Posted on February 27, 2017

Case 39 Challenges Our View of Children


I’ve been mulling over one of those nature vs. nurture conundrums: are children in horror films born innocent and made evil or are they born evil and we suppress their natural tendencies. So often, children in horror films serve as cautionary tales where parental missteps lead to baby Beelzebubs.  Freudian analysis would suggest that humans are born naughty and dominated by their self-serving, Id driven psyche.  Freud also argued that in order to maintain a civilized world we must repress our instinctual drives such as Thanatos. If Freud is correct that children are impulsive imps who must be tamed, then horror scholar Robin Wood speaks in tandem when he suggests that children are the “most oppressed section of the population.”* Interestingly enough, much horror scholarship assumes a psychoanalytic tone, yet often minimizes the inherent and uncanny nature of the child.

I am arguing here that the evil child in horror film is not always an innocent babe perverted by the reckless decisions of adults. Children are born uninhibited, selfish, and matter of fact. However, these traits are not the ones that disrupt normality in the horror film nor do these traits make the child monstrous.  Since the millennium, I believe it is when children use these traits to usurp established power structures that they become monstrous.

There are moments in time that change the way we think about things. I recently had one of those moments when re-watching the film Case 39 (2009), directed by Christian Alvart.  Here, Detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane) makes a spontaneous statement that presents the viewer with an astute juxtaposition between man’s best friend and the innocent child.  His one sentence exposes the way we tend to lump all children together as innocent.


In this scene, we discover that a young ten-year-old boy had reportedly murdered his parents. The clip graphically recounts the way that Diego (Alexander Conti) climbs up the stairs crowbar in hand, locks all the windows, and slaughters his parents while they lie in bed. Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger) with her mouth drawn wide in disbelief protests that there is no way a ten-year-old could do this. To this, Detective Barron clarifies that the child took three men to subdue him. Just as Detective Barron is making his case that a child is capable of killing, a dog lurches forth at him, followed by Barron’s sideways comment, “Man’s best friend, eh?”

In one small statement, Detective Barron cleared up so many of my quandaries. His comment about man’s best friend simultaneously made two interdependent arguments. First, it suggests that we often make sweeping generalizations that we struggle to see beyond. So we tend to see dogs as man’s best friend by allowing positive examples to outweigh the negative. While we know that there are some dogs who are not nice, we still see the species as good companions. When dogs are bad, we often assume it’s the owner’s fault.  Secondly, by positioning Detective Barron’s comment amidst a discussion about a child killing his family, it immediately unites the statement about the dog and the discussion about children. By this simple correlation, we can argue that the director wants us to see that we often oversimplify our view of children, like dogs, as innocents.

Detective Barron assures Emily that by making assumptions about dogs (or children) as inherently good, we open ourselves to great risk. Had that pane of glass not been there, man’s best friend would have given Detective Barron a face lift.   feel comfortable making this argument based on the DVD extras where the director expresses a desire to expose the exaggerated fears of real situations.  Also at one point in the film, Emily discusses a case with her coworker and she thoughtfully says, “Remember when people were just bad, before all the diagnoses…just bad.”

Case 39 adds a new dimension to family horror.  I have always seen the child as the ultimate interloper in any family. Children shake the foundation of the existing family by disrupting the primary relationship between the parents as well as upsetting their autonomy. In one-dimensional terms, the evil child in horror presents a doubling effect which reflects back to the parent that which they have lost by having a child. I don’t think that is enough to make a child monstrous. What makes Lillith (Jodelle Ferland) monstrous in Case 39 is the way she destroys traditional representations of authority (the state -> Emily, police –> Det. Barron, psychology –> Douglas, heteronormative family –> the Sullivans).  In the most compelling scene, Lillith serves up a heaping piece of humble pie for Douglas Ames (Bradley Cooper) when he tries to lead her in a discussion about fear.



What sets this clip apart from other films is the way Lillith overtly takes control. The clip begins with Douglas assuming his position of power as a white male of certain means and as an authority in his field of psychology.  Lillith pivots the conversation quicker than Kellyanne Conway in an MSNBC interview. Her gaze peers through him almost as if she were calling “bullshit.” She then reveals thinly veiled threats toward Douglas followed by calling him out for “the way you are” (which we see is apologetic, docile, and “facile”).  In this mental version of arm wrestling, Lillith is about to go “over the top” and then she delivers the final blow where she actually calls him facile. She takes advantage of Douglas’s  underestimating her (as we tend to do with children) and then uses it to knock him off guard. This is a beautiful reproduction of one of the key ingredients necessary to make an evil child monstrous. It is not the actual innocence of children but the blind assumptions of it which leave adults vulnerable to their evil.

I believe that all too often we underestimate children.  It is precisely this which leaves us exposed like the missing scale on the underbelly of Smog in The Hobbit. Other films such as Joshua (2007), Orphan (2009), and Whisper (2007) give us children who compel adults to act or get in to the minds of adults. Similarly, there are scenes in Case 39 where Lillith compels thoughts, compliance, or actions of adults.  However, in the previous scene she uses Douglas as a cautionary tale similar to the use of drunken, fornicating teens in a 1980’s slasher. Not only is Lillith smarter than Douglas, but she has to tell him how to be a man, “Don’t apologize, you’re a grown up, it’s embarrassing.” Lillith takes a page out of Sun Tzu by knowing her enemy, offering him bait to lure him in, and breaking his resistance without a fight.

Since the new millennium, children in horror are born bad. It is no longer the mistakes of their parents that make them malicious. In hindsight, films like those mentioned in this piece show a forced audience alignment with the parents as we start to accept putting a child in an oven, taking out a hit on kid, or kicking them in the face and leaving them in a frozen pond. Kids these days just aren’t the same. We fear them; we don’t exorcise their demons, but rather rid ourselves of them entirely. The sheer fact that we have moved away from rehabilitating children suggests to me that horror films have also adopted my belief that children are inherently evil, thus taking the side of “nature” in the nature vs. nurture argument.


* Robin Wood, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s,” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), 75. Wood also writes, “What the previous generation repressed in us we, in turn, repress in our children, seeking to mold them into replicas of ourselves” (75).

**Kevin Muir has written extensively about interlopers as a primary horror in the 1990s:  Horror films of the 1990s. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

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