Carrie. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Los Angeles: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2013. 99 minutes.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Zack Snyder. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 2004. 100 minutes.

Reviewed by Larkin Hiott

As a host of feminist film scholars, such as Carol J. Clover, Laura Mulvey, and Barbara Creed, have asserted, horror films supply a medium through which social anxieties can be played out, and in many instances, resolved. From the early to mid-2000s an increasing number of films in this genre have employed the disturbing image of the monstrous child. These monstrous children are either rendered physically grotesque by way of some form of supernatural intrusion and exposure, or they provide contemporary iterations of the “bad seed.” The portrayal of children in horror films as conduits through which evil may infiltrate the family unit is nothing new; however, a rash of recent films seems not only to tap into the trope of the child as a readymade site of domestic turmoil and potential violence but also to illuminate the child as an uncontrollable figure that adults should absolutely fear. As the horror genre has increasingly incorporated the figure of the evil child into the ranks of film’s most memorable antagonists such a trend implicitly begs the question: Have today’s children effectively transformed into monsters? Or, and perhaps more likely, have the tenets that define childhood shifted in such a manner as to generate this fear of the child, who has become a dangerous “other”?

Invested as Western society is in our traditional view of the child as innocence embodied,  it can be difficult to step back from these inherited ideals and see childhood for what it actually is—a construct, a finely attuned lens. Childhood is not a category that is directly connected to actual children. It is a fantasy, an idealized reading of the experience of early development that is not “naturally” derived, but is actively shaped by adults to make sense of and give order to the living, breathing, messy child. As the nineteenth-century physician, Alphonse Leroy, observed, “childhood is merely a mirror in which we can see ourselves.”1 Interestingly, the vast majority of children, or young adults, that have committed crimes worthy of widespread media coverage in recent years have been almost exclusively male, yet in the last decade the “evil” or “unnatural” children in horror films have increasingly been female. The nightly news warns adults of the fury that may be unleashed by the often disenfranchised, angry young man; however, if the manifestation of contemporary childhood presents society with a mirror in which it may view itself, then the reflection being produced is not that of a malicious-spirited young boy but, more often, of a pre- or newly pubescent girl.

In 2004, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, a re-imagining of George Romero’s 1978 film by the same title, effectively reinvigorated the figure of the zombie in contemporary culture.2 Pregnant with social anxiety surrounding contagious disease, Snyder’s film features a “final girl” figure in Ana (Sarah Polley), the protagonist; however, this active, survival-motivated adult character is immediately contrasted with a corrupted child version of herself. The first agent of contagion both Ana and the viewer encounter is a gruesomely mangled neighbor girl, who violates the sanctity of domestic space when she enters Ana’s bedroom while she and her husband sleep. The use of a young girl, fashioned as grisly embodiment of the spreading infection, speaks clearly to Barbara Creed’s Freudian-based concept of the “monstrous-feminine” that threatens the security of an ordered adult world. As Creed notes in her seminal work, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, “most horror films…construct a border between…‘the clean and proper body’ and the abject body.”3 When the boundaries of the properly governed, closed system of the body are breached by a foreign “other,” this invasion initiates a threat to the sovereignty of patriarchal institutions by highlighting “the fragility of the symbolic order.”4 The infected girl-child, boasting a blood-smeared and half-devoured face simultaneously alludes to two core tenets of the monstrous-feminine: the ultimate “vulnerability of the body,” and “its susceptibility” to the “other.”5

As the first appearance of the contagion at work in the film, the zombie-child is not only the first infected body the audience sees, but also, in literally bringing the infection home for the film’s protagonist, the child initiates Ana into the action of both the pandemonium outside and the overarching narrative. Within seconds of the girl’s intrusion into their home, Ana’s husband is infected, forcing the protagonist outside the safety of the domestic realm and into the chaos that has overtaken the nondescript suburban neighborhood. In addition to this girl-child zombie, Snyder’s film, in one of its more disturbing scenes, introduces the image of a zombie birth. The infant, born within the confines of the mall, where a band of survivors have taken refuge, visually enters the narrative by way of tiny handprints jutting outward from inside the distended belly of its recently deceased mother. To ensure the safety of the group, Ana is forced to kill the infant off-screen. Fittingly, it is revealed that the baby was, in fact, a little girl.

Critic Dominic Lennard notes that children depicted in contemporary horror films have, in ever-increasing numbers, expanded beyond mere mischievous sprites or rebellious juvenile delinquents and have entered into the realm of the positively sinister: “It is thanks to the homicidal [and grotesque] kids. . . that the apparently harmless and familiar world of the child has become as recognizable a figure in the cultural pantheon of fright as any serial killer, sewer mutant, or gelatinous visitor from beyond.”6 This use of the female child’s body as the conduit for contagion, and, by extension, for evil stands in stark contrast to the more cerebral connection between young male characters and the supernatural in film. Horror films such as The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes (both released in 1999) feature little boys with access to forbidden or unacceptable supernatural knowledge.7 Both boys see and converse with ghosts; however, their bodies do not serve as sites of possession or disruption.

Another contemporary iteration of Creed’s monstrous-feminine rendered childlike can be explored in Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 reinterpretation the Stephen King novel Carrie. In order to further unpack the series of stark contrasts established in Peirce’s film, one must also address its predecessor, Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation by the same name.8 Both films remain relatively faithful to the original text; however, one crucial aspect of the protagonist is altered significantly in the updated version. Peirce’s film boasts a central character played by an actress who is roughly the same age as the figure being portrayed. The actress, Chloë Moretz, was only fifteen years old when production began for this film, making her the youngest actress to play Carrie White. Sissy Spacek was actually twenty-six when cast to play the teenaged girl in De Palma’s film. While both actresses convincingly perform the character’s abject misery throughout their respective narratives, it is the cherub-faced Moretz who extends her performance beyond the pitiable and into the powerful. Moretz seamlessly incorporates facial expressions more indicative of petulance and flash-burn anger into the various scenes of teenage torture, particularly in the iconic prom rage scene. In contrast to De Palma’s use of extreme close-up to capture Spacek’s wide-eyed gaze, Peirce keeps the audience visually distant from Moretz, employing close-up shots sparingly to separate the viewer from Carrie and situate the audience at a point equidistant from the young girl as any of her peers. In this way, the viewer is visually aligned in the same position as Carrie’s tormentors. Peirce also frames Moretz with additional space to move, granting Carrie greater activity than in Spacek’s performance. In Peirce’s vision of the prom rage scene, Moretz gestures with her entire body to illustrate Carrie wielding her telekinetic power. Peirce also ensures that her viewers may catch the girl’s more reptilian gestures and fleeting micro-expressions that flash across the young actress’s face before it settles into a steady snarl. Along with employing bodily gestures to exact her will, Peirce’s Carrie takes delight in her devastating revenge, as evidenced by the actress’s volley of smirks, grimaces, and wicked grins. This new iteration of Carrie White, boasting animalistic mannerisms and greatly amplified powers, not only is capable of violence, destruction, and “evil,” but she might just enjoy it as well.

Depictions of monstrous children in contemporary horror films present a possible point of entry into the discussion of both the prevalence of youth violence and its concurrent fictional representations threaded throughout mainstream media. It would seem that the shocking realities of “bad children” running amok in society are, and perhaps must be, reconfigured when undergoing translation into film—the arena where we often situate our most prevalent social anxieties. The longstanding cultural tradition of shrouding the unruly female body with the emblems of monstrosity, as with Creed’s monstrous-feminine, is also being altered by transgressive representations of children. In recent horror films, it would seem that rather than the monster under the bed or the alien creature outside our window, the othered figure that truly frightens us most is the unpoliced little girl.

1 Alphonse Leroy, Médecine maternelle, Ou l’art d’élever et de conserver les enfans (Paris: Chez Méquignon l’aîné, 1803), xxii.

2 Dawn of the Dead, directed by George Romero (Houston: United Film Distribution Company, 1978), 127 min.

3  Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, [1993] 2012), Kindle edition, 12.

4 Ibid., 13.

5 Ibid., 31.

6 Dominic W. Lennard, "All Fun and Games…: Children's Culture in the Horror Film, from Deep Red (1975) to Child's Play (1988)," Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 26, no. 1 (2012): 133.

7The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (Burbank: Hollywood Pictures, 1999), 107 min. and Stir of Echoes, directed by Richard Koepp (Van Nuys, CA: Artisan Entertainment, 1999), 99 min.

8 Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma (Beverly Hills: United Artists, 1976), 98 min.

Larkin Hiott is a doctoral student and rhetoric instructor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research explores expressions of consciousness as well as notions of embodiment in nineteenth century literary works and cultural artifacts. In previous pieces, she has investigated the construction of gender norms and shifting views of propriety disseminated in late Victorian children’s literature. Her current project focuses an object-oriented ontological lens to the late period novels and short stories of Henry James.