My personal favorite movie monster is the traditional zombie – not these new Olympic athlete zombies that routinely finish Iron Man competitions. Zombies are scary because they are resilient, persistent and want to eat you alive. Moreover, they’re usually in overwhelming numbers and have the disquieting psychological feature of looking human. For pure terror, however, nothing beats children for horror films.
I screened Orphan the other night. It was an excellent film for its genre and I recommend it to fans of horror thrillers. There’s a lot about the film that I like and one of the aspects I enjoyed is how it touches on all the fears that are inherent with children. These fears are not the superficial kind that a person feels walking down a dark street in an unsavory neighborhood. These fears are more deep seated and relate to the wild unpredictability of children, their natural curiosity and their fathomless cruelty.
Children don’t understand moderation, so all of their actions are going to be extreme. Children are going to pile on the food instead of practicing portion control. They’ll scream for assistance instead of asking politely. That’s why park rangers will warn you to stay away from baby rattlesnakes since they inject all of their poison upon biting victims, because they don’t know any better. So when children are the villains in a horror movie it follows that they’ll cut you to ribbons instead of merely stab you once, giving you a chance to survive.
Children also have no moral compass and are free to explore their curiosities no matter how vile. They torment and torture animals, set things on fire and break fragile objects just to see something new. As such, children are a constant danger to everyone around them and themselves when parents aren’t around to slap idle hands away from electrical outlets, sharp objects or filthy things. In a horror film, the “something new” children might want to see could be your brain and the demented children will have no qualms splitting your head open to accomplish that goal.
In real life, children aren’t typically feared on an external level because they’re physically weak, mentally stupid and usually have adults around that are responsible for them. On a fictive level, it’s easy enough to create plausible plots to circumvent these protections. Strength is rarely necessary to kill someone – perhaps in a standup fight, yes, but all a child has to do is create an “accident” situation or simply wait until you fall asleep. Mentally precocious children also aren’t that rare. Effective horror film monsters don’t have to be geniuses; they just have to be smart enough to take advantage of situations. Children learn how to manipulate people at an early age. As for parents or stewards, children are masters of detecting when authoritative eyes are on them and when they’re not. They can easily slip away to perform their dark deeds and be back before they’re missed.
On top of the natural dangers that children are, there’s also a feeling of helplessness that adults must necessarily feel when dealing with children – especially ones that aren’t their own. All of the rules work to protect children and any adult violating those rules will find other adults quickly intervening. In an episode of King of the Hill, a new family moves into the neighborhood and the adolescent son is a holy terror. Hank, the main character of the show, wants to deal with the child, but can’t do anything directly as an adult. He tries reasoning with the parents, but they simply discount their son’s behavior as being “gifted.” Hank eventually solves the situation by having his own son terrorize the newly moved-in couple in the same manner, forcing them into the same helpless situation. Additionally, children are above suspicion when something truly horrific like murder is involved, allowing children to hide in plain sight, making them some of the best killers to grace the silver screen.
Lastly, children are freaky in and of themselves. Who knows what they’re going to do and why? It doesn’t help that horror movies tend to give children supernatural powers as ghosts or turn them into the spawn of Satan. In the film The Last King of Scotland as Nicholas is about to be hung by his skin on a pair of nasty hooks at the hands of Idi Amin, Nicholas says, “You’re a child. That’s what makes you so fucking scary.” I couldn’t agree more.