Children as Antagonists
So far we’ve discussed children primarily as victims, protagonists, or glorified Macguffins. And we’ve discovered that due to the inherent traits of Innocence and Agency they fulfill those roles nicely. “But,” I can hear you saying, “that creepy kid from next door is looking at me again. Aren’t children also scary? Don’t a lot of horror movies feature creepy kids like my neighbor?” The answer is: of course! I’m so glad you brought it up. And also, close your blinds.
Let’s face it. Whether you’re a parent or non-parent, children can be nightmarish anxiety-inducers. You see, on the surface we see children as innocent and harmless and life-affirming. However, dig a little deeper and you expose a dark undercurrent of subtextual angst we associate with children that lurks down in murky depths of our psyche. Things adults don’t like to talk about in polite conversation. The reason we harbor this anxiety can be articulated partially via the following subheadings.
- 1. Children are ‘THE OTHER’: Even for parents, children can be difficult to understand. They are inarticulate. They’re selfish. They don’t play by the same rules adults do. They are receptive and open and easily manipulated. They are of us, but not us; little strangers we allow into our worlds. Sometimes they can behave in ways that are downright alien or sociopathic. In short, they’re hard for an adult to relate to. To complicate matters, they can turn on a dime and rebel, betray you, and antagonize you. They can be hurtful and cruel…on purpose. And their cruelty is at once incisive and honest. Deep down we know our claim to authority is tenuous at best. A child’s cruelty cuts to the quick because we fear it might reveal this about ourselves. And unlike adults, the impulsive little imps don’t bother to soften their words or worry about the consequences of what they say.
- Children are constant reminders of our own mortality: “Make no mistake about why babies are here,” Jerry Seinfeld famously says. “They are here to replace us.” We laugh at the joke not because it is absurd, but because we recognize the truth in it. A new generation ascends to power only in the wake of the previous generations’ decline. Our children will usurp our authority and become OUR caregivers when we are old. In short, children are walking monuments to the fact that we are on the way out and our foothold in this world is temporary.
- 3. Interacting with children can reveal our worst selves: Yes, children can bring out the best in us: charity, sweetness, good will, self-sacrifice. But, as any parent can tell you, dealing with kids is tough. You have to protect them from the outside world and themselves. They’re vulnerable, unwise, rash, and helpless. They need the help of adults. But, jeezus, they take that help kicking and screaming. They fight you, annoy you, and cry for no reason. Your self-restraint and emotional control are sorely tested. You want, quite literally, to strangle them. And a lot of people crack under the pressure. Look at the number of kids every year that are beaten, neglected, and killed by their own parents every year. Children need adults to take the high moral ground or they die or get hurt. An adult failing to do so steps into an abyss of guilt and self-loathing. Few things are more terrifying for a parent than a child dying while under their care.
So, to sum up, children make perfect antagonists because we can so easily project our own insecurities onto them, and that fact, along with our protective instincts toward them plus overriding moral and social imperatives to keep them from harm (and regard them as ‘harmless’), makes them wonderful ‘stealth’ villains–disguised by our own psychological baggage.
When a child IS revealed to be a monster, it tends to create an acute cognitive dissonance. And our first response tends to be denial. It simply cannot be so! Even as danger is plainly staring him or her in the face (or coming after them with a garden trowel), the actor[i] fails to adhere to the laws of self-preservation because their moral and psychological imperatives are asking them to act in opposition to them. Surely we’re not to harm a child! Surely it cannot be true that it intends me harm! And if I do harm or kill this child, what then? How do I live with myself? Is harming a child worth compromising my moral integrity? Perhaps there is some other way, some other explanation…
And then, of course, it is too late.
We know this sense of denial exists because we see it all of the time. Parents and caregivers deny their kids engage in substance abuse. They deny their kids’ self-destructive impulses exist. They deny their children’s sexuality is anything but aberrant or non-existent. And they deny their children are capable of violence or harm or deceit. But deep down we all know these things are facts of children’s lives because we WERE kids and we know what we were like. But we CHOOSE to remember or not remember particular things in particular ways. And we CHOOSE to not acknowledge those facets of childhood that don’t fit in with our preconceived idealization of it. Acknowledging them is disturbing.
This denial is what makes the parents’ inaction so believable in We Need to Talk About Kevin and what makes Christine Penmark’s realizations so awful and compelling in The Bad Seed. It explains why so many adults underreact when faced with a child’s malfeasance.
There are, of course, those who see children solely via the negative subtexts. The cynical people who believe that all children are up to no good. The sorts that cross the street when a group of children draws near and who gleefully espouse zero-tolerance school policies. The abusers and totalitarians who treat children like miniature adults. People, in short, who wear their fear of children on their shirtsleeves. For those people, child villains confirm what they already believe.
The truth is that kids, like adults, are neither angels nor demons, but human. Child monsters force us to confront this reality. They illustrate our failure to engage with children as complex emotional beings and point out that we need to understand them as a human whole rather than as generalizations based on our own assumptions.
That said, here are some films that get child monsters right:
- Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
- We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
- The Bad Seed (1956)
- Wake Wood (2010)
- Come Out and Play (2012)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Let the Right One In (2008)
- It’s Alive! (1974)
- Village of the Damned (1960)
- The Children (2008)
(Photo from The Wolfman Cometh.)
[i] We’ll define ‘actor’ here as any participant in a given situation or story, not necessarily a thespian.