By Kaitlyn Way
Children in horror fiction and film often challenge romantic perceptions of childhood as an idyllic and innocent phase of life. These representations of children frequently serve as either a warning against familial instability or as an indication of society’s collective fears and anxieties. With this in mind, Joseph’s Ruben’s 1993 psychological thriller The Good Son reacts to the “parental panic” of the late twentieth-century and to the widespread belief that American childhood was disintegrating.*
The film begins with 12 year-old Mark Evans (Elijah Wood) coping with the recent death of his mother. Mark’s father, Jack (David Morse), brings him to the home of his Aunt Susan (Wendy Crewson) and Uncle Wallace (Daniel Hugh Kelly) in Maine, to spend the two-week winter break while he travels to Tokyo for a business trip. Mark is reintroduced to his cousins Henry (Macaulay Culkin) and Connie (Quinn Culkin), and at first, the two boys get along quite well. However, shortly into Mark’s stay, Henry begins exhibiting abnormal and sadistic behavior – going so far as to shoot and kill a dog with a homemade crossbow. When Mark expresses his discomfort and concern to his aunt and uncle, they dismiss him and attribute his anxiety to the recent loss of his mother. But, after young Connie nearly drowns from collapsing through thin ice while ice-skating with Henry, Susan grows suspicious of her son’s sinister inclinations. The film reaches its climactic peak when Susan discovers her late son’s toy rubber duck in the shed, resulting in the realization that Henry had killed his infant brother. Sensing his mother’s suspicions and her growing relationship with Mark, Henry resolves to murder her. In the end, Henry attempts to kill his mother by pushing her over a cliff. Mark saves her by tackling Henry to the ground, which causes a fight to ensue on the cliff’s edge. When both boys roll off the cliff, Susan grabs hold of them—and as both Henry and Mark desperately plead for her to save them, Susan must make an excruciating choice.
The Case of Henry Evans
During the last decades of the twentieth-century, many American families subscribed to the notion that the well-being of children was in rapid decline because of mounting worries over increased street crime, family break up, and women’s shifting roles. The Good Son effectively plays upon these anxieties, reacting to the fear that American children, and in turn, childhood, had suffered a moral breakdown of epic proportion.
The characterization of Henry Evans serves as an ideal representation of how Americans began fearing that the sanctity of childhood was in jeopardy. From all accounts, Henry appears to be a typical, white, middle-class child – well-mannered and socially adjusted. However, beneath his surface “normalcy,” Henry is revealed to be a megalomaniac and a psychopath. His character adheres to an idea widely held at this time that childhood was no longer a protected and innocent phase of life. Instead, it was believed that children understood and exhibited destructive adult behaviors, all as a result of overexposure to sexuality, violence, and death.
Henry demonstrates a keen understanding of violence and death, taking pleasure in causing and manipulating the pain of others (including his mother). This is evident throughout the film, but it especially shows when he threatens to harm/kill his little sister Connie. He says to his cousin Mark, “You like my sister, don’t you? Such a sweet little girl…it’d be too bad if something were to happen to her…like she got hurt…you’d be sad, wouldn’t you, Mark? But hey, accidents can happen…” In this scene, Henry manipulates the emotions of Mark, showing a clear understanding that the injury/death of Connie would affect his cousin enormously. Moreover, this moment also emphasizes the fact that Henry understands the difference between right and wrong, but simply does not care to do what’s right.
Along with the fear that children were being corrupted by over exposure to adult behaviors, there also existed a fear among many late twentieth-century adults that the younger generation was more likely to drink, smoke, abuse drugs, and become sexually active at an early age. From the beginning, Henry serves as an effective reaction to these fears of drug abuse and youthful nihilism, not least in his smoking. Henry rationalizes smoking as okay because he sees death as an impending fate for everyone. He nonchalantly lights up a cigarette and offers it to Mark. Initially declining the cigarette, Mark states, “They give you cancer,” to which Henry replies, “Who cares, you’re gonna die anyways.” This moment is a primary example of how children in horror films serve as a primary vehicle by means of which society can express its fears and anxieties. Doubling the traditional image of childhood innocence (Henry’s appearance) with juvenile substance abuse (his smoking) undoubtedly creates a sense of discomfort for the audience. The juxtaposition is largely why children are such an effective device of horror in fiction and film.
To sum it all up, adults of the late twentieth-century feared a loss of childhood innocence, which is why The Good Son is such an effective film for its time. Macaulay Culkin’s portrayal of Henry Evans exposes society’s collective anxieties that children’s morality had deteriorated beyond the point of repair. Moreover, this fear has, if anything, increased since 1993, continuing to serve as an effective device of horror in recent decades. Films such as Case 39 (as Gwen has recently argued), Hide and Seek (2005), and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), to name a few, demonstrate society’s shared anxieties that children/childhood is no longer a protected nor innocent part of life.
*Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 336.
Kaitlyn Way is currently a graduate student in American Studies at Trinity College. This is her first piece analyzing the cultural implications of a horror film. Her current favorites in the horror genre include “spiritually scary” films like The Conjuring series and Lights Out. She is currently writing her master’s thesis on representations of children in horror throughout the twentieth-century and enjoys nothing more than analyzing the horror genre. Kaitlyn can be found on Facebook.