Reviews 2016

Monstrous Children and Childish Monsters: Essays on Cinema's Holy Terrors

Monstrous Children and Childish Monsters: Essays on Cinema's Holy Terrors. Ed. Markus P.J. Bohlmann and Sean Moreland. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2015. 288 pages. $40.00 (paperback).

This uneven collection of 15 essays (plus an introduction) claims to address the "relationship between monstrosity and ‘childness’ as mediated by cinematic fictions since 1950" (9), and promises to transcend problematic old categories (the Child; the Monster) and binaries (innocent/evil Child) and even to provide some prescriptions for the future. Most of these are left unfulfilled. The key elements—the monstrous, the Child, and cinema—are all not only not integrated, but they are also under theorized, with film theory notably absent. Despite current research in affect studies, neuro-science, evolutionary anthropology, and cognitive science with regard to how and why horror films work, this volume is mired in psychoanalytic theory, which is spectacularly inadequate in addressing such visceral film genres as horror and porn. Most of the articles recycle the same theorists—Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory; Noël Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror; and Lee Edelman’s No Future (Queer Theory); as well as rather cursory references to Deleuze’s "the pure unformed" (107) peppered throughout the essays, taking a cue from the introduction. When synthesized and paraphrased in the articles, these result in a rather narrow assertion that "the Monster" is the metaphorical other, a cultural construction and projection. This psychoanalytic/constructivist approach is limited to a narrative analysis of the films, thus neglecting a key aspect of cinematic horror—that viewer responses are also the result of multi-modal sensory stimulation, which informs those responses in pre-cognitive, pre-narrative, affective ways. Monsters may indeed be cultural constructions and projections, but their on-screen bodies also elicit visceral, somatic responses—fear and disgust, and understanding how this is accomplished specifically in cinema is critical to an understanding of how it may or may not mediate "childness" and monstrosity.

The organization of the book's chapters is somewhat cumbersome. Sandwiched in between two forewords, an introduction and two afterwords, the articles are grouped according to a "parodic engagement" (19) with the stadialism of child development theory. But the organizational logic of such "stages" fails to hold. "Look Who's Stalking" features articles that deal with monstrous pregnancies, fetuses, and births, and, perhaps even more monstrous, infertile women. The articles contained in "Frankenstein's Kindergarten" seem to want to argue that monstrous issue are both the responsibility of adults who create them and also serve as warnings—an argument that is only effectively made in Brown's article "Of Radioactive Sprites and Diminutive Tyrants: Hammer’s Monstrous Children." "Adoption Papers" abandons altogether the structuring logic of child development and discusses film adaptations (see below). "Troubled Teens and In-Betweens" takes on monstrous adolescence, although Sharon Packer’s short "Demon Drugs or Demon Children," which links Regan’s symptoms in The Exorcist (1973) to the questionable practice of treating minimal brain dysfunction with stimulants seems not to fit into the general scope of this volume. On the other hand, Lisa Cunningham’s "Violent Nymphs: Vampire and Vigilante Children in Contemporary Cinema" does while challenging Kincaid's assertion that both the construction of the angelic and demonic Child robs them of agency (9), which is all in the hands of adults. Cunningham shows how these girls take back agency in multiple ways. The final section, "Peek-A-Boo: Future Monstrosities and Beyond," although outside the contrived organizational scheme, nonetheless contains the two articles most engaged with critical film theory. Balanzateuis's "Insects trapped in Amber" sensationally links the terror of the Spanish Civil War with the ghosts of children who linger into the present, challenging any kind of linearity and empowering the children in the process.

Monstrous and "childness," the two key and intertwined concepts which cinema is said to mediate by the authors in this collection, are, unfortunately, inadequately developed. Without an effective grounding, the analytic focus drifts, most often away from the monstrous issue to the monstrous adults. The putative object—the child monster—whose monstrousness stems apparently from the irreconcilability of the Romantic construction of childhood innocence with malevolence, illustrates the generally shallow historical context that permeates the texts in their presumption that both Childhood and the Child are modern cultural constructions, as if no critique of Ariès since the publication of his seminal work exists. It also leads to the use of the rather cumbersome term "childness," an attempt to restore a neutral term in place of the cultural minefields of such over-burdened terms as "childish" and "childlike." This inattention to history infects the entire book, which represents the kind of ahistorical, decontextualized approach that seems to typify literary readings of cultural phenomena. The period under investigation spans from the 1950s to the present day, but no explanation is given for this rather arbitrary cutoff which seems contrived to include Leventer’s article on Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Eraserhead (1977) ["My Hideous Cinematic Progeny"] and Brown's examination of the Hammer horror films from the mid-1960s ["Of Radioactive Sprites and Diminutive Tyrants"]. The unfortunate consequence is that 1950-2015 appears to be some kind of significant historical period with a unified, common thread, and that movies in this period can thus be comparatively analyzed. As a consequence, films from radically different periods (the 1960s and the 1980s, for example) are lumped together in a kind of undifferentiated "past," bypassing any question of how they fit into the same historical context. Even more astonishingly, events from the past are arbitrarily listed as if meaningful in and of themselves. The most egregious example of this is Leventer's article mentioned above: Rosemary’s Baby was an important cross-over film released in the U.S. during one of the most tumultuous years in the second half of the 20th century. But Leventer's random laundry list masquerading as "historical context" includes the 1963 JFK assassination and the August 1968 Democratic National Convention (despite the fact that the movie's release in June predated the convention by over 2 months!) without ever mentioning Robert Kennedy's assassination just 6 days prior to the movie's release. More importantly, it misses the overriding culturally and historically-relevant importance of the movie which revolves around Rosemary’s (justifiable) distrust of the older generation (all of whom were devils in the movie), and her questioning of their decisions and motives. On the other hand, the late 1970s, in which Eraserhead was released, was categorically different from the 1960s, and to connect the two movies without linking Jimmy Carter's (in)famous summation of American society of the late 1970s as suffering from a "crisis of confidence" is to miss the omnipresent anxiety and dislocation of that later period. Additionally, to compare Rosemary's Baby, a movie that grossed $33 million and which came from within the Hollywood establishment and was awarded accordingly, with a movie made 10 years later, which grossed $7 million, came from outside Hollywood and is still a "cult movie" today is again to conflate and confuse critical differences, making a simple narrative comparison problematic at best. The great majority of the articles avoid this by focusing on quite recent films, with the analyses tending towards a close "reading" of a single film.

Because of their focus on narrative aspects, many articles analyze movies with different modes of production, different distribution and responses. To compare major feature films of a cross-over nature—Rosemary's Baby, Alien, The Omen, or even the Friday the 13th franchise—with low-budget, straight-to-DVD movies that have limited circulation is not only mixing forms, but also mixing experience. Again, if engagement with cinema—feature length movies shown in theaters—is a multi-sensory affective experience, the same cannot be said for low-budget movies with no theater release and limited audiences for which the experience is quite different and these films cannot be considered equivalent cultural phenomena. Genre distinctions are most egregiously ignored in Part III, "The Adoption Papers (Adaptations)", which deals with literary adaptations to the screen. Since the comparisons are of the narratives and the adaptation's fidelity to or divergence from the presumed original, there is little recognition that there is also a shift to a totally different medium. The articles in this part are quite good, but they in no way take on the putative aim of the book.

There are exceptions to this—articles that congeal around a reasoned organizational logic: Yeo's analysis of the Oedipal thread in the films of Ridley Scott ["Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?"] (and yes, this is a Freudian plot, but one so heavily imbricated with the history of narrative film that it can be said to be the master narrative of the 20th century); Brown’s aforementioned investigation of the Hammer horror films; Balanzateuis's historically contextualized analysis of the lingering effects of the trauma of the civil war. Still, in general the book fails its stated purpose: it does not focus on the Child. Instead, the analyses reflect on the monstrous nature of the adults who interact with children or who read these children metaphorically as projections of adult issues.

JoAnn Conrad
California State University, East Bay, USA

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia UP, 1990.