Child Abuse Is A Common Theme In Horror Movies
Damien, Chucky, and Melinda all have something in common.
I’m not really into horror films. I just see them as a sort of retelling of abuse and I see nothing but abuse in horror films. They are often gory, macabre and haunting. Such was what I saw in the movies last night in the just-released reboot of The Grudge. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but I was with friends and that is what they planned to see. So I went.
The Grudge got a passing grade from me of something like a C-. All I could think was, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” when I saw Sam Raimi in the credits as a producer. Raimi directed Spiderman, the version released in 2002, so I was surprised to see him making this kind of film. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised considering American cultural norms.
The Grudge was gratuitous in its violence and gore, standard fare for a horror film. But I did like one thing about it. Their use of dim lighting and the color of the light. Indirect sunlight played on the interior set through stained glass and curtains, faded and muted. Direct indoor lighting was warm yellow and low. Most interior scenes appeared with low, yellow-orange lighting and very few sharp shadows. The lighting cast a wistful and sorrowful mood in nearly every scene. I could feel the pity calling out to me as I sat there in my clean, plush recliner.
About 30 minutes into the film, I began to see a pattern of dialogue and violence or fright and I became a bit jaded. I watched my friends jump while I remained calm, waiting for the next startle to come. Some of the images were haunting and I did feel chills a few times. But most of the time, I could not help but have the sense that the dialogue was the excuse for all of the frightening and violent scenes. It was kind of like watching the classic 70s film, Gone In 60 Seconds, “Don’t mind us. We’re just chatting to pass the time between car chase scenes.”
The inspiration for this article was a scene in The Grudge where a mother has her daughter a bathtub, face down in the water, banging her head on the bottom of the tub, the body lifeless. As I watched that scene, I imagined the power struggle between them that played out before they got to the bathtub. The daughter, willful, the mother enforcing her will upon her daughter, and eventually winning an intense physical struggle with her daughter in the end.
As I drove home, I recalled Chucky the knife-wielding puppet child in Child’s Play and Damien from The Omen. As I write this, I recall The Ring, a story of a girl thrown into a well and left to die there. I recall the twin girls in The Shining. I’m sure I could find more if I had watched more. But they all seem to have one thing in common: those movies suggest that evil comes from nowhere when the evidence of abuse is right there, in front of us, in the flashback scenes.
In my research on the horror film genre, I have found that there are many different themes for horror. It just so happens that the theme I remember the most, the one that I see most often, involves an abused child, sometimes living, sometimes deceased, who torments the adults in his or her life. And if the child is deceased, the offending ghost typically points to the abuser in the end, as she did in The 6th Sense.
I often see this trope in horror movies. Evil comes from nowhere and it can’t be explained. It’s supernatural and we’re supposed to believe that people can be tortured by supernatural beings who have nothing better to do. Nevermind that humans are the best imitators in the world and that our success as a species (if you can call it that) is dependent on our ability to teach each other the skills we need to survive.
Abuse isn’t a survival skill. And these kinds of horror films normalize abuse. We see the abusive parent, mentor or caregiver meting out punishment on a child, usually innocent of any offense. After a long and convoluted power struggle, the abuser gets it in the end, usually at the hands of their innocent victims. The violence goes full cycle, and then, in their fantasies, there is peace.
Even if the victims get their revenge on the abuser, there is no way to restore the loss of peace suffered by the innocent. Even if the victim is right in their quest for peace, I really doubt they will find it by ending the misery of their abuser. In the movies, violence is often portrayed without regard to consequences. And I remind myself that abusive people are acting out what was done to them.
Generally, I avoid horror films, but if I find myself watching one, I take notice of the cultural norms and themes on display. Peace comes from revenge. Revenge is always justified. Killing the abuser is a rational response to abuse. And whatever you do, don’t ask for help from outside the family.
Yeah, that was something about The Grudge. Nobody asked for help outside the dark corners and recesses of that dimly lit world. They all tried to solve the problem on their own. So many of us find ourselves alone, with no one to help, living with an unspoken rule not to get help outside of the family. In horror films, child abuse happens in homes where there are secrets and shame about those secrets. And no one is allowed or to even think of getting help outside of the family. I think that was the scariest part of The Grudge.
Wait. The scariest part about horror films is that investors finance those kinds of movies and make a tidy profit.
Alternative themes come to mind. Rather than an endless cycle of abuse, as the movie The Ring suggests, we could have more movies about restorative justice, parenting classes and interpersonal skills. We could empower ourselves with movies that demonstrate peaceful conflict resolution, inter-generational skill training and transfer, and mutual support. We could have more films that demonstrate how to ask for help inside and outside the family when help is needed.
Restorative justice? Parenting classes? Conflict resolution? That’s boring. That doesn’t sell tickets. But what would our world look like, if those kinds of themes could become a summer blockbuster movie?