Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

After the Second World War, science fiction and horror films began to portray ‘evil children’ – something never seen before in film or fiction. Why were children suddenly being presented as dangerous threats rather than innocent victims? Drawing on psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience, Dr Laura Tisdall of Queen Mary University of London is delivering the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival.

Alan Barker met her to discuss how these films might continue to reflect and affect our idea of childhood.

Laura is the winner of the Jacob Bronowski Award for Science and the Arts

When did children start to become evil?

In British movies, during the sixties. There are fifties novels like Lord of the Flies and The Midwich Cuckoos, the latter of which formed the basis for Village of the Damned, which I suppose is the go-to movie of this kind.

And how do these films portray children as evil?

Well, I prefer the word ‘extraordinary’. These children are abnormal: they grow up too fast, they’re unusually gifted, and they’re often malicious.

They could take over the world…

Yes, obviously these films are playing on wider anxieties about the Cold War, nuclear annihilation and so on. The children in The Damned, for instance, are lethally radioactive. But it’s the psychological aspect that interests me. These children violate the norms of childhood.

What sort of norms?

After the Second World War, we sort of invented a new idea of childhood. Childhood became longer and the dividing line between childhood and adulthood became firmer. For instance, lots of the children in these movies are blonde and beautiful, which to some extent plays on memories of Nazi youth, but it’s also, I think, an image of childhood innocence.

Where do these ideas come from?

It all revolves around the work of Jean Piaget, which was hugely influential, although his ideas were simplified and sometimes misrepresented. The idea was that we should define children’s needs and wants by how old they are.

Children 'became' evil in films during the 1960s

Rather than –?

Rather than what they can actually do and what they’ve experienced. Before the Second World War, school classes were organised according to standards of ability, so that you might get quite a wide range of ages in one class. After the war, classes were organised strictly according to age. It was assumed children should only be exposed to what they’re ready for at a particular stage in their biological and psychological development.

We’re talking about ‘child-centred education’.

Yes. And it was seen as very progressive, and in a way it was, but I think it was also very conformist. It put a lot of pressure on parents and teachers – and on children too.  And remember, in the UK this was in the context of a new welfare state where parents and teachers had new responsibilities in ensuring that children grew up into normal adults. So, all these conventions defining the word ‘normal’ created lots of ways in which children could be seen as abnormal.

And these films play on those anxieties about abnormality?

Exactly. There’s a scene in Village of the Damned, where the children are taking one of the new developmental tests that children were being given in schools at the time – and of course they’re displaying a super-intelligence far in advance of their age. And that’s seen as disturbing.

Are these anxieties are still with us?

I think so. The developmental model is definitely still part of our cultural unconscious. I have friends who are still studying Piaget at teacher training college, and I want to say to them: ‘Hang on, some of these ideas have become superseded now!’

Such as?

Well, for instance, the idea that children can’t acquire empathy until they reach a certain age. That’s come into question in recent years. Or the very common idea that teenagers are selfish and lazy, because it’s an inevitable part of growing up into a healthy adult. I think that’s just a psychological interpretation we impose on teenagers. Things are changing. We’re beginning to see children and teenagers as a positive force for change, knowledgeable and mature – in climate activism, for instance. Maybe these old movies could prompt us to ask: ‘How might we change the way we think about children, and maybe do things differently?’

Laura Tisdall delivers When Children became Evil at the British Science Festival on Wednesday 11 September at 13:00. Read more about her lecture and book tickets here.