From M To IT: A Brief History Of Child Murder In Film

Pennywise (Tim Curry) in IT (1990) on the left and Pennywise (bill skarsgård) in IT (2016) on the right

While no longer a true taboo in Hollywood, the explicit depiction of infanticide in film is still frowned upon by most. Filmmakers that dare to make films about the sensitive issue of child murder are often criticised but provide insight into the way society deals with its most horrific type of crime. From M to It, Let’s have a look at the captivating history of one of cinema’s most controversial topics.

The Art Of Suggestion
One of the first notable films about child murder is M — Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931), in which both the police and the local criminal underworld hunt a pedophilic serial killer. Peter Lorre broke through as the twisted Hans Beckert, but later stated that the role haunted him for the rest of his life. The expressionist Fritz Lang classic received critical acclaim and paved the way for grimly themed thrillers. M was controversial, but never shows explicit violence: Lang cleverly uses suggestion to portray the killer’s horrors. In the eerie first scene, we see the killer’s shadow on a wanted poster as he convinces a little girl to follow him.

Lang then symbolizes her innocence with two theatrical shots of her ball which she left behind and her balloon, which is shown caught between some electricity cables. Beckert’s terrifying, right before he strikes, is timeless. M is still relevant, partly because the film sheds a critical light on the witch hunt that ensues after the police are unable to catch the killer. In the end, Beckert is finally caught and the angry mob of citizens form their own court room in which they decide his fate.

Hans Beckert looms over his next victim in M — Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931)

An American remake followed in the 1950s, but without the same success. Even less successful was The Night of the Hunter (1955), which distinguished itself from the Hollywood norm that was predominant at the with expressionistic, poetic cinematography. Robert Mitchum plays a shrewd criminal who pretends to be a priest. His character was based on a real child murderer that was hanged in 1932. In the haunting final part of the film, he tries to hunts down the children of the woman he killed in cold blood in order to collect her inheritance. Three years later, the Swiss Es Geschach Am Hellichten Tag / It Happened In Broad Daylight released, based on the book by the same name. The screenplay is written by Friedrich Durrenmatt, who skillfully evades mystery conventions and turns the film into a layered portrait of an obsessed detective who uses psychology and tricks to capture a monster that kills young girls in the woods. Several remakes followed, including in The Pledge (2002) with Jack Nicholson, which will be discussed later.

Stranger Danger
Hollywood films in which child murder was the subject are rare in the 1960s till the early 1970s, because showing them (explicitly) is still a sensitive issue in the relatively moralistic America. In Italy, two gialli appeared in 1972 in which child murderers take center stage: Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling and Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? Although filmmakers in Europe increasingly dared to tackle controversial subjects, the Italian directors consciously chose to portray the murders in a fairly discreet way. However, that didn’t stop the Catholic Church from criticizing Don’t Torture A Duckling for its cynical portrayal of a religious southern Italian town.

Several young boys in a small Italian town are murdered in Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972)

One of the best-known films in which child murder occurs is undoubtedly The Shining (1980). In an iconic scene, Danny Torrance rides his bicycle through the hallways of the eerie Overlook Hotel, and encounters the Grady twins, who have been chopped to pieces by their father with an axe in another time. In two striking split seconds we watch as the girls lie dead in the hall.

In the 1980s, Hollywood reflected the societal paranoia of ‘stranger danger’ in the horror and thriller genre. Ronald Reagan’s United States saw an explosive increase in fears of crimes against children, fueled in large part by the murders of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh; two horrific cases that were both hugely covered by national media. Most people that grew up during that time can no doubt remember this alleged epidemic of child abductions, thanks in part to the ‘Milk Carton Kids’; a nickname for the missing children whose portraits were printed on milk cartons in the hope that large-scale distribution would produce leads.

‘The Milk Carton Kids’ campaign added to a heightened paranoia of child abductions and ‘stranger danger’ in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was a method that rarely proved effective and was criticized for focusing mainly on white, upper-middle class children, while poor black children were more likely to go missing. The campaign also seemed to sow fear among American children. Brad Feuerhelm, editor of art and photography magazine American Suburb, wrote about the “Milk Carton Kids” and its connection to the “satanic panic,” fueled by a rapidly changing America in which the 24/7 news cycle emerged, crime rates soared and questionable reports of Satanic abuse were discusses on popular talk shows. “To sip from the carton of the specter’s image itself leaves traces of ephemeral traumas on the lips of all children,” Feuerhelm wrote poetically.

In 1982, Universal tried to move into a different direction with its successful Halloween franchise. The third part, in which John Carpenter was only involved as producer and composer, removed Michael Myers entirely and tried to mold the franchise into an anthology-like format. Halloween III: The Season of the Witch tells the bizarre story of an Irish toy company that tries to kill an entire generation of American children using magical Halloween masks. Although the film was destroyed by critics and Michael Myers fans were disappointed that the film lacked their favorite psychopath, Halloween III has since then become a cult favorite. Large-scale child murder is merely a menacing doomsday scenario in this unintentionally funny film, but we do see a child suffocate in a pumpkin mask.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) features a child suffocating in a Halloween mask.

The lingering fear of child abduction and murder, which was particularly persistent in America in the 1980s and 1990s — and perpetuated even longer in Europe through the horrific deeds of Marc Dutroux and Michel Fourniret — had a major influence on cinema. Freddy Krueger can be considered the personification of the fear of child murder in popular culture. The iconic child killer from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) in the red-green-striped sweater appeared in a total of nine films over the years and was a nightmare for several generations of young people. Interestingly, Craven actually wanted to turn Krueger into pedophile but didn’t, because of a pedophilia case that was in the news at the time.

Another film that incorporated ‘stranger danger’ into the plot is Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987), a cool cult classic set in a Californian town where mostly young people and children mysteriously disappear. In a scene emblematic of the turbulent era in which the beloved vampire flick is set, the main characters’ mother visits downtown Santa Cruz for the first time, only to encounter a wall plastered with posters depicting punk concerts and missing persons. Later, a group of stylishly dressed vampires turns out to be responsible for the numerous missing persons and murders in Santa Cruz.

A film often linked to ‘satanic panic’ is The Believers (1987), in which Martin Sheen plays a psychiatrist who must protect his son from a cult that believes in child sacrifice. A gruesome detail is that the film inspired the cult leaders Adolfo Constanzo and Sara Aldrete, who sacrificed multiple people in Santeria, Mexico in the late 1980s.

In The Believers (1987), a New York psychiatrist has to take on a cult that believes in child sacrifice.

In Stephen King’s novel It (1986), a mysterious entity in a fictional Maine town feeds on the fears of its inhabitants, especially children. In the 1990 two-part TV film adaptation of the same name, Tim Curry plays Pennywise, a murderous clown who lurks in Derry’s sewers and reduces Georgie to a snack in an iconic early scene. In remake of the same name from 2016, the children take on the horrifying clown that takes the shape of their biggest fears. Bill Skarsgård plays Pennywise this time. It is striking how the two clowns couldn’t be more different from each other. Tim Curry’s Pennywise looks relatively normal and symbolizes how pedophiles and murderers often look like ordinary people, while the 2016 version is less subtle. In the more recent adaption of It, Pennywise awaits his prey with bulging eyes and saliva dripping from his chin.

Pennywise (Tim Curry) in IT (1990) on the left and Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) in IT (2016) on the right

Hollywood likes to symbolize society’s fears of child killings through monstrous antagonists, while in Europe of the 1980s and 1990s few filmmakers dared to make films that symbolized the horrific deeds of human monsters like Marc Dutroux, but this likely has a lot to do with the fact that Europe has much less of a genre tradition than Hollywood.

More than a crime
In 1995 HBO released the television film Citizen X, based on the true story of the most infamous serial killer from the Soviet Union, Andrie Chikatilo, who killed fifty young women and girls between 1978 and 1990. If you can look past the odd Russian accents, this excellent thriller aptly shows Detective Viktor Burakov continuing his hunt for the killer while his investigation is hampered by Soviet ideology and a bureaucratic police force. In a memorable scene where the body of a young girl has just been found in the woods, one of Burakov’s agents smashes his head against a tree until he bleeds, after realizing he knows the victim. “I have 49 on my conscience. You mustn’t blame yourself,” says Burakov. “It’s not that. She’s my cousin’s daughter. Natasha Dunakova. She was eight.” The scene aptly illustrates how the murder of a child is more than an abomination in itself, and disrupts entire communities.

Citizen X (1995) portrays the frustating hunt on Andrie Chikatilo, the Soviet Unions most prolific serial killer.

In 1999, Neil Jordan’s In Dreams releases, a thriller about a mother who has a paranormal link to her daughter’s (Robert Downey Jr.) killer through dreams. A year later, Battle Royale (2000) hits cinemas, which can certainly be considered the founder of Netflix’s most recent hit — Squid Game — and the popular mode from the game Fortnite. In the Japanese action film, forty-two fourth-graders are taken to a deserted island, where the teens must kill each other to the last man with an arsenal of weapons that are scattered across the island.

Tragic Hero
After the turn of the century, child murder on the silver screen seems to meet with less and less resistance. It is striking that the violent death of babies and (young) children is now frequently used to set the plot in motion or to give the main characters a tragic background story. What many detective films about infanticide have in common is that they focus on confrontation or revenge. Most are male-driven stories in which a detective has to solve the crime or a father has to protect a vulnerable child. An illustrative example is The Pledge (2002), a remake of the aforementioned Es Schach am hellighten tag, in which Jack Nicholson plays an outcast detective who befriends a single mother and uses her young daughter as bait to catch a child murderer. Neo-noir Sin City (2005) also revolves around the revenge of a sidelined detective. In the first part of the film, John Hartigan prevents the sadistic killer Roark Junior from raping and murdering eleven-year-old Nancy Callahan. Hartigan shoots off his ear, hand and genitals before the creep escapes. In the second part of the film, which takes place years later, Hartigan faces Roarke again, who returns as the ‘Yellow Bastard’. Even though a — now full-grown — Nancy comes to his aid, movies like these one aren’t so much about victims, but more about aging, guilt-ridden men. Their revenge is often the final heroic deed.

An exception is Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (2009), which was based on Alice Sebold’s bestseller. The film tells the story of fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon, who is lured to a hiding place and murdered by a pedophile serial killer. While Jackson’s film adaptation received mixed reactions from audiences and critics, mainly due to an overkill of CGI and kitschy sentiment, the performances of Stanley Tucci (who brings child killer Harvey to life) and Saoirse Ronan (who convincingly played dreamy Susie Salmon) unanimously praised.

Stanley Tucci was praised for his unsettling portrayal of child murderer George Harvey in The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones is a tragic fantasy in which we see Susie coming to terms with her own death from some sort of limbo. Some of the aforementioned films, such as citizen x and in dreams, give way to our fascination with the psychology of serial killers and pedophiles. They show the viewer how they calculate, plan and ultimately carry out their horrific deeds. The Lovely Bones, on the other hand, considers the horrific violence from the perspective of the victim and her relatives. In the end, Susie takes revenge from the afterlife by dropping an icicle on her killer. Harvey stumbles, and falls to his death in a garbage dump. With this scene, Sebold and Jackson criticize the tendency to elevate serial killers to more than what they are: a piece of filth that should be forgotten as soon as possible.

Sensitive
The VVitch: A New England Folktale (2015) uses the kidnapping and likely murder of the youngest family member as a starting point. In this grim witch tale by Robert Eggers, a devoted Christian family moves to the edge of an ominous forest. The film tells a layered story about the loss of innocence and breaking free from your oppressive family. Doctor Sleep (2019), Mike Flanagan’s sequel to The Shining (1980), set thirty-two years later, pits the now 40-year-old Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) against a vampire-like gang called The True Knot, whose members can live forever by torturing and killing children and stealing their life-force. In a gruesome scene bordering on inappropriate, we see how ‘baseball boy’ becomes the victim of the gang. That it, sometimes, is better to portray infanticide discreetly became apparent from the fact that Stephen King, who shy away from horrors against children, urged director Flanagan to scale back the scene a bit.

Very recently, it became clear that that the depiction of real child murder in film is still not without risk. Jean Lambrecks, father of Eefje Lambrecks, who was murdered by Marc Dutroux, threatened to take legal action against Maldoror; a film inspired by the Dutroux case on which director Fabrice Du Welz brooded for fifteen years. Whether he can build a compelling story around the tragic murders of Dutroux, we can tell soon, when the film hits cinemas.

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Jelle Havermans

Jelle Havermans

Jelle Havermans (1994) is a visual artist and writer. He writes about horror, true crime and the history of photography and film.