Childhood is Hell: The Horror of Coming of Age Movies
Being a kid is terrible. Growing up is even worse. Fortunately, once you get past the weirdness that is childhood, puberty, and teen years, you get to be an adult – which is also daunting but infinitely better. People who romanticize childhood will tell kids to enjoy it while they can because these are the best years of their lives. As a full grown adult, I can say with certainty that they are completely wrong. Growing up, for most, is freaky and bizarre. While there are always a few people that sail through their youth effortlessly, the more interesting stories come from the ones that stumble.
Growing up is scary, and even certain coming of age movies that would never be categorized as horror seem to still revolve around the themes of fear and death. Take the perennial favorite: Stand By Me (1986). Based on the novella The Body by Stephen King, Stand By Me has little in the way of monster movie or supernatural horror. However, what it does feature is an existential confrontation between childhood, adulthood, and mortality.
The movie revolves around four thirteen year old boys who go looking for the dead body of a kid their age who has been missing for weeks. One of the boys, Vern (Jerry O'Connell), hears his older brother, whom he is terrified of, talking about coming across the body in the woods and how he plans to do nothing about it – not even make an anonymous call to the cops. The other three boys convince Vern they should go, everyone’s on board for the attention and fame they assume they’ll get with their “discovery.” As the movie progresses, the reality of what they’re going to find sinks in. This isn’t just a body in the woods, but rather a kid their age, whose parents have been worrying about him and are wishing he would come home safely. This revelation hangs over them, and when they finally find the body it continues to linger. They return to their town, knowing school is going to start the next day; that summer, like everything else, comes to an end.
The narrator of the movie Gordie, played by Wil Wheaton, is haunted by memories of his older brother – who was killed in a car accident about a year before. When they first find the body of the kid, his face is blue, bloated, and bloodied. The others start planning their return to town while Gordie (Wil Wheaton) sits motionless on a log next to the body, as he wonders why this child, like his brother, had to die. It becomes clear that Gordie has never really dealt with his own loss, and that possibly his brother’s body was too demolished by the accident that Gordie was never able to see him again. Death suddenly goes from being an abstract thing, a force that made his brother into vapor, to a reality. Actually understanding the consequences of death is like the inevitable collapse of our own childhoods – the concept of safety and protection is simply a dream, designed to eventually fall apart as you age.
The thread of death, fear, and acceptance of reality tends to bind coming of age movies together. A sister movie to Stand By Me is Now and Then (1995), and the parallels between the two are clear. In Now and Then, the characters are four girls trying to figure out what happened to a boy buried in their local cemetery. The gravestone only says “Dear Johnny” and, though he has been dead for decades, he was about their age when he died. After they perform a seance in which they think they’ve roused Dear Johnny from the grave, they spend their summer sleuthing through old records at the library, consulting the town psychic, and breaking into an old woman’s house to read the stacks of ancient newspapers she keeps in the attic in order to return Dear Johnny to his peaceful afterlife.
Similarly to Stand By Me, the character Roberta (Christina Ricci) has also dealt with an extreme loss; when Roberta was a child, her mother was killed in a car accident. The scene where they finally find out what happened to Dear Johnny acts as a catharsis for Roberta. In an attic surrounded by yellowed newspapers, the girls read that Dear Johnny and his mother were shot to death in their home. An accompanying letter to the editor addresses the issue that maybe this little town isn’t as safe as they all thought. Earlier in the movie, Roberta finds a clipping that reports that her mother had been alive and in pain after the accident for hours before anyone was able to help her. What sets Roberta off, much like Gordie, is the reality of death and danger; there is no such thing as "safe." Roberta breaks down, explaining that her father told her that angels swooped in and took her mother before she could feel anything. It's not just reading about the violent act of a murdered mother and child that upsets her, it’s how painful it is to realize the slowly unfolding truths that come with growing up.
Considering how intense some of the topics covered in coming of age movies are, it’s not surprising that several recent horror movies have centered around kids stumbling through life, trying to make sense of everything around them. The Transfiguration (2017) deals with a black teen, Milo (Eric Ruffin), living with his older brother in a housing project in New York City. Milo is obsessed with vampires but in a way that’s a bit different than the rest of us who read Anne Rice and Bram Stoker as thirteen year olds. Milo believes that he actually is a vampire, and spends his summer hunting and killing several people then drinking their blood.
Milo is a pretty sympathetic character despite the delusions that lead him to murder. The environment he’s growing up in is dangerous and he's witnessed some horrific events. It's through witnessing these events that Milo seems to derive inspiration for his actions; it’s as if he’s taken everything he’s seen in his life and morphed himself into a cold-blooded killer because it seems the natural next step to him. He deals with a neighborhood gang who intimidate him daily, and who he knows has killed people for no reason, while his veteran brother speaks occasionally about his tour of duty overseas and the traumatizing things he saw there. Milo absorbs everything and, perhaps without even fully knowing it, internalizes and interprets the world through this specific lens. Men are expected to kill, whether through the cypher of gang loyalty or the sanctioned slaughter of the armed forces.
In a thematic reverse, Milo keeps a calendar where he marks the day once a month that he “needs” blood. The movie is mostly populated with men and boys and Milo, in many ways, is seen as feminine. He eventually gets close to a girl his age that just moved into his building, though he still seems unable to get close to any of the men around him. This is a movie about alienation and adulthood as much as it is about a tortured young boy believing himself to be a blood-drinking creature of the night.
Breaking away from summer, The Eyes of My Mother (2016) is another coming of age horror movie but this one spans a lifetime. We watch Francisca (Olivia Bond), a child on a rural farm, learn how to kill and clean animals from her veterinarian mother (Diana Agostini). Because of this upbringing, Francisca grows up being unbothered by death. When her mother is killed by a man in their home, Francisca’s father chains the man up in their barn where Francisca spends her youth alternating between caring for him and torturing him.
For the most part, Francisca is unaware of how monstrous she is becoming and like Milo, her world is one that has been calmly immersed in a gruesome reality for her entire life. In many ways, she doesn’t know any better. She moves through her teens, treating the man in the barn as if he was a pet that she needs to take care of, even referring to him as her best friend. When her father dies, Francisca keeps his body but starts to feel the isolation of being out in the middle of nowhere alone. She tries to start a romance with another young lady she meets at a bar but ends up killing her, then stealing a baby from a woman who gives her a ride home and keeping that woman chained in the barn after severing her vocal cords. Throughout all this, Francisca seems indifferent towards the unspeakable actions she takes. To her, none of this is that strange. Her mother taught her to kill, and then was killed in front of her. In the life she grew up in, death was just something that happened. Sometimes even growing up cannot erase the indelible lessons learned in childhood.
"Growing up" means figuring out the world and how to face it, but we all have different worlds to figure out. The kids in Stand By Me and Now and Then search for answers to understanding mortality and its unpredictable yet inevitable nature. The kids in The Transfiguration and Eyes of My Mother accept death at a young age and cannot seem to see past it; their habitats demanded violence as they didn't grow up with the illusion of safety. It's no surprise then why so many coming of age works, even if they’re not horror, have dark undertones. Being an adult can be scary because you have more responsibility, but at least you can take in a sober view of the world and make your own decisions. Childhood is scary because no adults really know what they’re doing or what is going to happen, and growing up is about finding that out. And then continuing onward.