2017 Film Essays

Conduits of Fear: The Vital Role of The Youth in Horror

Horror stories feed on our deepest, darkest and purest fears.

Sure, other genres deal with fear — it’s a necessity of virtually all storytelling — but, where a romantic comedy might deal with concerns of loneliness or not being good enough for your partner, or an action movie might manifest the threat of someone hurting your family, the horror genre boils those fears down to powerful instinct.

And youthful characters are a good means of doing that. They provide an immediate conduit into an innocent, unknowing perspective. Yet, for their inexperience, these characters so often wise up, even when the adults around them remain clueless. How often in horror do the kids notice a danger long before anyone else? In a film like A Nightmare on Elm Street, the “adult” characters start out as oblivious and unsupportive — before the viewer discovers that the parents are to blame for the killer. Their antagonistic role in the film is finally clear.

This echoes young people’s questioning of the virtuous authority of their parent or guardian(s). Primary caregivers begin as infallible arbiters, before emotional and intellectual development arms children with the tools to question the authority figures in their life. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy’s journey of discovery justifies any doubts she ever had about her parents. This can apply more widely, with the general populace as the youth, and social authority institutions (state, law, education, religion etc.) as the adults. The importance of backstory in Wes Craven’s slasher masterpiece reminds the viewer that the parents in the film were once children themselves and suggests that their adult weakness is the result of external social factors.

Andy Muschetti’s It takes this trope to the extreme. There are few adults in the film, and they are the abusers. The novel of It chronicles two encounters the Losers’ Club have with Pennywise, the child-eating clown. One as children, as depicted in It (2017), and another 27 years later, as will be depicted in It: Chapter Two. Stephen King’s novel, however, alternates between the two time periods.

A more traditional single film adaptation, that followed the dual narrative structure of King’s tome, would have lost It’s creeping absence of the adult, with the adulthood scenes breaking up the childhood sequences. As it stands, It: Chapter Two has the opportunity to become a powerful reflection upon the process of growing up. Until the lights dim in 2019, audiences will have no sense of how the characters’ trauma, both shared and personal, will have affected their development.

Conversely, the absence of the child plays a vital role in pedophobic (child-fearing) horror. The Exorcist is all about a mother’s fear that her 12-year-old daughter, Regan, has been possessed by the devil, and the mothers in Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen are denied a consensually conceived child from the beginning. In the former, Rosemary is raped by an incubus-like demon; in the latter, the mother is presented with an orphaned baby when her own son is stillborn. In both pedocentric and pedophobic films, the presence of the (legitimate) child represents safety, or at least the best scenario for survival.

That’s why horror, for all its harshness, is ultimately a hopeful genre. The youth are exalted and seen to represent the best of society: imperfect, but willing and driven to learn. Even if the killer escapes into the night, the young survivor(s) make it out alive using their own wit and emotional strength. Horror is a genre that believes, rightly, that young people are the future.

Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.