Violence is almost synonymous with horror. Though it is possible for a well-crafted story to induce horror in the reader without portraying even the slightest physical trauma, violence, especially extreme violence, is a noted hallmark of the genre. There’s even a term for fans of violence so excessive it borders on medical: “Gorehounds.”
There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you. If you love violence, good for you, so long as it’s portrayed in a fictional or athletic context. Loving violent movies doesn’t necessarily speak of a disturbed mindset. I love the hell out of “Story of Ricky,” and though I’m certainly a quirky fella, I’m hardly a danger to anyone.
Fans of horror know this, though. Besides gamers, they’re almost always the first to speak up when someone condemns the portrayal of violence in media. And rightly so. Done intelligently, with reason and intent, fictional violence can be a powerful tool to use in the transmission of ideas from fiction to audience. As disturbing as the gang rape in “Day of the Woman” is, there’s a reason it was portrayed so brutally and inhumanely. Rape is brutal and inhumane. It would have been irresponsible of the film to broach the subject of the awful crime without presenting the realities of its viciousness and savagery.
And while the portrayal of sexual violence, and it’s legitimacy in horror, has been discussed nearly to death, there’s a type of violence that even horror fans tend to wince at and shy away from. Namely, violence against children.
It isn’t pleasant, I know. And I’m not saying that it’s exceptionally rare: Stephen King is noted for frequently portraying children dying violent deaths in his works. When it happens in fiction, the death, or impending death, of a child is almost always used for dramatic effect. The opening of the original “Godzilla,” for instance, instantly asserts its dark tone when a child is shown to be doomed to death by radiation poisoning. The death of children is, rightly, portrayed as exceptionally horrible, and the circumstances leading up to it must be appropriately serious for audiences to receive it as justified.
Our increasing preoccupation with the safety of children has reaffirmed this, and made violence against children even more of a repellant topic in media. I don’t mind this at all; the safety of little ones should be one of the top priorities of the global population, as far as I’m concerned. And I have no problem with people vocalizing strong emotions to the portrayed deaths of children in fiction – such a horrible action should incite a strong reaction within the audience.
Anyone who regularly submits short stories to magazines and literary journals is likely to be well familiar with this frequent submission guideline: “No stories dealing with violence against children or child sexual abuse, please.”
And I get it. It’s unpleasant subject matter. But…it’s supposed to be.
Don’t get me wrong. Stories where children are irresponsibly sexualized, or stories consisting entirely of the gratuitous abuse of a child, are unsavory, and have little if any place in horror canon. Yes, child abuse in all its forms is a valid theme to explore, but like any topic, if your story is going to be worthwhile, it has to be explored with intelligence and sentiment. It has to challenge. It has to move us beyond simply compelling us to say: “This is unpleasant.”
There are numerous works where this is done. Stephen King’s It featured a body count comprised almost exclusively of children. That made sense, as the novel dealt with the nature of fear, comparing and contrasting the fears of childhood with the fears of adulthood. Pet Sematary used the death of a child to drive home the feeling of loss, and to explain how a sane character can resort to such extreme measures to revive a loved one – it’s difficult to imagine anything more devastating than the loss of a child. I’m childless, and even I find my chest tightening at the idea of possibly losing a future offspring. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Re-Animator” emphasizes the horrible consequences of West’s work by having one of his creations murder and consume a toddler. Clive Barker’s “Rawhead Rex” used the murder of the main character’s son at the hands of the title monster to showcase the creature’s savagery. The death of a young boy in “Jaws” compels the audience to realize each victim of the shark attacks as human beings, lost to loved ones, and possibly to shame readers and viewers into realizing that, until the famous scene where the grieving mother slaps Chief Brody, we had simply been seeing the slain characters as tallies in a body count.
In all instances, the slaying of the kids was done for a reason. I doubt anyone would argue that. It unnerved us frequently, sure. I know a guy who threw Cujo in the trash the second he read ahead and learned that Tad died, and stayed dead. I understood; the guy was a new father at the time, Tad is a very young character, and the situation hit him a little too close to home. But he conceded that, despite his displeasure at that outcome, the death of the child made sense, as both a literary and technical point.
Even 1986’s “The Blob,” in which a child’s death is clearly gratuitously violent, serves the purpose of throwing us off-guard, and realizing that this thing will go after anyone. Ravenous blobs don’t have consciences. Hardly deep, I know, but there’s still a purpose to what was shown.
I’m quick to denounce unnecessary depictions of child abuse. The chief reason I hate Richard Laymon as much as I do is because I read The Cellar. If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s a subplot in the narrative where a psychotic man, tracking his fleeing wife and daughter, abducts a prepubescent girl and repeatedly molests her. Over. And over. And OVER again. To the point that, two-thirds in, it hit me that Laymon wasn’t going to parallel the depravity of the monster with the depravity of the abuser; he was simply including the scenes to (shudder) titillate. I kept reading, hoping this wouldn’t be the case, but no: the abuser meets an unsuitably easy end, the child is phased out like a piece of meat, and the character’s daughter, who had been molested by the man in the past, is doomed to a life of continued sexual abuse at the hands of the story’s monster. As lurid as sex scenes with adult female characters were, scenes involving the girls were even more so. It was trash, nothing but disgusting fantasies of child molestation masquerading as shock value. I tossed it in the recycling bin when I was done with it. I haven’t read another Laymon novel since.
So I get the reasoning behind forbidding stories that deal largely with horrible things happening to kids. But I don’t really like it.
I have two stories that deal largely with terrible things happening to kids. In one, a child is molested by a pedophile. I write portions of the tale from the predator’s viewpoint. It was uncomfortable for me, but the molester is going to view the situation as an erotic one. Such portions were minimal, and I made sure to showcase that he deserved the horrible fate that befell him, but they’re there, and even for me, they’re a bit strong. I’ve never submitted it anywhere, but I’ve never hidden it, either. It’s stored in the same folder I keep all my stories in, on my hard drive, with my cloud service, and in a physical file I store hard copies of my work in. If someone reads it, they read it: it’s fiction. I don’t have to defend myself. I wrote what came to me, revised it, and went on to the next project when I was done.
Another tale features demonic monsters which brutally feed of the population of a small town. Each slaying is portrayed as violently as I was able to conceive, the idea being that these monsters view us solely as food, and see the slaughter of a living person as inconsequentially as we see the shredding of fried chicken. Half the victims of these creatures are children, and I felt like it would be cheating to portray their deaths as somehow less violent than the adults’ demise. I found myself uncomfortable with this story at times, too, though I probably should have mentioned earlier that when I write, I make an effort to make myself uncomfortable with what’s being portrayed. I figure if I can’t stand it, I must be doing something horrific enough to deserve the “horror” label. I’m actually pretty proud of how that story turned out.
Though I’ve never submitted the first tale anywhere, that doesn’t mean I don’t intend to try to sell it. I just don’t think I’ve found an acceptable market for it. The second tale, as brutal as it is, actually has been shopped around a bit, and I’ve actually gotten positive reactions from horror fans who read it here on my blog before I took it down. However, I’m confident that, had I submitted it to any publication insisting that no harm come to kids, it would have been rejected. Which is okay. Private editors can certainly do as they please. But I’m under no social obligation to agree with them.
This next part will make me sound horrible, but whatever: sometimes fictionalized violence against kids is hilarious. Put your pitchforks down, I’m not alone. Who else is familiar with the phrase: “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” (“You bastards!”)
“Hobo with a Shotgun” has a school bus of small children incinerated by a maniac with a flamethrower, which is less amusing post-Sandy Hook, but still fits inside the purposefully outrageous and ridiculously hyper-violent narrative of the movie. “Puppet Master II” shows a snotty kid meet his maker when the toy he abuses for amusement turns out to be sentient and more than capable of defending itself. “Feast II” shows a baby being abandoned by a grown man, hurled into the air to ward off pursuing monsters, only to land on hard concrete and snatched up. Horrible, yes. Disgusting, totally. But I laughed, my friends laughed, the filmmakers insert dialogue clearly indicating that they knew what just happened was an example of sick humor. And anyone familiar with the “Feast” series is aware that they’re not exactly a “tasteful” series of flicks.
I’m not saying people should loosen up about portrayals of violence against youth. We need to retain our perception that harm to kids is exceptionally awful, because it unquestionably is. But I feel like we should be careful about opposing such material outright. Whitley Strieber’s Billy is intense in its subject matter, but it’s a phenomenal book with a rhyme to its reason. The raft scene in “The Burning” is awesomely graphic slasher movie fare. And let’s not let prudishness force us to overlook the fact that, tragically, there is no special rule in nature exempting children from suffering the way adults suffer.
To those editors who stick fast to their rules against portraying children coming to harm, I respect your stance, and I understand.
And to those of you more willing to acknowledge tales where such horrors exist, I salute your bravery.
– The Awful Writer.