Now, I’ll admit that I’m biased in my issues with the use of (graphic!) imagery of dead children in books and films, also non-plot driven use. Specifically dead babies, to be quite frank. Having lost a child myself, whenever the dead baby prop gets used, it just makes me twitch. I can’t say for certain, but I’d imagine women and men who have been through other traumatic events, such as rape, probably have the same gut instinct reaction when they see it pointlessly used. Now, I’ve acknowledged my bias. Its time for my rant (and thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks this is ridiculous).
Dead Children in Books and Films
On my latest trip to the library, I picked up the novel H20 by Virginia Bergin from the Teen Horror section. I figured Teen Horror is generally pretty easy, so I could get my scary fix without having to worry about running into disturbing imagery that I’m trying to avoid right now – that of – you guessed it – dead children. HAH! Of course there’d be a dead baby in it. Of course there would be. It set me off. Why? Because why was it necessary? That’s what I really want to know. Why do so many people grasp onto – and use – the prop of the image of the dead baby in their works? I don’t know what’s going through their head, and I don’t WANT to know, truthfully. But I imagine it goes something like this. “Oh, well, you know what will get the point across that the world is in a really, really bad place right now? Dead babies! I’ll just have my character talk about when she / or actually discover a dead child. Preferably an infant, cause child death will really get people right in the kisser. Oooh, look, now they know it’s going to be bad!”
Now, there are arguably some movies or books where child death is actually an integral part of the plot, and therefore necessary. However, in basically 99.9% of horror pieces I’ve experienced that mention a deceased child in them … 1.) It hasn’t been necessary and 2.) Its been overdone.
There’s a six word story commonly linked to Ernest Hemmingway (though according to this it may not be his at all) that says “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Does that not hit you right in the feels? In, quite literally, six words, with no graphic or disgusting imagery that stains the mind’s eye, you know that the talked about infant is dead. You know those parents are grieving. The horror of that situation strikes you like a slap across the face.
THAT is how you do it, people.
If you absolutely need to reference a deceased infant in your story, you do not need to describe them. You can have a character see an abandoned car seat (commonly used prop for a reason). You can have them see a bottle half-filled with formula sitting on the sink. You can have them open a door, see a cock-eyed twirly-gig thing and close the door quietly, without ever seeing the dead body. If you insist that you must have a dead baby in your story, there’s a thousand and one ways to do it where you don’t have to be so crass as to use the actual descriptions of the body. But, again…
In H20, a character walks in, sees the mom laying on her side, and talks about seeing her dead baby brother. Now, she mentioned earlier that she had a baby brother. Key word there being had so you knew he wasn’t alive any more. She talked about how much she loved him, so you knew she was grieving for him. The author/character gave you everything you needed to know without talking about the sight of his dead body. So, why? Why was it necessary?
……It wasn’t. that’s my whole point. It. wasn’t. necessary. It was a cheap-ass, over-used prop to ratchet up the horror in what was possibly going to be a really good story. But, you know what? As soon as she pulled the dead baby thing, I knew the story wasn’t going to be that great. I was right. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who sees things this way. A horror writer I’ve reviewed and interact with occasionally on Twitter echoed my sentiments with something of his own:
And while it wasn’t talk of deceased children, in my recent interview with Tamara Thorne & Alistair Cross , when I asked them if there was any subject that they, as horror writers, would not touch, they said:
“Animal horror. We both consider violence against pets a cheap shot and absolutely unnecessary.”
There are some subjects you just don’t need to include, at least in a forthright manner. If you do and it’s clearly unnecessary, well, it definitely makes some readers think a lot less of you and your talent. Now, to be fair, like I said, there are books and films out there where the inclusion is necessary to the story. For example, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The traumatic death of Gage was a big part of the plot, but even then they danced around the actual imagery as much as they could, and it wasn’t just in there for shock value. It actually drove the story forward.
So I think that while I definitely have an instinctive jerk-away reaction to the including of dead child imagery, it’s not just because I’ve lost a child. It’s because, as more than just I have said, it’s a cheap shot and not needed. Exercise your talents if you’re thinking of including graphic imagery of a dead child in your story. Ask yourself if it’s actually necessary (whether it’s in horror or in drama/action (thinking of the movie Gravity, specifically), and if it’s not, then don’t do it. If it IS, then find ways to communicate child loss WITHOUT showing/describing it.
Children and animals die. It happens. (You have no idea how much it bothers me to say that, but it’s the truth.) I don’t even mind a good ghost story where the ghost is a child. I’m simply stating that to use gruesome imagery of a dead child is to cheapen yourself and your work. You can be better than that. The best zombie books I’ve read, for example, did NOT describe dead children in detail. The authors got their point across in other ways. Even in the possession movie Deliver Us From Evil, while there was a dead infant near the beginning, they showed it without actually showing it. It can be done.
So, what do you think? Where do you fall on the use of child or animal deaths in horror work?
Talk to Me!
I 100% agree. Thankfully, I haven’t encountered that many deceased children and pets in books that I read. In Edwidge Danticat’s “Water Child,” the whole short story is about a woman who has lost a child. We feel the weight of that loss, however, Danticat never actually has to say what happened to the child. She’s just that good of a writer. Its obviously a bit different for horror, where perhaps imagery is a large thing. But I’d probably be just as put off by the description of a dead child or pet. I love my dog Midnight way too much.
Sidenote: Do you find that the authors of books that include graphic pet and child death are usually men or childless? Not to formulate a hypothesis, but I sincerely want to know what demographic of people those images are supposed to appeal to.
I don’t think the images are supposed to appeal to anyone. Its the use of the crassest images to provoke the biggest reaction. But – horror is a male dominated field, it really is. So I think the answer is a natural ‘yes, it’s men that use it most’. I can only name like 2 horror writers offhand that I know are female.
I wholeheartedly agree that graphic child death or injury/disease is more often than not just a cheap shot to up the ’emotional investment’ of the audience. It’s come to a point where I can predict with reasonable accuracy whether a child character (or a pet) is there for plot, entourage, or easy pickings. If it’s the latter, I turn it off/stop reading.
The one time it got me off guard, I got physically ill. In law school I had to study a case where the detailed graphic horror of a child’s death was the whole point of the legislation that this case inspired. After that, every time this case was discussed in class, I’d literally shut my eyes and plug my ears until the professor moved on to the next topic. Curious: the professor was a woman, too, as were most of the students. Apart from me, the students weren’t particularly fazed, and even the professor admitted that to her the graphic nature had been purely academic… until she became a mother herself!
So it seems that gender and specifically motherhood are a big factor in how a reader/writer views child death in fiction.
Speaking as a writer, I care more about psychological horror than graphic body gore. In a lot of my stories involved my own worst fears and sometimes, if the story calls for it, that includes my motherly fear or losing my child. But ONLY if that loss is essential to the plot and ONLY while keeping the graphics to a bare minimum, or omitting descriptions completely.
99,9% of the time, a subtle hint is enough to drive the drama and the horror of the situation home. Especially in fiction, anything more graphic is just gratuitous.
Thanks for your input as a writer! I appreciate it 🙂 I was thinking this morning about instances where pets have died in books and movies and how predictable it was. I’m not quite to the point you are, unfortunately, in being able to gauge.
Since we’ve lost a child, my partner is the same way I am, so I would say not only motherhood, but previous losses play into how it’s viewed as well. If we’re considering a movie, and we see it has child death in it, he’ll put it back just as quickly as I will.
I like that line “anything more graphic is just gratuitous”. That puts it perfectly.
I understand that sometimes it’s essential, and when it is essential to the story, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much. (of course if I can tell its essential to the story, I’m not going to read it anyways most of the time.
I don’t tend to read a lot of horror but I do watch some. I can think of two examples right off the top of my head where I immediately turned off the show and never watched again because they had to make a child (in one case) and a baby (in the other) be a zombie. It logically follows that would happen in a zombie apoc situation but I don’t want to see it. And really, why does it need to be shown?
This all explains why I don’t understand the obsession with The Walking Dead, it made it less than ten minutes on my TV. LOL
Interestingly enough, the zombie’d children don’t bother me on screen. Now, the zombie baby from the mall in Dawn of the Dead I can’t watch, but child-sized, as long as I didn’t see them killed, I’m okay with.
There was one book I read where the author will never get me to read another one of his books. He seemed to take pleasure in describing the zombification of the babies in the neonatal unit at the hospital. It was disgusting.
I agree. We wanted to give the Game of Thrones series a try, but after they showed a couple throwing a 10 year old boy through the window we gave up.
Hm. Good to know. I was already wary of watching GoT after I heard about the pregnant lady getting stabbed in the stomach. This just adds to it.