copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

It takes a child to raze a village: demonizing youth rebellion

By Andrew Scahill

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:

“Only occasionally has a horror movie transcended its specialization and attained real mass success. The Exorcist did so, as had Rosemary’s Baby (1969) before it and as would The Omen (1976) two years later” (63).

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 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[1] [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, childhood holds a rhetorical charge in the form of youthful rebellion. As social change is centrally figured in terms of generational struggle, youth becomes the locus classicus of that struggle for overthrow of oppressive authority—whether it be a new, “better” social order, or no future at all.

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),[2] and I will make references to other films when necessary.[3] 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).[4] 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?[5] (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.[6]

Children of the Corn[7] (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.[8] 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).

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.[9] 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,

“the phrase ‘gay child’ is a gravestone marker for where and when a straight person died… and yet, by the time the marker is raised (‘I was a gay child’), it would seem ‘the child’ has died with the straight” (283).

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

“unrestrained expenditure… [t]he eternal present of the sensual animal: The degraded monster is a body satisfying its hunger for sensation without any regard for the future” (59).

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.

Delinquent youth

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:

“As young people grew more independent and more affluent, as their peer culture grew more influential, and their parents less so, delinquency emerged as a kind of code word for shifts in adolescent behavior that much of adult society disapproved” (40).

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

“avoid distribution in groups; break up collective dispositions; analyze confused, massive or transient pluralities. One must eliminate the effects of imprecise distributions, the uncontrolled disappearance of individuals, their diffuse circulation, their unusable and dangerous coagulation” (143).

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,

“[T]hese negative definitions allow abstract ‘childhood’ to be a depository for many precious qualities that ‘adulthood’ needs but which are incompatible with adult status; qualities such as impulsiveness, playfulness, emotional expressiveness, indulgence in fantasy, sexual innocence. Hence the dichotomy child/adult parallels other dichotomies that have characterized western discourse: nature/culture, primitive/civilized, emotion/reason. In each pair the dominant term seeks to understand and control the subordinate, keeping it separate but using it for its own enrichment” (15).

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,

“the adult gaze seeks to put children in their place and to conform their image to expected patterns. The look is a dual one of power and pleasure: the power that comes from adults’ superior knowledge of their subject, the pleasure from the beauty and seductiveness of childhood. Subject to an adult gaze, children must accept that power and grant that pleasure” (109).

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.[10] 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.[11]

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,

“The 1960s seemed to offer an especially imposing array of temptations for the young, including drugs, sexual freedom, and political radicalism… Pundits worried, not just about the friction between parents and their children, but also about the gulf between society and its youth—the generation gap. Something horrible was happening to the next generation; they were turning their backs on the old ways. They were becoming monsters” (116).

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:

“Homosexual activists have a vision for tomorrow, for an America in which their lifestyle is not simply tolerated but celebrated. And to achieve that vision activists have begun enlisting their footsoldiers for tomorrow’s army: children [emphasis theirs].”

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.

Families we chose

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.[12]

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.[13] 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

“a set of practices that institutes relationships of various kinds… and emerge to address fundamental forms of human dependency, which may include birth, child-rearing, relations of emotional dependency and support, generational ties, illness, dying, and death (to name a few)” (15).

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,

“Variations on kinship that depart from normative, dyadic heterosexually-based family forms secured through the marriage vow are figured as not only dangerous for the child, but perilous to the putative natural and cultural laws said to sustain human intelligibility” (16).

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,

“genes and blood appear as symbols implicated in one culturally specific way of demarcating and calculating relationships” (105).

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,

“it is not so much identical conclusions that prove minds to be related as the contradictions that are common to them” (qtd. Michael Moon, 5).

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.

Queer spectatorship

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

“under the fantasy of the political sacrifice and rescue of children, it is the ‘bad’ (i.e. impulsive, lazy, aggressive, sexual) children who are being disciplined and purged (to a great extent representing the young members of already stigmatized and therefore suspect and vulnerable ethnic, racial, and class minorities), and it is the ‘good’ (i.e. innocent, a-sexual) children who are understood as rescued” (185).

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.”[14] 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.[15] 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,

“obviously there’s a lot of humor in it, but we really wanted to give these people [the characters] a chance to speak and sing, which of course in some cases becomes really funny because these are really horrific people who aren’t in touch with the [air quotes] ‘real world’.”[16]

Further, in the CampBlood review, the author locates pleasure in both the pedophobic elements of the film:

“Seeing as how I would sooner choke on my own vomit than spend more than 90 seconds in the company of a child, I may not be the most impartial reviewer for this film, but I just can't get enough once the sheriff and Mr. Freemont start blasting at the kids with a shotgun and hacking them up with what looks like a samurai sword… Irresponsible? Maybe. Tasteless? Probably. Delightful? Definitely.”

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.

“Indeed, these are nonplaces where recognition, including self-recognition, proves precarious if not elusive… They are not sites of enunciation, but shifts in the topography from which an audible claim emerges, the claim of the not-yet-subject and the nearly unrecognizable” (20).

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.


1. Edelman chooses to use the capitalized term “the Child” to refer to the concept of “reproductive futurism” and the avatar of its political power in order to distinguish it from actual children or children’s bodies. [return to text]

2. As there are two films in this piece with the same title, I will continue to use the release year when referring to these films as a means of differentiation.

3. Films implicated in the subgenre include The Space Children (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), The Innocents (1961), These Are the Damned (1963), Children of the Damned (1963), Don’t Deliver Us from Evil [Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal](1970), The Other (1970),The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Fury (1978), It Lives Again (1978), It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), The Brood (1979), The Children (1980), Children of the Corn (1984), Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1993), Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995), Children of the Corn 666: Isaacs’s Return (1999), Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996), Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998), Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001), Beware: Children at Play (1989), Cuckoos at Bangpleng [Kawow tee Bangpleng] (1994), Heavenly Creatures (1994), Sister My Sister (1994), Fun (1994), Village of the Damned (1995), Battle Royale [Batoru rowaiaru] (2000), Battle Royale II [Batoru rowaiaru II: Chinkonka] (2003), Stacy (2001), The Plague (2006), The Children (2008), and Child’s Game (2010).

4. For a side-by-side analysis, see the documentary adaptation of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet

5. Based on the novel Child’s Game [El Juego de los Niños] (1970) by Juan José Plans.

6. See the DVD extras on The Children DVD and the official website for the musical adaptation at <http://www.thechildrenthewebsite.com>.

7. Based on a Stephen King short story of the same name from his book Night Shift (1979). Interestingly, it has been suggested that King’s short story is concise reworking of Juan Jose Plans’ novel The Children’s Game, which was adapted as Who Can Kill a Child?

8. Lloyd Kaufman, “Introduction,” DVD, Beware: Children at Play, directed by Max Kalmanowicz, 1980.

9. See Kathryn Bond Stockton’s “Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child: The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal,” Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, and The Queer Child: Or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

10. Interestingly, it is suggested in a number of the mid-reading sequences that the children can read the adults’ hateful, and even murderous, impulses towards them. The adults register shock at this suggestion, which is either an anxious rejection, or a sign that the children have access to their unconscious motivations—essentially that they know the adults better than they know themselves.

11. This notion of a “secret language” has long been a characterization of queer cultures. Certainly practices of gay male cruising or cottaging relies upon a complex system of unspoken visual codes, often reliant upon the act of looking (and returning the gaze). Even on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1950, Senator Miller of Nebraska warned that the “invisible menace” was transmitting cryptic messages in plain view, stating “[t]hose people [homosexuals] like to be known to each other. They have signs used on streetcars and in public places to call attention to others of like mind.” See 81st Congress 2nd Session, Cong. Rec. 96.4 (29 March-24 April 1950): 4527-4528,

12. A notable exception is the original Children of the Corn, which uses a child leader due to the film’s deployment of the “cult” anxiety, though it should be noted that his subjects eventually overthrow the cult leader when he no longer supports their collective wishes.

13. Margaret Mead’s “Child-Training Ideals in a Postrevolutionary Context: Soviet Russia.” Childhood in Contemporary Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953) delineates “good” U.S. and “bad” Soviet child-rearing practices, the latter of which raises overcivilized adult-like children.

14. The Children is not alone in its inclusion of revolting children within the “Homo Horror Guide.” Other alums include Apt Pupil, The Baby, Bride of Chucky, The Exorcist, Ginger Snaps, May, Sleepaway Camp, and The Unborn.

15. The musical is still in rep at several theatres around the country. More information is available at http:://www.thechildrenthewebsite.com.

16. “The Children: The Musical,” The Children, DVD Special Features, 2001.


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