Kids' Stuff in Contemporary Horror Film

Karen Renner's picture

Horror films of the new millennium have taken a particular interest in children and children’s culture. In fact, if we consider the top-grossing horror films from the past three years (according to www.the-numbers.com), we find that over half—including the top film of each year--focus on the perspectives and experiences of children and young adults—5 in 2017, 4 in 2016, and 8 in 2015. 

 
 
 

In fact, the three most popular horror franchises of the new millennium--Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Conjuring—are defined by their keen interest in the young.

Not only do we often experience horror through the eyes of children in these films, but many of the artifacts and rituals of childhood themselves are haunted and menacing. The arrival of the monster in The Babadook (2014), for example, is signaled by what appears to be a children’s pop-up book, though its contents, we soon discover, are hardly age-appropriate.

The Babadook pop-up (which fans like me were actually able to obtain for their own bookshelves) rivals even the most disturbing of Edward Gorey’s illustrated “children’s books,” The Loathsome Couple, a story about a couple who murder children together and which Gorey himself said might prove to be “its authors most unpleasant ever”—a meaningful statement indeed if you know anything about Gorey’s work. 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That The Babadook makes a monster out of a child’s toy is nothing new. After all, I imagine a fair number of us were traumatized by the infamous clown scene in The Poltergeist (1982). (If you’d like to relive the trauma, click here.)

In contemporary horror, toys and other childhood objects are frequently objects of fright. Baby monitors are associated with terror in Signs (2002)—such an important image to that film, in fact, that it serves as the illustration on the film’s DVD menu—

 
and Insidious (2010) also uses one to get a particularly good scare.
 

Colorful, magnetic letters spell out a disturbing message on the refrigerator in the remake of The Amityville Horror (2015) 

 
while in The Conjuring (2013), a vintage music box offers views of ghosts,
 

and a child’s zoetrope literally conjures a terrifying monster in the sequel.

And let’s not forget the haunting power of children’s drawings, a trope that dates back to Deep Red (1975) and Children of the Corn (1984), 

and which has recently been seen in Mama (2013),

 

Sinister (2012),

 

and in a creepy little story called “The Pink Backpack” which you can learn more about here. Even children’s games can be creepy. Think of the jumprope chant in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, gonna stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again.” (The Conjuring creates a hell of a scare using a children’s game that merges hide-and-seek with Marco Polo.)

But of all the children’s objects used to cause a fright, it is dolls that have had the most power. Probably most people immediately think of Chucky from the Child’s Play series as being the first incarnation of the trope, but it goes back at least to the “Living Doll episode of The Twilight Zone from 1963 which featured Telly Salavas being terrified by a Talking Tina doll.

The popularity of the deadly doll peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, appearing on the covers of many pulp horror paperbacks 

 
 
as well as in an assortment of B-Horror flicks. 
 

And while the trope may seem a little silly, it has made quite a comeback in recent years, appearing in The Boy (2016) and in the figure of Annabelle, who first featured in The Conjuring series but has since proved popular enough to sustain two of her own movies so far and to inspire a mockbluster named Charlotte (2017). 

 

Even Chucky saw his seventh movie, Cult of Chucky, this year.

Why are toys so scary? I think the answer lies in Freud’s theory of the uncanny. In that famous essay, Freud argues that feelings of the uncanny are triggered when “surmounted beliefs” are seemingly confirmed by some sort of event. As children, for example, we might  believe that our stuffed animals could come alive at any moment; in fact, when I was young, I wished for such a thing daily. Over time, however, I (mostly) got over or surmounted that belief. However, if today a stuffed animal suddenly seemed to move on its own accord, I’d run screaming. It's probably due to this same mechanism that I find the teddybear from the Downy commercials so terrifying as well as the one that appeared in Artificial Intelligence. (And if teddies scare you, then watch out for an absolutely terrifying short film called Teddy Bear’s Picnic, which I was fortunate to see at the Telluride Horror Film Festival just a week or so ago.)

Why horror films are so interested in making children’s culture the stuff that nightmares are made of is a question that my colleague, Dennis D. J. Marcello, and I will be answering in our current book project, Anti-Nostalgia in Post-Millennial Horror Films. We believe that contemporary horror films are generally anti-nostalgic, intent on showing the past as haunted rather than hallowed. And what better way to subvert nostalgia than through its key symbols of children and childhood?

 

Back to American Childhoods