Demon Kids and Bad Seeds: Deviance and Innocence in American Culture

I recently had the chance to sit on a roundtable with the amazing literary and cultural critic James Kincaid. We talked deviance, innocence and the kinds of cultural narratives we tell about kids and monsters. Thanks much to the College of Charleston’s English dept. for putting this together.

Robert Englund, who famously portrayed the supernatural sweater- wearing serial killer Freddy Krueger, once gave a tremendously disturbing and utterly honest answer to the question of how he created his signature boogeyman.  He explained that during a filming break on the set of Nightmare, he found himself watching and envying the hijinks of the young and beautiful star Heather Langenkamp, joking around with the equally young and beautiful Johnny Depp, then appearing in his very first feature. Englund says he felt something dark and jealous rise up in him at both their youth and their beauty and decided that his rage was something he could use. Indeed, it could help him portray what the film calls “that filthy child killer” Freddy.

If I can borrow an idea that appears frequently in Professor Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence, this is not the kind of story we like to tell or to hear. We want to be defenders and contemplatives of innocence, not the trench coat wearing old people with a rage against it. We want to mount the barricades against deviance much more than we want to step back and understand what narratives of innocence and deviance do to us or the culture we have a stake in.

As part of our enduring fascination with innocence endangered, a cultural mindset that seems to owe something to Wordsworth and something to De Sade, the figure of the Demon Child peeks out at us from behind creaking doorways, waits till we are on the stepladder to ride its tricycle around and around in circles.

“Did he who made the lamb make thee”…absolutely. In our culture, the little lamb has a tyger in its tank and may be plotting to kill us.

Conceptions of innocence endangered by deviance are hardwired into the history of the 20th century. I would point out ways in which the rise of the National Security State in the years after the Second World War helped to structure our sense of innocence endangered, as well as the idea that extreme measures must be taken to protect it. The family, as many scholars have argued, became a site of containment reflective of the larger goal of containing communism, the phrase first used by George Kenan that has become an apt metaphor for much of the cultural work being attempted by conservative forces of the postwar era.

And we know what leaving it to beaver resulted in. The need of a newly imperial nation for strong-hearted cold warriors also excited and incited anxieties about deviants endangering and corrupting that possibility. Home became a place where women’s labor and women’s hopes were to be contained and where children were to be seen and not heard.  Children were imagined a passive subjects who made the trip from the containment of home to school and back to the safety of the home again. So much of the discourse of juvenile delinquency that develops in this era is a discourse about the dangers of “hanging out”—literally escaping the containment of the home.

Why it is that the child who symbolizes innocence has also become the monstrosity, literally the bad seed, the demon seed. The American horror film, from Rosemary’s Baby through The Exorcist and The Omen and into more recent iterations such as Insidious and The Woman, have made the child into an uncanny presence from another world, or maybe from hell.  What became of that “raised right child,” the hope of  nation of cold warriors, the product of the new domesticity of the 50s.

Children were always scary it turns out. Just scary for different reasons. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, American culture moves  from fearing the contained child to being terrified by the child of excess.

Consider the frights provided by the children of containment. The coldness of little Rhoda in Bad Seed is matched by the blank, impassive stare of the little blonde terrors of the 1960 Village of the Damned. Clearly one way to turn them into monsters has been to imagine them as the desiderata of many of our cultural fantasies about childhood—the moment before the Fall, the blank slate. How terrifying if the 1950s project worked, what would lurk in their silence?

Childhood and its meanings shifted in between Village of the Damned and 1973’s The Exorcist. The latter became a cultural phenomenon more than simply a scary movie. Like some kind of satanic religious revival, audience reactions were extreme with moviegoers becoming physically ill and/or literally running in terror out of theaters.

Meanwhile, lines stretched around city blocks with some New York and LA theatres having their first showings at 8:00 AM to accommodate crowds. As one person told a reporter as they wanted in line one frosty New York morning, they “wanted to see what all the throwing up was about.”

What was it all about? How do we account for these reactions? We are asked to read Regan McNeil as the contained child, a particular kind of product of containment—the charming, beautiful and dare we say seductive upper middle class girl. If The Exorcist were made today, Regan would have started out the movie with a vocal fry.

That is, of course the Regan of films first 30 minutes.   She becomes what so many in the period thought their own kids had become—straggly haired, impossible to manage demon children with filthy mouths and inexplicable behavior. She even pees the carpet on her way to 666-ville. Contained she is not and thus quickly crosses the liminal space between innocence and deviance.

Is the essential relationship between these categories what makes the child so frightening, that makes the so-called “bad child” into, as we sometimes off handedly say, “a living terror.” Is our sentimentalization of the child really just what it looks like, a sentiment about our own mortality or is there something more destructive at work? For example, are the gothic narratives we tell about child endangerment, sexual deviance and sexual predators a channeling of cultural rage, not unlike what Englund was able to do with Freddy?  Does it help our analysis of the new mommyism that Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels describe as both “accepting the claims of feminism while also repudiating its results”—women have a choice but the only meaningful and rational choice is to become bearers of these blessed creatures—who might later try to destroy you.

“1-2 Freddy’s coming for you” was, of course, a children’s rhyme written and often chanted by adults. Whose purposes does this serve, in what dark workshops of cultural need are these things fashioned?


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