In the cinema of revolting childhood, smiles and laughter become dislocated from frivolity and stand in rather as evidence of a secret and dangerous knowledge inaccessible by adulthood.
The cinema of the child collective queerly suggests that the bonds of biological family disintegrate in the presence of an alternative system of kinship. Here in Who Can Kill a Child? delinquent youth abandon their familial ties to join their chosen family in generational warfare.
In the cinema of revolting childhood, new recruits are brought into the fold by literal contagion, or as in Who Can Kill a Child?, through an unspoken, almost psychic, bond.
In Who Can Kill a Child?, no child is beyond the reach of the collective as Evie is attacked internally by her unborn child.
Often the money shot for the child collective film: here in the especially pedophobic Beware: Children at Play, adults are given full reign to mutilate child bodies in the film’s climax.
In The Children, parents can only stave off the spread of youth invasion by chopping off the childrens’ hands — giving full license to present scene after scene of adults mutilating the limbs of children with machetes.
Adults are rendered powerless by the revolting child’s awareness of their role as “children.” By performing innocence, victimization, and dependency, they evidence the constructedness of childhood itself.
No space is offers reprieve from the encroachment of the child collective. Sanctuary is not to be found in the home, the school, and even the church (as seen here in Who Can Kill a Child?).
The child collective represents an unending, unstoppable futurity, as here at the close of Who Can Kill a Child? A potent metaphor for queerness, they represent the potential for all good children to “become” bad.
Indeed, the films as a whole point towards a conspiratorial anxiety surrounding children, specifically in reference to their closed system of communication and their general opacity in terms of adult understanding of children. In these films, however, such anxieties are hyperbolized as the child-as-collective functions within a hive mentality: in Village of the Damned, for instance, the children literally have one group mind that shares knowledge, so much so that when one child learns, all of the children gain that information. Even when removed from a science-fiction context, the films continue to utilize the hive mentality to characterize the children. In all the films, the children travel en masse and work together to surround their prey, they seem to know intuitively when one of their own is in danger/hurt, and they form enclosed communities that elide markers of difference between the children. These societies are likewise ironically utopian in structure. They form alternative family structures devoid of normative roles, they are largely androgynous or similarly ungendered, and they do not seem organized by any identifiable class hierarchy. [open endnotes in new window]
The revolting child collective films produce (in Tudor’s terms) non-anthropomorphic monsters that, though human in form, are largely characterized as alien. Indeed, the lack of differentiation between subjects and therefore their void of individual characterization suggests a greater similarity to the zombies of Night of the Living Dead (1968) than the possessed Regan of The Exorcist. And like zombies, the “emptiness” of the symbol of child-as-collective allows for a number of different symbolic investments over time. Village of the Damned, with its group of perfectly regimented fair-haired children, immediately recalls the Hitler Youth movement of the past and seems to speak simultaneously to a fear of the future—particularly Communist approaches to child-rearing. Those same figures would later be able to fulfill a symbolic function to express anxiety about youth rebellion or even foreign insurgence (Who Could Kill a Child?) or conspiratorial urban fears over rural isolation (Children of the Corn).
Owing to their function as overdetermined symbolics, I argue that the child collective offers the queer spectator an inroad to imagining alternative forms of community while simultaneously “looking back” to childhood—the site of traumatic queer becoming. In this renarrativization of queer childhood, rather than erasure the queer spectator finds community in the shared struggle against patriarchal/paternal authority.
Indeed, the Village of the Damned comes closest to what Victor Turner refers to as “communitas”: an alternative, nonhierarchical, and mutually beneficial union of individual bodies in a collective experience of harmony and common interests. Though ostensibly monsters, something is melancholy about them as well—as if they had arrived twenty years early and found a world unable to accommodate them. This may be why the sequel to the film, Children of the Damned, finds the next iteration of the child invasion so sympathetic. Rounded up and used as government weapons, they seek sanctuary inside a church at the film’s conclusion (inverting the sacred/profane binary of the other films). In this, Children of the Damned resembles the era’s more progressive child collective films like The Space Children and These Are the Damned, in which the children are innocent victims of the military-industrial complex. Though Othered, the strong ties to one another and their sense of communitas offer something to desire in the child collective film. Even in the most perverse, homicidal, and cannibalistic revolting child collective, there is a perverse cohesion. Over the decimated bodies of the adults is a sense of unspoken kinship.
In her piece “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” Butler defines kinship as
Though such relations are understood as the purview of biological ties, there is no need to assume that this model is self-evidently natural or historically constant. Queerness, with its attendant renegotiation of familial relations, is seen as a threat to the existing heteronormative system, which maintains coherency and power through the devaluation, erasure, and exclusion of queer kinship. As Butler puts it,
Anthropologists and sociologists have, in recent years, denaturalized the notion of kinship from strictly biological ties and even mores from manufactured notions of matrimonial lineage. Indeed, as Kath Weston notes in Families We Choose: Gays, Lesbians, Kinship, the term “fictive kin” which has long been used to describe non-biological systems of kinship lost credibility as cultural critics have increasingly argued that all systems of kinship are, in some sense, fictional. As Weston claims,
As the explicit desire to see a parent destroy his/her child fuels the normative reading of these films, they expose and deconstruct the supposed naturalness of genetic relationality. Blood relations, the films seem to suggest, are no reason not to take a hatchet to your child’s hands. The fools who allow their parental sympathies to override them are those who end up tied up to a piñata and poked with a pitchfork. The child collective resembles, but does not recapitulate, kinship systems of blood relationality. It is instead shared experience, desire, and importantly rage that draw together the individual children. As Albert Camus once said,
The collectives are closely coordinated with that phrase often used to describe queer social networks—“families of choice.” Most dangerously, they question the very centrality and permanence of blood relations by infectiously turning familial offspring away from their kin and towards a queerly alternative system of relations.
This is not to suggest an easy alignment between the child collective and the gay or lesbian viewer. As Jackie Stacey notes, spectatorship should always be understood as “shifting, contradictory, or precarious” (367). It is the mise-en-scene of desire (revolt, collectivity, anti-futurity) that holds the most credence for its queer spectator. Moreso, I suggest that the primary spectatorial engagement of the films is through a queer desire to see heteronormative culture overthrown. Indeed, one of the major structural tensions in the revolting child film is the manner in which the film balances its audience, precariously, between the social taboo against child abuse and a desire to see a child physically punished for his/her transgressions. I believe this structural tension could also be explained through identificatory relations: the film positions the spectator to identify with both the adult protagonist(s) and the demonized youth simultaneously. These films satiate a desire for both spectator positions by allowing the children to exercise rage against adult systems of heteronormativity, domesticity, and civility, and then they ultimately make “the case for child abuse” by providing justifiable rationales. Or to put it as succinctly as the trailer for Beware: Children at Play does, “Now the only way to discipline your children is with a 12-gauge shotgun!”
The sequences in which children terrorize adults by chasing them through an abandoned town, for instance, provide a useful illustration of how this spectatorial investment is transferred. At first the parent victims are introduced to individual children who seem troubled, damaged, or lost: Beware: Children at Play begins with parental trauma, as adults search for lost children; The Children (1980) chronicles a similar search for children supposedly victims of a bus accident; The Children (2008) begins with a single sick child who will become a vector for monstrosity. Their differentiated single bodies give way, though, to dangerous coagulation as their numbers escalate. Soon they are faceless and indeterminable. The solitary faces of the adults are pitted against the marauding hordes of undifferentiated children. Beyond simple adult survival, such a rationale is necessary: as Evie says in Who Could Kill a Child?, “Do the children realize what they’re doing? A normal child isn’t capable of killing an adult.” Indeed, the notion of normalcy is the fulcrum on which the ethical scales rest.
The social taboo against child abuse, and in all these films, child murder, is severely weakened by two elements. First, the children are made abnormal by some form of alienation: they are deemed actual aliens (Village of the Damned) and therefore were never the parents’ “real” (i.e., natural, worthy) children; possessed or zombified (Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Children) and therefore no longer the parents’ “real” children; or of a lower-class status (Who Could Kill a Child? or Children of the Corn) and/or foreign (Who Could Kill a Child? or Suddenly Last Summer). Second, the films are constructed in such a way that the adults are authorized to assault and murder the children to save “more worthy” innocent “adopted” children (Children of the Corn) or their own innocent children who are often unborn (Who Could Kill a Child? and The Children). This rationale, that tired policy of “splitting” into good and bad, allows for a high degree of latitude to punish child bodies under the guise of child rescue. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Howard Stein note in “Child Abuse and the Unconscious,” it is
The unkind unkinned of monstrous childhood are invariably pitted against their more deserving and properly-kinned oppositions. Innocent, endangered, docile, developing, the rescued stand in direct opposition to the collective, aggressive, developmentally arrested, and family-destroying bodies of the revolting child collective.
Though these chase scenes resemble sequences that one may expect from a traditional zombie film, these are different in that adults seem paralyzed by their inability to defend themselves against children—as much trapped by the marauding children as by the social taboo against child abuse. The children, in these sequences, seem to be everywhere, forming walls of bodies to impede movement down one alleyway or another, standing in doorways and looking out through windows, observing and somehow communicating and hunting as one entity. The “success” of the parent-victims in these films is judged by their ability to weigh ethically the proposition “Who Can Kill a Child?” and, with shotgun cocked, scream, “I can!” for the future.
This, however, is tempered by the consistent open narrative structure of the films: even if the adults in the picture survive (a rare feat), the films suggest an uncontainability to the monstrosity. There is, of course, always an endless supply of children to be turned, infected, possessed, or drawn away from the family. We could say that the films of demonized youth rebellion allow the spectator the rare opportunity to have their child and beat it, too.
For the queerly-aligned spectator, this produces a curious mix of possibilities: the pleasurable revolt of the child against the heteronormative agents of power, the perversion of the child itself—anti-queer symbolic par excellence, and the joy of witnessing heterosexual privilege and compulsory reproduction turned upon itself. Ultimately, however, I find that the films of the child collective offer the greatest impasse to unproblematic identification with their revolting children. Undifferentiated, faceless, they offer little to “hold onto” as might be found in a Rhoda Penmark (The Bad Seed), a Regan McNeil (The Exorcist), or even an It’s Alive infant. As Elizabeth Cowie notes, however, fantasy activates more than simply indemnificatory alignments, subject to subject. The mise-en-scène of desire, rather, is “the putting into a scene or staging of desire” (148). Identification here is with the mise-en-scène of conflict. Indeed, the child collective series alights both in the rejection of child protectionism, so often used to circumscribe gay identity, and in the possibility of collective queer resistance and retaliation.
These varied modalities of pleasure for perverse and queer spectators are evident in the gay horror fansite CampBlood (http://www.campblood.org), for instance, offers 1980’s The Children as one of its must-see films in its “Homo Horror Guide.” The reviewer Buzz offers a fairly sophisticated assessment of his queer spectatorship with regards to the film, finding pleasure in reassessing the film as a work of camp—though the film, with its terrible acting, poor production values, and malicious hugging toddlers, needs little aid. Given the film’s overwrought quality, it is no coincidence that The Children would be adapted as a camp musical in 1998 by NYU students Stan Richardson and Hal Goldberg. As in the camp adaptations of The Bad Seed, Richardson and Goldberg’s production utilized adults to play the roles of the revolting children. In the DVD commentary, Richardson expresses his affection for the original text (a hallmark of camp reception), saying,
Further, in the CampBlood review, the author locates pleasure in both the pedophobic elements of the film:
The review also praises the film for assailing heterosexual privilege (“This is the essence of the story: the selfish older generation… sees their very offspring transformed into an army of exterminating angels who punish them for their transgressions.”) As with this work, the CampBlood review finds not one but multiple sites of pleasurable negotiation with the text informed by the specificity of queer subjectivity.
So long isolated and unattached to community, the queer spectator gleans a certain pleasure in the fantasy of being part of a mass against the futility of the few. That the metaphor of generational conflict—a repudiation of the past by the future—subtends this fantasy, allows for the specter of belief in progress. This is a scorched earth policy of progress to be sure, and not development as heteronormative development has been defined, but a sideways growth nonetheless. Echoing perhaps Mikhail Bakhtin and his theorization of subaltern resistance, Judith Butler admits that the greatest potential for social upheaval may come from “savoring the status of unthinkability, if it is a status, as the most critical, the most radical, the most valuable” (18). Illegitimacy, the disavowed inconceivable, are “nonplaces in which one finds oneself in spite of oneself,” says Butler.
Intelligible only through fantasy and horror, the child collective offers that site of enunciation to pleasurably reject a heteronormative future for something unrecognizable, maybe even no future at all.