585 Horror of Life byline– The Horror of children’s drawings in contemporary horror movies, May 11 2013 (all screengrabs obviously used for critical purposes only)
Reviewing some recent horror movies, the theme of sinister children, and children’s drawings as an expression of their evil, emerges. This theme was brought out in Paranormal Activity Three (2011), where we find out that the girls are being groomed for membership in a coven,
and one of them kills their father,
fueled by Asian horror, where the scary girl with pale skin and black hair is everpresent, and has become so critical an identifier for horror as a genre that even in a movie with absolutely nothing to do with it, this face must pop up, as here in the abysmal Silent Hill: Resurrection
The theme of the evil child, and drawings expressing it, was continued in two more recent movies, Mama and Sinister. In Mama two girls who are victims of parental irresponsibility, and almost family annihilation, get trapped in a country cottage, and for the next five years are raised by a spirit of the woods, which they call Mama. When the girls are discovered and brought back to civilization, they bring the demon back with them. It is their parents, or nonparent in the case of Jessica Chastain who is in trouble. Then in Sinister, tracking Paranormal Activity Three uncomfortably close, winding a path through secret symbols, visions of evil on media and the discovery of a cult of family-killing children, again it is the adults that are in danger from their children. The horror of what is going on in their children’s mind, then, is the main repository of fear here. These are movies expressing the angst of parenting toddlers, but not recommended for viewing by those parents. In both movies, the medium by which access is gained into the childish mind is children’s drawings.
The history of children’s art in movies is long and deep. The Citizen Kane of the use of children’s drawings in movie is the original Children of the Corn (1984). In that movie, we begin to see the trouble in the town of Gatlin in children’s drawings of street life, all the children with bloody knives in their hands,
We also see domestic scenes, with the problem that the parents have been murdered by knife wielding children
We also see images of the new cult itself, with he who walks behind the corn, and the postman crucified in sacrifice to the crops.
Like a Swiss woodcut print of the 16th century, we also see acts of iconoclasm, and the destruction of things children might like, like TV
All of these pictures appear in the credits. We later discover them to be situated in a classroom in an abandoned school, and in this shot we in fact get an image of their new god, he who walks behind the rows
All through the movie, these drawings work to help us see into the minds of children brainwashed into the cult. And what we see is hatred of parents and adults, and devotion to the cult, in the way that children will be devoted to it. The fact that the drawings perhaps track a bit too closely over the plot itself suggests their spurious creation, from the minds of art director adults not kids, but they are still impressive. As part of the art direction of the movie, they speak to the phases of initiation and action that the children are involved in. Fantasies of hatred have been exploited and turned into actual killing as part of an actual cult. As acts of iconoclasm, these drawings are cultlike, in so far as they involve resituating the sacredness of the cult object or entity to the master and the cult itself.
The representation of inner thoughts through art is exemplified in the study of children’s drawings. In normal art, the relationship between the art and the artist is tenuous. In popular gothic culture, however, the tradition of the weird or mad artist always wants to see the work as a reflection of the artist being a psycho. Expressionism in particular is not that, but psychoism. In this situation, the agency of the artist as creative person has been stripped back to a more elemental level. There is a one to one correspondence between the art and the mind of the artist, and the structure of this correspondence is that in order to come out in art like that what is in the mind of the artist is psychosis. Thus, illness, psychosis, is a prototype condition, and the art is simply a literal reflection of it. This is a diagnostic view of art, exemplified by the method that developed with Robert Coles in the 1960s when in fact children’s drawings began to be studied as evidence of psychological problems in youth—and have been ever since. But this notion is a variant of the mad artist meme, and in it art is reflective of horror.
I remarked about the movie Mama (see review, RoMMerreviews, WordPress), that in its use of children’s drawings it might well assume the new mantel of being the Citizen Kane of children’s drawings in horror. In Mama, the drawings come also in the opening credits, and we do not like what we see
When the house the girls were trapped in is discovered we learn that even though they could not or did not speak, they were plenty busy with their drawing, telling, in fact, in epic fashion, the history and myth of their situation
When the doctor gets them back into the safe house, for study, with the youngest especially we see that she continued to draw more than she talks, and that she draws because it is medium which allows her to communicate, through the intermediary of moths, with Mama.
The manner in which the drawing is unboundaried, spreading compulsively over walls and right onto the doors and sides of dressers, represents the automaticity of the act. This suggests that she is under some kind of spell or in an altered state of consciousness. This goes well beyond the childrens’ drawing in Children of the Corn, and as such represents an expansion of the meaning of the drawing, adding a new level of compulsivity and hauntedness to an already psychologically close state of mind.
This is nice–it is good art direction, it communicates a clear message: not only is children’s drawing a straightforward record of a psychological state, but it is a transcript of her relationship with Mama and has in it information that the adults would have been well advised to pay better attention to. The key moment of the instrumentality of the drawing in the movie comes when Chastain thinks she hears something in the closet, and goes to open up the door. She does not know what is in the closet, but the little girl does, and, not only that, we do, because the little girl has told us what is in the closet by drawing an image of Mama, in the lower left hand corner of the wainscot. The fact that the girl would venture so close to the place where Mama was and even make an image of her suggests placement geared toward making sacred the place where the spirit lived. On one level, then, directed to Chastain, the girl uses drawing to warn her of danger, on another level she has previously placed that drawing there as a token of devotion and connection, as a sacred cult image.
(the antlike image of Mama is directly above Chastain’s right wrist, of the hand she is about to reach out, and use to open the closet door). This movie thereafter veers away from childrens’ drawing, but its use of it to describe the tensions of the agency of the girls is quite good.
Finally, in another movie of 2013, Sinister, children’s drawings again emerge as a primary vehicle of communicating what is going on in the minds of troubled children. In this movie, children’s drawings are first shown as benign, as the girl, having had to move to a new place, uses drawing on the walls to territorialize, to make the room hers: these are iconic images, cult images, in the drive to make her private place sacrosanct and also, by the way, protect her from the loose endedness of a new home and a new place to live. But then after Hawke begins to screen some old film on an old projector and through that process lets the cult in, the daughter is contacted and groomed for participation, and after one nighttime haunted walk, Hawke looks in on his daughter, who pretends to be asleep, when, in fact, she is lying awake with her face away from her father conferring mischievously with a ghost girl, gesturing to her to be quiet, with her elaborate drawing of the image of the hanged children Hawke had seen on the tape, and the Mr Boogie who manages the cult, on the wall.
Later on, after Hawke screens all the film, and draws out toward him the cult, he sees some historical “children’s drawings” consisting in the horror genre of 16th century German or English woodcut prints, or old prints in books that might have been quoted and shown in early books on the subject, of Bhuguul or Lugal a Mesopotamian demon and child eater.
He explains that the images are portals, instruments of abduction, by which the children are drawn into the cult, and pass over into the cult. I have not heard this instrumentation for children’s drawings before. The only parallel I know to this explanation of what an image can do, in art history, is with the phenomenon of the Egyptian false door. That was an adjunct work of cult art for the use of the spirit to pass over into the beyond, and back. It had a special magic purpose, and, for cult purposes, an extreme agency. This agency raises the important point that while the drawings originally provided us entrée into their minds, they also can reverse the trajectory, and drag away the children, into the cult that their state of mind represents. In this sense, the light of an old projector was seen as comparable to the rays of light that zap up abducted people into UFOs, it provides entrée, it also takes in. What this agency assigned to images means for the film is that as Hawke has been screening the film he has been groomed for victimhood and he has opened up the portal of the imagery and let the ghosts of the children in. But this also means that after a certain point the flow will reverse itself and the light and the images will abduct them in. He has also exposed his daughter to the cult, it has drawn her in, and given her weapon with which to act: same medium, different agencies. And so now we see this agency rolled out: the daughter is now seen documenting her crime, for she has already killed Hawke and her family (this feels like a quote from Children of the Corn, it cannot be coincidence),
Then, the old home movies are playing again, but now the cult members come down a hallway in them and so they are moving in the movie toward the opening of the portal, calling her,
And, then, once in the hall, in the film, we see examples of the more extreme children’s drawing done, in the cult, in celebration of the sacrifice or murder, or whatever it was. Only these children’s drawings are much more extreme, an almost maturely psychotic, drawn not in crayon, but in the blood of the victim
the cultic sign marks the place of the cult, the sacred space of the cult, its presence, limits and reach, images, with a cave drawing quality, document the history of their initiatory crimewave. It was also part of the sequence of a sacrifice to a cult in ancient Greece that after the goat or victim was killed, some of its blood was spilled on the altar to demonstrate or show the god that it was done, so this also has about it the agency of confirmation of sacrifice.
And, at the end of the hall, on the door, on another portal, is the sign off by Lugal/Bughuul, saying I was here, I did this thing, this thing was done in honor of me, by my acolytes, by the children. All of this, then, twisted up in various ways in the agency of children’s drawings inside the haunted film. I admit that I have not seen the meaning of children’s drawings expanded upon in this way before. For the movie to have ventured to assign this extreme purpose to children’s drawings, represents a kind of bravery. It also deepens and explains why the home movies box was a trap, a lure, to fish for and find another victim. Having made use of the conventional elements of children’s drawings on the bedroom walls less than thrillingly, and without distinction, the movie then assigns an agency to them that opens up a strange ending.
All in all, however, children’s drawings in contemporary horror seem derived from the fear by adults of all of the life the children are draining away from one, in care, resulting in a guilty parenting that imagines that their children hate them, and because it is so difficult to tell what is going on in a child’s mind children’s drawing have emerged as the convention which will explain it all to us.