By Leigh Kolb | Women and Hollywood October 28, 2013 at 3:35PM
Horror films frequently provide commentary on the social fears and anxieties of their time. A universally recognized truth of horror is that children can be terrifying--especially little girls. The fact that images of young girls have continued terrifying audiences through the decades is indicative of social fears surrounding women's power.
Analyses of "creepy children" in horror films usually claim that haunting, possessed, monstrous children serve as social commentary on loss of innocence, and it would make sense that in a patriarchal society a little girl is the epitome of innocence. It can't be that simple, though. We wouldn't be so shaken to the core by possessed, haunted, violent little girls if we were simply supposed to be longing for innocent times of yesteryear.
Instead, these little girls embody society's growing fears of female power and independence. Fearing a young girl is the antithesis of what we are taught–stories of missing, kidnapped or sexually abused girls (at least white girls) get far more news coverage and mass sympathy than stories of boy victims. Little girls are innocent and need protection. And what we understand now as being a common trope in horror movies--the terrifying little girl--has its roots in the nineteenth century.
In the Victorian era, the ideal female was supposed to be pale, fainting-prone and home-bound. Feminist literary icons Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write about this nineteenth-century ideal in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women:
At its most extreme, this nineteenth-century ideal of the frail, even sickly female ultimately led to the glorification of the dead or dying woman. The most fruitful subject for literature, announced the American romancer Edgar Allan Poe in 1846, is 'the death... of a beautiful woman'... But while dead women were fascinating, dying girl-children were even more enthralling... These episodes seem to bring to the surface an extraordinary imperative that underlay much of the nineteenth-century ideology of femininity: in one way or another, woman must be 'killed' into passivity for her to acquiesce in what Rousseau and others considered her duty of self-abnegation 'relative to men.'
The feminine "ideal" (and its relation to literature) coincided with women beginning the long fight for suffrage and individual rights. It's no surprise, then, that men wanted to symbolically kill off the woman so she could fulfill her ultimate passive role. There was something comforting about this to audiences.
Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s, and the modern horror genre as we know it emerged and began evolving into something that provided social commentary while playing on audiences' deepest fears (the "other," invasion, demonic possession, nuclear mutations and the end of the world were common enemies).
We know that horror films typically feature puritanical punishment/reward for promiscuous women/virgins (the "Final Girl" trope), and violence toward women or women needing to be rescued are common themes. These themes comfort audiences, and confirm their need to keep women subjugated in their proper place. It's no coincidence that the 50s and 60s were seeing sweeping social change in America (the Pill, changing divorce laws, the ERA, and the lead-up to Roe v. Wade).
Terrifying little girls also make their debut in this era. Their mere presence in horror films spoke not only to audiences' fears of children losing their innocence, but also the intense fear that little girls--not yet even women--would have the power to overthrow men. These girl children of a generation of women beginning a new fight for rights were terrifying--these girls would grow up knowing they could have power.
In 1956, The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark, genetically predisposed to be a sociopath, murders a classmate and the janitor who suspects her. Her classmate--a boy--beats her in a penmanship contest, and she beats him to death with her tap shoes. A little girl, in competition with a boy, loses, and kills. While Rhoda gets away with her crimes in the novel the film was based on, the Hays Code demanded that the film version "punished" her for her crimes and she's struck by lightning. It's revealed that Rhoda's sociopathic tendencies come from her maternal grandmother, a serial killer. This notion of female murderous rage, passed down through generations and claiming boys/men as its victim, certainly reflects social fear at the time.
In 1968, Night of the Living Dead premiered. This zombie classic provided commentary on racism/the Civil Rights movement, Cold War-era politics and critiqued America's involvement in the Vietnam War. However, little Karen Cooper's iconic scene has long disturbed audiences the most. Infected by zombies, she eats her father and impales her mother with a trowel. A horror twist to an Oedipal tale, one could see Karen as living out the gravest fears of those against the women's movement/second-wave feminism. Possessed by a demon, she eats her father (consumes the patriarchy) and kills her mother (overtaking her mother's generation with masculine force).
Five years later, Roe v. Wade had been decided, and women could legally obtain first-trimester abortions. The Pill was legal, no-fault divorce was more
acceptable and women began flooding the workforce.