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Honey, I Spooked the Kids


The idea that children have some kind of sixth sense or special power has featured in fiction and films for decades, with such popular entries as The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Ring(2002), but the phenomenon has manifested itself in an odd way in recent years, inviting the question: why are we so afraid of our children?

      Children have been the stuff of nightmares since 1957, when John Wyndham wrote the terrifying sci-fi novel The Midwich Cuckoos, which was adapted for the screen in 1960 asVillage of the Damned: A story that originated in a fear of the Hitler Youth, moved into the world of science fiction, and gave alien 'aryan' children telepathic mind control which ultimately threatened the community of Midwich and, of course, the world. The Twilight Zone episode 'It's a Good Life' (1961) followed a similar premise when an un-punishable child who has anger-triggered telekinesis makes the people and things he dislikes disappear. The episode was adapted from the story of the same name, written by Jerome Bixby in 1953, and therefore preceded The Midwich Cuckoos. With the post-war rise of rock 'n' roll and upsurge in teenage delinquency, were parents becoming more afraid of having children they couldn't control?

      There have been many films over the decades that involve a 'haunted' house inhabited by children who can see the spectres but the strange thing is, many of these kids don't seem at all perturbed by them. The idea that a child of any age would see a ghost and not jump out of his or her skin, or even question their own existence, is extremely far-fetched. Let alone the idea that they might befriend one. Children are often afraid of anything new or strange as they are growing up, yet horror films still manage to add a hint of macabre to the child who is in contact with a ghost, which begs the question, why are we still afraid of children?

      Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) is a prime example of a haunted house film where a child chats to an imaginary friend, who is of course a ghost, yet is not confused about this. Children ask their parents questions about everything they encounter as they are growing yet in films such as this, they are reluctant to talk to their parents about their new friend, despite the 'ghost' friendship appearing normal to the child. This really only points to one thing, which is that people who write horror stories about children have forgotten what it's really like to be a child. Yes, you are more carefree and happy, but you can also be very afraid - especially about any threat to the security of the domestic environment that provides the stabiity in your life.

      In The Others (2001), one of the children is terrified of the idea that a ghost could be in his house, whereas an older child is not afraid in the slightest as she talks of the ghosts as if they have evry right to be there. But The Others is different to most horror films with children, as you will know if you have seen it and are therefore aware of the twist ending.

      Sinister (2012) is another one with a twist ending - well, an attempt at one, at least. Sinisteralso has one scared child and one content child. Perhaps a recurring theme that one child in a pair of siblimgs is easier to deal with than the other is the underlying reason for this line of storytelling. Ghosts and demons are almost always a metaphor for something going wrong within the family environment, so having a ghost involved with a difficult child is par-for-the-course in the every-so-slightly variable plots that come with tales of children and haunted houses.

      The fear of having a difficult child, or being perceived to be a bad parent, reared its head in 2014 when Australian director and actor Jennifer Kent brought us The Babadook. The film's premise is based around the notion of a mother who cannot cope and is 'afraid' of her own son. The film questions whether he is the problem, or the mother is to blame - a social dilemma dressed in the guise of a monster yarn. The film, however, has the child being frightened of the monster, rather than being a host for it. The character in extremis in the film is actually the mother, and so it is the child who is seen to be distressed, rather than the adults of similar previous explorations of the parent/child relationship.

      The Omen (1976) is probably the most well-known horror film about a difficult child. To this day, I doubt you will find many children named Damien (ither than in 'Only Fools and Horses'!) for that reason. Of course, Damien in the film is the chosen son of the devil, which is slightly different to being a transmitter for ghosts - though certainly more worrying!

      The Messengers, on the other hand, is a 2007 film starring Kristen Stewart about a family who move to a haunted sunflower farm. Stewart's younger brother, not yet of an age when he can talk, sees the ghosts who inhabit the basement, though his parents do not. While one child cannot speak about what he sees, Stewart's character is also susceptible to the haunting as she is still a teenager. It's much easier to believe that a baby would not be noticeably frightened by a ghost, as its experience of the world is necessarily limited and no obvious 'threat' has yet presented itself.

      A more modern take on the fear of children has manifested itself in recent years in the guise of a folklorish tale about 'black-eyed' children. These demonic creatures are the product of Chinese whispers, although many profess to have had an encounter themselves. Black-eyed children are said to appear at night, either outside a house demanding entry, or sitting in the backseat of a car. The notion came into being in 1998 with an alleged sighting in the US; it then took root in 2012 when the found-footage film Sunshine Girl and the Hunt for the Black Eyed Kids was made, causing mass hysteria and many more reported sighting of the creatures. Now an urban legend, it has since transferred to Ireland, with many people in the countryside of the Republic saying they've seen one or that they know someone who has. (Perhaps the local brew has something to do with that.)

      So why are we so afraid of children? - Is it due to the increasing inability of parents to 'punish' a child for misbehaving without being accused of domestic abuse? Or is it simply that we forget so quickly what it is like to be a child, and so we become increasingly wary of these strange little beings? When there are films such as Poltergeist (1982) presenting a sweet little girl in an excited voice exclaiming 'They're here!' in respect of a host of terrifying spectres, it's easy to be trepidatious in the face of one who can apparently commune with something that you cannot see..

      But don't worry, I'm sure your child really does just have an imaginary friend...