Yesterday I visited my advisor’s office in the English department and discussed doing my senior thesis in the fall. Normally I would talk to her about this after spring semester had started, but I wanted to get a jump on things before I was busy with homework from five different classes. Plus I had the day off yesterday so I thought to myself, why not?

During the course of our meeting, I was outlining what I’d like to do for my senior thesis, mainly to write a novel. For this novel, I chose five different ideas for stories from the list of novels I keep on my flash drive and gave a brief synopsis of each one to my advisor Ruth. Around the third idea, Ruth noticed a trend with two of the stories I’d mentioned: they both involved young girls as protagonists in the story (one was a story based on Alice in Wonderland, the other involved demons). She then asked me, “Why young girls? Why are they used so much in horror?” To my surprise, I realized I hadn’t thought of it much, and at that moment I didn’t have a very good answer for why, when children are used so much in scary stories, young girls are more dominant than young boys (notable exceptions include Danny Torrance from The Shining and six out of seven protagonists in Stephen King’s IT, the two boys from Monster House, and Hansel from Hansel and Gretel).

And guess what? The question’s been bugging me since that meeting yesterday. So between writing, work, applying for scholarships, and my household chores, I thought I’d take a moment to examine why young girls are more dominant in these sorts of stories. First, we need to examine why children in general are used so much in horror stories:

1. Children are very innocent creatures. It’s the most obvious reason, but it still needs to be stated. Children are very innocent human beings. They still believe that good usually wins against evil, that bad guys get beat up and thrown in jail by superheroes and cops, and the world is a safe place where they are loved and are protected from evil, at least until they’ve been warped by some of the harsh realities of the world. In horror stories, that innocence is tested and sometimes completely broken by the events of the story, whether it be monsters under the bed, abusive parents/teachers/bullies, or whatever else you may be using as the antagonist in a story.

Even the man/child/sponge has more imagination than most adults.

2. Let’s face it, kids are more imaginative. As we grow older, we tend to think less in terms of the fantastic and more in terms of what is real and reasonable. But as children, we really believe in Santa, the boogeyman, fairies, aliens and ghosts with little doubt that they are actual, concrete beings. This means that kids are usually the first to come to the realization that something evil is at work. They don’t realize it through any leap of logic or reason, but through gut feeling and belief. This is also usually why they are more likely to survive than that one guy in every horror film who insists with fatalistic stubbornness that there’s a logical reason for everything and then when they realize something’s up, they still insist on handling it themselves as men, even if it leads to their heads getting bitten off.

3. Kids are dependent on others. Until sometime between ten or twelve, children are dependent on adults for most of their basic needs, and even when they start to become independent, they still require a good portion of help from adults. When in a horror story, most likely a child can’t recieve help from an adult because they’re less likely to be believed by adults. This means they’re basically adrift in a metaphorical sea that wants to kill them painfully and mercilessly. How they survive without the security of an adult is something that keeps the reader drawn into the story.

4. Children are also not as resourceful. Or to be more specific, it’s rare for children to have access to the knowledge or tools they need to defeat the enemy of the story. They wouldn’t know how to set up a trap for a mutant monster, or how to draw a vampire into the sunlight without being totally obvious of their intentions, or even how to set a windigo on fire with nothing but a set of matches (which they shouldn’t be playing with anyway). If the characters are adult, all they need to do is get out their smartphone and Google “How to make a molotov cocktail” or “how to set up a tripwire alarm system”. Kids wouldn’t even have a smartphone, and even if they did they probably wouldn’t know what to Google. How do they survive with nothing to really help them? That is another draw of a horror story.

Look at that face! You know that hotel gave that kid some big therapy bills.

5. Children are easily influenced. Lastly, children are easy to influence, for better or for worse. Has anyone seen Friday the 13th Part IV? Right at the very end we see just how the events of being around Jason have influenced and hurt little Tommy, who will be dealing with his issues for the next two films. A horrific event can stay with a child for a very long time, corrupt their innocence or make them aware of their own abilities. Either way, the events of the story will stay with the child likely throughout their lives. From what I hear, the Overlook Hotel certainly stuck with Danny Torrance (I haven’t read Doctor Sleep yet, though it’s on my reading list).

Okay, so we’ve established why children in general are used so much in scary stories. But still the answer of why young girls are used in the stories has still to be answered. Often, like Carol Anne from Poltergeist, they are persecuted and kidnapped by beings we can’t really understand. Or, like Samara from The Ring, they are the stuff of our nightmares. And occasionally they are both (anyone watch The Exorcist recently?).

This morning I spent some time trying to figure out and I think a lot of it has to do with socialization and the roles we assign to the female gender. In other words, what we expect from young girls and how we believe they should act, behave, and think are why young girls are so popular in horror stories.

Please note that the suggestions I’ve listed below are for fictional girls and are just based on my own reading and viewing of many different horror novels, comics, TV shows, and movies. There may be several stories featuring girls that are the exact opposite of these reasons, I just have yet to be exposed to these stories. The reasons I’ve listed do not necessarily apply to real girls either, as I’ve made clear below. Here are the reasons I was able to come up with and which back up my beliefs on gender roles making female characters popular:

1. Fictional girls are more prone to sweetness, harmony, and nonviolence. Most boys when they’re young like to get wild, scrap a bit, use their fists and compete with each other through acts of physical prowess and aggression (when my cousin was younger, you could not stop him from acting like this). Young girls though are often portrayed as preferring to be friends rather than fight. They like doing cute stuff and they don’t like to get their hands dirty or do anything too wild. The only exceptions I can think of are Beverly Marsh from IT and my sisters, but then again my sisters are from my crazy family, so go figure. So since these fictional girls are less likely to use their fists and more likely to try to harmonize, they’re at more risk for whatever evil is after them in the story.

2. Young girls have yet to enter into the realm of maturity and sexuality. A lot of criticism with horror comes with how it sexualizes its female characters (please see my article Sex and Horror for more on this topic).However young girls have yet to reach that stage where people begin to see their sexuality. There’s an innocence in this lack of sexuality that young boys don’t get from their ignorance of sexuality, though that might have something to do with the fact that, like I said, a lot of women in horror are defined by their sexuality, whereas men don’t usually receive this sort of sexualized image no matter what age they are.

3. It’s adorable when young girls cry. Because of the pre-assigned roles that differentiate between boys and girls, at some point boys are taught that crying is not a manly thing to do, so they stop crying if they want to retain whatever form of manhood a young boy can have. On the other hand, it’s considered okay for girls to cry throughout their lives. And instead of pitying these girls or questioning their maturity like we would with boys, our hearts go out to the girls and make us want to hug them. This contributes to the popularity of young girls in horror stories.

And if these points haven’t hammered home my belief on gender roles playing a major role in the popularity of young girls in horror, here’s my final point:

In the end, the princess mentality takes a toll.

4. Young girls want to be princesses. It’s no understatement that plenty of girls in our Western society want to become princesses when they grow up and have a handsome prince rescue them from evil so they can live happily ever after, and our media perpetuates this to no end  (even Once Upon a Time and Frozen couldn’t leave this cliché out of their storylines, though they both do something rather original with the trope in each their own way). In horror stories, typically it’s up to a female character to either rescue herself from her predicament or to let a strapping young man save her and then sweep her off her feet. With young girls, that choice isn’t always available, and often the writer will write the story so that we wish for someone to come and save the little girl, while holding us with baited breath to see if she will be saved by a dashing prince…in the case of horror stories, most likely an older male relative with an axe or baseball bat.

So the reason why young girls are so popular in horror stories, as I’ve listed above, is that they fulfill certain gender roles that we’ve come to expect and work nicely into not just the plot of the story, but certain preconceived notions we unconsciously have in their minds. However, not all young girls fall into these roles. Beverly Marsh from IT plays a big part in stopping the demon clown when she’s a little girl by being the more aggressive fighter of the Losers Club. Coraline from the book of the same name is able to release the souls of the eaten children and save her parents all on her own. And even creepy Samara coming out of the TV is an exception, as she doesn’t fulfill any traditional roles, not even the one about needing saving. She’s the freaking villain!

Yeah, don’t mess with her.

So I think I’ve answered the question Ruth posed to me yesterday in her office. I’m not sure it’s the best answer or the right answer, but it’s what I was able to come up with. If you have any ideas about why young female characters are so popular, examples of girls who buck the trend, or any other points relevant to the discussion, please let me know.

Also, in a somewhat related note to children and horror, I finally watched the film version of Battle Royale. It was actually much better than I expected, almost as good as the novel. However there were a couple of creative choices I disagreed with, and that’s why it’s not on equal footing with the book. I also won’t see the sequel, because apparently it’s not based on the original story, its anti-American message goes beyond criticism of America to full-on attack mode, and nearly every reviewer who’s seen it has hated it, apparently.

All for now. Write on you later, Followers of Fear.


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