The prologue to Who Can Kill a Child?, which outlines the atrocities of adult culture that disproportionately affect children, setting the stage for generational warfare.
One of several scenes in Who Can Kill a Child? that seems to echo Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, here the child collective slowly gathers behind their prey — the mother of a recently converted youth. In this perverse reworking, children are not victims, but agents of a vengeful supernature.
A consistent motif in the child collective film is the inversion of power relationships through surveillance. Illustrated by these shots from Children of the Corn and Who Can Kill a Child?, children observe, report, and ultimately control the movement of adult bodies.
The eyes have a prominent place in the cinema of revolting childhood, as in this still from The Fury, where psychic rage is channeled through the eyes.
The typical “arrival” sequence in the child collective film (here from Children of the Corn): the adults discover an abandoned town; the adults abandon their vehicle to aid a child decoy; the children observe and eventually trap the adults.
Here in Village of the Damned, adults witness a grotesque reversal as their wills are molded by the next generation — causing this man to take his life with a rifle he once aimed at the children.
Adults must secure all borders to stave off invasion in Village of the Damned. Here Prof. Zellaby imagines a brick wall to protect against a breach of his mind.
Working in concert, youths surround adults in the cinema of the child collective.
Most of the films, however, leave the explanation up to some unexplainable, or perhaps incidental, cause related to notions of survival or social Darwinism. It is perhaps Who Can Kill a Child? which is most provocative in this regard. Its framing narrative suggests (with information available to the viewer but not the protagonist) that these children—and by extension, all children—constitute a justifiable revolution against the adults who systematically murder them in genocidal numbers through acts of aggression towards one another. Indeed, the title of the film itself is trenchantly ironic. Adults in the film anxiously debate the ethical implications of murdering a single child for survival while, culturally, thousands of children die every day due to war and lack of adult intervention. Indeed, further inquiry into this film reveals its links The Birds to be more than cosmetic: likewise, Hitchcock’s film suggested a form of evolutionary revenge which allowed disparate species of birds to band together against a common enemy. Indeed, The Birds can be seen as a progenitor of what Tudor refers to as the “supernature” horror film that would dominate the genre in the 1970s, in which man is threatened by “the exceptional malevolence of supernature often directed at the innocent self” (67). As in the supernature films, the revolting children turn suddenly upon their adult counterparts, seemingly without warning or cause.
All territorializing, totalizing progress, the child collective is a degraded future without a past. As Kathryn Bond Stockton notes in her analysis of queer childhood representations, the queer child is this kind of pastless monstrosity—the uncreated creation who must kill the straight child in order to come into being. [open endnotes in new window] In normative culture, the queer adult, too, never was a queer child—but a straight child who ceased existence when s/he was led astray, possessed, corrupted, lost, damaged, or killed. As Stockton notes,
In the good child’s place is something hedonistic, selfish, libidinally-obsessed, and unconcerned with continuing its legacy or its family line. In “The Future is a Monster,” Amit Rai takes up the image of Dorian Gray, a queer monster if ever there was one, to articulate a notion of the “degraded monster” which gives itself over to
The word choice here should resonate with any individual who has encountered the anti-queer diatribes of the religious Right or the normalizing rhetoric of conservative gay agencies. Ellis Hanson’s article “Undead” offers a compelling analysis of the characterization of queer men (particularly during the AIDS crisis) as diseased pariahs, endlessly fucking their way into nihilistic oblivion. It should come as no surprise, then, that the queer futurity of the child collective is wed to an attendant anxiety about influence, contagion, and disease. Queers, like revolting children, seem to come from all places, from all homes and all backgrounds: “We Are Everywhere” was the popular rallying cry of the queer movement in the 70s. Like revolting children, the search for causality and origins fascinates and frustrates the public imaginary. And like revolting children, their dangerous coagulation breeds fear and resentment, as does the insularity and influence of their culture.
As these films share a common mise-en-scene of desire in their concern over the control of childrens’ bodies, their systems of communication, and their contagious influence upon one another, I turn now to the notion of “delinquency,” as the mobilization of this term to demonize youth rebellion contains revealingly queer connotations.
With strong antecedents in the late 1950s (The Bad Seed, Village/Children of the Damned, The Lord of the Flies), the figuration of the revolting child—and specifically the child collective—is best understood as a Cold War monster. Indeed, as the period was dubbed “The Children’s Decade” by Parenting Magazine, public investment in the “good democratic child” and public outrage over the “juvenile delinquent” loomed large on the U.S. consciousness. Delinquency is the term used to characterize every form of juvenile criminality, from truancy to property damage—fitting, perhaps, that it comes from the Latin “linquere,” meaning “to leave” or “to abandon.”
An attendant fear is that childhood will be abandoned not for proper adulthood but for something more nefarious—nebulous, often undefined—criminally wrong, sexually wrong. Often the youth “falling in with the wrong crowd” characterizes this anxiety. This common turn of phrase suggests several related anxieties: first, that some triaged children are already beyond repair and recuperation; second, that all children are porous and spongelike—easily influenced by their peers; and finally, that the youth crowd is impenetrable and consuming—once within, the “good” child is lost forever. As James Gilbert notes in Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent, the desire to understand and manage a new and increasingly self-contained teenage culture fueled much of the post-war “crisis” concerning youth crime:
Therefore, it is useful to consider juvenile delinquency anxiety as a fear that the “good child” will be left behind and consumed by a monstrously autonomous and antagonistic foreign body. This is a fitting description of the child collective film’s binary structure: to collectively revolt against the patriarchal/paternal, to lead astray and incorporate the young.
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault speaks of “disciplinary space” as an architectonic extension of social belief systems. As he explains, disciplinary space insures that "each individual has his own place; and each place its individual.” Further, it must
It is this phrase “dangerous coagulation” that I find so rhetorically rich when considering monstrous children and systems of discipline. The bodily metaphor turns on the notion that assembled and halted bodies are useless to the state and indeed harmful to the functioning of a society predicated on the controlled circulation of bodies. Loitering youth are especially suspect—unproductive, unobserved, certainly up to no good. Foucault continues, stating that partitioning and individuating bodies is “a tactic of anti-desertion, anti-vagabondage, anti-concentration” (143). Bad children—who have deserted the familial and have turned against it in unison—are perhaps the vagrantest of vagabonds.
As Foucault notes in The History of Sexuality, the surveillance of children, in particular their sexuality, was an imperative in the formation of a formalized educational system, so much so that modes of surveillance were built into the architectural design of childhood spaces. And of course child-rearing instruction traffics significantly in notions of observation and surveillance—from the behaviorist interventions of pre-war child-rearing ideology to the post-war Freudian-infused instruction, where parents vigilantly observed their children for signs of neurosis and stunted development. All of this consideration of disciplinary space represents a certain biopolitics—by which Foucault defined the control of subjects and power over life and death itself. As children are the most salient and overdetermined avatars of futurity, the control of their development (and even their bodily movement) represents a literal and figurative control over the future. Indeed, if this piece takes a decidedly Foucauldian turn, it is because the films of the revolting child collective, more than any other, are intimately concerned with surveillance, control, and collectivity.
The eyes that hypnotize
If one of the most recalcitrant discourses about childhood is the need to “guide” development towards maturity and proper heteronormative development and away from “delinquency”—the undefined developmental stasis and dangerous coagulation, then surveillance becomes unerringly central. I have already noted Foucault’s biopolitical analysis of bodies, easily applied to the architectonics of the educational system. This strain runs throughout educational policy—even the most progressive of child education advocates like Maria Montessori warned against a false “mask of seemliness” that would impede proper observation of children.
One of the most pervasive commonalities among the child collective films is the inversion of this relation as children observe adults, study them, and circumscribe their movement like rats in a maze. Many films involve adults entering the child-community space (Suddenly, Last Summer, These Are the Damned, It’s Alive II: Island of the Alive, all eight of the Children of the Corn movies, Wicked Little Things, and In the Playground), and essentially the same scene is played out in every film:
A community of silent watchers, the revolting child collective not only observes and accrues knowledge but shares it as well. After the adult “discovery” of the child collective, the mass of children invariably chase the adults through the streets of the abandoned town. In its particularly rich homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds, Who Can Kill a Child? has its adult couple walk, excruciatingly slowly, out of a house and through a flock of silently observant children perched on rocks and cars. Indeed, this notion that the children have eyes everywhere is a recurring thematic in the films. The adults are, in a quite literal way, surrounded by multitudes of children. In this, it is the children who control the dangerous coagulation of adults. Like a pack of ravenous animals, the children are fruitful and multiply seemingly without need for heterosexual reproduction. In fact, they surround heterosexual couples with their perverse fecundity.
It is surveillance relations—the power to know, to diagnose and pathologize, and to control movement—that shore up the structural integrity of child/parent relationships. By divorcing children from the signifiers of childhood or exaggerating them to grotesque proportions, revolting children (always border-crossers) upset the dichotomy that upends “adulthood” and allows heteronormative maturity to be understood as an inevitable destination. As Patricia Holland notes in Picturing the Child: Picturing the Child in Popular Imagery,
In these films, those power relations are inverted—the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child: restricted, ignorant, and helpless. Indeed, something is perversely and erroneously advanced about this situation. These children are individuals who will eventually take command of these spaces. This is, in fact, a cultural expectation. Even in films where the adults have not crossed the boundary into the child collective space (as in Village of the Damned), the children soon take over their hometown and control the movements of the adults. Several films make this an actuality, often providing the films’ most artistic moments with high or low angle shots to accentuate the entrapment of the adult characters, indeed their infantilization at the hands of the revolting children. Though the future is for the children, held in trust, these films terrify because the young have taken agency too soon; they have taken control before adult society has deemed them “fit.” The revolting youth reform the disciplinary structure of social hierarchies before being properly guided out of the dangerous parts of childhood. Polymorphously perverse, inexhaustibly imaginative, and ideologically hostile, they threaten the foundation of the normative trajectory that upends reproductive futurity.
With its obsessive interest in the inverted surveillance of adults by children, the cinema of the child collective seems preternaturally obsessed with the power of the child’s gaze. This is a curious development given that “childhood,” as a representational system, is constructed largely for the polysemic needs of adults. As Holland says,
Linked with the notion of surveillance is the films’ preoccupation with the eyes of the children, but children’s eyes and their looking relations hold much more significance in the cinematic representation of bad childhood (and I would argue, childhood) as a whole. In fact, during the course of writing, I was struck how often bad or powerful children and eyes were connected. I thought about the emphasis on Carrie White’s eyes during her telekinetic rage, the glowing eyes of the psychic children in The Fury (1978), the large wandering eye of Sadaku in Ringu (1998), the eyes of the magical children in pedestrian Disney fare like Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978), or the beleaguered Gothic heroine of Rosemary’s Baby who sees horror in her newborn only after seeing his eyes (“What have you done with his eyes, you maniacs?” she asks).
The eyes of children in these films represent more than simply the passive gaze of the victimized child, something expected in horror cinema—and in cinema more generally. Rather, the look of the surveying child is potent, empowered, and invasive; in the words of Carol Clover, it is “an assaultive gaze.” Indeed, the surveillance that the children command is intimately connected with their ability to observe and “read” adults, as in the Village of the Damned children’s mind-reading skills. The gaze of the child collective is in Village of the Damned is linked to other abilities as well: the children, through visual (and one assumes from there, mental) contact, are able to impose their will upon others. As the poster design for the film states, “Beware the stare that will paralyze the will of the world.” These words “paralyze” and “hypnotize” and the description of the children’s eyes as “arresting” all suggest stasis and immobility (like their developmental stasis, also seen as monstrous). The children have the ability, through seeing and knowing, to halt and control the will of others. As they seem to operate without individual autonomy, so too do they threaten to remove the autonomy of all those around them, child and adult alike.
In the subgenre as a whole, children also use sight to communicate silently. Indeed, the very nature of their silence places them outside the realm of the natural. Moreso, this thematic marks almost every film within the subgenre: linked intimately to the notion of a hive mind, children in these films seem to communicate through looking relations in a way that seems impenetrable to adults. In Who Can Kill a Child?, for instance, looking relations between children are shown to be the mode of transmission of the murderous impulse. In a later scene, the “bad” children stumble upon a group of “good” children, hold their gaze for a period of time, and then the formerly good children remove themselves to actively destroy their parents.
In this, the look of the children is not only manipulative but infectious as well. The possibility of “good” kids turning “bad” through the influence of an undesirable peer group reached a fevered period of anxiety as youth culture became increasingly autonomous and unrecognizable. As Joel Best notes in Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims,
In the cinema of the demonized youth rebellion, the becoming-monster of the next generation is queerly tinged as they form alternative and unrecognizable forms of kinship relations in opposition to the familial. They represent a biological alterity—a nonreproductive duplication of forces predicated in an infectious multiplicity. The revolting child collective films recruit and increase their numbers, growing sideways as they accrue bodies and power. Tauntingly, they call out to heterosexuality and the social order—your angelic child may be the next to join our ranks… your child does not belong to you, your family line, your family legacy. As the trailer to the trailer to Beware: Children at Play promises, “The demon has come to enroll your children in the school of evil!” This invocation of a “school” where children learn to be evil echoes the Cold War anxiety about alternative educational systems that would turn children into mindless emissaries of a totalitarian state. Of these alternative models, Margaret Mead and Elena Calas described the state of Soviet child-rearing in 1955 as a factory for the production of compliant, unquestioning citizens—this, as opposed to the U.S. system which privileged spontaneity and naturalness.
Not surprisingly, such anxieties concerning recruitment and contagion have long been wed to depictions of gays and lesbians. From pedophilic and predatory gay men to sadistic lesbian schoolteachers, the proximity of queers to children has long elicited hateful anxiety on the part of conservative pundits. The American Family Association, one of the leading homophobia-as-family-values organizations in the public sphere characterizes this anxiety with a fevered paranoia appropriate in any horror film:
To the revolting child collective, the corrupted and perverted child belongs to something more nebulous: youth culture, progress, anti-heteronormativity, the future itself: “tomorrow’s army.” The power of the gaze in these films can interpolate and incorporate; it is arresting and assaultive; it inverts patriarchal structures of dominance and knowledge.