The Kids Aren't Alright: 'Breaking the Cycle' in Horror

TWs: reference to child abuse, abusers and films that depict abuse - no graphic details of abuse.
Contains spoilers for the following films: Sleepaway Camp, Audition, Silent Hill.

One of the reasons I love horror is its ability to present real, everyday fears through the lens of the absurd. Some might see Paranormal Activity as a daft romp of privileged white folks in peril, others are drawn to the narrative of society’s dismissal of women’s emotional experiences. The Exorcist features a mother’s brutal fight to have concerns for her child taken seriously, while The Shining depicts alcoholism and violence within the claustrophobic hub of family. 28 Days Later… explores the oppression and commodification of women, whilst Teeth highlights the alienation that women can feel from their bodies, and reminds us to be cautious of even the nice boys. I could go on.

Children feature widely in horror. From John and Pearl in Night of the Hunter, little Andy in Child’s Play, Danny in The Shining, Samuel in The Babadook, Victoria and Lilly in Mama, the Losers' Club in It to Carlos and friends in The Devil’s Backbone, children are ideal fodder for the macabre as they make excellent victims. They have little social power and rarely have a voice in the world of adults: they are small, weak, imaginative and ‘innocent’[1]. And despite their vulnerability they are also wily, brave and creative enough to defeat the monster. They are the underdogs. We are happy to see child characters in peril as long as they emerge at the end of the ordeal in one piece, very much like the virginal final girl of the slasher trope.

Samuel in The Babadook

Interestingly, horror films tend to shy away from depicting the abuse of children even though sexual violence against adults is fairly commonplace (albeit far more so against women than men)[2]. Freddie Krueger, the quintessential child-botherer from A Nightmare on Elm Street, was an abuser[3] prior to becoming a dream-stalking monster, yet this element of his pathology is glossed over in the films. Stephen King’s It briefly touches on Beverley’s abuse from her father yet favours the supernatural threats to the child characters. Even the brutal Marytrs – which includes harrowing scenes of violence against women – suggests that young Lucie’s tortures are physical rather than sexual. Perhaps the stalking and threatening of children is the palatable proxy for abuse in film, often taking place in dark bedrooms or school corridors whilst parents look away. Yet considering horror’s propensity for all manner of corporeal atrocities, especially gratuitous violence and rape, it is surprising that sexual abuse against children is rarely depicted.

The depictions of abuse that do exist in horror are troubling. In Ringu and The Ring, the abused Sadako/Samara emerges from her well as a grotesque, broken-backed monster to inflict suffering onto others. Mistreated children in Lights Out, Fragile, Case 39 and The Devil’s Backbone are turned into shadow-lurking demons to hurt the living. Tormented Alessa returns to slaughter the Silent Hill cult as a merciless, barbed-wire wielding witch. In The Human Centipede II, emotionally-stunted sadist Martin recalls the words of his childhood abuser before carrying out his own atrocities. Sleepaway Camp’s Angela slashes her way through teens and adults alike following a deeply traumatic childhood. The charming antagonist in Hard Candy claims that he was a child victim when justifying his abuse of others. Asami’s molestation is a direct antecedent to the torture of men who wrong her in Audition. Portrayals of serial killers in film often follow a similar pattern: Hannibal Lector profiles Buffalo Bill as having abuse in his past in The Silence of the Lambs, and Dolarhyde’s grandmother ‘created’ his murderous alter-ego, The Tooth Fairy, through years of abuse in Red Dragon.

Sadako in Ringu

With regards to representations of abuse, these films share several problematic elements. Firstly, the abuse of a child is often a trigger for the horror (eg the development of the monster) rather than the horror itself, which downgrades the impact that abuse can have. Victims also tend to represent the narrow, dominant dimensions of their culture (white/Japanese, able-bodied, middle-class), when we know that abuse transcends race, social status and ability[4].  Most damagingly, these films also perpetuate a damaging misconception - that those who are abused as children grow up to become abusers themselves.

The sexual abuse of adults and children is framed by feminists “as an act of power, violence, and male domination”[5]. Children are vulnerable to victimisation due to their lack of social power, with girls doubly vulnerable as a result of their gender, while ethnicity, ability and socio-economic status further widens the power imbalance between abusers and victims. It is difficult to accurately measure the prevalence of child abuse but current estimates suggest it is far from uncommon: from 1 in 20 children in the UK (NSPCC), to one in nine girls (RAINN) to 17% of girls and 4% of boys in the USA (Crimes Against Children), with girls 1.5-3 times more likely to be abused than boys[6]. It is believed that only one case in every eight is reported (ONS) so statistics vastly under-represent the scope of abuse. Whichever estimate you favour, it is hardly a fringe issue.

In the attempt to make sense of why people commit sexual offences, the ‘cycle of abuse’ theory was developed and has gained traction in recent decades. Although there is little concrete evidence to suggest that victims of abuse become abusers in adulthood, this myth is widely believed by the public and professionals alike. ‘Breaking the cycle’ features prominently in recovery literature, yet in reality abuse is not a ‘cycle’; with the majority of victims being female and the majority of abusers being male, the assumption that abuse breeds abuse cannot account for this gender inversion.

Santi in The Devil's Backbone

The idea of a ‘cycle’ also focuses on individual victims and overlooks the wider, social factors that create an environment where sexual violence can take place, such as the sexualisation of women and children, toxic masculinity and male privilege, especially within institutions and family structures. We know that abuse can have chronic, long-term effects yet we also know that many victims overcome these difficulties and have meaningful, loving lives. The idea of a ‘cycle’ focuses on identifying and preventing future risk and overlooks the ways that victims cope and develop resilience, perpetuating negative ideas that victims are weak, powerless and somehow to blame for their abuse. Medicine, psychiatry and therapy all adhere to the medical model of diagnosing and fixing the ‘faults’ of victims more so than recognizing their strength and ability. This downgrades and ‘others’ victims, making them less deserving of sympathy and more likely to be blamed for abuse or their responses to it.

Horror reflects these problematic assumptions. Framing victims as rageful, violent, out-of-control monsters both demonises them and overshadows the impact of their abuse: we sympathise with Angela’s ostracism, with Alessa’s pain and Asami’s loneliness until we see them as vengeful, twisted killers, then our sympathy switches to the ‘innocent’ people that they are harming. In contrast, very little consideration is given to the people who abused them. Victim-abusers in horror are often female despite the rarity of female abusers in reality, which obscures the gendered nature of this kind of violence. Female victims are also more likely to be extrapolated into supernatural ghouls who are both physically and morally monstrous, rather more human monsters like Buffalo Bill, the Tooth Fairy or Martin. It could be argued that the raison d’etre of horror is to present us with alternative, frightening realities yet stereotypical portrayals of victimisation perpetuate the devaluation of women and the pathologising of victims already pervasive in society.

Angela in Sleepaway Camp

The ‘cycle of abuse’ also exonerates those who rape and abuse. It reinforces the idea that abusers are damaged, sick individuals rather than regular men, even when research tells us that 90% of abusers know their victims and are usually family. Many, but not all, abusers claim to have experienced abuse themselves (30-80%) but even if all abusers have violence in their past, this is not the same as all victims becoming abusers. The idea that abuse is ‘inevitable’ and that molesters have little control over their actions excuses criminal acts and erases the many victims who are loving and empathic and no threat to children.

We like to see our world as neat and logical. Despite the popularity of random evil such as Michael Myers, Patrick Bateman, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Strangers, we also like our villains to have tangible motivations. Perhaps this makes the idea of violence a little less random – and therefore more predictable and less threatening – but it comes at the expense of victims. In films, we typically see the monster attacking the innocent before the monster’s back story is revealed, by which point we have already labeled them as ‘evil’ and not worthy of sympathy. Our desire for justice and order often overshadows the need to understand the complexities of human behaviour, especially within a social context. Would we enjoy horror as much if we had to stop and consider the monster and their justifications, or society’s role in creating them? I would argue yes but it certainly complicates our notions of a ‘just’ world, and would force us to face uncomfortable untruths about the ways that society enables and excuses abuse, which may be far scarier than anything the cinema screen can show us.

The Strangers: “why are you doing this to us?”, “because you were home”
It is interesting that the concept of victim-abuser is often at odds with other film tropes. Many heroes have a tragic backstory – think Batman or Eric Draven in The Crow – yet rarely does this include sexual abuse. A close comparison would be the ‘rape-revenge’ trope but even this narrative differs significantly, traditionally depicting an adult woman living her life (normal, healthy, unabused) before being subjected to horrific violation, regrouping and enacting bloody revenge. The revenge is often shown as an attempt to restore the status quo as much as being an eye for an eye. Although some rape-revenge films do show the victim as permanently changed, it is mostly positive transformation such as the heroic, strong and confident ‘avenging angels’ of American Mary, I Spit on Your Grave or Teeth.

Why should we care about the representation of abuse in horror cinema? Representation matters and repeated messages become integrated into our understanding of the world. Of course, we have the ability to evaluate and reject the ideas presented to us by media but if we are unaware of a representation’s simplicity or inaccuracy – because there are few contradictory depictions to compare it with – would we know to question it? Despite increased public awareness of abuse, myths and stereotypes around victims still prevail and this could in part be due to the 'pop psychology' we gleam from the media we consume. Many women and men grow up with abuse in their histories, and as people often turn to media to make sense of their lives, what messages would they take from films that cast them as twisted monsters that hurt others? The rape-revenge genre has its own problems but it does at least present alternative depictions of female victims rather than quivering damsels or nameless, bloody bodies.

American Mary
Personally, I would love to see more films where victims are protagonists rather than villains, where the focus is on the ‘despites’ of abuse rather than the ‘becauses’ of it. It was hard to find an example of horror which does promote victims as tough and resourceful but one film that touches on this idea is 2015’s Intruders, which pits Anna, a woman struggling with agoraphobia, against three men who break into her house. As the story progresses, we see that the traumatic cause of Anna's anxieties has also strengthened her into a force to be reckoned with. Although Intruders is not a perfect antidote to the victim-abuser trope, more representations of people - especially women - overcoming their abuse rather than being permanently damaged by it would challenge the dominant, negative narratives of victimisation. It might improve the way that we interact with victims - both individually and as a community - and help us to understand the wider social factors whilst breaking down the ‘taboo’ of having experienced abuse. Hopefully the continuing rise of feminist horror will provide more nuanced and realistic portrayals of violence and abuse, especially considering the number of us who may be seeing ourselves reflected on screen. I would much rather see myself represented as an Ana than a Samara*.

Anna in Intruders

*Had I seen Gerald's Game before writing this post, I would have included Jessie alongside Ana as a powerful victim-survivor (see It's Always Gerald's Game).

Finkelhor, D. (1994) The International Epidemiology of Child Sexual Abuse, Child Abuse & Neglect, 18, 5, 409-17.
Whittier, N. (2016)  Where Are the Children? Theorizing the Missing Piece in Gendered Sexual Violence, Gender & Society, 30, 1, 95-108.

[1] Personally, I take issue with the tendency to identify victims as ‘innocent’, as this suggests that some are more deserving of victimization due to attributes or actions.
[2] There are several films that deal directly with abuse – Deliver Us From Evil, Sleepers, The Lovely Bones, Sybil, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things – but these tend to be documentaries, drama or thrillers more than horror.
[3] I avoid the term paedophile, as this reinforces the idea that abusers are deviant and different to ‘normal’ men. It also suggests that abuse is part of identity rather than acts that people choose to commit.
[4] Of course, this lack of diverse representation in film is not unique to depictions of abuse.
[5] Whittier, 2016, p.95
[6] Finkelhor, 1994

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