The Sixth Sense
The Hills Have Eyes
Last House on the Left
If you guessed that each was a horror movie that featured child endangerment as a central plot point, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. You’d be correct.
So it’s no secret that kids in peril are a pretty common trope in horror media. I think it’s worthwhile, as horror consumers and producers, to take a moment and think about why. First let’s agree that few motivators are as intimate yet universally recognized as the bond between a parent and child. Most people readily accept and understand a mother’s desire to protect her infant; a father’s need to avenge his son’s death.
An audience knows on a primal level that the parental bond cuts both ways. Yes, it can bring deep satisfaction and happiness. But it is also a source of deep anxiety. Few things can drive a person to the darkest corners of the human psyche as grief for a dead child. Few things can drive human beings to extreme behavior as easily as the desire to protect a child. Synergistically speaking, horror is a genre most interested in exploiting our insecurities and forcing us to confront our anxieties head-on. It’s no surprise then that the horror genre repeatedly takes advantage of something so primeval and readily accessible.
In The Hills Have Eyes, for example, a father goes to murderous extremes (and endures a beating in the process) in order to find his infant daughter. In Last House on the Left, the parents are able to commit horrible acts of violence after their daughter has been savagely beaten and raped. In Pet Sematary, Louis Creed is driven to do the unspeakable while grieving for his dead son. A desperate mother crosses to “the other side” in order to retrieve her missing daughter in Poltergeist.
In each of these films, child endangerment drives the action well beyond the normative and the rational. No one but the depraved and the sociopathic would do this stuff unless the stakes were extremely high. Which brings us to the second really great aspect of child endangerment as a plot device: humanizing the story.
While it might, indeed, be fun or intellectually interesting to watch the depraved and sociopathic engage in misanthropic behavior[i], it doesn’t give an audience much to relate to. An underdog father fighting to save his family, however, does. People get it. Instantly. His struggle becomes the audience’s struggle. His triumphs and failures become theirs. People can relate to him, will worry for him, and squirm in their seats when things go badly for him.
Even if child endangerment isn’t driving a parent to extreme behavior, a well-characterized relationship between a parent and a child-in-peril can keep a story grounded in reality despite a maelstrom of disturbing supernatural occurrences and elicit sympathy and genuine feeling where a lesser horror might only manage a few scares.
For example, in The Sixth Sense it’s the finely drawn tension that has been simmering between Cole (Haley Joel Osment) and his mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), which leads to this emotionally charged scene.[ii] Forget the trick ending. It’s this stuff that makes the movie worth re-watching:
Having established that children in peril can supercharge the action and establish sympathy in the audience, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if it’s a good idea to include a kid in every horror script. To understand why it’s not, let’s take a look at some of the ancillary audience biases and expectations regarding children in danger.
Coming up in part II…
[i] And here I’ll say that there are many fine horror movies that, in effect, do just that. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, for example. However, these movies are less interested in drama and normal human relationships than they are in depicting horrifying possible realities. They want the audience to understand themselves as victims and drive home the Lovecraftian notion that the universe is an uncaring place and our existence here is tenuous and temporary. The catharsis comes not from the story itself, but from the viewer confronting the reality portrayed by the film, surviving, and emerging shaken but unscathed. Worth an essay in and of itself.
[ii] This of course ties into all kinds of stuff like dialog and character development. But then, no single element of a film or any work of art works alone.
R.S. Brzoska has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and is currently completing his first novel, “The First Decree,” between teaching at Kings College (Pennsylvania) and raising his children. He’s a bookworm and film geek who particularly loves the genres of horror and science fiction. Find him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/RSBrzoska
(Photo from Hello Giggles.)