“There’s nothing as pure and cruel as a child.” - Jet Black, Cowboy Bebop, “Pierrot Le Fou.”
In the rampaging horde of vampires, werewolves, zombies, fae, ghosts, geists, creatures and crawlers that daily swarm our pages and screens, it’s easy to forget the ankle-biters. After all, the grown-up versions are so much sexier and more exciting. But even Grendel was somebody’s baby, once. Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Creepy kids are their own kind of monster. Most monsters are a reflection of the “Frankenstein complex,” the fear that humanity will reach too far in science or magic and create an abomination. Frankenstein’s monster, Godzilla, the Terminator, the Balrog, orcs, and mutants of all shapes and sizes are all meditations upon this anxiety. But creepy kids are different. Creepy kids reflect parental anxiety. Creepy kids are all about parasitism, invasion, and enslavement.
This anxiety starts early. The first time I watched Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, I sat up in my seat watching Geena Davis’ nightmare of birthing an insect larva. Beside me, my mother nodded appreciatively. “I used to have dreams like that about you,” she said. “I dreamed that you were a litter of kittens or puppies or some other animals, but not my daughter.”
“Really. Every woman has that dream, when she’s pregnant. You’ll probably have it, too, someday. So don’t worry about it, if it happens.”
I still don’t have children, but I understand Mom’s dream. Most of the unpleasant side-effects of pregnancy can be attributed to the immune system’s response to an alien organism inhabiting the body. In fact, the human placenta secretes the same compound — Neurokinin B with phosphocholine — that parasitic roundworms use to evade detection by the host’s immune system. The fetus itself possesses cells that limit the function of the mother’s T cells. Most fetuses come to term because their cells were able to slip in under the immune system’s radar.
But even after the first trimester, when fetuses are most statistically likely to come to term, there’s still a lot of body horror at work. Birth is scary. In the United States, 16.7 women died for every 100,000 live births in 2008. That year, 343,000 women died in childbirth across the globe. So dying in childbirth isn’t just a staple of fairy tales or hospital dramas or the Alien franchise, it’s reality. And it’s terrifying.
Of course, it’s not until that fetus becomes a baby that we tend to think of them as parasitic. These uncharitable thoughts usually occur during long airplane trips, or in cases of nipple thrush, or when the Christmas credit balances arrive. Children are at once totally dependent on us and totally independent of mind. They come from us, but they are not us. They may look and sound and even smell like us, but they are different, with their own desires and agendas that are often wildly divergent from our own. Some of the scariest horror stories exploit this tension to great effect.
One of the best and earliest examples of this is Henry James’ 1898 novella “The Turn of The Screw.” In it, a governness suspects her charges of being inhabited by the ghosts of former household employees who were lovers. Her attempt to rid the boy child of his supernatural inhabitant kills him, and the reader is left to wonder if the ghosts were real or if the governess was mad. Truman Capote’s screenplay of the 1961 adaptation, The Innocents, highlights the sexual and gothic elements of the story, with the governess’ suspicions about the children’s behaviour an indicator of her own unspoken desires for companionship. The idea of two siblings inhabited by the memories of former lovers arises again in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, with Leto II and Ghanima Atreides sometimes playing “the parent game” as children and trying to emulate their parents Paul and Chani.
Of course, Herbert’s entire series is full of creepy kids, with Paul Atreides’ sister Alia (the Abomination) taking the spice-cake. Alia, Ghanima, and Leto II are all “pre-born” due to their experience with the spice melange in utero, and are born with full adult consciousness and access to their ancestors’ memories. It’s unnerving for the adults around them, but even more so for their readers who realize that the Atreides children are memetically linked to that other pre-born baby, Renesmee Cullen. (Sure, Alia was bad, but Renesmee tried to chew her way out of the womb with her baby fangs. Chestbursters beware, there’s a new fetal terror in town.)
Gifted children seem to always creep out the more average adults around them. John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos (adapted for film in 1960 as The Village of the Damned) is all about alien invaders impregnating human women. The resulting children are highly intelligent and admirably well-behaved. They just also happen use mind control to fashion a cosy home for themselves and avenge any perceived insults or threats. The villagers know that their children are killing them, but can’t bring themselves to destroy them. It is only through their beloved teacher’s self-sacrifice that the world is saved from their menace.
This unbearable dilemma of killing one’s own child to save the world repeats across a number of horror franchises. It’s the hard choice Gregory Peck must make in The Omen (1976) and that Louis Creed must make in Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary. The decision to let a child suffer for her own good comes to Chris MacNeil in William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist, and is replayed again in William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation. In both the film and the novel it’s clear that if the demon possessing Regan MacNeil doesn’t kill her, the exorcism just might. The film also pays extra attention to the demoralizing and painful effects of treating the possession medically: Regan recieves not one but two spinal taps. For any parent of an ill child, these scenes can be especially resonant.
But so far, these are all stories about children inhabited by evil, not children who are evil. Even little Damien Thorn of Omen fame received a lot of nudging encouragement from his Satanic nanny, and as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett made clear in their novel Good Omens, context is everything when it comes to kids. (That book asks what would have happened to the Antichrist had he just gotten a decent upbringing. The answer is that we all would be a lot better off.) The same is basically true of baby Andy in Rosemary’s Baby, who is clearly a child of Satan but doesn’t yet have many strikes against him. There are lots of other stories about chaotic neutral kids who go lawful evil due to bad circumstances: Bad Ronald (1974) is an awkward teenager who goes mad living between the walls of his childhood home; the murderous newborn from It’s Alive (1974) suffered the consequences of poorly-researched prescription drugs in utero; Carrie White was the victim of an abusive mother; The Brood (1979) were actually the “psychoplasmic” spawn of their mentally ill mother’s fractured consciousness. Even the alien children of Midwich were essentially abandoned by their fathers to live on a planet where they looked different from everyone else and had abnormal abilities, virtually guranteeing their ostracization.
The best example, of course, is of Sadako Yamamura in Koji Suzuki’s Ring novels. The inspiration for the Japanese films and television drama as well as the American films starring Naomi Watts, Suzuki’s novels actually take the time to explain Sadako’s motivations for etching her memories onto videotapes and using them as a viral means of transmitting her pain to others. Sadako is the child of a psychic named Shizuko and a water demon inhabiting the En no Ozunu statue sunk off the shore of Oshima Island, where Sadako was born. Shizuko tried to abandon Sadako, but eventually returned to claim her and raise her. Sadako’s nensha powers develop (she has the ability to “burn” images onto film, video, and human consciousness, as well as the ability to manipulate DNA) over time, but fail to protect her from either her mother’s suicide or her rape at the hands of a young doctor. During that rape, the doctor discovers that although Sadako has the physical appearance of a woman, she possesses male testes. In other words, Sadako has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Furious and disgusted, the doctor throws her into a well. She dies seven days later.
It’s hard not to cut Sadako some slack, here. She’s the daughter of a demon, her mom killed herself, she’s probably confused about her body, and she’s also got strange powers that alienate everyone around her. She dies alone in the dark of thirst and starvation after being raped. My rage would be deathless, too.
But there are a few kids out there who were born bad and stayed that way. The baby Jukes in David Nickle’s 2010 novel Eutopia have access to human thoughts and deliberately manipulate them. The baby in Eraserhead (1977) seems intent on making its parents suffer horribly. And there’s always little Rhoda Penmark of William March’s 1954 novel The Bad Seed, tragically born without a conscience, and willing kill to get whatever she wants. Rhoda is a tiny psychopath who oozes charm, uses others for her own ends without remorse, and performs emotions rather than actually feeling them.
In other words, she’s Eli from Let The Right One In.
Let The Right One In imagines what it would be like to be responsible for a child who never grows up. A vampire, Eli needs a human to do her bidding in the daylight hours, to earn money for her lodging, procure her food, and in general make himself totally available in every possible way without fail until old age renders him an annoyance. Parents, does this sound familiar?
Granted, Let the Right One In is not really about the relationship between Eli and her older Renfield, but about the one between Eli and Oskar, the boy she’s cultivating for that purpose. What Eli offers that relationship are the things children his age need: attention, undying commitment, and protection. But once Oskar ages and finds his own power and agency, he won’t need those same things — but he’ll still be chained to Eli. That’s the horror of the story, and it’s the horror of the others mentioned in this post: the prospect of being forever entangled with a selfish, unfeeling monster who can never be appeased. Like roundworms, creepy kids are able to manipulate the environment around them. They just do it with cuteness, not chemicals. Unfortunately, their parents and friends don’t have a kid like Aidan Keller from The Ring around. Describing Samara Morgan, Sadako’s far creepier and less sympathetic American iteration, he tells his mother:
“You weren’t supposed to help her.”
Madeline Ashby really does want to be a mother, someday. Really.