Kids Won’t Be Kids

It started with the devil’s baby and, in five years, became a
twelve-year-old girl possessed by Satan himself.

In 1968, Roman Polanski adapted Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s
Baby, with Mia Farrow’s compellingly anguished performance as a young
woman who’s raped by Satan:
(Eerily, later that year, Polanski’s eight-months-pregnant wife Sharon
Tate was murdered by followers of macabre cult leader Charles Manson).

In 1973, William Friedkin adapted William Peter Blatty’s novel The
Exorcist, with Linda Blair (and Eileen Deitz standing in for her in the
scenes of possession) playing Regan, a 12-year-old girl so possessed by the
devil that she mutilates her genitalia with a crucifix, kills the priests
trying to exorcise her, spins her head, and spider-walks down stairs:
(Regan’s Antichrist brother, Damien, came onto the scene in 1976, in
The Omen.)

And kids on screen have never been the same since.

With The Orphan out this week (though some groups are protesting its nasty
portrayal of Eastern-European foundlings:
yet another drop’s been added to the stream of creepy-kid horror films
deluging screens and shelves.

In The Sixth Sense (1999), Cole could see dead people, but he may have
just been seeing dead kids and other children as disturbed as he was, because
they were all starting to seep and moan out of the walls and floorboards.
Starting in 1998, The Ring series, both the Japanese and the American
versions, features the malevolent spirit of a dead innocent girl, as did the
Japanese and American versions of Dark Water, while the young boy Tasheo
Saeki is at the black-eyed, ghostly heart of The Grudge series. Sometimes
they don’t even need to be out of the womb, like the fetuses in last
year’s The Unborn.

In the last hundred years, no segment of the human population has so
exploded in the mentality of the marketplace and in popular culture as the
pre-20 demographic, now basically divvied up into babies, kids, tweens and
teens. “Teenager” wasn’t even used as a word until around
the turn of the century, the same time G. Stanley Hall started studying
something called “adolescence” seriously. In the ’60s and
’70s, when the creepy-kid was born, children’s rights were being
confirmed in courts in the West. In 1959, the UN adopted the Declaration of
the Rights of the Child, the UK started phasing out corporal punishment in
schools in 1970, and the US Supreme Court decided in 1967 that juveniles
charged with crimes had to be afforded the same due process as adults. Kids
were gaining in power and legal recognition, and films such as
Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen began to reflect not only
the newfound power of kids, but the growing, fiery clout of hormone-addled
teens in the culture—see Carrie (1976), based on Stephen King’s
1974 novel.

But even as kids have gained in power, they’re still seen nowadays,
in the West, at least until they hit their double-digit years, as innocent.
(Not so in the 1800s, when they were usually considered just as full of
original sin as the rest of us, or seen as little adults, made to work long
hours in factories.) Here in the West, we tend to think of kids as nearly as
innocent as animals somehow (children’s aid societies were launched
after and because of animal welfare societies), and the frequent news of
pedophile rings being busted only makes them seem more vulnerable to abuse or
“predators.” Kids aren’t like us at all, and must be

So when cases like the murder of James Bulger in 1993 by two ten-year-olds
crop up, they shock and appal (not to mention stir up debate about young
offender laws). All of a sudden, they are far too much like
us—supernaturally ahead of their age in their violence. The creepy-kid
flick takes both our presumed innocence about kids and our secret worry (how
will they turn out? what will my child become? is there a core of anger or
strangeness beneath that “cute” shell?) and warp it into tortured
ghostliness, burning the supposed difference between we adults and them kids
into a fiendish line between our world and the occult.

Of course, there’s also the oddly, almost supernaturally precocious
child-actor figure, you know, the ones who go on talk shows and talk as if
they’re 8 going on 38— agent, veteran thespian and seasoned
celebrity rolled into one tiny package. I sometimes wonder if these
creepy-kid films aren’t just playing with that image, knowing how
strange and unnatural some snappy-talking little Abigail Breslin or Dakota
Fanning or Joel Haley Osment already seem. So the kid becomes even stranger,
and darker, and weirder, turning gravely-voiced spawn of Satan or an
all-knowing, undead thing. (And remember, these movies’ target audience
are teens, who aren’t so likely to be bothered by ghoulish kids as

The difference continues in our simplistic, innocent-or-deliquent cultural
view of children. Kids aren’t us and never will be, a lot of movies
already seem to show—with impossibly cute kids or impossibly self-aware
kids or impossibly non-complex kids—so why not make them into something
horribly frightening and otherworldly altogether? And then, into that space
between our over-idealizing little ones and being secretly anxious about how
little we can control what they’ll become, comes the creepy child,
staring, daring, and scaring back. V

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