What does The Midwich Cuckoos, The Omen and The Bad Seed have in common?
Okay, so no one is saying that all kids are evil. But there seems to be a disturbingly long list of horror films and books which feature downright sinister kids. And this baffling trope has recently seen a revival in films like Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook and Hereditary.
I mean, seriously, the tagline to the horror movie The Children is "You brought them into the world. They will take you out."
Clearly, something is going on here. Where does this evil children trope come from?
The Bad Seed is one of the earliest examples. The 1954 book was rapidly turned into a theatre production and then a movie in 1956. It's the story of eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark who appears to be the idealised 1950s little girl; polite, intelligent, unassuming and pretty. However, this only hides the dark secret. Rhoda is a high-functioning sociopath who's quietly and cold-bloodily killing off classmates and anyone who refuses her anything, including a man threatening to expose her. In the book, she gets away with it. In the movie, she's killed off by a divine bolt of lightning.
I think there is a reason why this particular shift happened around the 1950s.
Dr Spock (no, not that one) released a book in 1946 called The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In it, Dr Spock encouraged parents to show their children love and affection. Obvious advice? Not really - this book revolutionized parenting. Before then, parents were told to leave crying babies in their cribs to teach them to be tough. Mothers were actively encouraged not to be too loving to their children for fear of making them weak.
However, despite the book's incredible popularity - bestseller lists had it only second to the Bible - Dr Spock was widely criticised. These critics accused him of encouraging "permissiveness". They believed his methods would damage children, making them needy and spoilt. Several years later, he was even blamed for the anti-Vietnam movement. These anti-war protesters were labelled "the Spock generation."
Meanwhile, across the channel in the UK, alien children are taking over small villages.
In 1957 John Wyndham wrote a book called The Midwich Cuckoos about a small village where every woman of child-bearing age becomes pregnant at the same time. When the children are born, 31 boys and 30 girls, they all appear to be normal except for their golden eyes and pale skin. It transpires that these children possess telepathic abilities and use them to torture anyone who attempts to harm them.
The children are in fact the offspring of brood parasitic aliens. Obviously.
Under the name Village of the Damned, there were two movies in 1960 and a remake in 1995. It's been adapted for radio in 1982, 2003, and 2017.
So what's the story behind this one?
In this case, the children of these stories are used mostly as a tool in service to a greater meaning. Children represent innocence. Most cultures around the world treat children and childbirth as sacred. Which is exactly why the use of children in these narratives can be so incredibly effective as it upends our preconceived ideas.
So in The Midwich Cuckoos, the evil children are a coded message - innocence or naivety used to disguise something more sinister. All of us in the sci-fi and fantasy community already knew this. If you want to tackle an issue no one wants to talk about, make it about aliens. Or elves
That's something all the critics agree on. What they disagree on is what John Wyndham was driving at. I've read reviews which saw these children's evil intentions as a commentary on the Red Scare.
Another interpretation points to censorship. There was an atmosphere in the UK during the 1950s which shied away from tackling anything considered 'obscene' like sex, sexuality, rape, homosexuality, abortion, etc. One commentor, therefore, saw The Midwich Cuckoos as a coded commentary inequality of the sexes and the war between men versus women.
Personally, I'm unconvinced by either of these arguments. But no matter what the deeper meaning is, we can tick another reason for the evil children trope off the list.
Last, but not least... Unheimlich
Do you remember those creepy twins from the movie The Shining? The little girl in Nightmare on Elm Street who chanted, "1 - 2 - Freddy's coming for you, 3 - 4 - Better lock your door..." Damien from The Omen? Or the gas-mask boy from Doctor Who?
Unheimlich, as made popular by Sigmund Freud, means:
The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where a familiar object or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo context.
Children fit into this category perfectly. Children are, essentially, small humans and we expect them to act like small people. But children are still getting to grips with the world and don't act the way adults do. This can sometimes lead to children who seem 'creepy' if purely because they're not acting 'normally'.
This makes them perfect horror fodder.
Also perfect for Stephen King, the master of uncanny horror, who has used evil children in Carrie, Salem's Lot, IT, The Shining, Firestarter, Children of the Corn, Pet Cemetery and Apt Pupil. Why anyone in Stephen King's universe has children is frankly beyond me.
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The evil children trope in horror isn't something that's likely to go away. This post is already running far too long and I haven't even touched on the deep-rooted suspicion some adults have of new generations. Maybe I'll talk about that if I ever cover the movie Battle Royale which is an almost perfect example of a generational disconnect.
Overdone as it might be, evil children will never fail to freak us out.