Paedophobia, the fear of children, is a prevailing theme in the horror genre, but why is it so popular? Why does pre-teen possession terrify audiences more than anything else? Why does the word REDRUM fill us with such nail-biting dread when said by little Danny Torrance?
Well let’s start with The Omen. The idea of the Antichrist being born into the world is a simple, yet terrifying, idea and one that contrasts perfectly with the image of the baby Jesus. No three wise men or shepherds here: just a collection of nasty death scenes and the number 666 emblazoned onto the child’s scalp. Here we have the cute six year old Damien, who by all rights should be running around light-hearted and carefree, but is actually the spawn of the devourer of souls himself: Satan. It’s got to be the ruined innocence that gets to us.
The same sort of theory can also be applied to exorcism films. Have you noticed how the great majority of them deal more with children than adults? Now why is that? Because child actors cost less? No, the answer is more psychological. The Exorcist wouldn’t be half as scary if the demon had possessed a full grown woman because she would no longer have that spiritual innocence (which might also explain why The Devil Inside was so awful). At the beginning of the film twelve-year old Reagan is the epitome of youth and virtue: all smiles, pigtails and imaginary friends, so that as she starts to change we realise just how debased this demon must be to want to possess such a pure being, uncorrupted by adult life.
Our fear must also have something to do with the physical. Imagine actually having to give birth to Damien. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby deals with similar issues – after a forced conception Mia Farrow becomes pregnant with the son of Lucifer and the terror she experiences when she realises what she has given birth to (what have you done to his eyes?!) is tantamount to none; the possibility that something so evil could make its way into this world through our own bodies is what makes these kinds of films so effective.
Another classic of the genre is The Village of the Damned, based on the John Wyndham novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, in which a group of virginal women are all impregnated with an alien seed and then give birth to super-intelligent children with telekinetic powers. The blond-haired, blue-eyed spawn (the aliens showing off their pro-Aryan tendencies there) walk around in groups reading the townspeople’s minds and gradually assuming control. This time it’s not so much their innocence, but the very real fear that all parents must have of their children being better than them (and having the ability to establish whether you’re lying using their laser eyes).
Ultimately, I reckon a lot of the time it’s less that we’re afraid of children themselves, and more that we’re afraid of what they’ve become. We’re not scared of Reagan, we’re scared of how the demon has irrevocably taken her innocence. We fear the idea of Satan and not the small child he has chosen to inhabit. It’s a subtle difference, and one that isn’t always easy to distinguish.