This Horrific Life: The Kids Didn’t Make It
Five horror stories that break the taboo of killing kid characters
When you see a dog in a horror movie, someone will inevitably say, “If they kill that dog, I am going to be pissed.” Killing the dog (or any other cute, furry pet) is considered a cheap method of getting an emotional response out of the audience. When you see a kid in a horror movie, though, no one says anything, because kids never get killed. They’re practically indestructible.
Horror is a genre that constantly tests taboos, but dead children, particularly in film, have traditionally been off limits. Children are innocents, less capable of defending themselves from harm than adults. To see them dead is to be forced to contemplate futility and potential cut short. It is a subject that is uncomfortable down to the genetic level.
In 1931, Frankenstein faced controversy for the scene in which the monster throws a little girl into a lake, accidentally drowning her. While the censors, in the name of decency, deemed the scene unfit for audiences, they wound up cutting one of the movie’s most emotionally evocative moments. The monster is not a savage murderer, but childlike himself. He does not comprehend the consequences of his actions. The scene is upsetting not because it is indecent but because it is heartbreaking.
Those dark corners of the human experience have been left mostly unexamined in the years since. But there are those who have returned, with varying degrees of success.
Notebook Found in a Deserted House
“ I better start by telling my name, which is Willie Osborne, and that I am 12 years old last July.”
Thus we are introduced to the narrator of Robert Bloch’s 1951 short story, “Notebook Found in a Deserted House,” a tale in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft’s so-called Cthulhu Mythos. Such stories are often told in the first person, in the form of a written account, and the narrator usually winds up dead or insane. Willie is no different. Between the title of the story and the details of the opening paragraphs, we know from the start that he is doomed.
Because Willie is so young, he only has the vaguest details of his situation - he lives in a rural, legend-haunted place and those legends have woken up to do him and his family harm. He’s not some professor who has delved too deep into forbidden lore, he doesn’t have an ancient book of spells to explain what is happening to him. He’s just a kid who wound up on the wrong a farm, a fact that is underscored by his every spelling error: “alter” instead of altar, “sacrefice” instead of sacrifice. It is Willie’s childish ignorance, not the supernatural events he witnesses, that makes dread of what is coming so overwhelming.
Assault on Precinct 13
John Carpenter was threatened with an X rating for the scene in Assault on Precinct 13 in which a gang member shoots a little girl standing at an ice cream truck.
It is a stupid scene, meant to establish the gang members, who have sworn a blood oath against the police and the citizens of Los Angeles, as utterly ruthless. The problem is, the audience knows nothing about this girl. She isn’t a character so much as the plot device that moves the narrative to the abandoned police station so central to the story. Her death is momentarily shocking, in a “Wait, did that just happen?” way, but also painfully silly. I laughed so hard the first time I saw it that tears ran down my face. We had to pause the tape while I laughed myself out of air. Carpenter himself has even said he regretted filming it as explicitly as he did:“I was young and stupid.”
Assault on Precinct 13 didn’t get an X rating, though, and it went on to be considered one of the greatest action movies of the 70s. The taboo, for movies, was broken.
Unlike the little girl in Assault on Precinct 13, Eddie’s death in the 1988 remake of The Blob is shocking. And gross.
The audience has put up with Eddie for half the movie by the time he meets his fate at the pseudopods of the blob. He was kind of a creep, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to be digested by an alien amoeba.
That’s the point, though. Eddie’s grisly fate proves to the audience that the blob is an indifferent eating machine. The deaths of other bystanders don’t convey that as powerfully. We know Eddie. We’re so certain that Eddie is one of the heroes that his death heightens the tension for the rest of the movie. We can no longer take anyone’s survival for granted.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Season of the Witch is a mess. It is the only Halloween movie without Michael Myers in it. The intention was to make an anthology of unconnected Halloween-themed movies, but Michael Myers got stuck in the collective conscious. Season of the Witch was a commercial failure because audiences wanted more Michael Myers and felt scammed when they didn’t get him. It is mostly an aesthetic failure as well. It has some memorable elements - the insanely catchy Happy Halloween song, for one - but the convoluted plot is ridiculous.
The Silver Shamrock corporation is manufacturing Halloween masks equipped with a chip that links them to an ancient ritual stone. OK, it isn’t just any ancient stone, it is Stonehenge. They stole Stonehenge. When a kid wears the mask while watching the Silver Shamrock commercial, their head melts and their brain turns into snakes and bugs. It’s supposed to be a sacrifice to the old gods of Samhain, but the movie never really explains why. Also, there are sophisticated androids that can replace human beings. The movie never explains those, either.
The stakes themselves are never clear, but the sacrifice of one kid in a test screening room serves to establish that they are very high. As frightening a scene as it is, it is also a good example of why the taboo was in place in the first place. This is horror that in the service of nothing in particular. It is gratuitous.
Behind the pet cemetery of the title (the sign marking it is misspelled), is an Indian burial ground with unusual properties. Louis is introduced to them by his neighbor Jud when the family cat is run over by a truck - the cat returns the day after it was buried. It comes back meaner, foul smelling and “a little dead.” When Louis’s son Gage is run over by a truck (the real lesson of Pet Sematary may be “Don’t live by a highway”), he buries the boy in the same place. Gage comes back with a demon inside him.
The horrors of Pet Sematary are fueled by love, loss, and grief. Louis can not handle the pain of losing his son and does everything in his power to get him back. There are few motives that could be clearer. Yet, his actions at the pet cemetery are a subversion of the natural order that needs to be punished, so Gage returns as a scalpel wielding murderer.
The price is always too high. Jud theorizes that Gage died because Louis used the cemetery’s powers on the cat. The price exacted for Gage’s return is the murder of his mother. When Louis resurrects his wife, what will be taken in turn? If you were Louis, can you be sure you wouldn’t tempt fate?
Horror is at it’s best when it asks questions like these. A horror story isn’t supposed to be comfortable, it is supposed to be confrontational. Dead co-eds, dead dogs, dead kids - we probe the darkness in fiction so we don’t have to do so in real life. Sometimes the answer is stupid or tasteless. Sometimes it is just plain terrifying. Every once in a while, it is edifying. But in order to get answers, we have to keep asking the questions.
This Horrific Life is a daily exploration of horror, covering movies new and old (and half-watched), games, comics, music and anything else even vaguely spooky. Follow the collection to make sure you don’t miss a single installment.