“Home is the place where when you go there, you have to finally face the thing in the dark.”
-IT, Stephen King
On paper, over seven million children are abused each year in the United States. The true number is likely much, much higher. In cases of abuse-related child fatality alone, it is estimated that at least half of all deaths are not officially recorded. These statistics also do not account for violence against children carried out by an adult outside the child’s family. In every corner of popular culture, from Tony Soprano’s mother’s obsession with news stories about dead babies to the breakout success of movies like Room and The Wolfpack, this unprocessed cultural pain pushes its way out toward reality. Nowhere, though, are its struggles against the membrane of our collective willful ignorance more violent than in the horror genre.
Since its inception in the West, horror has been in deep conversation with the fragility of the family as a unit and the conflicted ways in which Western society regards infants, children, and adolescents. Hotel caretaker Jack Torrance’s ambivalence toward his son Danny in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is one of the most recognizable examples of this branch of horror storytelling, probing first delicately and then with crushing force at the emotional neediness and explosive violence of fathers toward their children. Early on in the film, we learn that an intoxicated Jack once dislocated Danny’s arm, a memory he recounts to a phantom bartender in a seething whine, furious at his wife’s refusal to forget the incident.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick. 1980Photo Credit: Warner Bros/Hawk Films/Kobal/Shutterstock
The Shining is an iconic example of the sublimation of mundane child abuse into horror spectacle. This technique refreshes audiences’ ability to see child abuse for the terrifying violation it is, to pull it out of modern life’s desensitized context and examine it in a void with its gnarled and bloody roots exposed. The personification of child abuse in specters like The Shining‘s murdered twins and The Babadook‘s titular children’s book monstrosity gives the phenomenon a form impossible to ignore and which lends a voice to the most voiceless members of society through the revulsion and fear which they inspire.
Horror’s facility for drawing emotional reactions from its audience is part of what makes its engagement with taboo topics like child abuse so vital. Connecting strong emotions to an issue renders it that much harder to ignore, dragging it out of the darkness of repression and into the public consciousness. But, what makes for a powerful depiction of child abuse in horror? And, why do some attempts at tackling it fall flat? The answer lies somewhere at the intersection of empathy, visual language, and willingness to transgress the bounds of modern fiction and give children the benefit of full and complex humanity with all its foibles and failings.
Don’t Look Away
Child abuse is a central part of Stephen King’s improbably best-selling 1986 horror novel IT, infamous less for that material than for its scene in which six 11-year-old boys make love to their friend, a girl their age, after a draining confrontation with the titular shape-shifting menace. For better or worse, this is the novel’s pivotal scene, a passage from the helpless innocence of childhood to the frustrated self-determination of adolescence. For obvious reasons, this sequence has been omitted from both adaptations of the novel—the 1990 Tommy Lee Wallace television miniseries and Andrés Muschietti’s 2017-2019 duology. At the time of the novel’s release, the scene caused much controversy among readers and critics.
Stephen Bogaert and Sophia Lillis in IT: Chapter One, Andrés Muschietti. 2017
Also notably absent from both adaptations are the majority of the novel’s depictions of child abuse. Bill Denbrough, the death of whose little brother George at the hands of It touches off the events of the novel, undergoes protracted neglect by his grieving parents. Eddie Kapsbrak’s mother displays Munchausen-by-proxy-like behavior toward her son. Beverly Marsh’s father beats her, which does make it into both adaptations, along with toned-down depictions of Eddie’s mother’s emotional abuse. Muschietti’s films additionally imply that Beverly’s father has raped her, depicting him spraying her with her dead mother’s perfume. The murder of four-year-old Dorsey Corcoran by his father is also omitted in both film adaptations.
As King himself has remarked, the uproar over IT is typically confined to reactions to adolescent sexuality and does not stretch to the book’s many graphic depictions of violence against children. Why is it more offensive, more taboo to see a child express themselves by claiming their sexual independence than it is to see them murdered or raped? In a way, admitting that a child has an identity, a sexuality, a will of their own, is admitting the deep and fundamental wrongness of taking those things from them. To see a child as an innocent to be shepherded into adulthood by caretakers is to make that child a sort of extension of those caretakers, to remove the child’s own wishes and personhood from the equation. Children are vulnerable, fragile, incapable of making good decisions for themselves in many ways, but they are also undoubtedly people in their own right, and whether or not we wish to admit it, many of them discover their sexualities before the world is ready to accept that.
Traci Lords and Annalynne McCord in Excision, Richard Bates Jr. 2012
Coming of Age
Puberty and menstruation frequently figure in adolescent and pubescent horror. Carrie’s terror at her ignorance of her own body in Brian De Palma’s film of the same name is one of the movie‘s formative traumas. In The Exorcist, Regan’s possession by the demon Pazuzu occurs at the start of her puberty, and much of her demonic behavior centers on sexuality. In one scene, she uses a crucifix to violently masturbate. In another, she snarls “your mother sucks cocks in hell” to one of the priests attempting to drive out her tormentor. The anxiety our culture feels at the sexual awakening of its young people and the repression which comes as a consequence of that anxiety leaves children more vulnerable to abuse and predation by adults, not less.
In 2012’s Excision, disturbed teenager Pauline fixates on menstruation as part of her sexuality. Her parents, an emotionally and verbally abusive mother and a father who passively enables that abuse, are revolted by her bodily preoccupation and not only infantilize her to stymie her sexual expression but also deny her psychiatric help. Their discomfort with their daughter’s personhood and active denial of her needs leads directly to the film’s tragic conclusion in which Pauline’s repressed urges and delusions spill into the real world in a deluge of psychosis and half-baked surgery. This is the missing link in films like Muschietti’s IT and Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy, which don’t so much engage child abuse as use children as tragic, dramatic objects for adults to feel bad about.
Sissy Spacek in Carrie, Brian De Palma. 1976Screenshot
Horror’s interrogation of our fear at the idea of children growing up is one of the genre’s most valuable facets. Not only does it invoke our own childhoods and use those experiences to foster empathy in us for children going through the same things today, but it reminds us that our emotional obligation toward children is more than just caregiving, more than just keeping them safe. As adults, we owe them our respect, our understanding, and our support as they navigate the emotional turmoil and physical strain of their journey into independent personhood.
Horror about child abuse shows us more than the suffering of children. It shows us the complicity in our silence, the sharp edge to our discomfort. It shows us, as King’s IT did nearly 40 years ago, that the real monster isn’t Pennywise the Dancing Clown, or the Babadook in his long black coat, or the dead woman in room 237, or even just the parents who beat and rape and belittle and kill their own children. The real monster, the thing stained reddest by all the children whose lives are lost or broken beyond repair every day by the brutality of child abuse, is silence. It’s looking away. It’s deciding that a child’s suffering is too white-hot to give a place inside your heart.