Reviews 2013

The 'Evil Child' in Literature, Film and Popular Culture

The 'Evil Child' in Literature, Film and Popular Culture. Karen J. Renner (ed.). London: Routledge, 2013. 191 pages. $145.00 (hardback).

The 'Evil Child' in Literature, Film and Popular Culture is delightfully easy to read, very entertaining, and extremely clear. Whether or not it is the result of a conscious editorial request, the concision, precision and limpidity of all the chapters in the book immediately place it astride two markets – academic and non-academic. It is to be hoped, in fact, that Routledge's austere packaging does not put off lay readers of popular non-fiction, as they would surely benefit from this intelligent, up-to-date and very readable volume. This is not to say, far from it, that the contributions in The Evil Child remain superficial; simply that they have appeal beyond the Ivory Tower. This appeal is partly due to their subject matter: the fictional 'evil child', as every chapter attempts to explain by voicing different hypotheses and calling upon different theoretical perspectives, is a sulphurous figure, both fascinating and repulsive, loaded with immediate sociocultural, historical and psychoanalytical attraction. Studying representations of evil children means observing the multiple ways in which a society detects its own flaws and tries to redeem itself, however unsuccessfully, by expelling them cathartically through the taboo motif of the dangerous child.

Karen J. Renner, in her opening chapter, argues that there are two dominant 'types' of evil children: 'possessed' and 'feral.' The possessed child condenses and makes visible the psychological failings of the parents; while the savage and brutal feral child expresses (and helps exorcise) the faults of a whole society. In both cases, she notes, responsibility for these ‘monsters’ is to be found in the adult world: evil children are the unfortunate symptoms and projector-screens of very adult anguishes. This argument, give or take one or two of the contributions, can very much be seen as the main theoretical standpoint of the volume. Granted, it is a hardly a revolutionary insight, but the various contributions lend it a richness which would have been found lacking, no doubt, in a necessarily less multifaceted monograph.

The most obvious shortcoming of the volume is its lack of breadth in the primary material. The volume may include ‘literature, film and popular culture', but the second one truly dominates the other two. Five chapters out of eight – not including the first, 'hybrid' introductory chapter – deal exclusively with film. Of those, four focus explicitly on horror cinema, with a considerable amount of overlap regarding two specific films, Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist; only Meheli Sen’s chapter on evil children in Bollywood films has an entirely different corpus of primary sources. Once this imbalance is accepted, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it; but it could and perhaps should have been made more explicit both in the title of the volume and in its introduction.

The three chapters which are not about film focus on Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child; on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series; and finally on the TV show Supernanny; a rather random range of material. The lack of reflection on ‘high’ or canonical literature is particularly surprising. Video games, which are part of ‘popular culture’ and would surely yield very interestingly to analysis, are nowhere to be found. Furthermore, some – to me – obvious examples of ‘evil children’ are lacking – where is Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin or its film adaptation? Where are Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned? Of course I am being unfair, as those are necessarily subjectively ‘evident’ examples and no edited volume can cover everything; but the narrowness and repetition of primary material is nonetheless questionable.

However, the chapters on film offer very thorough and fruitful analyses, and often foray into particularly interesting reflections regarding the links between the motif of the ‘evil child’ and the tropes of horror cinema. Steffen Hantke’s analysis of the motif of the evil baby thus offers precious digressions on the general visual treatment of monsters in films. His reflection on the differences between seen and unseen evil babies is picked up and enhanced, later in the volume, by A. Robin Hoffman’s particularly notable contribution on the ‘hostile foetus’ in horror film from a feminist historical perspective. Once again looking at Rosemary’s Baby and Alien, Hoffman convincingly argues that the increased visibility of the human foetus in the 1960s, partly due to advances in reproductive technologies and partly due to abortion campaigns, contributed to the gradual separation of the foetus from the pregnant woman in the collective imagination. The ‘growing horror of pregnancy’ (152) and the notion of the foetus as an invader powerfully found their way into Hollywood productions of that time.

What can be the particular interest of this volume for scholars of children's literature? Despite the collection’s focus on the child, only one chapter deals specifically with a children's book: Holly Blackford's analysis of the evil young Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter books. Her argument is thought-provoking and the execution virtuosic. Dumbledore, she contends, attempts to minimise his own responsibility and culpability for Tom’s evil nature through his tales of Tom’s childhood. The Headmaster tries to convince Harry that factors preceding Tom’s entrance to Hogwarts corrupted him; the evil child was therefore already beyond redemption when he joined the school. Blackford, through a queer reading of the Dumbledore-Harry-Tom relationship, shows that Tom’s evil dispositions are in fact intrinsically connected to the school culture: he is a symptom, an anamorphosis, perhaps, of the classist, violent, elitist, nepotistic values of Hogwarts – and of the British educational system as a whole. As Blackford states, ‘Tom is a monstrous creation of school culture that, in the paradigm of Frankenstein’s monster, Dumbledore does not wish to acknowledge’ (89).

Blackford’s main argument is in tune with the whole volume’s proposal that the evil child is a manifestation of an evil which is already present in society. Evil is distilled, condensed, and ultimately expelled into a unique sacrificial child figure – a scapegoat. The moral drama which ensues in the reader or viewer – who is responsible for this monster? – is analysed by William Wandless, who distinguishes between different ethical responses to the uncanny creature of the evil child who is simultaneously endearing and repulsive, a life-force as well as an embodiment of the death-drive. This proximity of the evil child to the adult’s fear of death is also developed by Daniel Sullivan and Jeff Greenberg in their chapter on Doris Lessing; but the theoretical discussion at its core – a comparison of a Kristevan reading of The Fifth Child with their own Terror Management Theory approach – somewhat obscures their exploration.

As this brief overview hopefully highlights, another strength of this volume is that it offers a large number of conceptual dichotomies and theoretical openings for further research; and this is perhaps why it can indirectly be of much interest to children’s literature critics. Fictional evil children of course abound in cultural productions for children; but a study of those characters would surely require added theorisation from children’s literature criticism and the philosophy of childhood. The imbalance in audience at the core of such works is an essential aspect to take into account. What happens when ‘evil children’ are portrayed by adults for an audience of children? Such a study could also go further in defining different types of evil children – from the odious but comical Angelica of Rugrats to little Jane, the terrifying torturer in the Twilight series, through to the temporarily monstrous Angry Arthur and of course The Hunger Games, there are many more forms of childhood evil in our field of study than this volume alludes to.

Clémentine Beauvais
The University of Cambridge, UK