Filmmakers’ disturbing new obsession with children and violence indicates a further erosion of the notion that some things are better left unseen.
As I awaited the birth of my first daughter last year, I had all kinds of images running through my head about what I was going to experience in the delivery room. I derived the most worrisome scenario from a scene in the 1974 horror hit It’s Alive, when an expectant dad bursts into the hospital room to discover a bloody mess of dead doctors and nurses, the first victims of the mutant critter who’s just emerged from its mother’s womb. “What’s my baby look like?!” screams Mommy, still trapped on the bed in stirrups. “What’s wrong with my baby?!”
I’m happy to report that my little girl’s arrival into the world bore no resemblance to the event as imagined here. Yet as lurid as that scene is, it dramatizes a disturbing question lurking in the minds of so many parents: What if my kid’s a monster? Or, as Tilda Swinton put it in a recent interview, “It’s everybody’s nightmare that, when they’re pregnant, they’re going to give birth to the devil.”
That anxiety is at the heart of both Lionel Shriver’s 2003 bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin and Lynne Ramsay’s new film adaptation, in which Swinton plays the mother of a boy who grows up to be the perpetrator of a Columbine-like school massacre.
As noted in an essay by Jessica Roake for slate.com, Ramsay’s film is the latest addition to a canon of “bad-seed cinema,” a subgenre named after William March’s 1954 novel (and subsequent hit movie) about a mother who realizes her adolescent daughter could be a killer. Roake’s piece illustrates how movies like Village of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen prey on those parental anxieties, essentially enacting and re-enacting the nightmare Swinton describes.
Yet there’s another element that may be more disturbing. This is the way in which movies that present children as monsters stoke viewers’ appetite for their destruction, thereby legitimizing the use of violence against kids, something usually considered taboo on screen. While bad-seed cinema has long traded in such images, they’re becoming more common and a whole lot more graphic.
For an ugly example, look at the opening minutes of The Walking Dead: The first kill in TV’s most popular zombie-apocalypse saga turned out to be a little girl who takes a grisly shot to the head. The brutal destruction of zombified children is a relatively recent innovation for the horror genre—George A. Romero’s legions of brain eaters tended to maintain an over-18 policy. But sensitivity about such imagery has declined during the past decade, with makers of zombie-related fare being especially keen to include at least one pint-sized extra in the body count. Going several steps further are The Children, a nasty British thriller that makes killers out of toddlers, and the ugly duo of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), two censor-baiting horror films whose furthest extremes involved gruesome violence toward newborns.
Of course, horror filmmakers have always strived to go beyond what most audiences can tolerate. But this new vogue for violent children and violence toward children is palpable in mainstream examples, too. This gruesome gallery includes the battered face of Chloe Moretz’s adolescent vigilante in Kick-Ass, the graphic photos of the young female murder victim on TV’s The Killing and even the chilling images of children committing suicide in The Woman in Black.
All these point to a shift in attitude toward movie violence, one that makes kids fair game. Once a rarity, such images indicate a further erosion of the notion that some things are better left unseen. Then again, the non-stop parade of degradation, death and cute cats that is the internet has left filmmakers with few options for new transgressions.
One can only hope that this escalation in shock tactics hasn’t left us entirely desensitized. Indeed, viewers of We Need to Talk About Kevin may very well regard Kevin’s most horrific acts as the ones he inflicts on his sweet-tempered little sister. That’s because if there’s any character who can still elicit pity, it’s an innocent born into a family that already includes the devil.