we feel familiar and at ease with our surroundings because we have grown within them as we once did in our mother’s bodies. As Gaston Bachelard states in The Poetics of Space, “A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability” (17). Yet we are never made aware of this illusion of stability until disaster strikes: a break-in, a fire, or even flood damage, as examples. Horror movies, however, are apt to remind us of our delusions in short order.
This illusion of stability, or its shattering to be more precise, is clearly evident in 1973’s The Exorcist where Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) could not protect her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair) from being possessed by a demon – nor could the mother drive the demon out herself. Instead, she remained completely helpless as others tended to her daughter. Exorcism, the act of extracting a demon from a human host, has been a prevalent theme in horror movies, where the possessed is usually a child or teenager. And although the exorcism movies may have been prevalent in the seventies, thanks to the success of The Exorcist, there has been a resurgence in the new millennium with the “fact” based The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005, followed by
Exorcismus (2010), and Insidious and The Rite (2011). The most interesting of the films, however, is Daniel Stamm’s 2010 hit, The Last Exorcism.
Taking place in the back woods of Baton Rouge, The Last Exorcism is a mockumentary that follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) as he uses tricks and illusions to extricate a demon in the possession of Nell Sweetzer (Ashely Bell) because he at first believes the teen is only acting out for attention. Once the reverend realizes Nell is truly possessed, he does everything possible, including putting his life on the line, to save the girl.
The most intriguing aspect of the film, however, is Nell’s fundamentalist father, Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum). He is convinced, beyond a doubt, that his daughter has a demon inside her, which is a far cry from what the reverend thinks is happening. Cotton Marcus sees Nell as a tormented teenager not just undergoing hormonal changes, but she may be suffering from emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her father – a strong personality not to be thwarted. Louis, concerned for his daughter’s soul and what she might unleash upon the world if she remains possessed, has other concerns regarding his modest home tucked away in the woods. He has a wife and three other children to protect.
Playing the role of the fundamentalist Christian father, where Louis’ home is his castle and his family is his responsibility, he is out to protect them at all costs. Throughout the movie, Louis deteriorates as Nell’s condition worsens. No longer hoping for the reverend to save his daughter, Louis must save her soul – and the remainder of his family – by killing her. Though this act may seem ridiculous, cruel and in exact opposition to his beliefs, Louis is a desperate man, and by killing his own daughter, he will in fact live up to his requirements as protective father, and will thus maintain the safety of the home. After all, Nell’s soul is far more important in his Christian mindset than her physical being. The Sweetzer home, as a collective, as a family, must be protected and maintained even at the cost of one of its members. Louis would rather remove his daughter than see the rest of the family tainted or destroyed by what possesses her.
The final act, as the demon within claims more of Nell, pits Cotton Marcus and his renewed faith in exorcism against Louis’ Old Testament need to sacrifice his daughter.
Usually, in most horrors affecting the children of the home, the parents are more than willing to sacrifice themselves for their children at any cost. And we see this in The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Funny Games to name a few. But The Last Exorcism was not the first to present a parent finding no other recourse but to kill his or her own child.
In 1956, The Bad Seed, based on William March’s celebrated novel and successful Broadway play, brings us eight year old, Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), full of sugary sweet Eddie Haskel like praising and well wishes – the “smart ass” kid always out to pull a fast one on friends and strangers with a smile and placations. Though not possessed by a demon like Nell Sweetzer, little lovely Rhoda is evil incarnate. She wants things her way at all costs and is not afraid to kill to make that happen, such as drowning classmate Claude Daigle to get a medal for penmanship Rhoda felt she deserved. As the boy’s “accident” and Rhoda’s nonchalant behavior about the death continue to plague the mind of her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly), it is clear that Rhoda’s protector is on to her.
Though the book explores the notion of “nature” versus “nurture”, the movie is more concerned with the mother and how she will handle the situation with Rhoda. After all, Christine is in a quandary: How could people ever believe her darling princess to be a murderer? Seeing no way out, Christine decides to do what she must: Kill her own daughter before she kills again. But this decision is not reached quickly and it is not taken lightly. As the story progresses, Christine’s desperation rings loud and clear. She suffers in silence and her anxiety grows as she watches Rhoda manipulate, hurt and steal from those around her. When a handyman is almost burned to death at the tender hands of Rhoda, the mother realizes she must act.
In this instance, however, Christine has no other purpose than to protect the world around her. And since Christine realizes she also killed someone in her past and that her genes may be responsible for the creation of another monster, after poisoning Rhoda and putting her to bed for her final sleep, the mother attempts to take her own life. Here, the once safe and vibrant home has turned into an emotional torture chamber and now looms to become a death chamber. In the safety and seclusion of home, Christine initiates the final act that will remove them both from society. Interestingly, the mother leaves no note behind to explain her actions to a world that will in no doubt be bewildered and will condemn her for her terrible actions. It is as if nothing exists now but the home as a prison where both mother and daughter will be put to death behind closed doors. This is very fitting because the mother never seems to even leave the home and had already made herself a prisoner long ago because of her horrific nightmares. Subconsciously, Christine knows she has killed and treats herself as if she is under house arrest for her crime. Once she realizes Rhoda is following in her wake, there is no choice but to do what she may have wanted for herself a long time ago.
Christine was clearly in a state of denial about herself as well as her daughter, and she needed a large amount of evidence before getting over the fact that Rhoda is not a sweet little angel, but an envious perfectionist hellbent to get everything she ever wanted – with the cool lack of conscience one would expect from an assassin. Then again, what parent would not be in denial? Granted, there are no absolutes, but many can only envision their offspring as angelic souls that respect others. After all, if the child is truly a “bad seed”, then parents must share in the blame – especially an eight-year-old girl. And we can not imagine any parent wants to see himself or herself as a failure in child rearing, hence the denial. Furthermore, there must be an element where parents convince themselves that they can make the situation “right” because a child can not be held accountable for such violent acts – the parent simply failed on the grandest of scales. Again, denial and the lack of acceptance that the child is his or her own person with a propensity for choosing to be good or evil.
Denial is certainly a key factor in most horrors involving children and teens in the home. In the riveting, A Tale of Two Sisters the father, Bae Moo-hyeon (Kap-su Kim) is in such denial about his one daughter’s apathetic condition, he can barely look at her and he functions like a robot, even though Bae soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim) is bitter, angst ridden and self-involved. The father’s denial is so deep, and he has become so impotent as a husband, a father and a man, he invites guests to visit his emotional torture chamber of a home for a sit down dinner that goes horribly awry. It’s not until near the end of the film where the father, so wrought with sadness and despair that he clearly becomes a truly broken man, just matter-of-factly tells Bae soo-mi everything she needs to know about her sister, her mother and her world, and simply walks away leaving his daughter absolutely dumbfounded. His denial and depression are so deep, because he has failed so miserably as a husband and father, he knows he cannot cope with his daughter’s distress and abandons Bae soo-mi in her moment of revelation.
In all three films, the daughters have threatened the family dynamic whether by their own hand or via possession, turning the home into a house of horror. Where peace and comfort should reign supreme, anxiety and fear take hold, threatening, dissecting and destroying the family unit. Moviemakers, playing on the fears that an enemy can lurk within, compounded by the fact that the enemy is a child that should otherwise be protected and that the parents are virtually helpless, whether by choice or other means, creates an unsettling sensation in the minds of the audience, to say the least.
Yet there is another element at play. When thinking of “children gone wrong” in the horror genre, these films come to mind: The Omen from 1976, The Good Son (1993), The Children (2008) and 2010’s Insidious. They are important because they represent but a handful of instances where the child causing grief in the home involves boys. Most tales have girls at the centerpiece for evil, possession and mayhem. But why?
Author Armin Brott, whom Time labeled “the superdad’s superdad” says that “As our children grow, we remain more protective of girls than boys.” Although this seems too prevalent in western society, women and young girls around the world are still the primary victims of abuse, from genital mutilation to early marriage, human trafficking and forced prostitution, which is confirmed by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and countless other worldwide institutions and their numerous studies. Yet a strong dichotomy exists because the “damsel in distress” archetype is still heavily relied upon in horror movies.
One of the world’s oldest female archetypes, the poor damsel, is in need of saving throughout all genres of literature and film, and from a multitude of different cultures. “The shadow side of this archetype mistakenly teaches old patriarchal views that women are weak and teaches them to be helpless and in need of protection” (“A Gallery”). Therefore, the audience’s role is significant. Like the parents, or heroes in the movie, we collectively want the girl to be saved. Call this Lamia’s and Krieger’s “White Knight Syndrome” without the romantic attachment. As Dr. Lamia told me in regard to so many young woman being the prime attraction to horror in the home, “I am not sure about the choice of young girls in distress by filmmakers, but would speculate that it could be the utilization of gender bias – the erroneous perception that females are more vulnerable or emotional, and therefore subjects with whom a viewer would likely empathize.” This “perception of vulnerability” may be the key because attractiveness does not seem to play a role. Many of the girls, such as The Exorcist’s Regan and Poltergeist’s Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), and even the ruthless Rhoda from The Bad Seed, are presented as “cute” and innocent. Although Bae soo-mi is an attractive young woman, this is a secondary characteristic to her mental state, and in the film her character is usually under many layers of clothing and indulges in little cosmetics. Finally, in The Last Exorcism, Nell is presented as a homely young teen. Regardless of the overall intentions, even for those audience members without children, there is a need to reach through the screen and rescue the child from the clutches of evil – let us say this reaction is akin to “it takes a village.”
If sex appeal is not the main factor in choosing young women or girls to be at the center stage of horror in the home, it must be the notion from filmmakers that females are still considered “the weaker sex” and better represent true innocence. However, filmmakers may be playing off an audience’s misconception of the weaker sex, where moviegoers see the female “victim” as innocent when she is actually callous, especially in the case of Rhoda Penmark where the child is a dichotomy – sugar and spice in its umpteenth form. Therefore, horror movies are not necessarily exploiting girls or laughing at a parent’s perspective of seeing their child as angelic when they are not. Horror movies showcasing the child as an enemy from within is simply exposing a truth that certainly may exist, which cateogorizes these films as cautionary tales. Dr. Heide, professor of criminology at the University of Florida, says in a CBS News article that “On average, about five parents are killed by their biological children in the United States every week” (“Q&A”) and in a twenty-four year study, “Girls younger than 18 were the killers in 20 percent of the matricide incidents committed by juveniles” (“Q&A”). And, sadly, the US Census Bureau continues to turn out statistics revealing that juvenile crime is alive and well. Horror movies dealing with this type of subject matter, whether the young brute is male or female, “pull out the tenets of the human experience and examine them in their ugliest guise, to hopefully be more honest about the things that destroy us from within, and change our ways” (Bishop).
Ultimately, there seems to be no end to having children, especially girls, as the motivating force behind horror in the home. This is the last thing we expect as parents and as adults in society: to find a child responsible for ruining a family and its figurative home from the inside – rotting a house as if afflicted with blight. Even though we may not understand why violent home invasions occur, we can grasp that negative external forces were trying to get something from within a protective structure. Yet, to have a home shattered by a family member that lives within its walls, a true domestic terrorist – a traitor – stuns us and leaves us torn between saving the child or finding no other recourse but to destroy the child. And this double- edged sword of rescue and retribution will no doubt keep moviegoers on edge for many more horror movies to come.
“A Gallery of Archetypes.” MetaReligion. StrasoSphere, 27 OCT 2007. Web. 01 Sep 2011.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. Print.
Bishop, Ally. “Arrived.” Message to William D. Prystauk. 05 Sep 2011. E-mail.
Brott, Armin. “The Difference Between Boys and Girls.” Canadian Parents – Canada’s Parenting Community. Rogers Digital Media, 2011. Web. 01 Sep 2011.
Heide, Kathleen M. “Q&A: Why Kids Kill Parents.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive Inc., 10 Apr 2010. Web. 23 Sep 2011. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/04/10/48hours/ main6383938.shtml>.
Lamia, Dr. Mary. “Speaking Inquiry via Psychology Today.” Message to William D. Prystauk. 01 SEP 2011. E-mail.
(Photo from a scene of A Tale of Two Sisters from Fangoria.)