After being apart for years, two precious siblings have been reunited. Holden was born first, but now his sister, Scarlett, is the bigger one.
“You’re different now,” he tells her, his voice high and pure, his sky-blue gaze tranquil. His hair is the whitish-blond adults can only pour from bottles, and he wears a black suit with short pants, like a French schoolboy.
“I grew up,” she answers, puzzled. “Why haven’t you?”
His answer holds a nightmare.
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The scariest part of “American Horror Story: Hotel” hasn’t been the mid-orgy murders, the demonic rape or even the ornate death scenes staged by a creative serial killer. The most haunting images of FX’s horror anthology this season are the little blond children frolicking in the hallways, napping in glass coffins and lapping up the blood of unlucky guests.
Evil kids have scared willing audiences before. With its inside jokes and tongue-in-cheek soundtrack, “American Horror Story” is practically an homage factory, so it’s not surprising to see it recycle the killer kiddos trope.
Kids channeled the evil forces behind this century’s biggest big-screen scares. They bonded with the demon in “Sinister” and befriended the ghosts in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. The most successful remakes of overseas horror flicks — “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” “Let Me In,” “Dark Water” — used children as doorways to the supernatural.
In January, Lauren Cohan of “The Walking Dead” will star as the live-in nanny to a life-size doll in “The Boy.” How’s that going to fulfill its horror movie premise if that doll doesn’t become a possessed action figure?
Perhaps the best indicator of our continued hunger for child-size horror fare is the planned remake of “Pet Sematary,” the 1989 Stephen King adaptation that I first watched via squeaky VHS, mostly through a tiny hole in a Snoopy sleeping bag. Snoopy sleeping bags, as everyone knows, cannot be penetrated by anything revived by a haunted burial ground. But “Pet Sematary” chilled me before anything got buried.
The song that plays over the opening credits is the quintessential example of children singing in their high creepy voices, used to great effect as far back as “The Birds” and “The Innocents,” all the way through “Children of the Corn,” “Poltergeist” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Before it claims the family cat, the presence of that highway so close to the Creeds’ new home darkens every moment. Even grandfatherly Fred Gwynne, as the neighbor everyone should have listened to, raises goosebumps whenever the camera finds him.
Before that night, I’d already seen “The Omen.” Meh, that kid was obviously the devil all along. I’d even made it through “The Shining,” with those beyond-disturbing sisters in matching dresses beckoning from down the hallway: “Come play with us.” (No thanks, ladies.)
But when that little boy came back from the dead, it was all over. I needed five more sleeping bags and a bomb shelter to drown out those evil little giggles. The movie deliberately, grotesquely kept Gage cute, even when he was taking a scalpel to adult tendons.
It wasn’t just me who went over the edge at that point. I could barely hear Gage whisper, “Now I want to play with you …” in his angelic toddler voice over the clamor of my friends screaming “Oh, hell no!” When Gage tottered off to die (again) and told his dad, “No fair,” we all agreed. We’d never seen anything that put so much evil in the hands of such an innocent.
Assuming it would have lost its punch, I went back and watched some scenes from “Pet Sematary” not long ago. I was curious to analyze it from a detached distance, to compare director Mary Lambert’s style with the movies of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (“28 Weeks Later”), who might work on the remake. Guillermo del Toro was tweeting about his desire to dig up “Sematary” in October. I’m an adult now. How scary could it be?
It was worse. Worse because I realized what was so scary about King’s tale in the first place. It was like watching “The Amityville Horror” and realizing that the scariest thing about that house is the outstanding mortgage balance. Or that the scariest part of “The Exorcist” wasn’t the pea soup, it was the grueling, fruitless diagnostic tests performed on Regan.
“Pet Sematary,” and most of the movies that put murder weapons in children’s hands, is a cautionary tale about lax parenting. It’s all Gage’s father’s fault, of course, for moving his family next to that highway, where the metaphoric 18-wheelers might as well have had “DANGER, DAD!” painted on their trailers. All you have to do is let your little one out of your sight for one second …
King is a parent. He knows. It’s our worst nightmare. Even if they survive our moments of neglect, damage to your children is irreparable. You can try to bury their childhood trauma, but it will claw its way to the surface again. They will never be the same.
Stories like “Sematary,” “Insidious” and “Sinister,” where selfish parents ignore the needs of their families at their peril, are just half the equation. It’s one thing to shudder at real-life stories of neglect that will result in dangerous, desperate adults one day. It’s painful to face stories where the adults — not some accident, entity or demon — nurture evil on purpose.
Director Cary Jo Fukunaga’s Netflix-produced feature, “Beasts of No Nation,” is the latest example and perhaps the most extreme: the story of an orphaned African youth named Agu who is turned into a killing machine by a tribal tyrant.
Agu, like millions of African children at this moment, has seen his family butchered and doesn’t have the luxury to process his rage and grief while scrambling to survive. When a warlord who calls himself the Commandant (Idris Elba) forces Agu (Abraham Attah) to commit his first hands-on atrocity against a prisoner, “Beasts of No Nation” re-creates an unbearable reality about the regeneration of evil.
“These are the ones, the dogs that killed your father,” the Commandant barks at Agu, who stands bewildered, machete in hand. “Where is your mother? Chop that head!”
“Beasts of No Nation” is based on a 2005 novel, written in the midst of countless clashes involving child soldiers, but before the headline-making Boko Haram insurgency. Agu’s story is not unusual, nor is it outdated. Of course, if he stays half a world away, we can breathe easy and think, “Thank goodness that could never happen to my child.”
Holden, the hero detective’s son in “American Horror Story: Hotel,” was kidnapped at a carnival before being turned into a monster, during one of those “Where is he?” flashes of panic all parents or babysitters have had at the park or the mall. If popular culture paints children as the eventual aggressors, does it make it easier to pretend that they were ever protected in the first place?
Decades, even centuries, of entertainment dating back to Hansel and Gretel are based on the premise that there is no innocence so pure that humans will not corrupt it. If kids are scary, it’s because of what we do to them.