It’s not just your imagination: there are an inordinate amount of children that are terrorized and devoured by monsters in adult Horror fiction. It is one reason some people reject Horror as a genre, feeling that any category that earns its stripes by exploiting the fears of innocent children is unworthy of support. Wrapped smugly in their indignation, they could not have it more wrong.
Horror is about exploring our own psychological terrain. What motivates us? What divides or unites us? How do we conquer the unimaginable? Overcome the horrifyingly impossible?
One reason children are integral to Horror fiction – whether as pivotal characters or to represent ideals – has to do with the way the genre evolved and the way we perceive children and childhood. And still another has to do with the proximity of our own memories of being children and battling a host of irrational fears.
“Crocodile and Boy” by Smallone3d@http://digital-art-gallery.com/artist/4420
Children as Placeholders: Adults as Targets of Horror
Adult Horror does make monster fodder of children – this is not the denial. But adult Horror uses them to reach the deeper fears that reside inside every adult. Using children to represent those primal fears that are arguably unreasonable as an adult, Horror writers can tap into the terrors of childhood and carry their emotional potency into new, adult situations. This works because:
· We identify with children
· We empathize with children
· We fear being unable to protect children· Through children we are given permission to fear for the future
As hard as it is to believe, most people were children once.
This means that at the heart of every curmudgeon, every bubbly cheerleader, every optimist or surly crank is a small child feeling ever so vulnerably tiny in the storm-tossed seas of life. Some of us harbor memories of the strange or unexplainable, of moments not handled well by the adults in our lives, of whimsical Mother Nature’s temper tantrums, of suspicious dark places under the bed.
We all can remember at least one time when we were truly, inexplicably terrified – no matter what our adult memory of that time is able to explain away. The tingly, electric sensation of fear remains just below the surface, looming high over our childish forms like shadows cast by confirmed monsters. It is this kid Horror writers are trying to reach…this kid Horror writers seek to terrify…a kid who has grown up and created the pretense that he or she is an invincible adult. We seek to prove him or her wrong.
We do this by creating vulnerable children in our fiction. We make them shadows of ourselves, mimics of our own childhoods. We want you to fall in love with them, to snicker at their childishness, to croon over the innocence of their youth. We want you to see yourselves, to identify with them. We want you to become them…because there are indeed monsters in our fiction. And we want you to at least suspect that they are coming for you.
Children therefore tend to carry a lot of plot in several genres – most commonly in Fantasy and Horror, but each genre has its differences. For example, “…One could say that horror stories characteristically involve children or adolescents who confront evil and defeat or fall victim to that evil without maturing, while fantasy stories characteristically involve children or adolescents who confront evil and mature into adults in order to defeat it" (Westfahl x).
In Horror, we tend to address that near-fatal loss of innocence – the one event in Life that we all remember that forever changed who we were and what we believed about the world. That means that especially as the world becomes more sophisticated, our fiction children become younger or more naïve, serving as a catalyst of insightful change for either a youth on the edge of adulthood, or all of the adults who orbit Horror’s Child. If all else fails, we want you the reader to get those maternal/paternal instincts fully into the ON position, because we know that is where you are the most vulnerable. How far into the darkness can we lure you for the sake of a child? How long will you stand your ground when everyone else has run screaming from the monster?
When we live in “secure” cities and “safe” neighborhoods, when we go so long between plagues or seeing actual conflicts in our home countries, when we “send off” our soldiers to war, we fail to grasp the significance and tentativeness of our own mortality. We are large and in charge. We will protect and offer protection. We become almost arrogant about it – conveniently forgetting that Death is indeed everywhere, that being taken out by disease or a Volkswagen is just as dead as the soldier stepping on an IED. We posture.
Part of this is because it makes day-to-day life easier to not be thinking about death all the time. But part of it is a false bravado, a determination that we are here because we are doing something right…and this makes us wise, and competent. It makes us adults.
Horror writers seek to disturb this belief. We recognize that you do not wish to live in that moment, but we also recognize that it is human nature to keep testing the equipment… to stay battle-ready. People do this by jumping out of airplanes, driving faster than the speed limit, taking dares, and seeing scary movies. Horror is all about luring you by this instinct into the bookstore or the movie theater. It’s a game. We know that. And we want to see how seriously we can scare you. We know that if we place a child in harm’s way, and then deny you the ability to save it, we have hit the emotional jackpot.
Horror by the Roots
We also have to realize that times have changed. Medicine and – for some of us – a higher standard of living has enabled us to put bad memories behind us, changing our perception of the way things used to be and the way much of the world still lives. But Horror cannot separate itself from its origins in harder times.
Historically, children have died at alarmingly higher rates than adults; this means that in times past – most specifically in Horror’s past – during the birth of the genre amidst Gothic romances and folk tales, the death of children was a constant torture for parents, a heady reminder that there were no guarantees in life. There is perhaps no greater tragedy than a parent’s loss of a child, and so the brutality of that reality combined with superstition, desperate reaches for some semblance of faith, and terror of what really became of those most cherished children’s souls became inspiration for nightmares, irrational fears, and sometimes calloused, unemotional or dysfunctional handling. This translated into a literary obsession with death that became the awkward seedlings of the Horror genre. Children are the natural harbingers of Horror, positioned as they are so precariously in that in-between place of innocence and adulthood.
Whether it was grief or childish naiveté that opened the door, adults (by their natural proximity to children and innate need to protect them) are easily coerced into position and readied for Horror plots. This is largely due to our perception of the place of children in human society and family. We idealize children, projecting upon them our own personal hopes and expectations. They represent both ourselves and our conceptualized future. With our children, we are allowed our delusions of a better world: “Western tradition has long honored children as being purer and naturally better than adults because they have not yet been corrupted by worldly ways; they live in William Blake’s blessed world of innocence, not his wicked world of experience…children are esteemed as almost prelapsarian beings, closer to God than any adult can be. In narratives involving the assault of demonic or magical evil, therefore, children are the natural victims and natural opponents of that evil” (Westfahl x). This makes them irresistible plot and character catalysts for Horror fiction.
Monsters Under My Bed by Odessa Sawyer@http://odessa11.deviantart.com/art/Monsters-Under-My-Bed-153492618
Children as Code-Breakers
Children make it sooooo easy.
You remember how it was. You remember laughing and poking each other at the gross verses we passed from kindergarten to grade school, singing tunes our parents secretly enjoyed behind our backs and ridiculed in public. Songs that carried Horror in every line like:
Great green globs of Greasy, grimy gopher guts
Munched up monkey meat
Little birdies' dirty feet
Swimming in a pool of barf
And I forgot my spoonBut I got my straw...
This is how Horror writers know that the fear is there. We were children once, too…And we remember it. As adults we know how little we understood then, how irreverent we were. But we also know how quickly we could go from singing songs about gross bodily functions to being frozen like deer in the headlights. We know how a simple Halloween mask could give nightmares that lasted for weeks, how the mere thought of our parents divorcing inflated hideous creatures in our closets to horrifying and mythic size, how nightmare beasts threatened to eat our families one by one. We learned early how important light is to dark corners, how open doors could bring doom or salvation. We learned through monsters how life is often not at all what it seems.
This is because as children we are moving from the primal and instinctual base emotions of the animal kingdom to the refined and managed emotions of the advanced primate. We are learning to discriminate between dangers, to judge values, to “read” the intentions of others, to rationalize our own fears in order to not “waste” precious energy fleeing from harmless shadows. We are moving from a position as children of being prey animals to the position of becoming adult predators where “each emotion has its preprogrammed moment of appearance in a child’s growth” (Goleman 274). This is a particularly dangerous and vulnerable time. It is a time made for Horror fiction. Because if we as Horror writers can tap into a reader’s memory of what that vulnerability was like, the mere sight of a child in danger or the thought of a creature that has predatory instincts that cannot be predicted will place the target adult under profound stress.
Adults are prone to make fatal mistakes when a child’s life is in the balance, to take risks and to do things that they would never do for another adult or themselves.We also have to remember, these are not real children. (They merely represent them.)
Monster Under My Bed by Flina@http://flina.deviantart.com/art/Monster-Under-My-Bed-189986063?offset=50#comments
There is, however, one more element of children in Horror that has slid into its own subgenre…
Toying with Boundaries: Children as Targets of Horror
Needless to say, this premise is simply about the adults not playing nice in the sandbox. Here children are brutalized on the page and it is an intentionally uncomfortable experience that has its roots in unspeakable reality. The intent is to scare the child into doing as the parent says, into not taking candy from strangers.
There are therefore sound reasons for adult Horror writers to use children in this way and as the target of adult Horror which is somewhat independent of the previous cases where the real target was the adult. Often times the best (or safest) examples of this type of Horror are found in representations of oral tradition, or in the many versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales… These are stories meant to protect children and are often referred to as morality or cautionary tales. They have their place both historically and culturally. And we still write them today, but if they are written to children there is usually a public backlash. So most Horror aimed at children winds up in adult Horror, where writers can openly discuss the issues that are at hand and instead of creating a mere warning, they can provide guidance or help, or a semblance of consolation for having survived a modern monster. To compensate, we make children’s literary monsters cute and fuzzy as we acquiesce to society’s odd and insufficient gyrations to protect our children from the horrors of the real world. Meanwhile, adult Horror grows darker and even more discomfiting...sometimes touching the forbidden language of situations that too many of our children actually face.
Sometimes this means dealing with the other adult in the room – the adult of Adult Content. This is not an exploitation; it is not gratuitous. This is very much about the damage we human beings routinely do to each other, and the frequently unpredictable psychic consequences. Whether a Horror writer chooses to use “psychic” as pure psychology, or ventures into the territory of the paranormal, there are plenty of plot devices under the bed with the monster. This may result in a Horror novel of revenge, or simply as a transformative and healing kind of tale. It may involve ghosts, or thought projections, witchcraft or even Zombies and Angels. When one human being is so ruthlessly savaged by another, the psychic closet is thrust wide open and the possibilities are infinite.
The option for moralizing also appears here. Whether it is as tritely proposed as the 1950’s Loose Young Women Get Eaten By Monsters, or as mythologized as Good Triumphs Over Evil, there are many as-yet unexplored tales of terror waiting to be written which are themselves a rustic kind of extension of earlier Gothic Horror with its avenging spirits and restless truths. As long as the writer understands the nature of the game – that Adult Horror is about adult situations and not about deviant gratification – children can be important characters with serious jobs to do in Horror fiction. These are stories that many can identify with, and tidy storage place for righteous anger. Such foundations are those upon which some of our greatest literature is based, and as such, perhaps this type of Horror has a latent cultural value. Whether you seek to write a new morality tale to keep children from trusting strangers or from toying with Ouija boards, or mean to express the outrage of being a child victim of incest or abuse, Adult Horror provides the venue to make powerful fiction.
…It simply and traditionally remains all about the children.
So where does this leave Horror’s Child? Ultimately, children are our future. Having once been them, we know as writers and adults what missteps have cost us in our intended lives, what we wish would have been better. As such, we also know what scares both parents and children, as well as those who used to be children. We know that ultimately, we are powerless to stop the future and can only hope we have prepared our children and ourselves to safeguard it the way we know it should be. That is scary enough…But as Horror writers we also want you to look under the bed…because even if nothing is there, making you look means we did our job – and for just a few precious moments – you were a kid again…
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, c1994.
Westfahl, Gary and George Slusser, eds. Nursery Realms: Children in the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, c1999