It is October. This shifting month marks the beginning of our collective descent into celebrating all things creepy, crawly, and pumpkin-related. In the spirit of embracing our fears and the horrors of the world, I’d like to start off the season with a discussion of one of the most infamous horror tropes.
Imagine yourself opening the door on Halloween night to be greeted by a group of small children, all decked-out in their costumes. Pretty adorable, right? However, instead of hearing the familiar joyous chorus of “Trick or Treat!”, they simply stare at you, heads tilted slightly to one side, emotionless and wide-eyed. They slowly hold out their pumpkin-shaped buckets and, feeling a sudden chill down your spine, you drop some tootsie rolls into their containers and then close the door as firmly as you can. Their lingering eyes never leave your face as the door swings shut. They make no sound. They do not move.
Sounds like the prelude to a horror movie, doesn’t it?
The fact is, creepy children have been a part of the horror canon for far longer than their appearance in Hollywood and contemporary film. While movies like The Ring (2002), The Exorcist (1973) or Child’s Play (1988) come to mind, it’s not the grisly acts of murder or projectile vomiting that really frightens us about them. Even without actively doing anything horrific, dead-eyed, creepy children illicit a chilling response in the viewer. Think of the twin girls from The Shining (1980); while they are not the source of danger to our protagonists, the image of their still and emotionless forms haunt the nightmares of many to this day. It’s not their intentions or their actions that evoke our fearful reactions but simply their presence and their very being.
So what is it that scares us about these creepy children? Is it their large soulless eyes? Their unnatural stillness?
From an evolutionary standpoint, our fear of these children doesn’t seem logical. The fear of danger seems to have its origins in survival; it’s logical to develop fear for wild animals or people trying to kill us. It evolved as a pedagogical reaction to keep us away from that which seeks to harm us. So why then do we react so strongly against the presence of these seemingly harmless beings? A study conducted by Thomas Straube in 2010 gives us some insight into how we respond to horror.
In Straube’s study, participants were shown both “threatening” and “neutral” film clips from the 10 most successful movies from the horror genre (The Shining, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs were among the chosen) while being subjected to a brain scan. Interestingly enough, Straube found that the parts of the brain activated during these “threatening” clips were not the parts that respond to fear-learning. This part, the amygdala, responds most to images of wild animals, which explains our fear of monstrous creatures: we fear being devoured or killed. What Straube found, however, is that when we watch horror films the brain functions activated are those processing visual information, self-awareness, and problem solving.
For our purposes, this implies that our fear of creepy children is completely separate from our survival instincts.
Another theory stems from everyone’s favorite psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (who elaborated on an earlier work by Ernst Jentsch) concerning our fear of the “Uncanny”. The basic concept of the “Uncanny” is that if there is an instance where a thing is both familiar and strange, it results in a feeling of discomfort and fear in the viewer. This concept is further developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, who hypothesizes that the closer a robot resembles a human, the more people will empathize with it, until the point where the response suddenly changes to strong feelings of disgust and repulsion. This sudden dip in the empathy curve is what is known as the “Uncanny Valley”.
It seems that our response to creepy children in film stems from their simultaneous familiarity coupled with a strange sense of the alien. They resemble normal children, but there is an unspoken understanding that they are not. This contradicts our instinctual response to children—to protect and to take care of them—with our response to the alien: to guard ourselves from a possible threat. It is precisely this disconnect that causes our feelings of unease; we don’t know how to respond and as a result we distrust our own instincts. It seems that what disturbs us the most about creepy children is that their existence causes us to question what we know of our world.
-contributed by Amy Wang