Thursday, October 6, 2011

Evil Children

Like a ghost in a churchyard, or a malevolent toy (future topic!), there is something particularly unsettling about the juxtaposition of evil and good, sin and innocence. Transmuted by fear, things that once seemed intrinsically benevolent or heartwarming can change in an instant into something Other, something beyond mere wickedness -- a betrayal of whatever Geneva Conventions exist in our hearts and heads governing the proper order of things. Perhaps the most powerful of these inversions is the trope of the Evil Child.

The first two movies that really terrified me were The Shining and The Omen. Not only because I saw them at too young an age, but also because they featured Evil Children. Likewise, the first book I had to stop reading for a while (just as its author had to stop writing) was Pet Sematary. The antichrist is one thing, even ghost twins and a river of blood, but an undead toddler? An unlovable thing seeking out Mommy and Daddy for one last hug? That, my friends, is what I call H-O-R-R-O-R. It's probably a good thing that the film adaptation fell a few loads short of full on brick-shitting scary. **

Seems I am not alone. In 1998, a new urban legend was born based on a single online posting by a journalist named Brian Bethel. (The original is available here, thanks to the wonders of the Way Back Machine.) Apparently, Bethel encountered a pair of young kids (age undetermined, but estimated at 10-14) who spooked the living hell out of him, partly due the way his mind and body reacted to their presence, and partly due to the fact that their eyes were entirely black -- "no pupil, no iris, just two staring orbs..." Oddly enough, it took Bethel several minutes to notice this detail, as if they were somehow willing him not to.

Ever since, dozens of similar accounts have popped up online. They even have their own acronym -- BEKs, or Black-Eyed Kids. What they want is still unclear, but like the vampires of old they often seek entry into the narrator's home or car, evoke an amount of fear that is hugely disproportionate to their physical size, and seem to exert a Darth Vader-like ability to influence their victims. Hell, even the Marines are scared of them.

I'm not suggesting that any of this is true, but it does raise some interesting questions about how we feel about our children. Again and again in these What We Fear entries I am going to reiterate the fact that horror films and urban legends are mirrors of what is most unnerving society at any given point in time. After Columbine and countless other cases, it's no great epiphany to recognize that "broken children" now frighten us as much as the escaped convicts of yesteryear. But what are we to do about it?

I don't have any answers, I'm afraid, at least not in a blog post, but I can recommend some really good additions to the film genre, if you want to plumb the depths of your own "Evil Child" fears. All of the movies listed below were made in the last decade and are worth a watch.

Eden Lake
The Orphanage
The Strangers

And for one, really great non-horror treatment of the subject, check out Boy A.

** Given the recent remake trend, you'll probably be unsurprised to hear that Hollywood is having another go at Pet Sematary. Alexandre Aja, of Haute Tension fame, has been tapped to direct, so we should probably start baking the clay and filling the molds.

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