I have decided to post my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s in full over a series of posts. I hope that one day it may be of some vague use to someone somewhere somehow.
Part 1 of my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s is here. Part 2 on the monstrous families of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes is here. Part 3 on those charming rape-revenge films of the 1970s is here.
Part 4: Monstrous Children
‘Innocence of the flower child in sixties mythology has given way to the absolute evil of these possessed children’ (Dickstein, 1984, p.75)
A significant sub-genre of 1970s American horror is the cycle of films that featured the child as the monster. To a large extent they had their roots in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), not just because of an evil offspring being born into the bourgeois family, but also because the urban family home has become the site of the horror. These films seem to be a general shift to the re-establishment of patriarchal values in the representation of the family. Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), in particular, is the story of a young girl possessed by evil demons because of the lack of a father figure in her life. Donner’s The Omen (1976) has the Antichrist adopted by a wealthy bourgeois family and Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) has a family have a mutant baby that murders people for unexplained reasons.
Sobchack (1987, p.182) describes these monstrous children as ‘figured as uncivilized, hostile, and powerful Others who […] refuse parental love and authority and mock the established values of dominant institutions’. This is seen in many American horror films, particularly William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) where the police, science, religion and parenthood are all represented as failing, and under attack from the children of the 1970s. The police in the two previously mentioned films are represented as useless, in The Exorcist (1973), the detective fails to discover who is responsible for the murder of a man, and in It’s Alive (1974) the police spend the entire film searching for and getting killed by the monstrous baby. Similarly, in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), the police kill the one man who knows the truth about his devilish offspring, just as he is about to rid the world of the great evil. As Muir (2002. p.429) notes, ‘society just saw another abusive, monstrous father hurting his child’, suggesting the horror is not supernatural perhaps, but rooted in religion, society and the bourgeois family.
Wood (1978, p.30) argues that ‘‘The Omen’ is old-fashioned, traditional, reactionary: the “goodness” of the family unit isn’t questioned, “horror” is disowned by having the devil-child a product of the Old World, unwittingly adopted into the American family, the devil-child and his independent-female guardian… are regarded as purely evil’. However the father is represented as being responsible for bringing the evil into the family. He is implicated from the very beginning of the film. Firstly a nun holds the baby behind a pane of glass, as the father looks at them and his reflection is shown in the glass over the top of the baby. This clearly represents the father as the reason for the devil-child being brought to the family. Not only this, but he also brings the child to his wife and hands it to her and also agrees to lie and keep the death of their real child a secret. Both parents are then even further implicated in creating a monstrous child by having the mother discard the child with a servant as she follows her husband to hear about his promotion. Then the couple shut out the nanny and the child at the window in order to talk about going upstairs and having sex.
The figure of the independent woman is also interesting in the film in that, although she may seem evil and does not want the child to go to church, she is also positioned in opposition to the mother of the family. Her dress suggests she is traditional and Victorian, whereas Mrs Thorne is often dressed in trousers and talks about abortion, which suggests she is a more modern woman. The independent female nanny is also seen as the sole protector of Damien, suggesting that the child needs protection from the modern family unit and in particular the father who by the end of the film is trying to kill it. Therefore the family in Donner’s The Omen (1976) is not represented as being as innocent as Wood suggests. Like in Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), religion is used for supernatural occurrences, but the family is also implicated in causing the horror.
Williams (1996, P.112) writes that ‘The Exorcist appeared at a time of fundamental changes within the family. Despite its enshrinement within American ideology, the unit bore little relationship to ideologic representations.’ Women’s liberation lead to women having to decide between, or balance, motherhood with a career and also increasing divorce rates. The family in Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) consists of a mother, Chris, and her daughter Regan. Chris and her husband are divorced and therefore Regan’s father no longer lives with them. Williams (1996, p.112) also argues ‘The seeds of Regan’s possession lie within the family’ and this argument stems from Creed’s essay on the film in her book ‘The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis’.
Creed (1993, p.34) asks ‘What better ground for the forces of evil to take root than the household of a family in which the father is absent and where the mother continually utters profanities, particularly in relation to her husband?’ In a particularly telling scene, the audience sees Regan in the foreground listening to her mother having a phone conversation in the background of the same shot. Regan’s mother can be heard getting angrier as she shouts ‘he doesn’t give a shit’, ‘for Christ’s sake’ and ‘I’ve been on this fucking line for twenty minutes’. She is trying to get through to her husband so he can talk to his daughter on her birthday. Mother and child are linked because they are in the same shot, the absence of the father having a negative effect on them both as Chris gets angry and upset and Regan’s possession becomes worse. The lack of a father is also suggested as being a cause of the possession in the scene where mother and daughter use the oiuja board. Regan says she has been communicating with ‘Captain Howdy’ who refuses to let the mother in on the game and will not answer if he thinks the mother is pretty. This is a suggestion that the daughter has created a surrogate father figure in ‘Captain Howdy’.
Father Merrin is represented as the returning father figure for the fractured family. The demons inside Regan even say his name on the tape when it is played in reverse. This suggests that Regan’s subconscious is crying out for a father figure to re-establish patriarchal law. The audience sees Merrin in the woods, then the devil-girls face, then the taxi carrying Merrin pulling up to the house, and then the face of the girl again. They are clearly linked by this succession of images and the man returning to the family seems to be the answer to the problems. In the shot of Merrin outside the house, he looks like a typical bourgeois father returning from a day at work, briefcase in hand. When Merrin enters the house, the demon instantly shouts his name. This suggests Regan has been waiting for a man she already knows, to return to the house. Merrin is the perfect representative of patriarchal law, an elderly white male who is a priest. When he enters the house, he is not interested in the background of the case, suggesting he does not see a little girl possessed. He merely sees a demon, a vile little girl who has no respect for religion and patriarchy and therefore needs to be taught to be submissive and acceptable to a repressed, male-dominated society. Father Karras is also a representative of a patriarchal institution, the church and Chris automatically depends on him, in one scene leaning on his shoulder and saying ‘just help her’. The scene where Chris irons Karras’s clothes can also be read as her return to subordination and taking a traditional female role in the family. The final scene represents the return of patriarchal order as Regan’s eyes lower in submission as she sees the priest and the mother says ‘Goodbye Father’ and then Regan immediately kisses the priest on the cheek showing her new respect and thanks to patriarchy for putting her back in her place.
Williams (1996, p.112) argues the film contains ‘assaults upon the forces of law, medicine, religion, and motherhood – patriarchal institutions that depend on the family to maintain female subordination’. The mother, Chris, is acting in a film that depicts student protests which hints at the changing of society in the 1970s. The protest is about education and military intervention and Chris’s character is attacking the institutions. Religion is also attacked in the film, the Church is desecrated and the monstrous child masturbates with a crucifix before causing the deaths of two priests. Karras’s mother is also trapped in poverty because of her son’s dedication to the church. This is shown in a scene where Karras’s uncle suggests that she would be living better if he had become a psychiatrist. Karras’s dedication to his religion means he must lead a life of poverty and therefore his mother dies alone in a hospital full of mental patients. The medical profession is also assaulted in that they have no answers for Regan’s symptoms. In one early scene, Regan spits in a doctors face and calls him a ‘fucking bastard’ before the men in white coats hold her down and escort her mother out of the room. This shows their attempt to keep the women subordinate by controlling and restricting them when they become emotional and fight patriarchal institutions such as the medical profession and the church. Kinder and Houston (1987, p.49) argue ‘This attack on science is part of a larger condemnation of sophisticated, decadent, bourgeoise culture…’. It can also be argued that Karras assaults motherhood with his line ‘you son of a bitch’ which he shouts at the little girl/demon as he tries to get the demon to come out of her. Although he seems to be addressing the demon inside her, this can be read as his true feelings toward Regan, a ‘son of a bitch’, a bitch that had no respect for the church and could therefore not control her child properly.
Interestingly, the story which the book and film were based on was about the possession of a little boy, but, as Kinder and Houston (1987, p.53) point out, ‘the sex change also introduces the dimension of woman as the weaker vessel’. Regan is more susceptible to the evil that possesses her because she is a girl and she has no father to protect her, the film suggests. In addition to this women are represented as a point of weakness for men in the film. The devil tries to weaken and anger Karras by using his mother’s voice and pleading with him and also by telling the priest that his mother ‘sucks cocks in hell’. Karras is also tempted away from religion by the poverty and illness of his mother as he says to another priest that he may be losing his faith after visiting his mother.
Creed also emphasises the repression of the bourgeois family in Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) when she writes ‘it suggests that the family home, bastion of all the right virtues and laudable moral values, is built on a foundation of repressed sexual desires including those which flow between mother and daughter’ (Creed, 1993, p.35). This repression of sexual desires is most clearly represented in the scene where Regan forces her mother’s head down to her genitals and shouts ‘lick me’. Regan also kills her prospective new father, Burke Dennings, the director of the film Chris is starring in. She unconsciously sees the man as a threat even though she tells her mother that she can ‘bring him’ on a sightseeing tour. Regan also asks ‘you don’t like him like Daddy?’ signalling her awareness of their relationship. The scene with the psychiatrist/hypnotist reveals further repressed desires as Regan grabs the man by his genitals, whether to remove them or for another reason is not clear. The psychiatrist says it is an ‘unconscious rebellion’ that ‘starts with a conflict or guilt’. This suggests that Regan is rebelling against the men that are trying to take her mother away from her and perhaps feels guilty for the love she feels towards her mother. The scene where Chris wakes up to find Regan in bed with her can be read as Regan beginning to no longer repress her sexual desires for her mother. She offers the excuse the bed was shaking but this could be seen as a typical child’s lie to cover the fact they just want to be near their mother. In the end, Regan wins, as Creed argues in her essay, ‘Baby Bitches from Hell: Monstrous-Little Women in Film’, ‘In the final scene Regan and her mother depart the battleground, arm-in-arm, restored to their former relationship in which they related happily like lovers.’ (Creed, no date).
On the other hand, in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) the monstrous child is the object of repression, as Muir (2002, p.268) asserts, ‘it represents a rampant fear of the time: a fear of having children and maintaining family.’ The mother asks the father before the birth, ‘you’re not going to feel trapped?’ and it is revealed that they have inquired about abortion in the past. In addition to this, a police officer in the film says, ‘people without children don’t realise how lucky they are’. This hatred of children is also shown in the scene where the baby is stealing food and milk from the fridge. The child is represented as a consumer that steals from parents. The lingering shot on the van that has ‘Stop Children’ written on the back also reinforces this view. In another scene, the child murders a milkman and as the blood and milk flow out of the truck, they mix together which represents the corruption of innocence. This is taken further in the explanations for why the child is a mutant, of which lead, smog and radiation are all pollutants, poisons to an unborn child.
The film seems to take a reactionary view in that the mother is suggested as being a possible cause of the mutation when she ponders ‘maybe it’s all the pills’ and this is hinted at again in the scene where the soon-to-be fathers are talking together. One man, a bug exterminator, tells the others about how bugs can evolve and adapt to poisons, so they cannot be terminated as easily, suggesting this could be the same thing with human babies as contraception becomes widespread. In addition to this the final scene shows the father reunited with his child and running away in the sewers from his wife suggesting it is the mission of men to stop women from deciding the fate of children.
However, the film also takes a more progressive view in that the father of the family is also seen as a cause of the mutated baby. Williams (1996, p.107) argues ‘It’s Alive presents its monster as the logical product of the typically affluent American family.’ The father is a liar, as shown in the scene when he tells his wife ‘you’re more important’, after we have seen him at work desperate to keep his job. He is also keen to murder the child from the beginning, his wife asking ‘why are you so anxious to be the one to do it?’ The father believes ‘it’s not my child’ and when selling the baby’s body for medical research, he also says ‘it’s no relation to me’. His apathy towards the well being of his child is even further demonstrated in the scene when he is told the child is to be destroyed and he replies ‘I don’t care’. The father is torn between his pride and his job and becoming a father again. The film ends with him taking responsibility for the child and this is when it is not seen as a threat anymore, until the police become a threat to it. Again the police are represented as useless as they never manage to capture the infant and at one point in the film, surround and point all their guns at an innocent child, a visual representation of the theme of society wanting to destroy children.
Therefore these films are generally fairly reactionary in their representations of the family, particularly towards female characters and the absence of a patriarch in the family of Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). However there are also some progressive elements in these monstrous children films as argued in the above readings of The Omen (1976) and It’s Alive (1974). Nevertheless these films are not as progressive as Hooper’s and Craven’s critiques of the bourgeois family and yet they still all retain the idea of the family being in some way responsible for the monsters.
Back to part 2 on Monstrous Families.
Back to part 3 on Rape Revenge films.
Part 5 on Monstrous Parents is here.
Part 6 on my conclusions is here.
- Buy my book here! The Devil's Advocates - THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - Buy now from Amazon by clicking here - Horror Channel call it a 'must buy' - Click here
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