As cinema’s first truly monstrous child, Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed (1956) tailors her façade to conform to adult expectations of white childhood innocence while secretly engaging in acts of murderous greed
Making “the case for child abuse,” The Bad Seed suggests in the film’s epilogue tragedy could have been averted had the mother been less maternal and taken a hand to her child.
The faceless child mob desires Elizabeth Taylor’s fine white flesh in Suddenly, Last Summer.
The feral child writ large — the boys of Lord of the Flies regress to a pre-civilized state in the absence of parental authority.
Village of the Damned presents children as active possessors of the gaze rather than passive objects of surveillance. Further, their gaze is assaultive and threatening — it probes the adult mind and controls it.
The revolting children of Village of the Damned — at once aligned with an alien futurity and the legacy of the Hitler Youth movement.
The children of Village of the Damned, though not outwardly violent, represent a threat to the social order — their reproductive alterity threatens patriarchal power.
The detonation of a bomb within a school spells the end for the child collective in Village of the Damned. Here the disciplinary space of education becomes hyperbolized as a site in which the ultimate corporal punishment secures humanity’s survival.
The cinema of the child collective has more in common with the zombie genre than it does with other monstrous childhood films like The Bad Seed or The Exorcist. Here the faceless youths of Children of the Corn surround the home in a scene not unlike Night of the Living Dead.
The child collective overwhelms their adult victims through deceit-as-play or through sheer accumulation of numbers, as here in Beware: Children at Play.
Childhood and monstrosity have an intimate and longstanding relation within the cinematic imagination. Their presence as victims has populated the screen since at least as early as 1931’s Frankenstein, as the Monster unknowingly drowned young Maria in a lake, leading a torch-bearing mob to track him in the night. Images of children as monsters themselves, or at least as perpetrators of violence, comes about slowly in the 1950s, most notably with The Bad Seed (1956), which features Rhoda Penmark as an eight year-old murderess who fashions a perfectly innocent exterior to hide her crimes. By the 1970s, however, the child monster had become a standard of the horror genre—and among its most financially rewarding subjects. I refer to these films as the cinema of “revolting childhood,” as they elicit both a disgust at and a fear of the non-normative child, but also as these are films about children in revolt against paternal authority and patriarchal institutions such as the family, the church, and the state. As Andrew Tudor notes in Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Film, the narrative emphasis of child monstrosity in horror accounted for three of the top-grossing horror films in the genre’s history:
In each of the films that Tudor mentions, a structural conflict arises between the desire to see adults strike or kill the evil child and the paralyzing impulse of parental love. Whether the parenthood is weakened by the absence of patriarchal authority (The Bad Seed, The Exorcist) or the general ambivalence of white bourgeois privilege (The Omen), these films offer a nightmare of the solitary child, capricious and hedonistic, consuming the lives of her/his parents. Strict adherents to the tenants of a Spockian “permissive” childrearing, adults are blinded and endangered by their parental (though usually maternal) devotion. As a whole, the films of monstrous childhood make what William Paul calls in his book Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy “the case for child abuse” (280).
There is a variation on this tale, however. The cinema of monstrous childhood is not limited to young boys and girls who commit acts in secret and in isolation. Nor is this conflict always confined to the boundaries of the family melodrama. Another set of films with origins in the same post-war era combine existing fears about childhood run amok in the absence of parental authority with attendant fear concerning juvenile delinquency, or what young bodies may do when together: unsupervised, uncontrolled, and undifferentiated. This article deals with groups of children as social monsters, what I refer to as the “child collective” film—with young bodies en masse, in unison, working in concert but discordant with parental society. More than simply a fear about losing control of children, these films speak to a deeply embedded fear about losing control of the future itself, with monstrously different social formations antagonistic to systems of heterosexual kinship.
Like all figurations of childhood, the child collective film has a number of rhetorical antecedents that function in varying degrees and combinations. As Henry Jenkins notes in “Innocence and Other Myths,” children are rhetorically adhesive and, in the absence of manufacturing their own representation, exist as a polysemic collection of varied (and often contradictory) semiotic investments (10). Broadly, the child-as-collective subgenre establishes a mise-en-scene of desire (to borrow Elizabeth Cowie’s term for the circulation of desires and conflicts within a text) that involves the dissolution of social boundaries and the inversion of adult/child roles. More specifically, the films focus intently on acts of surveillance by children, whose acts of looking, accompanied by silence, constitute a knowing and assaultive gaze. Further, the films function within a framework of contagion anxiety, as “good” children are easily incorporated into the collective and operate with a singular hive mentality.
This mise-en-scene of desire, with its basis in collective revolt against the family from members once interpolated as “son” or “daughter,” holds particular salience for the queer spectator. Indeed, as these child collectives consist of varied but single-minded individuals who live outside the heterofamilial and seem intent on destroying it; as they continuously draw new members into their fold—stealing them away from “good” homes; and as gays and lesbians are so often characterized as unmatured heterosexuals or hedonistic children—these films articulate both heteronormative anxiety and the pleasure of queer revolt.
In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman takes up the manner in which contemporary heteronormative social policy utilizes the figure of the Child [open notes in new window] to foreclose any opposition by assuming the mantle of those fighting “for” the children. In this, this social policy manufactures an unoccupiable position for queerness, which cannot coalesce around a politics of being “against” the children. Calling childhood the “fetishistic fixation of heteronormativity” (21), the force of Edelman’s argument lies in his advocating a queer politics that coalesces around an opposition to “reproductive futurism,” which insists on imagining a better (heterosexual, heteronormative) future “for the children.”
While I am drawn to Edelman’s political rallying call, I find his analysis of the rhetorical power of youth quite limiting. In establishing the use of the child as the anti-queer, he ignores the historical legacy of constructing Othered groups (lower class, Native Americans, African Americans, queers) as children and how these characterizations have been co-existent with those same minorities as being a threat to children. As a combination of these two traits, minorities are often characterized as bad children who may corrupt innocent or “true” children, and therefore are in need of domination or isolation from more deserving youths. As Ellis Hanson notes, the domination of the sexual body by patriarchal forces is a significant thread which links the fate of both the child and the queer subject:
“Children are queer. Their sexual behavior and their sexual knowledge are subjected to an unusually intense normalizing surveillance, discipline, and repression of the sort familiar to any oppressed sexual minority” (110).
Indeed, the queerness of revolting children is not so much that they embody the antithesis of Edelman’s reproductive futurity—where he calls upon queerness to take its place as society’s death drive—but rather that they represent a radical alterity to heteronormative development. If they seem to “arrest” the growth of a civilization, it is only because that “growth” has been myopically conceived. This promise of a unified, unstoppable, undefined fecundity stands as both the terror and the perverse pleasure of the child collective film.
A perverse orphanage
This piece concerns films with groups of children such as Village of the Damned (1960), Who Can Kill a Child? [¿Quién puede matar a un niño?] (1975), The Children (1980), Children of the Corn (1984), Beware: Children at Play (1989), and The Children (2008), and I will make references to other films when necessary. Though they vary in their portrayal of child monstrosity—some evolutionarily regressed and savage, some overcivilized and alien—child collective films share a remarkable amount of narrative cogency. Each traffics in heteronormative anxieties concerning the surveillance and control of children’s bodies to usher them along the proper channels of maturity; each is concerned about privatized and impenetrable systems of communication; and each dwells significantly upon the contagious influence of the child collective upon “good” children.
Eric Ziolkowski argues that the first representation of the monstrous child collective was in the Bible (Kings 2.23) when a group of forty-two young boys jeers and torments Elisha, the prophet. After Elisha summarily curses them in the name of the Lord, two large bears maul the youths. This binary of civilized elder/profane youth commonly characterizes groups of marauding children, as their pack-like mentality suggests a type of evolutionary regression to be feared. Where an isolated child removed from civilization may be seen as pure and uncorrupted, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, the child collective is regarded dangerous and feral. In the adaptation of Tennessee William’s gothic play Suddenly Last Summer (1959), the child collective acts as a sort of faceless, carnivorous mob delivering nature’s retribution. At the film’s climax, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) narrates the murder of queer monster Sebastian at their hands. After having sex with several of the boys from a small Spanish village, Sebastian is hunted down and eaten alive by the objects of his desire in a sequence resembling the Monster’s lynching in Frankenstein (1931). The children, dark-skinned and “ethnic” next to Taylor’s milky white skin, are the product of an uncivilized, taboo-and-totem society. Here queerness becomes aligned with whiteness and colonial power—Sebastian courts his own demise playing with the feral youths of this remote village. Indeed, the introduction of Sebastian’s sexuality seems to upset the fragile balance of the foreign land as if queerness is a contagion that releases the boys’ inner savagery. Fittingly, consumption and incorporation thematically underpin this film, as in all child collective films. By consuming Sebastian’s flesh, the children make him part of the bestial mob. Indeed, the film aligns Sebastian with the child monsters throughout the film: like them, he is a predator; like them, he has an insatiable appetite for flesh; like them, he remains faceless throughout the entire film.
Only a few years later, Peter Brooks’s adaptation of The Lord of the Flies (1963) would bring another group of savage young boys to the screen. Like William Golding’s novel, the film offers an allegorical meditation on man’s true nature, offering that in the absence of order and governance even children (or especially children) will revert to a pre-civilized, savage state. The film, shot in a raw, cinema-verité style with largely non-actors, takes aim most directly at the nostalgic, Romantic view of childhood, which holds that children are most pure and innocent in the absence of corrupting civilization. Indeed, the film seems to suggest that civilization keeps children from being too childlike. Without surveillance and disciplinary space, they regress to a pre-civilized state.
It is Village of the Damned (1960), however, that exists as the subgenre’s strongest progenitor. Its presentation of the child collective suggests not evolutionary regression and savagery, but rather a militarized alien collective that terrifies in its impenetrability to adult knowledge. In the film, Midwich, England grinds to a halt one afternoon as clocks and machinery simultaneously stop and the townsfolk become inexplicably comatose. The stasis period passes, and later the residents discover that all of the women of childbearing age have become pregnant. In five months they give birth to strange emotionless children with bizarre telepathic and hypnotic abilities—able to read the minds of others and also to direct their will. In addition, all of the children look alike (blond hair, enlarged craniums, arresting eyes) and share a hive-like group mind, learning and communicating in tandem through their psychic connection. After the children lash out against several villagers, British military officials—led by Maj. Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn)—threaten to imprison or exterminate the children. Prof. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), however, offers to tutor the children himself—including his son, David (Martin Stephens)— and learn their secrets. Eventually, he concludes that the children are the result of a large-scale alien impregnation and that the invaders plan to set up similar enclaves in other villages to propagate their species. To stave off such an invasion, Gordon kills himself and the children with a bomb that he detonates in the schoolhouse.
A few other child collectives in the Cold War are less pedophobic: These Are the Damned (1963) feature radioactive children who are held prisoner by the military industrial complex and who will repopulate the world after an inevitable nuclear fallout. The Space Children (1958) has a group of children join forces with an alien entity to stave off an apocalyptic nuclear war on Earth. Village of the Damned itself would spawn an official sequel, Children of the Damned, a more progressively-minded film in which a multiracial and international group of children are victimized by their governments and revealingly take up sanctuary in a church before being destroyed. Though disturbingly empty and easily manipulated, the children of these films ultimately maintain their innocence and thus their claims to normative childhood, and they stand as avatars for a better, wholly recognizable future.
In Who Can Kill a Child? (1975), vacationing British couple Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evie (Prunella Ransome) travel to the Spanish island of Almanzora to find the village populated only by unusual mute and secretive children. The couple discover that the children have revolted and that they murdered the adults in the village the day before, during Carnivale—an act that they refer to as “the game.”
Evie, who is pregnant, dies in what seems like an act of violence by her fetus against her, and Tom gruesomely murders several children to make his escape. In the final act, neighboring police officials murder Tom after seeing him attacking the children, and the children respond by murdering the policemen with their own firearms. As the film closes, the children plan a trip to the mainland to recruit other children in their game. Perhaps the most striking feature of the film, however, are the six-minute opening credits that play out over the stock footage of human war atrocities that disproportionately victimized children, provocatively suggesting a revenge narrative. As in Suddenly, Last Summer and The Lord of the Flies, Who Can Kill a Child? suggests a certain inhumanity and animalism in the children’s pack-like mentality. Specifically, the film visually quotes large sequences from The Birds, as children congregate like a murder of crows waiting to dispatch their unwitting prey. Revealingly, Edelman examines Hitchcock’s film as an exemplar of the anti-family, anti-heteronormative, anti-reproductive futurity pleasure that he finds in his selected texts. The suitability of Who Can Kill a Child? for Edelman’s polemic is no less sanguine: moreso, even, as the revenge of the future upon the present is no doubt the apotheosis of a queer negativity without a hope for the foreseeable future.
The cult film The Children (1980)—advertised with the tagline “Thank God they’re somebody else’s!”—features a group of five children who are transformed into black-fingernailed zombies by a radioactive cloud. Recalling These Are the Damned, the irradiated children trounce through town, killing townsfolk foolish enough to hug them—an act which immediately incinerates the victims. The children eventually converge upon John (Martin Shakar), his pregnant wife Cathy (Gale Garnett), and their young son (Jessie Abrams) who must destroy the revolting children, including the couple’s daughter, Jenny (Clara Evans). The family defeats the children by severing their hands (instruments of their homicidal hugging), and the film ends with the couple delivering their newborn amidst dismembered child bodies… only to discover the infant’s zombified black fingernails. Like The Bad Seed, the children succeed in carnage through parental paralysis, and mock “touchy-feely” approaches to child-rearing as affectionate embraces allow their incendiary attack upon adults. This film also shares common ground with The Bad Seed in the manner that cult audiences have taken up its narrative excesses with campy glee.
Children of the Corn (1984) finds newlyweds Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicki (Linda Hamilton) searching for aid in Gaitlin, Nebraska, after accidentally striking a child with their car during a cross-country trip. Finding the town abandoned, they are stalked by a cult of youths who had murdered all of the adult townspeople as sacrifices to their pagan god, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” The town is held in stasis, and the calendar in the town bar still reads 1963, as if time had not moved in many years. Burt is ultimately able to rescue Vicki and two innocent youths (who become their adopted children) by destroying the cornfield that seems to have a supernatural hold over the children. Children of the Corn reiterates the theme of an anti-familial society and contagion anxiety, and (recalling Ziolkowski’s discussion) suggests something pagan and “pre-civilized” about their congregation. Moreso, the film’s association of the child collective with the heartland and the fecundity of the plains suggests not an arresting of growth, but a different, terrible, and unrecognizable type of futurity.
Beware: Children at Play (1989), produced by horror-comedy schlock studio Troma Entertainment, is dubbed “the most extreme” picture created by the studio. Troma also holds as a badge of honor that half of its audience walked out in the film’s epic child-snuffing finale. In the film, a string of child disappearances worries the residents of a small rural town until they discover that the children have joined a cannibalistic cult that worships the ancient beast Grendel, foregrounding another connection to pre-civilization. The adults band together and with shotguns, machetes, and pitchforks take to the forest to murder their zombified offspring in a bloody finale. The film ends in massive carnage as a single boy survives, off to bring new children into the fold. The most pedophobic of the series, the “extreme” nature of the film lies in the narrative structure, which sets up graphic, though campy, child murder as its central audience enticement.
Finally, the 2008 film The Children (not an official remake) takes place during a relaxing Christmas vacation in England. Elaine (Eva Birthistle), her husband Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore), their teenage daughter Casey (Hannah Tointon), and two children join Elaine’s sister and brother-in-law along with their two children. The youths become increasingly violent and homicidal, seemingly spurred on by an unknown vector. Only Casey sees the children for dangerous monsters, but she is blamed for the events as the children cunningly cover their crimes with the performance of innocence. The film ends with Elaine acceding to Casey’s claims and, after running over her younger daughter with a car, she and Casey drive away.
In each of the films, the motivation for the formation of the child collectives is fairly opaque. In Village of the Damned, both science and the military are at a loss to explain the children’s arrival and the nature of their intentions. Huddled together around an oblong table, the adults debate theories of origin, ultimately going nowhere. They are, it seems, completely unequipped to explain the nature of these unnatural children. The Children (2008) leaves its corrupting pathogen similarly unexplained. In Who Can Kill a Child? and Children of the Corn unequipped tourists make half-hearted attempts to explain the monstrosity: the children of Gaitlin have come under the control of a pagan god; the children of Almazora might “have some instinct or have had some evolutionary development” that has led to a type of patri/matricidal madness. In fact, what is fairly remarkable about these films is the complete lack of what Tudor calls the “expert” figure, either as a scientist or one of his/her replacements, such as a psychiatrist, seer, old man/woman, book of lore, scientific text, or archived documents (113).