Pictures of Anxiety

Girlhood and the Modern American Horror Film

by Hans Staats Volume 18, Issues 6-7 / July 2014 27 minutes (6717 words)

Monstrous little women, mad moppets, deadly dollies, deranged daughters, sinister sisters – call them what you will, there is no doubt that multifarious images of the evil girl-child haunt the celluloid corridors of popular cinema.
— Barbara Creed 1

The history of the horror film is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century.
— Paul Wells 2


Barbara Creed, in the opening to her paper “Baby Bitches from Hell: Monstrous-Little Women in Film” (1994), asks a deceptively straightforward question. Why do girls star in horror films more frequently than boys? In films like The Bad Seed (1956), The Innocents (1961), and Poltergeist (1982), Creed observes that the representation of the female child monster haunts “the celluloid corridors of popular cinema,” in addition to the Anglo American cultural imaginary, throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Celebrating the “multifarious image of the evil girl-child” or monstrous-feminine, Creed travels from Melbourne, Australia to the University of California, Los Angeles in January 1994 to take part in a daylong symposium titled “Scary Women.” Including presentations by Rhona Berenstein, Linda Williams, and Vivian Sobchack, the “Scary Women” symposium, immediately following the Northridge Earthquake (17 Jan. 1994), heralds a tectonic shift in horror film studies, boldly redefining the location of gender and sexuality within the horror genre. 3 Today, “Scary Women” is a treasured, and presently endangered, archive for feminists, cinephiles, and filmmakers. 4

Marking the twenty-year anniversary of “Scary Women,” the representational status of girlhood within and outside the modern American and European horror film is alive and well. 5 Throughout the period of transition from classic to modern phases (1956-1961) and beyond, the performance of the female child or child-woman illuminates a hauntingly perennial cinematic preoccupation with the normal and pathological. Building upon and expanding this argument, Creed’s exploration of the vicissitudes of gender and juvenility in “Baby Bitches” represents a unique and justly venerated theoretical and historical framework for understanding the modern American horror film, motion picture spectatorship, and cinematic pleasure. In the pages that follow I offer a comparative analysis of the Baby Bitch as foundational to the form of the queer child, the performance of identity and girlhood in Hollywood cinema, and the persistent association of electronic media with paranormal or spiritual phenomena.

Girlhood and Bloody Mischief in Early Postwar American Horror Cinema

In The Bad Seed (1956), which Creed identifies as belonging to “a sub-grouping of the killer-girl films,” – The Haunting of Julia (1977), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and The Brood (1979) – it is suggested that eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) “kills because she has ‘inherited’ something evil from her mother. Because the child is still growing,” writes Creed, “because she is a ‘seed’ without ‘boundaries’, she is capable of developing in any direction, intensifying her evil nature, becoming even more evil than her adult counterpart” (Section 7, para. 1). Daughter to Christine (Nancy Kelly) and Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper), Rhoda, at first sight, is the prototypical golden child of early postwar America. Rhoda’s hairstyle, composed of blond bangs and braided pigtails, compliments a red-and-white dotted-Swiss dress that is worn throughout the film, and she is especially fond of tap dancing around the Penmark home in her cleated patent leather shoes. 6 The Penmark residence, by extension, is a loving and prosperous household, recalling Maxwell Anderson’s Tony-award-winning play ( Bad Seed , premiered 8 Dec. 1954) and William March’s bestselling novel and source text ( The Bad Seed, published 8 Apr. 1954). 7 The screen is filled with good cheer and patriotic fortitude, underscoring a mythology of suburban prosperity that middle class American families enjoy after the close of World War II. 8

Yet Rhoda’s girlish good looks and youthful demeanor communicate a timeless quality that is strangely out of place. She is a child of the 1850s as much as the 1950s. After Kenneth’s departure at the beginning of the film, the fractured homefront of The Bad Seed is transformed into a matrilineal nightmare, a suburban wasteland populated by “well-intentioned but foolish adults who react to” Rhoda’s “outward, innocently beguiling behavior in mawkish, stereotypical ways.” 9 “I know I’m behind the times but I thought children wore blue jeans and playsuits,” comments Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden), the Penmark’s landlord and neighbor, “now you my love look like a princess in that red-and-white dotted-Swiss.” The interpretive anxiety that Rhoda embodies in The Bad Seed is at once admired by Monica and feared by Christine, who finds her daughter to be an unsettling presence within the Penmark home, a reminder of a traumatic experience that she cannot reclaim.

Gradually, Christine discovers that her biological mother is Bessie Denker, the infamous psychopathic killer, loosely based on the lives of Belle Gunness (1859 – c. 1908) and Jane Toppan (1857 – 1938), and Rhoda’s genetic forebear. Shielded from this revelation by her adoptive father Richard Bravo (Paul Fix), Christine is forced to decide the fate of Rhoda for the better of humanity; a decision that, to varying degrees and depending on what version of The Bad Seed is referred to, perpetuates a cycle of murder, suicide, and moral decay.

Responding to the 1930s “cult of the child-star epitomised in the figure of Shirley Temple,” Rhoda Penmark is a monstrous reincarnation of the child-star era and the dream of recapturing lost innocence (Section 2, para. 4). Following the Hollywood success of Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), as well as the Our Gang film series produced by Hal Roach between 1922 and 1944, filmgoers living through the American Depression are entertained by the song and dance of Baby Peggy Montgomery, Baby June Hovick, the Parrish Children, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, and Judy Garland. Post- World War II the image of the innocent child undergoes a radical change in films like The Bad Seed , but the iconography of the golden or Romantic child is left intact. Dressed in the fashion of Victorian girlhood — Dotted Swiss dress, tap shoes, and pigtails — Rhoda Penmark, unlike Shirley Temple, is sweet on the outside but corrupt within.

Girlhood and The Queer Gothic Child

According to Creed, “One of the first films to explore child-possession is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James’ … The Turn of the Screw ” (Section 5, para. 6). The premise of the film is deceptively unassuming: A young governess is assigned to care for two orphaned children at a country estate named Bly House on the outskirts of London. In due time, the governess concludes that the valet and ex-governess of Bly, both deceased, inhabit the bodies of the children in order to continue their sordid relationship. More precisely, The Innocents is a ghost story in which the dead are haunted by the living. It is also one of the most provocative horror films to deal with the moral and representational obscurity of girlhood. Much of the debate surrounding the film, as well as the 1898 novella, is focused on whether Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is the only character who sees the ghosts of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the former governess of Bly House and Quint’s lover. Is Miss Giddens able to commune with the spirit world and how does this affect her ability to govern Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens)?

The intersection of gender and spiritual awakening is a crucial detail in Clayton’s film. “Because The Innocents portrays a case in which both a brother and sister are possessed,” writes Creed, “it is worth considering in some detail in order to determine whether or not gender influences the filmic representation of possession” (Section 5, para. 6). According to Creed, “the female child, by virtue of her innocence and imagination,” is “particularly susceptible to communion with a spirit world” (Section 3, para. 1). Subsequently, the nature or symbolic position of Flora in The Innocents is framed by both the magic and shock effect of filmic representation and a pervasive anxiety surrounding the definition and upkeep of material and spiritual well-being.

The essential narrative ambiguity of The Innocents , which Richard Locke identifies as “the story’s most original and enduring aesthetic effect,” is typically diagnosed as a case of female hysteria. 10 Miss Giddens, a country parson’s twenty-year-old daughter thrown into a role of maternal authority above her pay grade, blames Quint and Miss Jessel for her mistakes and horrendous miscalculations. The dead are framed by the living: It is not the current governess of Bly who is unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, argues Miss Giddens, it is her predecessor and lover who are at large and in possession of Flora and Miles. For example, during a game of hide and seek Miss Giddens discovers a picture of a man with “dark curling hair and the hardest, coldest eyes.” Only later will she discover that the portrait is of Quint. Nevertheless, while hiding behind a curtain in the parlor, Miss Giddens notices that something is approaching her from outside. A figure advances toward the window and Miss Giddens recoils in horror. Looking back at her through the window is a man with “dark curling hair and the hardest, coldest eyes,” the very same man in the picture that Miss Giddens stumbled upon only a few moments before. From this point forward, Miss Giddens is convinced that the ghost of Peter Quint, a revenant that is “framed” both within a photograph and through a window, has not only returned from the dead but is a menace to the children. Failing to exorcise the demons that dwell within them, Flora is rushed from Bly House in a fit of madness and Miles dies in Miss Giddens’ arms at the conclusion of the film.

Counter to the more than 500 works of criticism that accompany The Innocents and its source text, the question of Miss Giddens’ parental acuity is best left unanswered. 11 The unavoidable need to pathologize Miss Giddens is one of many, and perhaps one of the most obvious, interpretive pitfalls that exist in The Innocents . Why she destroys Flora and Miles is beside the point. What is the point is the structural ambiguity of the picture, specifically Miss Giddens’ bewilderment of vision and how anxiety is linked to the subject of childhood gender and sexuality. Motive aside, critics such as Henry Harland are correct to point out that the enigmas of The Innocents are to be appreciated not as stepping-stones that lead to a final truth or narrative closure. 12 Rather, it is the nature of the puzzle itself that is to be appreciated.

The Innocents ,” Creed notes, “represents Miss Giddens’ relationship with, and effect on, the two children quite differently”:

While brother and sister both become channels for her repressed desires, Miles is the one with whom she is sexually obsessed. He treats her like a lover. … While Miles’ death is portrayed largely as a consequence of Miss Gidden’s own hysteria, Flora’s collapse is associated more with the girl’s own propensity for cruelty and corruption. Miles is not sinister in the manner of his sister. He is ‘knowing’, even adult, like a lover in relation to Miss Giddens, but he is not cruel, nor is he depicted as in direct ‘communication’ with the spirit world. … The female child is more prone to sinister deeds and hysterical convulsions and she is also stronger—perhaps because of her alliance with the spirit world. Flora survives the ordeal while her brother perishes, apparently destroyed by an excess of feminine hysteria (Section 5, para.13).

The spirit world that Creed refers to is a dominant motif in The Innocents as well as Poltergeist . In each film, the image of the “evil” or psychic girl-child arouses a feeling of anxiety and fear in adults, “those primitive emotions and feelings,” James Twitchell writes, that are dreadfully pleasurable. 13 In stark contrast to the romanticized notion of girlhood as a distinct and inviolable period of life, the mid- and late- twentieth century Anglo American horror film assumes the stereotypical outlook of the seventeenth and eighteenth century New England Puritan. 14 The child is not only a symbol of purity and credulity, she is a queer or deviant subject that must be closely observed and attended to by a parent or guardian (or country parson’s daughter) who, unencumbered by sentiment and affection, epitomizes the dominant ideology of patriarchal capitalism. 15

Between 1955 and 1961, the moral and representational ambiguity of girlhood and innocence is a prominent feature of the classic and modern horror film. In The Bad Seed and The Innocents , which extend across the transition between classic and modern phases, the difference between the innocent child — victimized by the adult world — and monstrous child — preying upon the adult world — is uncertain. Early examples of ambiguous or unknown children in Anglo American literature include Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter (1850) and Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew (1897). Commonly referred to as the Wise Child, Pearl and Maisie possess an innate wisdom and a sharp, at times alarmingly keen perception that is disconcerting to adults. The Wise or Wicked Child later appears in such films as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Children’s Hour (1961).

Whether the female child is endangered or dangerous depends on the quality of morality and its administration, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Émile, or On Education (1762), Rousseau observes that the modern child is by nature innocent, unworldly and easily corrupted. Rousseau, as well as John Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), considers the emergence of the idea of childhood as a theme for philosophical consideration. A separate state from adulthood that requires “its own defined space (the nursery), clothes, food, [and] rules,” Rousseau and Locke, “with their treatises on children and education,” define how to nurture and educate the child, wielding “a growing influence on child-rearing practices and normative behaviors.” 16 According to Ann Hulbert, “Worshipful attentiveness on the part of adults, the Romantic poets concurred, was the least the imaginative child of nature deserved.” 17

The Romantic child à la Rousseau and Locke is not only popular among the American transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman — and European Romantic writers — William Wordsworth, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle — she is also featured in the sentimental, domestic, and crusade novels of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lucy M. Montgomery, Eleanor H. Porter, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The representation of the innocent child in these canonical texts, from the child of nature to the lovable rogue and imperiled orphan, is a touchstone for the child-star era (1921-1941) and Depression-era America.

In her book Precocious Charms (2013), Gaylyn Studlar’s exploration of the performance of girlhood in classical Hollywood cinema, including the films of Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, and Elizabeth Taylor, illuminates how the female child or child-woman is pictured “ via the medium of youthfulness,” a practice of “juvenation” which focuses on “images of the young as a category of appeal” rather than “age boundaries that define the differences between child and adult.” 18 Moving between the literary and filmic representation of girlhood, the image of the Baby Bitch in films like The Innocents , The Bad Seed , and Poltergeist indicates a longstanding thematic and aesthetic preoccupation with the representational ambiguities of childhood precocity, anachronism, and witchcraft.

Upon closer scrutiny, the popularity of the Romantic cherub is grounded in a doctrine of Puritan religious experience. Predating the Romantic definition of girlhood and innocence, the seventeenth century New England Puritans believe in the transcendent value of good and evil and see the child as inherently corrupt and a potential sinner. Children are strong-willed, ungodly, and need to have their wills broken, disciplined, and trained to secure a sense of godliness and safe passage into the afterlife. The unsentimental Puritan, fixated on childhood corruption, sees the child as an adult in training. As Steven Mintz points out, “the Puritans did not mistake children for angels. Unlike the Romantics, who associated childhood with purity and innocence, the Puritans adopted a fairly realistic view, emphasizing children’s intransigence, willfulness, and obstinacy. They worried that if indolence, selfishness, and willfulness were not overcome in childhood, these traits would dominate adulthood.” 19

The dubious moral temperament of the Puritan child, to which Rousseau and the Romantics are diametrically opposed, is a perplexing object of study. She is a poster child for material and spiritual well-being, a font of dread and anxiety, and a force for positive action. Pulled between the care and condemnation of girlhood, Puritan “sermons and moral tracts” portrayed “children as riddled by corruption,” yet the New England Puritans “were among the first groups to reflect seriously and systematically on children’s nature and the process of childhood development”: 20

The Puritans regarded childhood as a time of deficiency, associating an infantile inability to walk or talk with animality, and considered it essential to teach children to stand upright and recite scripture as quickly as possible. Both were associated with morality and propriety. To prevent infants from crawling, they dressed their young children, regardless of sex, in long robes or petticoats and placed them in wooden go-carts, similar to modern-day walkers. Neck stays kept infants’ heads upright, while young girls wore leather corsets to encourage an erect and mature bearing. Wooden rods were sometimes placed along children’s spines to promote proper posture. 21

The idiosyncratic relationship between the Puritan adult and deficient child is a dominant motif in The Innocents , as well the Poltergeist series in the form of Reverend Henry “The Beast” Kane (Julian Beck). As indicated above, the technological and pedagogical attention to well-being operates within a Manichean cosmology of good and evil, in which the morality of puritanism is written upon the body of the child. The robe, petticoat, go-cart, neck stay, leather corset, and wooden rod are designed and implemented to correct a deficiency or animality that is located within the child, somewhere between the metaphysical and the biological. The process of childhood development within early Protestant Christianity speaks to a fundamental belief in original sin; the child is guilty until proven innocent.

According to James Twitchell, “the opposing forces of Puritan and Romantic tended to categorize the child in antithetical terms,” specifically the propensity and incapacity for evil. The Bad Seed or female child image is labeled by Twitchell as the “infant monster … a fascinating cultural development in part because it is such an inversion of the Victorian victim”: 22

What has occurred in our century is curious, for the proposition articulated in Blake and the other romantics, that youth is active goodness, has been transposed (at least in some important horror movies) into the Puritanical extreme of child as active evil. The key explicators here are not theologians, but psychologists, especially the Freudians, who have found in the ‘Darling of a pigmy size’ a raging inferno of sexual energies directing libidinous forces with the ferocity of a snarling beast. 23

The savage darling, Twitchell writes, first appears in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw , is adapted for the screen in The Innocents , and is also featured in The Bad Seed . As a direct result of these films, “the idea that the youngster’s body could be the husk for demonic forces” is the overarching thematic and aesthetic focus of “ The Exorcist , The Devil Within Her , Fear No Evil , The Haunting of Julie , Possession , The Omen (I, II, and III), To the Devil … A Daughter , all of which have Rosemary’s Baby as the immediate incubating text.” 24 According to Twitchell, what joins these films together is the idea “that the child can be an independent perpetrator of evil, simply a mistake – no fault of our own. The only thing more frightening than the adult brutalizing the cherubic child is that same situation turned inside out – the child systematically brutalizing the loving parent.” 25

Robin Wood makes a similar point when he writes that:

One needs to distinguish carefully between the childlike and the childish (just as one needs to distinguish the true innocence of childhood from the sentimental, sanitized, desexualized version of bourgeois ideology). Peter Coveney’s admirable The Image of Childhood undertakes just such a distinction, examining the differences between the Romantic concept of the child (Blake, Wordsworth) as symbol of new growth and regeneration (of ourselves, of civilization) and the regressive Victorian sentimentalization of children as identification figures for ‘childish adults,’ the use of the infantile as escape from an adult world perceived as irredeemably corrupt, or at least bewilderingly problematic. 26

For Twitchell and Wood, the difficulty in distinguishing between the Puritan (corrupt), Romantic (progressive), and Victorian (sentimental) child is that if one makes the wrong identification one gambles with the integrity and validity of the adult world itself. Yet Twitchell’s argument, which focuses on the brutality of adulthood and childhood as a reversible dichotomy, fails to take into account that, as Wood notes, the true innocence of childhood is irreversibly determined by an adult world that is irredeemably corrupt and bewilderingly problematic. Beyond the metaphysical category of evil it is the embodiment of innocence, and the illumination of adulthood, that is the child’s most horrifying attribute.

“It’s a mistake,” writes Kathryn Bond Stockton, “to take innocence straight.” 27 Regarding “the brutality of the ideal of the innocent child,” Stockton’s observation that “One does not ‘grow up’ from innocence to the adult position of protecting it” is apropos of the relationship between Miss Giddens and Flora. 28 The female child image in The Innocents , on behalf of sexuality studies and queer theory, is emblematic of “a kind of frightening (and hermetically sealed) ‘reproductive futurism’ (Edelman, 2004) that is both erotic (Kincaid, 1998) and “protogay” (Sedgwick, 1991), a notion for sideways growth, Stockton observes, in which “The child who by reigning cultural definitions can’t ‘grow up’ grows to the side of cultural ideals.” 29

A glaring oversight in Twitchell’s otherwise compelling argument is the question of childhood sexuality in The Innocents . “The mise-en-scene, or setting, of desire,” writes Creed, as well as the “theme of corruption and hysteria … played out … in relation to Flora” is an “all-pervading atmosphere of feminine mystery.” (Section 5, para. 9, 14). Twitchell’s argument regarding the seedling monster in The Innocents is further illustrated by Ellis Hanson, who points out that the children conflate the typically repressed female (victim) and demonic male (killer) positions of gothic horror. According to Hanson, Miles and Flora “mark a most distinguished beginning to the tradition of the sexual child as gothic conundrum.” 30 The gothic or “modern sexual child,” writes Hanson, is a taboo figure that is closeted between the publication of The Turn of the Screw and its cinematic outing in the mid- twentieth century. “In the cinema,” Hanson writes, “we have to wait until the late 1950s and early 1960s for the species to make a significant appearance: The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of … James’s novella, was one of a spate of virtually unprecedented films about kids who are perversely sexy, devious, and knowing — among them, The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), and Lolita (1962).” 31

Hanson’s interpretation of The Innocents and “the allure of the gothic child” is a welcome addition to Twitchell and Wood regarding queer theory and Victorian sexual rhetoric. Indeed, Flora and Miles represent a labyrinth into which the viewer and Miss Giddens willingly enter and become hopelessly lost. Dependent upon a hallucinatory practice of looking, the viewer’s investigation of the queer child is burdened by the desire to distinguish between the seducer and the seduced, in addition to the child and adult. “The sexual child is a gothic labyrinth,” Hanson notes, “and it is easy to make of innocence our own minotaur.” 32

Greetings From The Alamo Drafthouse

In the summer of 2012, The Alamo Ritz, part of the ever-expanding Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, played host to an ambitious film series of the largely American movie release schedule of 1982. Beginning with Conan the Barbarian , a total of twenty films were screened on the same weekends they originally opened between May and July, including The Road Warrior , Rocky III , Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan , E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial , The Thing, TRON , and Poltergeist . “The Summer of 1982” series, co-hosted by a group of film news websites including Ain’t It Cool News , Badass Digest , Collider , Film School Rejects , First Showing , HitFix , , and Slashfilm , proclaimed the summer of 1982 a decisive moment for the exploitation or genre film as a legitimate and ambitious art form. According to Zach Carlson, who curated the series, the films of 1982 shaped a generation of filmgoers through a process of cultural education rather than entertainment.

Speaking to a full house at The Alamo Ritz, Eric “Quint” Vespe, film critic and contributing editor at Ain’t It Cool News , paid tribute to Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s landmark American horror film Poltergeist . Vespe’s childhood memories of Poltergeist , I discovered, were nearly identical to those of many of the audience members I spoke to at “The Summer of 1982.” There was a sense of cultural camaraderie at The Ritz, a kind of cinéaste hive mind that was reminiscent, I imagined, of the Cinémathèque Française under Henri Langlois.

Similar to “Scary Women,” Alamo’s dedication to the significance of film culture as a historical and experiential archive tapped into not only my own childhood memories of film, but a sense of wonder at cinema’s effect on modernity at large, for example the culture of French film of the 1940s and 50s. Langlois’s Cinémathèque attracted many of the directors now associated with European modernism: Robert Bresson, René Clément, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jacques Becker. And the directors that would form the French New Wave or la Nouvelle Vague — Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Roger Vadim, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Pierre Kast — followed in their footsteps. Who, I asked myself, was receiving their film education by attending “The Summer of 1982” at The Alamo Ritz?

In the age of digital cinema and media, “The Summer of 1982” is a nostalgic look into the rearview mirror, a longing for the era of celluloid film and the now arcane, and much romanticized, practice of cult cinephilia. In a recent article for The New Yorker , Colson Whitehead writes about growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s. “Other kids played in Central Park,” Whitehead writes, they “participated in athletics, basked and what have you in the great outdoors. I preferred to lie on the living-room carpet, watching horror movies. … I dwelled in a backward age, full of darkness, before the VCR boom, before streaming and on-demand, before DVRs roamed the cable channels at night, scavenging content. Either a movie was on or it wasn’t.” 33 Whitehead, the author of the literary zombie novel Zone One (2012), describes his film education as a failure in regards to his inability to distinguish “between good movies and bad movies … This is what I understood about art: its very existence was credential enough. If it had posters and TV ads and contained within its frames actual human beings who had posed before cameras and mouthed words, it satisfied the definition of a movie, and that was enough for me.” 34

The profoundly vulnerable image of Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) in Poltergeist , compared to Rhoda and Flora, is unambiguously prelapsarian. Daughter to Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), Carol Ann lives in a California planned community called Cuesta Verde, where Steve is a successful real estate developer and Diane a stay-at-home mother. Late one night, Carol Ann begins conversing with the family television set, which is connected to a series of Poltergeist intrusions and acts as a medium of communication between the Freelings, parapsychologist Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), and Carol Ann after she is sucked through a portal in her closet. Like Rhoda and Flora, Carol Ann embodies “the brutality of the ideal of the innocent child”; she is a host to dark forces and “a powerful agent of abjection” (Creed; Section 2, para. 8).

What I find most interesting about Poltergeist , and what Spielberg is so adept at capturing on film, is a sense of childlike wonder at the sight of horror, monstrosity, and “bad movies.” It is childhood, that most human universal experience, and the memory of late- twentieth century genre film vis-à-vis television that, for me, is the overriding thematic concern of Poltergeist . It is what Jeffrey Sconce refers to as electronic presence or “haunted media,” the “sense of disembodied communion” that we as consumers and viewers experience in our everyday, and yet supernatural, encounters with electronic telecommunications — telegraphy, telephony, radio, television. 35 Sconce writes, “Tales of imperious, animate, sentient, virtual, haunted, possessed, and otherwise ‘living’ media might seem at first no more than curious anecdotes at the fringes of American popular culture.” 36 Yet the absurdity and anachronism of “spiritual technology,” or the “fascination with the discorporative,” is a key component of the virtual age that we live in today. The emancipating possibilities of our virtual lives “is in many ways simply an echo of this strange electronic logic, a collective fantasy of telepresence that allowed a nation to believe … that a little girl could talk to the dead over an invisible wire.” 37

The iconic image of five-year-old Carol Anne staring into the abyss of late night TV, conjuring a spirit world from the white fuzz, is ingrained within the cinematic and cultural experience of Vespe, Whitehead, Sconce, and the Children of 1982. Likewise, Carol Anne’s announcement to her family that “they’re heeeere” is a chilling commentary upon the suburban anxieties of America and the conservative “Reagan Revolution.” There is a disturbingly fine line in Poltergeist between humor and horror. On the one hand, we have Steve Freeling and Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus) taking aim at each other with their remote controls, frantically switching between the Los Angeles Rams football game and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood . On the other hand, we have Diane Freeling’s terrifying descent into the unfinished cavity of the family swimming pool, surrounded by the unearthed caskets and skeletal remains of the Native American burial ground upon which the planned community of Cuesta Verde is constructed.


In films like The Bad Seed , The Innocents , and Poltergeist , it is apparent that the location of girlhood in the modern American horror film is not a singular phenomenon or event. It is not a time or place in which an authentic and progressive monster emerges from the depths of horror mythology. Likewise, a cultural history of the monstrous-feminine is not a typological or genealogical exploration. There is not a moment of sudden revelation or insight in which the female child image is exposed and disassembled. On the contrary, any attempt at locating the “multifarious image of the evil girl-child” must encounter an unending list of path breaking and derivative incarnations. Under scrutiny, a once cohesive picture of adolescence scatters and disperses into a multitude of disorder, a fog of anxiety that is blind to reason and categorization.

This predicament is especially apropos of the female child or child-woman. The location of girlhood within the modern American and European horror film engenders a state of interpretive anxiety that is rife with ambiguity and nuance. The female child or Baby Bitch is at once impervious to classification and demonstrative of a cultural imaginary that flourishes within and beyond the modern horror phase (1960 – 1996). For that reason, I have found it necessary to rearrange and expand a chronology of modern horror in order to both widen and more narrowly focus on the relationship between girlhood and anxiety. The function of childhood and gender in the modern American horror film, regarding the fight against patriarchal capitalism from Vietnam to Reagan envisioned by Robin Wood, is contingent on a “wider contextual culture” that operates “in relationship to, rather than as an originating source of, aesthetic mutations and textual complications.” 38

If this article accomplishes what I want, it will demonstrate that the monstrous-child is not a seed that has been sown at a given moment. “Evil” children are not the progeny of genre film and popular cinema; they do not occupy a niche within a history of horror. The question that must be asked regarding the Baby Bitch is one of development: “what it’s history is, how it expands, how it contracts, how it is extended to a particular domain, and how it reinvents, forms, and develops new practices.” 39 The Baby Bitch explicitly demonstrates a “process of dislocation, fragmentation, and isolation,” she is a missed opportunity, a moment that is lost in time. In psychoanalytic terms, girlhood in the modern American horror film is a “privileged object in the staging of fantasies of intimate encounters with otherness and visualizations of the impenetrable.” 40

In addition to feelings that are commonly associated with horror cinema — nausea, repulsion, disgust — anxiety most forcefully demonstrates the desire to know who or what the female child image is. This is consistent throughout the modern horror phase, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Yet a cultural history of childhood and anxiety demands that the chronological boundaries of the modern American horror film be expanded to allow for a more nuanced interpretation of gender and genre. It is my assessment that between 1956 and 1982 a narrative of paranoia and xenophobia has persisted and become synonymous with the female child or child-woman in horror film. More specifically, this narrative is pictured as a biological, social, and cultural dilemma that is directly linked to the monstrous-feminine.


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Modern Horror Film
. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham:
Duke University Press, 2000.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay.” Social Text No. 29 (1991): 18-27

Smith, Angela. Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2012.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Studlar, Gaylyn. Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood
. Berkley: University of California Press, 2013.


  1. Creed, Barbara. “Baby Bitches From Hell: Monstrous Little Women in Film.” Scary Women. N.p., Jan. 1994. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  2. Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch . London: Wallflower Press, 2000: 3.
  3. In a recent e-mail correspondence, Creed informed me that she “was invited by Andrea Kalas from the UCLA Film & Television Archive on August 11th 1993 to take part in the day long symposium. Other speakers were to be Rhona Berenstein, Linda Williams, Carol Clover & Vivian Sobchack. Carol Clover was unexpectedly called away and couldn’t attend. The symposium was set for Sat January 29th 2004 – just after the Earthquake as it turned out! Also very scary!” Creed, Barbara. “Re: Query: ‘Scary Women’ symposium at UCLA, January 1994.” Message to the author. 23 Sep. 2013. E-mail.
  4. Scary Women. The University of California, Los Angeles. N.p., Jan. 1994. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  5. I asked Professor Creed if, with films and TV shows like Insidious (2011), Sinister (2012), The Conjuring (2013), The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present), and True Blood (HBO, 2008-present), it appears that the horror genre has returned to a patriarchal power dynamic after the progressive horror film of the 1970s and 80s. Creed replied: “No, I don’t believe that the horror film has become more conservative — if it ever was in the first place. Three recent horror films are very upfront about their representations of the monstrous-feminine. These are: Teeth (2007) a black horror comedy about the vagina dentata, Ginger Snaps (2000) in which a young girl metamorphoses into a werewolf when she first menstruates, and Splice (2009) a sci-fi horror film in which the Sphinx is reborn. Ginger Snaps was so popular with young women it was followed by Ginger Snaps Back and Ginger 3 (2000-2004). I don’t believe that these three films, which self-reflexively engaged with female monstrosity, could have been made without earlier feminist writings on horror.” Creed, Barbara. “Re: Query: ‘Scary Women’ symposium at UCLA, January 1994.” Message to the author. 23 Sep. 2013. E-mail.
  6. Sheer light muslin ornamented with evenly spaced raised pixels, dotted-Swiss is originally hand-loomed in Switzerland in the mid eighteenth century. A popular material for summer dresses, blouses, aprons, curtains, bedspreads, wedding apparel, and baby clothes, “The fabric appears fresh and youthful on the person, and it is this timeless quality” that is pictured in Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Y. Chen, “What is Dotted Swiss?.” Ed., O Wallace. wiseGEEK. Web. 2003 – 2011; Children’s Fashions 1900 – 1950: As Pictured in Sears Catalogs. Ed., JoAnne Olian. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003: 9. Print.
  7. Anderson’s play, which ran between 1954 and 1955 for a total of 334 performances, received a Tony Award and was shortlisted for the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
  8. According to Steven Mintz, the postwar era’s greatest appeal, in addition to the economic boom, “is that it seems a much more innocent and child-friendly time: a time of open spaces, of brand-new neighborhoods, Good Humor ice cream trucks, 25-cent movies, and amusement parks.” Early postwar America, Mintz writes, is “the golden age of American childhood. It serves as the yardstick against which all subsequent changes in childhood are measured.” Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004: 275-276.
  9. Oates, Joyce Carol. “Killer Kids.” The New York Review of Books . N.p., 6 Nov. 1997: Vol. 44, No. 17. Web. 29 Aug. 2013.
  10. Locke, Richard. Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels . New York: Columbia University Press, 2011: 87.
  11. For a survey of the critical history of James’ novella see Peter G. Beidler’s edition of The Turn of the Screw (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995).
  12. Harland, Henry. “Academy Portraits: Mr. Henry James.” The Academy (26 Nov. 1898): 339-340.
  13. Twitchell, James B. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985: 65.
  14. Regarding the “Puritan character,” and the stereotype of puritan morality that operates within horror cinema, let me be clear that in this article I address the stereotype, as well as the history, of Puritan morality and the representation of childhood and innocence in American and British horror cinema between 1956 and 1982. As Francis J. Bremer points out:
    Puritanism is one of the least understood parts of America’s — and Britain’s — heritage. The word ‘puritan is likely to be associated with ‘prudish,’ ‘sexually repressed,’ ‘prohibitionist,’ ‘busybody snoops’ — the types of things that led the twentieth-century social critic H.L. Mencken to define puritanism as ‘the fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’ The image of puritans as theocrats, regicides, witch-burners, Indian killers, and bigoted heresy hunters has long been entrenched in popular culture. Most of these are distortions if not absolute falsehoods, but the stereotypes are deeply embedded.

    Francis J. Bremer, Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009: 1.

  15. Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, eds., The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film . Toronto: Festival of Festivals: 7-8.
  16. Joseph, Michael. “Constructing Childhood and Home.” Teaching with The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English . New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006: 42.
  17. Hulbert, Ann. Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children . New York: Knopf, 2005: 24.
  18. Studlar, Gaylyn. Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013: 1-2.
  19. Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004: 19.
  20. Ibid., 12-13.
  21. Ibid., 16-17.
  22. Twitchell, Dreadful Pleasures , 297.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 299.
  25. Ibid., 299-300.
  26. Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . 1986. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 156.
  27. Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century . Durham: Duke University Press, 2009: 12.
  28. Ibid., 12.
  29. Ibid., 12-13.
  30. Hanson, Ellis. “Screwing with Children in Henry James.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.3 (2003): 367.
  31. Ibid., 367-368.
  32. Ibid., 373.
  33. Whitehead, Colson. “A Psychotronic Childhood: Learning from B-movies.” The New Yorker . N.p., 4 Jun. 2012. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television . Durham: Duke University Press, 2000: 21.
  36. Ibid., 4.
  37. Ibid., 28.
  38. Gledhill, Christine. “Rethinking genre.” Reinventing Film Studies , eds., Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. London: Arnold, 2000: 221.
  39. Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France , 1978 – 1979. New York: Picador, 2010: 6.
  40. Bronfen, Elisabeth. The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998: 7.

Pictures of Anxiety

Hans Staats is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cultural Analysis & Theory at Stony Brook University. The title of his dissertation is “The Bad Seed: A Theoretical and Historical Analysis of Horror Cinema, Media, and Childhood in the Long Twentieth Century.” His works have appeared in CineAction, the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Cinespect, and Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.

Volume 18, Issues 6-7 / July 2014 Essays   evil children   gender   horror