Scary toddlers and super creeps helicopter parenting and the rise of ‘kindergarten horror’


Todays horror films are being hit by a new wave of creepy clowns, dolls and kids. Are fans reclaiming childhoods stolen by overbearing parents?

Theres nothing like a horror movie for homing in on societys open wounds and picking at them until they bleed. But if, in the first decade of the 21st century, torture porn was the genres way of reflecting the brutality and nihilism of a new world order, and if zombie movies could be read as metaphors of everything from ebola to the credit crunch, then what are we to make of the current trend for creepy dolls, creepy clowns and creepy kids?

If I call this kindergarten horror, its not intended as an insult (watching these spookfests with a rowdy but attentive audience can be a blast), but if you check out any recent horror movies or even just their trailers youll see the same imagery cropping up so often that it feels as though youre stuck in a gruesome variation on Groundhog Day. Get a load of those dolls (Annabelle: Creation, Cult of Chucky, The Conjuring 3), clowns (It, Crepitus, Clowntown) or clown masks (Rock Paper Dead, Happy Death Day) and creepy kids (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Sinister 2, The Darkness) possessed by vengeful ghosts or ancient Babylonian deities.

There have always been creepy dolls, kids and clowns in horror movies, of course from the original Chucky to The Shinings Grady twins. Lately, though, their ranks have swollen to epidemic proportions. And if its not dolls, clowns or kids, its ominously bouncing balls, or evil musical boxes, or clockwork monkeys. Its as though todays horror cinema has hijacked the innocent iconography of childhood and twisted it into one long nursery-rhyme-themed nightmare.

Could this be a response to the helicopter parenting of the past couple of decades, in which (largely middle-class) parents have wielded unprecedented control over their offsprings daily lives? Its a 90-degree turn from the neglectful workaholic parents who were a regular element of John Hughes films such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Buellers Day Off. Maybe the new cinema cliche is parents who care too much. Helicopter parents are so determined to prevent their children from being possessed by vengeful ghosts, or ancient Babylonian deities, or whatever those things are metaphors for, that they micromanage their offsprings childhoods out of existence.

Bill Skarsgard in It, 2017. Photograph: Allstar/NEW LINE CINEMA

When I was growing up, all the grownups insisted we went outside to play unsupervised, and so we did on swings and roundabouts, on the banks of a treacherous river, in and around a smelly stream (which I later learned was an open sewer) or in shrubberies next to busy main roads. We jumped off walls twice our height, played with matches in garden sheds and encountered suspiciously overfriendly grownups to whom we paid little heed. Had my parents known what we got up to, they would have had conniptions, but my childhood wasnt exceptional. All kids used to do stuff like that. Maybe we were lucky, but the only serious injury was a girl who broke her arm while doing a handstand in a cricket field.

But the character-forming freedom to splash around in open sewers has been curtailed. In 1971 (according to a 2015 report), 80% of seven- and eight-year-olds made the journey to school unaccompanied by an adult. By 1990, that percentage had shrunk to 9%, and by 2010, almost no children of that age were allowed out on their own. Nowadays, children are deposited by their parents at the school gates and picked up at the end of the day.

Todays parents are keen to spend quality time with kids who might be better off left to their own devices and I dont mean the electronic kind. Every minute spent in adult company is a minute of childhood lost. Maybe horrors dolls and clowns are the lost childhoods way of belatedly circumventing those curbed imaginations. The popularity of TV series Stranger Things was surely connected to nostalgia for an era when adults let kids cycle off on their own to face the monsters.

Its pointless complaining about the lack of originality in kindergarten horror. The film-makers have latched on to a winning formula and young audiences respond, to the extent that horror movies that steer clear of the familiar arsenal of supernaturally slammed doors, shocks and glimpses of CGI-disfigured faces are often dismissed as not proper horror. But its interesting to reflect on how many not proper horror movies – It Comes at Night, The Witch, It Follows and so forth contain genuinely disturbing elements divorced from kindergarten horrors gleeful jump-scares, vengeful ghosts and families in jeopardy. With its clearly defined struggles between good and evil, life and death, and heaven and hell, kindergarten horror is reassuring in its predictability. Not for these films those unexpectedly dark insights that leave you unsure where safety ends and danger begins. Kindergarten horror is a funhouse; its scary, but you know youll emerge from it unscathed, even if the characters dont.

Mission creep kindergarten horrors tiny terrors

By Toby Moses

The Brood. Photograph: New World/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The first film made by MGM, and almost certainly
the first scary clown immortalised on celluloid. A classic tale of revenge Paul turns to clowning after a wicked baron steals his lifes work and his wife what else is a man to do? Spotting his nemesis in the audience one night, he gets his vengeance using a lion as the murder weapon. The film may not be the source of this particular phobia the idea that something sinister lurks behind that painted-on smile seems to date back to the 14th century but it certainly kicked off a horror trend.

Village of the Damned (1960)
Playing with Hitler Youth imagery, the original film made it impossible to look at a group of blond children without their eerie locks sending a shudder down your spine. Supernaturally smart but chillingly emotionless, this synchronised group of younglings wreak havoc using their psychic powers to bend adults to their gruesome will.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romeros original masterpiece may be best remembered for popularising the zombie genre with a healthy dose of social commentary thrown in but one of its most chilling moments is the discovery of a young girl feasting on a corpse in the cellar. It hammers home the desperation of the survivors while bringing a parents worse nightmare to the fore could you really kill your child, even if they were a brain-eating zombie?

Dont Look Now, 1973. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Dont Look Now (1973)
Is there such a thing as a spoiler for a film thats more than 40 years old? For the uninitiated, the less said the better about this Nicolas Roeg classic meditation on grief and relationships. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are haunted, both literally and metaphorically, by the death of their daughter as the creepy spectre of a murderous, red-raincoated child stalks the alleyways of Venice. It all builds to a final twist of the knife that, once seen, is never forgotten.

Halloween (1978)
The adult Michael Myers, with his blank white mask, has become a horror icon in the 30 years since this films release but nothing in all 10 instalments of the series beats
the opening sequence of the original. A twofer of kiddy killer and horrifying harlequin, it echoes the first-person perspective of the first slasher film Peeping Tom (1960). Someone watches two teens from outside a quiet suburban house, before donning a clown mask, stalking them up the stairs, and finishing them off with a large knife. Thats bad enough, but the sting comes as the camera switches to the third person and the mask is removed to reveal a six-year-old child. Myers has never been as scary.

The young Michael Myers in Halloween, 1978. Photograph: film company handout

The Brood (1979)
Its hard to upstage Oliver Reed at his frenzied best as an unorthodox psychotherapist but the eponymous homicidal creatures steal the show, offing a succession of adults before their bizarre genesis is revealed. Theyre mute, toothless and hungry, and the comparisons to unknowable, voracious newborns are there for all to see. Its no surprise to discover that David Cronenberg wrote the film shortly after the birth of his own daughter.

Childs Play (1988)
Was Don Mancinis deranged doll the inspiration for the far more innocent Toy Story series? A childs play thing comes to life to rather more malevolent ends than Woody and Buzz. Of course, the adults dont believe its six-year-old owner until its too late and the murderous rampage is underway. The series became infamous when it was claimed the third instalment
inspired the murder of James Bulger. While that might have been rather overstating the effect Chucky could have on young fans, his creepy grin and blank glassy eyes are the stuff of nightmares. The sense that something darker lurks, unseen and unknowable, beneath a permanently cheery dolls exterior touches a nerve in audiences to this day.

Saw (2004)
The series has since picked up a reputation as the progenitor of a succession of increasingly lame torture porn franchises but that shouldnt be allowed to diminish the impact of this first film. While much of the joy and jumps come from the nefarious traps the serial killer uses to judge those guilty of sins, it is his representative in the creepy videos he leaves behind that lasts long in the memory. A small, white-faced, rosy cheeked, bow-tie sporting puppet clown-like, but not quite ready for the circus, sometimes riding a bike, but always, always terrifying. Its the one iconic image from a collection of films that has steadily gone downhill since the first introduction of Billy 13 years ago.

Read more:

The Changeling (1980)

The ball on the stairs.
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