Meanwhile, on the big screen, sweet little Regan MacNeil--the daughter of an over-worked, atheist mother--becomes possessed by the devil. The Exorcist was based on a novel, which itself was based on the exorcism case of a little boy. Of course, the novelist and filmmakers wanted audiences to be disturbed and terrified, so the sex of the possessed protagonist changed (would it be as unsettling if it was a little boy?).
Chris MacNeil, Regan's mother, goes to great lengths to help her daughter, and resorts to Catholicism when all else has failed. Regan reacts violently to religious symbols, lashes out and kills priests, speaks in a masculine voice and masturbates with a crucifix. This certainly isn't simply a "demonic possession" horror film, especially since it was written and made into a film at the height of the fight for women's rights and the Catholic church was an adamant foe to reproductive rights. Only after Regan releases her demon, which possesses a priest (who flings himself out of a window to commit suicide), does she regain her innocence and girlhood.
What her mother and her culture are embracing--atheism, working women, reproductive rights, sexual aggressiveness--can be seen as the "demons" that overcome the innocent girl and kill men (and traditional religion).
These films are have terrified audiences for decades, and for good reason. The musical scores, the direction and the jarring images shock and terrify audiences (and we "crave" this, according to Stephen King). However, these films also play to society's deepest fears about women and feminism. For little girls to be possessed is the ultimate fall.
Starting with the late-70s and 80s slasher films (and the growing Religious Right/Moral Majority in politics), the "Final Girl" reigned supreme, and the promiscuous young woman would perish first. Masculinity (characterized with "monstrous" violence and strength) and femininity became natural enemies. These fights on the big screen mirrored the fights in reality. The Equal Rights Amendment was pushed out of favor and was never ratified, and a growing surge of conservatism and "family values" began dominating American rhetoric.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, we see a resurgence of the terrifying little girl. This time, she is serving as a warning to single/working/independent/adoptive mothers.
In The Ring (the 2002 American adaptation of a 1998 Japanese film), Rachel Keller is a journalist and a single mother. She unknowingly risks her son and his father's lives by showing them a cursed videotape. A critic noted:
If she had never entered the public sphere and viewed the cassette in the first place, she would not have inadvertently caused Noah's death, nor would she have to potentially cause the death of another. Rachel would, perhaps, have been better off staying at home.
Single motherhood has often been the driving force behind horror plots. In her investigation into the video, she discovers the twisted, dark past of the video's subject, Samara, a young girl who started life troubled (her birthmother tried to drown her). Her adoptive mother drowns her in a well after Samara cannot be cured of her psychosis. Her adoptive father, Rachel finds, locked Samara in an attic of their barn, and Samara left a clue of the well's location behind yellow wallpaper (certainly a nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman).
Samara's life was punctuated by drowning, which has throughout history been a way for women to commit suicide or be killed (symbolizing both the suffocating nature of women's roles and the return to the life-giving waters that women are often associated with). While Rachel "saves" Samara's corpse and gives her a proper burial, Samara didn't want that. She rejected Rachel's motherhood and infects Rachel's son. Rachel--in her attempts to mother--cannot seem to win.
The ambiguous ending suggests that Rachel may indeed save her son, but will have to harm another to do so. This idea of motherly self-sacrifice portrays the one way that Rachel--single, working mother--can redeem herself. However, the parallel narrative of the dangers of silencing and "locking up" women is loud and clear.
In 2009's Orphan, Esther is a violent, overtly sexual orphan from Russia who is adopted by an American family. Esther is "not nearly as innocent as she claims to be," says the IMDB description. This story plays on the fear of the "other" in adopted little girls (much like The Ring). In this film, Esther is actually an adult "trapped" in a child's body. The clash of a childish yet adult female (and culturally, little girls are somehow expected to embody adult sexuality yet be innocent and naive) again reiterates this fear of little girls with unnatural and unnerving power. The drowning death of Esther, as her adoptive mother and sister flee, shows that Esther must be killed to be subdued. The power of mother is highlighted, yet the film still plays on cultural fears of mothering through adoption and the deep, disturbing duality of childhood and adulthood that girls are supposed to embody.
In the last 60 years, American culture has seen remarkable change and resistance to that change in regard to women's roles. Horror films--which portray the very core of society's fears and anxieties–have reflected the fears of women's social movements through the faces of terrifying little girls.
While nineteenth-century literature comforted audiences with the trope of a dead, beautiful woman, thus making her passive and frail (of course, we still do this), twentieth and twenty-first century horror films force audiences to come face to face with murderous, demonic, murdered and psychotic little girls to parallel fears of women having economic, reproductive, marital, parental and independent power.
Little girls are supposed to be the epitome of all we hold dear--innocent, sweet, submissive and gentle. The Victorian Cult of Girlhood and Womanhood bleeds into the twenty-first century anti-feminist movements, and these qualities are still revered. Horror films hold a mirror up to these ideals, distorting the images and scaring viewers in the process. The terror that society feels while looking at these little girls echoes the terror it feels when confronted with changing gender norms and female power.
Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri. She is an editor and staff writer at Bitch Flicks. Leigh wrote "Mothers of Anarchy: Power, Control, and Care in the Feminist Sphere" in Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy and her creative nonfiction and media criticism have been published at xoJane and fem2pt0. Leigh lives on a small farm with her husband, dogs, cat and chickens. You can find her on Twitter.
Republished and edited with permission.