Terrifying Children In Fiction
a guest post by Tim Major, author of ‘Carus & Mitch’
Last year I became a father. Sometimes, when I check on my son during the night, he’s standing up in his cot in the dark, just staring at me.
Children can be scary.
Carus and Mitch follow a long line of creepy children in novels and films. Here’s a list of some of my favourites – and by favourites, I mean the ones that made me shudder the most violently.
Christine – ‘Don’t Look Now’ (dir. Nicolas Roeg): Even though Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s story is one of my favourite films, I haven’t been able to rewatch it since I became a father myself. We see little of Christine when she’s alive, so the horror of her death is all via the grief of her father, John. Christine’s eventual ‘reappearance’ is devastating because John, and the viewer, has already lived with her ghost for so long.
Miles – ‘The Innocents’ (dir. Jack Clayton): I think ‘The Innocents’ is a perfect horror film. Almost all of the threat is imagined and Martin Stephens’s performance as Miles is terrifically unsettling. It’s hard to believe a child actor could portray a character so cold and, basically, evil. Even though the few moments of outright horror have been copied many times since, and even though I’m pretty jaded, they still give me a proper fright.
The Children – ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ (wr. John Wyndham): John Wyndham is usually classed as an SF writer, but many of his ideas tap directly into readers’ fears. (The comet-induced blindness in ‘The Day of the Triffids’ was my introduction to literary horror and still gives me the creeps.) Children who all look the same and act en masse are terrifying – see, for example, any school choir. The fact that the Midwich children are actually the villagers’ own is Wyndham’s masterstroke, because it makes them impossible to escape. In the 1960 film version, the lead child is played by Martin Stephens, who also played Miles in ‘The Innocents’ – thereby cornering the 60s film market in unspeakably creepy little boys.
Johan – ‘The Silence’ (dir. Ingmar Bergman): Several of Bergman’s films can be viewed as horror films, and for me this one’s the scariest. While Johan himself may or may not be a normal enough kid, the situation he’s in (used as a pawn between his mother and his aunt, trapped in a vast hotel in a fictional country where everyone speaks a nonsense language) makes him appear hopelessly alien. The scenes as he explores the hotel prefigure the more direct horror of ‘The Shining’ and the sense of alienation in David Lynch’s films.
Merricat – ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ (wr. Shirley Jackson): Anyone who reads ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ and ‘Carus & Mitch’ will see that my story owes a debt to Jackson’s novel. Having a child as the protagonist means that the reader is required to unravel a collection of half-memories and invented stories. I love the idea of only occasionally glimpsing the horrific truth. It’s this idea which really became the starting-point for writing ‘Carus & Mitch’.