I recently saw the 1993 film Cronos directed by Guillermo del Toro (director of one of my favorite films, Pan’s Labyrinth). Re-watching the film with the director’s commentary, I thought what he said about children in his horror movies was particularly interesting.
I also like what he says about the “innocence” of childhood. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it on this blog yet or not, but I am not a fan of the phrase “the innocence of childhood” as if children can’t be guilty of something just because their worldview might be more inexperienced. (Similarly, I don’t like the phrase “coming of age” – as if there exists a psychological transition from childhood to adulthood that’s as radical or as clearly defined as puberty, or some other cultural rite-of-passage. But that’s a different subject.)
On an unrelated side note, I didn’t realize until re-watching Cronos that the child in the movie only has one word of dialog, and is completely silent throughout the rest of the film. For some reason, I didn’t even notice this at all in my first viewing. Weird. I guess that’s a testament to how well her emotions and thought processes are captured without dialog, which I think is a sign of masterful filmmaking. Or it might be a testament to how completely oblivious I can be.
Anyway, here are the words of Guillermo del Toro:
I love children in horror stories. Why? Because I think that the horror tale, or the horror genre, is a logical continuation of the fairy tale. The fairy tale was, in its origin, a very moralistic tale that was usually done to teach children principles of behavior. They would be told that if they wondered alone in the woods they would be punished by having a witch try to boil them and eat them, whatever… that if you were lazy and you didn’t build your house of bricks, in would come a wolf that would tear it down… and all these moralistic principles.
Out of which came a far more fantastic, for more anarchic type of fairy tale where, by product of these moralistic lessons, that children became main characters. They were given their own subgenre. And out of these fantastic creatures I believe came a branch where the witches and the ogres and the goblins became more and more central to the story and became actually horror tales.
And in these horror tales, if you are going to talk about the darkness, it is central that you talk about the purity. I’m saying "purity" and not "innocence" because I don’t think children are innocent in the moralistic way they are viewed. I think that children have a very complex emotional component. I remember my incredibly troubled first seven or eight years as being an incredibly rich landscape of angst. I jokingly say that I was seventy by the time I was seven, and now that I’m thirty-eight, I’m finally getting to be young because I suffered so much as I kid, my mind was an ever-boiling little inferno. And I try to do kid characters that react and interact with the horror stuff in a different and more complex and more natural way than the adults.
I think that children have this powerful possibility in horror tales to be sort of a white center of purity in the middle of the tale. They are not only the greatest witness, but also the greatest access for the human spirit. They really root the tales in humanity.