Problems with Children in Horror Movies
Early in the 2011 movie Citadel there is a scene that pulls me out of the narrative without fail every time I see it. It stops me cold.
The protagonist, a young widowed father named Tommy, is home alone one evening with his infant daughter. He’s been having a hard time. And he’s been seeing some things that, for reasons I won’t explain here, can best be described as disturbing.
So he is alone with his daughter. He sees a hypodermic needle on the floor. Puts the child down to inspect. The lights go out. He LEAVES HIS DAUGHTER ON THE FLOOR in the dark with the needle while he goes to investigate.
I imagine the intended effect here was to build up some tension, create a little suspense. But instead of sitting on the edge of my seat, I’m slapping my forehead thinking: “For the love of god, get your fucking kid!”
The problem is that the first instinct for most parents in this sort of situation is to pick up their infants and keep them close in order to protect them. No parent worth their salt would let their child crawl around crying in the dark while potential danger lurked around the corner. And then there’s the goddamn needle! Don’t get me started about the fucking needle. The scene doesn’t work the way it’s intended because the character doesn’t behave the way a parent behaves. The verisimilitude is shattered. And in a movie like this—like most horror movies–that’s scene-death.
What I conclude is that either the writer didn’t really know or think about how parents react in emergencies or did know and forewent the natural action for the sake of pumping a few extra chills in the movie. I bring it up because—though we’ve touched on many of the positives of using child characters in horror movies–it’s illustrative of the problems that can arise should you choose to do so. [i]
Before we proceed, let’s articulate the assumptions from which we’ll be working. First, consider that horror movies, more so than many genres, rely on an adherence to anthropocentric realism. For good reason. We can see why if we break it down thusly:
- Horror movies are typically depictions of human interactions with unknown and or/nihilistic forces or entities.
- These depictions are dramatizations of real human fears (both universal and contextual) and existential crises.
- In order to appropriately heighten and dramatize these fears, artists embody them in forms that are grotesque, fantastic, supernatural, monstrous, and inhuman.
- The viewer understands these forms as both ‘real’ (in terms of the narrative) and unreal[ii] (not actual; a fiction, though perhaps possible). The forms operate at both a literal (monster/antagonist) and figurative (metaphorical/symbolic) level.
- In order to accept these forms as ‘narratively real’ and feel fear and dread, the viewer must relate to a sympathetic anthropocentric entity within that narrative. Namely, human characters behaving acceptably human within the context of the world presented by the book or film.[iii] These entities act and react in ways the viewer might.
- A film that does not have sympathetic human characters that behave consistently will fail to present its forms as ‘narratively real’ and will fail to elicit fear and dread.
In short: no nod to anthropocentric realism, no horror. Given the sheer amount of fantastic crap going on in the typical horror movie (killers that don’t die, the dead rising, alien invasions, ghosts, monsters, etc…) a well-established human point-of-view is required or the viewer is going to be confused, disgusted, bored, or interested but not terrified. Any way you look at it, that’s failure for a horror movie.
So for a movie like Citadel, which couches its horror in the gritty and realistic world of present day working-class Ireland and relies on this realism to suck the viewer into its world, deviations from normal behavior are magnified and getting them right becomes critical. If a writer manipulates character, the viewer in turn becomes aware that they are manipulated. The writer risks pulling the viewer out of narrative they’ve so painstakingly constructed.
So this is where kids get tricky. Make the wrong decision with a kid in a horror movie, goodbye horror. Here are the most frequent ways this happens:
- A. The writer doesn’t understand children; children or parents behave unrealistically (by accident). Offenders: Mikey, Home Movie.
- B. Predictability. If there is a child protagonist, chances are they’re going to live. Offenders: Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, War of the Worlds (2005).
- C. Cliches. The prescient kid-seer; the staring creepy kid; kids who draw creepy things; kids who say creepy things. Offenders: Hide and Seek, Sinister, Dark Touch
- D. Bad Acting. Need I say more? Offenders: The Shining, Aliens, The Purge
Now, these won’t necessarily sink your movie all by themselves. Indeed, if the rest of the film is solid they can be overcome. For example, every time little Danny Torrance comes on the screen in The Shining I cringe. But I still love the movie overall. However, let’s face facts here: most movies aren’t The Shining.
[i] By ‘human’ we may include beings that were once human and/or share human values. For example, Abigail Breslin’s character in 2012’s HAUNTER or even the titular robot from WALL-E (2008), who stands for human values lost in that film’s universe.
[ii] Yes, even ‘realistic’ horror as depicted in films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Men Behind the Sun are at some level ‘not believable’ despite the fact that what they depict either has really happened or is possible. Their function is to show the real-but-unbelievable and ask the viewer: “How is it that this could be true?”
[iii] For example, Henry Spencer in ERASERHEAD (1977) behaves oddly but consistently in David Lynch’s bizarre universe and his everyday actions, annoyances, and desires are recognizably human.
(Photo from Blogs.Indiewire.)