The spooky child has been an archetype in horror cinema for a long time, but there was a period a year or two ago when I saw a dozen films in a row that used children. The more mainstream ones included:
Paranormal Activity 4
Silent Hill Revelation
Woman in Black
There are many more, and if you look through the whole history of horror movies the list gets huge and includes some of the scariest and most successful films in the genre. It got me thinking, and here are my conclusions.
People interact with each other every day, and generally we know what’s going on. We speak to each other, but also read subtle changes in posture, facial expression or tone of voice. This works because adult human beings tend to be similar in fundamental ways. We don’t have identical problems, but we understand and, most importantly, empathise with others, and assume the empathy is mutual.
Some of our major horror tropes rely on a breakdown of this mutual understanding – something that looks human but lacks that connection with the rest of humanity is a monster. I’m talking werewolves, vampires, psychopaths, zombies etc.
A more extreme version is the alien thing, a creature so radically different from us as to be beyond understanding, so that we can only see each other as enemy, or prey. Movies like Alien, Terminator, Final Destination and all the big bug movies work on this principle. Look into the eyes of Giger’s creature, or those of a giant spider, and you know that it doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care if you suffer or die, because there is no room for empathy.
Now keep that in mind and think of a child of six or seven. The face, the hair, the general layout, are all human – it looks just like you only cuter. But look in the eyes and what you won’t see is that empathy that makes true human connection possible. It doesn’t understand you and it doesn’t care, and you have no idea what’s happening in that tiny skull. Parents think they know their children, but that’s an illusion. Kids cling to us for protection, comfort, warmth, or food, but only in the same way as cats do. And our overwhelming instinct to protect and nurture skews our perception of what they’re really like.
Human brains tend to anthropomorphise: we attribute human characteristics to animals, machines, even forces of nature. We might understand on an intellectual level that the rain hasn’t chosen to start right now and ruin our day because Auntie Weather thinks it’s funny, but we can’t help thinking it. We do the same with children – we might call this phenomenon adultomorphism. We see faces that look like ours and we think they’re human, but we can no more understand those small and utterly selfish creatures we can a cockroach, or a moonbeam.
Deep down, we know all this. We fear children in a profound way, partly because of the lack of true understanding, partly because we know we are looking at our replacements. Yet we are tied to them by an inescapable emotional reaction that makes it almost impossible to run away and abandon them to their fate. Possibly the worst thing is that if they do turn out to be monsters it will be our fault.
So when the spooky child is used effectively (The best example off the top of my head is Ju-on) two things happen at once. We see a monster and want to run, but when the monster is a distressed child, instincts evolved over millennia draw us to it to offer comfort. These conflicting emotional reactions twist together in our gut like a bayonet. And that’s why creators of horror like to use children.