On Children and the Incitement of Horror

Children, holding with the Victorian norm, more often cute and benign, meant to be seen and not heard, so easily transform and creep into our movie theaters wielding handguns, sharp knives, and even the powers of Satan himself to unsettle us from our bourgeoisie, soporific state. Why? Why do such movies scare us so much, what’s their draw, and what’s their significance as a cultural artifact? Big questions, I know, but important ones, none-the-less.
We can understand a great deal of why the little characters in these movies incite us to throw our popcorn into the air by considering Freud’s theories of the uncanny. True, this theme has been mined quite heavily in the last, oh, forty years, but there’s something to be said for reprisals. When thinking about the horror that devil children incite, we might revisit some of Freud’s theories. First, Freud defines those things that are uncanny quite simply: those things that are unfamiliar to us. He then complicates this definition by adding the element of hospitable (warm beds, sunny days, cheerful friends) to show the contrast between that which is congenial and that which falls outside of our everyday experiences. Fearful things, ghouls, horrible dreams, frightening car accidents, and etc, fit within the inhospitable. The uncanny, therefore, as Freud describes it, is that which spans the two precipices between familiar, pleasant things and the things that unsettle us, giving way to our inability to classify or rationalize anomalies in our reasonably constructed world.

But one needs another means to explain why horror movies incite such horror in their viewers. Sure, they mix the familiar and pleasant that comes with images of children and childhood with the inhospitable and irrational that confuses and unsettles us. But there’s more. Enter Kristeva’s work on horror and the abject.

Over the course of much of her writing on horror, Kristeva refers to the notion of how children build and acquire the semiotics of their world in the Oedipal stage, which later augments how they explain the basis for their feelings of abjection, disgust, and (the obverse) jouissance as adults. But when one considers the result of children’s sign (semiotic) acquisition, which tell them that something is to be made abject, one must wonder how someone might be unbiased about what compels one towards feelings of horror. But more importantly, going back to the topic of children inciting fear in horror movies, we view something, as Kristeva refers to it in Powers of Horror, as “birth trauma.” Fear personifies itself growing from mother to child, as she describes it. This birth trauma may show itself when a child cannot make him or herself understood, whether because of the inability to speak, the prevention of speech by some outside force, or lack of effective speech communication. Good mothering and proper “uterine transfer,” as Kristeva describes it, would have prevented the lack of speech, and its breakdown creates an upset of the “bio-drive balance.”

Kristeva also recaps on Freud’s uncanny, then elaborates on his theories when she talks about how abjection differs from uncanniness. The “natural” order would stipulate that a child receive all the gifts, objects, and food, showing the child’s “failure to recognize its kin.” And this point in her theory, Kristeva gets at the prospect of lack of desire, which, for her, means that humans shed a defining attribute: desire. Those without desire become objects themselves abject to the “clean” and upright world. A child who shuns, then goes on to persecute its parents, brothers, strangers, and the world on the whole, then becomes inherently and categorically abject.

In sum, children represent the innocent, the malleable, the genesis of what we are to become, and when viewers are given the opposite, a child who rejects mother, father, the clean, the viewer receives a mimetic personification of the abject, the antithesis of norm. Sadistic, murderous, sycophant children, therefore, represent all that can tear us apart.

In no way can I list all the movies that have come out in the last 75 years that illustrate this phenomenon, but here’s a few that I always get a kick out of that also exemplify what I mention above.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Film, Freud, Gender, Kristeva.

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