Like any artist, it’s worthwhile for a horror writer considering using the child-in-peril trope to think roundly about both what his/her audience expects and what the story’s needs are. How far are you willing to go? How comfortable are you with going there?
As hinted at in part one, child harm is a huge cultural and psychological taboo. The very idea induces anxiety in most people. Take a look at the train station shoot-out in Brian DePalma’s great The Untouchables:
Here, DePalma adds an extra layer of suspense to an already tense scene through the simple addition of a child in a carriage. Note how never once, in the midst of all the carnage, does DePalma let the audience lose track of the carriage—even with all the gunfire, the pram wheels on the stairs can be heard clunking metronomically in the background throughout the scene. We even see a bullet pass through the stroller, only to be granted some relief a few seconds later with a cut to the still-intact infant inside. That relief is short-lived, however, as we’re only reminded by that bullet how mortally serious the situation is.
The scene is executed perfectly and the child-in-peril trope is used to excellent effect. After being put through the wringer, the audience is allowed to breathe easier at scene’s end. The baby is safe, the good guys win. But isn’t it weird that we feel this sort of anxiety over ninety seconds of a baby carriage bouncing down the stairs, yet we don’t quite feel the same way about films like The Hunger Games[i], A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th—which also feature children-in-peril?
Why is that? Well, there are two concepts at work here and both are central to dramatic horror: Innocence and Agency.
Let’s start with Innocence, which we can define (as per Dictionary.com, thank you very much) as any combination of these applicable qualities: Absence of Sin, Naivety, Lack of Guile, A Dearth of Knowledge or Undertstanding, Guiltlessness. Innocence is important dramatically because, by and large, people want to see bad people get punished and good people rewarded. In short, we like to see victims deserve their fate in horror movies as they so often don’t in real life. We also tend to feel unconsciously and preternaturally protective of The Innocent. And young children are the very embodiment of Innocence in all its facets. The quality of Innocence is why the virgin always seems to live in slasher films and why it feels so satisfying to watch (SPOILER ALERT) the character of Kazan walk away unscathed in 1997’s Cube.
The other side to the same metaphorical coin is Agency, which we can define simply as the ability to make moral decisions and act independently. Part of the fun of watching horror movies comes from watching people fight back against a malevolent force. Or at least be able to flee from it. In a nutshell, Agency means characters are at least somewhat responsible for their fate.
What we find is that the properties of Agency and Innocence tend to be to some degree inversely proportional. A character with a high degree of Agency tends to lack perceived Innocence while the most Innocent characters tend to lack a high degree of Agency.[ii] Infants and small children tend to lack Agency and are therefore Innocent and vulnerable. Your standard teenager, however, has a high degree of Agency, just like an adult. Our protective instincts aren’t engaged. Hence, we squirm mightily through a ninety-second carriage scene, but eat popcorn through ninety minutes of teen carnage.
Then, of course, there are the in-betweeners. The kids like Glen, Al, and Terry in 1987’s The Gate, or Regan in The Exorcist or Cole in The Sixth Sense. Kids between the ages of eight and fourteen, who are in many ways naïve to the world, yet have the capacity to be intelligent actors therein. The can be knowledgeable but have a limited capacity to act on that knowledge. Or they can be naifish, with enough ability to impulsively act to imperil themselves or others. They are complex and ambiguous in ways adults cannot be. They can also engage our protective instinct to some degree.
The end result is that we end up with three broad but essential categories when it comes to child characters:
- Those with a high degree of Innocence/low degree of Agency (infants, small children, the mentally/physically disabled).
- Those with a high degree of Agency/mixed degrees of Innocence (Late teens).
- Those with some degree of Agency/some degree of Innocence (children roughly between the ages of eight and fourteen, the mentally/physically disabled).
Each of these categories can fulfill a base dramatic need or the author or screenwriter. Each has its pros and its cons. We’ll look at those in more detail next.
[i] I want to take a moment here and acknowledge the weird genius of The Hunger Games (and, by association, Japan’s Battle Royale) and the way it squirmily induces its audience to root for child-murder by way of rooting for Katniss.
[ii] This can include not only small children, but the mentally and/or physically disabled as well. The example that jumps immediately to mind would be the character of Jakob Trimble from the 2011 film Scalene.
(Photo of Kazan from CUBE by Logsoku.com.)