I frequently reflect upon how certain cataclysmic historical events permeate our popular culture. Since the turn of the century, the most notable American historic events have included 9-11, the subsequent wars, Anthrax, hurricane Katrina, the rise of social media, and recession. As someone who loves horror films and who tirelessly tries to understand the American family, this article investigates how post 9-11 issues are reflected through the family in horror films. I chose to primarily focus on the Bush presidency years because it spans most of the first decade of the century.[i] Those years also witnessed a series of notable unfortunate events that undoubtedly reverberated through our culture through the end of the decade. I argue that in the first decade of the 21st century there was a rise in family horror films that surpasses previous decades. More interestingly, there was a surge in child antagonists who presented as more innately evil than ever before.[ii]The events after September 11th, 2001 undoubtedly impacted the way we view our homes and our children.
The George W. Bush presidency began with uncertainty and ended when someone else ushered in hope and change. The 2000 presidential election results challenged some people’s faith in larger systems of governance. Less than eight months after the inauguration of President Bush, our sense of security was challenged by four hijacked planes in the single largest terroristic attack on American soil. Deemed, the day that changed everything, it immediately transformed security, foreign policy, the economy, people’s health, and much more. Within the same month a widespread fear of Anthrax, deemed Amerithrax by the FBI files, spread across the country. A newly developed Homeland Security Advisory system paralyzed the nation with imminent threats of color coded terror. Capitalizing on fear, our nation initiated war on Iraq in 2003. Social media greatly expands our access to the world while simultaneously limiting our physical interactions and experiences. In 2002 Friendster launches followed by Myspace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. By 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck the nation and became the costliest natural disaster in American history. By 2007 the housing bubble collapsed beginning the Great Recession, and gas prices reached an all-time high in the summer of 2008.
At the same time, how we view our children changed. Between the years of 2000-2009 horror films showed an increase of innately evil children I leading roles. In addition to their primary position as antagonist, these children were portrayed as surprisingly human. Why with so much national and tangible horror was there a surge in horrible children? At times when we should hold our loved ones near, why would the silver screen expose our fears and anxieties about children? As boots were hitting the ground in battle, we started seeing our children reflected as monsters. Despite horrific unemployment rates and a growing recession, none of these seemed likely reasons for being afraid of the younger generation. What made children such a powerful menace in need of vanquishing? If we believe that horror is a social commentary, reflecting our collective fears and anxieties then what do these monstrous children tell us about society at this time?[iii]
It would be too dismissive to say that “kids these days just aren’t the same.” It is doubtful that the change in perception was a result of teenage violence. While media sensationalizes crimes committed by children, the national trend shows a steady decline in overall violence and arrests since the mid-1990s. Similarly, it couldn’t be a growth in broken families as national divorce rates also show a downward trend over the decade. The only noticeable increase in childhood issues was the increase of mental health diagnoses, which could also be attributed to more astute diagnosis and removal of stigma.
More likely, several other co-occurring conditions contributed to the changing perception of our children. While the nation dips into excessive federal spending, raising gas prices, lower rates of healthcare, and a pittance of a minimum wage…children keep getting more expensive.[iv] Their education, their toys, their Girl Scout cookies, their health, and general upkeep become a great strain on the American family. At the same time, the use of social media renders parents technologically obsolete, and opens the uncontrolled floodgates of access to and from their children. The internet, advertising, and popular culture expose children to more adult themes and likewise pose very adult situations and choices. There is a definitive transferal of power within the home. Vivian Sobchack argues that while children are at times called “possessed”, in reality they are in actuality in possession of the control within the household. They are “uncivilized, hostile, and powerful Others. She continues that while they fascinate “the culture that also found them abhorrent, these children collapsed the boundaries that marked off identity from difference and exercised a powerful deconstructive force dangerous to patriarchal bourgeois culture”.[v] At a time when luxuries are scarce, our lives, money, time, and power are increasingly consumed by our children much like The Blob (1958) engulfed a small town in Pennsylvania.
The constant every day stress of the “middle class squeeze” is exacerbated by national events. Couples second guessing their decision to have children, whether they can afford to send them to a better school, are now inundated with images of lost security. After September 11th, 2001 our collective home was no longer safe. The horror that ensued came from within our borders, and was supposedly instigated by the hijackers’ perception of our way of life/politics. Essentially, our home was invaded from within and it was by people who used our own technology and teachings against us. Furthermore, as airport cameras revealed, the perpetrators of violence look just like us. Safe became just another four letter word.
Children in post 9-11 horror films seem innately evil. They largely remove the excuses of decades past that blame the sins of the child on the devil or, of course, the next most powerful being…the mother. Post 9-11 horror films finally make family horror that doesn’t exhaustively blame mothers or repressive family structures. From Samara, to David, to Lilith, mothers especially are responsible for ending the streams of terrible children unleashed onto society. In the films from the 2000s, killing your child becomes justifiable for they are so evil, putrid, or threatening that there is no other option. This idea of mother saving society by retaining control over her children is clearly evident in The Children (2008).
The Ring (2002), Joshua (2007), Whisper (2007), Trick or Treat (2007), The Children (2008), Case 39 (2009), and Orphan (2009) exhibit varying degrees of innate evil.[vi] Samara literally drove family, neighbors, and horses crazy. The local Dr. Gasnick reminded us that “sometimes it takes work to love kids”. The most notable reflection of this is in Whisper (2007) when David’s mother hires a hitman to murder her adopted son. Both Joshua and Lilith (Orphan) are able to expose the weaknesses in their parents and they also compel their parents to lash out physically.
Finally and more overtly are the cases of David in Whisper and Lilith in Case 39 who creep into the minds of others and force them to act. Like a master of hypnotic suggestion, David uses mental aerobics to get into the heads of his kidnappers and forces their moves in a real life game of chess. Lilith demands, “You have to do what I say. If I say I want (this)…You have to do (this).” She calls this a new beginning, and in reality, it is a new beginning of the child assuming control over the adults. This exposes a real fear in many parents who feel powerless in the face of their entitled, bratty children. These same children will usurp familial power structures by alerting authorities when they don’t get their way. Families struggle to regulate and discipline as the power shifts, thus feeling and experiencing unsafe in their own home. Anxieties regarding children became more tangible in an uncertain world. While becoming a parent can be an exciting experience it can be an endless stream of fears. In the DVD extras for Case 39 (2009) the director expresses a desire to expose the exaggerated fears of real situations. Unlike decades before, the family became the victim of innately bad children who sought to capitalize on the uncertain world around them.
[i] Also the child centered antagonists teetered off in numbers around 2009.
[ii] To name a few: Ginger Snaps (2000), The Ring (2002), Blessed (2004), Godsend (2004), The Grudge (2004)
Dark Water (2005), Wicked Little Things (2006), Born (2007), Trick or Treat (2007), Joshua (2007), Whisper (2007), Baby Blues (2008), The Children (2008), Home Movie (2008), One Missed Call (2008), Case 39 (2009), Grace (2009), Orphan (2009)
[iii] Andrew Tudor, “From Paranoia to Postmodernism? The Horror Movie in Late Modern Society,” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (BFI, 2008): 105-16. “There is no doubt that the modern horror movie, like all popular culture, tells us something about the society in which we live. That is a society in which we have become more aware of risks; a society in which we are less convinced by the systems of expertise that surround us and the institutions that seek to regulate our lives; a society in which our concept of the self is unreliable” (116).
[iv] For more insight into the spending power of children, the ways we market to children and its subsequent impact see: http://www.economist.com/node/8355035 ; http://www.globalissues.org/article/237/children-as-consumers ; https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2014/09/24/96903/the-middle-class-squeeze/ “As this report will show, for a married couple with two children, the costs of key elements of middle-class security—child care, higher education, health care, housing, and retirement—rose by more than $10,000 in the 12 years from 2000 to 2012, at a time when this family’s income was stagnant.”
[v] Sobchack, V. (1996). Bringing it All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange. In B. K. Ed., The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. (pp. 143-163). Austin: University of Texas Press (150-51).
[vi] See also Horror’s Creepiest Kids Round up on our HorrorHomeroom site here for more scary kids!