Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

Why did some post-war science fiction and horror films portray ‘evil children’ – something never seen before in film or fiction?  Dr Laura Tisdall of Queen Mary University of London explored the question in the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival. Alan Barker sat in.

Think ‘weird children’ movies, and you might think of The Others (2001), or maybe The Exorcist (1973). In fact, as Laura Tisdall showed in her absorbing Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, the cinematic trope of evil – or extraordinary, or eerie – children kicks in earlier. Her lecture focussed in particular on Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s 1957 book, The Midwich Cuckoos), and Anton Leader’s sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). She also discussed Joseph Losey’s 1963 film, confusingly called – guess what? – The Damned, as well as Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies.

Laura explored the rise of 'evil' children in film, at the British Science Festival

Why were films suddenly viewing children as a threat? They certainly reflect the political fears of a nuclear age, and perhaps also evoke nightmarish memories of a fascist past. The children in Losey’s film are radioactive; those in Village of the Damned (interestingly, directed by a German emigré) look, with their blond hair and pigtails, distinctly Aryan.

But Laura Tisdall is more interested in the psychological dimension.

After the Second World War, she explained, we invented a new idea of childhood. The dividing line between children and adults became wider and firmer: children were suddenly expected to take a good deal longer to grow up than before the war. They – and the adults who cared for them – were now expected to conform to a set of behavioural and moral norms. Thinkers like Benjamin Spock and Arnold Gesell, distorting somewhat the work of Jean Piaget, instructed parents and teachers to nurture children, not by following traditional social values or practical experience, but strictly according to how old they were. From child-rearing manuals to educational policy, this developmental approach was hugely influential.

The new norms, Laura suggested, created considerable anxiety, in both carers and children themselves. Intriguingly, post-war parents – participating with a heightened sense of social responsibility in a new welfare state, with broadening state education – began to align this anxiety to do ‘the right thing’ with a brooding resentment against these selfish, ungrateful ‘baby-boomer’ kids who, in Harold Macmillan’s words, had never had it so good.

This lurking anxiety and smouldering hostility – fuelled, perhaps, by guilt – found cultural expression in these fictions of abnormal children.

It’s a fascinating thesis. And Laura Tisdall developed it in considerable detail.

The children in these films, on closer inspection, aren’t simply evil. They’re odd. Physically, they develop too quickly. Intellectually, they’re weirdly gifted. But as well as flouting physical and cognitive standards, they display social skills far in excess of their years (as defined by the psychologists). They perform developmental tests with uncanny precision. They operate a hive mind. They project an eerie calm and a troubling social cohesion (redolent, again, of pre-war militarism).

As Laura pursued her analysis, a curious paradox emerged. At the moment when the world faced the very real prospect of nuclear annihilation – the Cuban missile crisis erupted in 1962 – these children are portrayed, not just as an immediate threat, but as harbingers of a new future: a super-race that might survive Armageddon.

This fantastical idea – echoing memories of the eugenic theories that had contributed to fascism – is made explicit in Losey’s The Damned (and was to be satirised, that very same year, in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove).And it’s played out in Children of the Damned, in which a notably diverse group of youngsters offers a pacifist solution to the conflict with their elders, before being destroyed as a result of an accident (a soldier drops a screwdriver, inadvertently triggering an order to open fire).

But perhaps the most discomforting moment in Laura’s account came at the end. The current rise in environmental activism among young people seems to be reawakening some of the same anxieties that fuelled these films. Laura reminded us of the virulent hostility aimed at Greta Thunberg: a not-quite adult, her speech somewhat monotone, almost preternaturally assured and intellectually precocious (all three features perhaps symptomatic of her Asperger’s). She also just happens to be Nordic and pigtailed. We left the lecture with a different sense of the uncanny: a suspicion that tensions between adults and children, half-articulated in these sixty-year-old films, have not yet faded away.

Alan Barker is a writer, trainer and coach specialising in communication skills. He has been working with the British Science Association since 2015. Alan’s webinar, Storytelling for Scientists, is on the 3M YouTube channel.