1. Childbirth process gone wrong
Kids are an easy, obvious button for storytellers to press. So many people are instinctively sentimental about infants, children, and all the iconography of childhood that it’s simple to prompt a massive emotional response by writing a story that endangers or harms a child in some way. But for actual parents, those emotional buttons tend to be bigger and more accessible; every image of a hurt, frightened, or even creepy kid invites them to picture themselves or their own children in a similar scenario. Which is why squeamish or empathetic parents may want to avoid entire areas of entertainment, to dodge seeing their worst nightmares thrust in their faces. Even relatively schlocky horror films can successfully and effectively tap into common parental fears: Pregnant women and their partners should probably avoid watching, say, Species 2, wherein women impregnated with alien-compromised DNA messily explode, or the original V, in which a C-section comes to an abrupt halt as a hissing monster-child heaves itself up out of the open womb. Moms-to-be deal with enough anxiety over the unusual sensation of a living being growing and moving around inside them without being aggressively faced with the question of whether that being is a perfect offspring or a malevolent parasite.
2. Child born hideously mutated
The Pandora’s box of genetic testing has been opened for good—got your kit from 23andMe yet? But even the wait to find out which debilitating illnesses run in your family can’t beat the moment when an unborn child’s future health is reduced to a string of blood-test results. These days, prospective parents are more likely to sweat the likelihood of unseen complications running the gamut from severe autism to peanut allergies, but that doesn’t make the fear crystallized by the hideous newborns in Eraserhead and It’s Alive any less real. Even healthy newborns look like alien creatures, and it’s only natural to worry that their monstrousness might be more than skin deep.
3. Child abandoned or orphaned
Stories dealing with children left behind either accidentally or on purpose can be doubly painful for parents, since they combine all the fears of mortality or parental failure with all the concern over their child’s vulnerability. Consider the painful 2005 Japanese film Nobody Knows, in which four siblings—the oldest just 14—attempt to fend for themselves for a year, banding together to hide their vulnerability. The film has some passing resemblances to the heartbreaking Grave Of The Fireflies, in which two young Japanese siblings orphaned in World War II fend for themselves and slowly starve. Both films invite parents to imagine the slow, painful fate that might await their own kids if something went wrong, and to understand the exact limits of children’s resilience and self-reliance. The possibility of death is bad enough without closely examining the probability that a parent dying would eventually mean their dependants dying as well—in a much more prolonged fashion.
4. Child is inexplicably evil
Every parent of a toddler has probably experienced that clash of wills where they first realize that a sweet, completely dependent infant is on the road to becoming a fully independent person, vastly determined to enact their own desires—which in a toddler may well mean eating paint, smearing the walls with poop, or smashing something valuable for fun. It’s an unsettling moment, realizing that a child is bent on doing something damaging, dangerous, or destructive, and is furious with a well-meaning parent for inexplicably getting in the way. Which may be why there are so many evil-child stories: The combination of presumed innocence and obvious evil is inherently creepy, but evil children also tap into that primal discomfort experienced by parents first understanding that they don’t know what their child is thinking or is capable of, and have passed the point of being able to control them. Whether a fictional kid is supernaturally evil, with outsized powers to enact an unsettling goal (like Samara in The Ring, or the towheaded mutants in Village Of The Damned, or Damien in The Omen, or Anthony in Jerome Bixby’s short story and the subsequent Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life”) or more mundanely, humanly evil (like the title characters in Joshua or Orphan), they’re still equally about tapping into parental loss of understanding and control of their charges.
5. Normal child grows up to do evil
In a very similar sense, many stories, especially recent ones, deal with the parental confusion and feelings of culpability over a child who goes wrong as an adult. The book and film We Need To Talk About Kevin and the movie Beautiful Boy both deal with the parents of Columbine-esque school shooters, trying to come to terms with their kids’ inexplicable acts. At some point, parental responsibility has to end and individual responsibility has to take over, but where is the line drawn? For a parent dealing with grief, guilt, and confusion—not to mention the blame of a society looking for a scapegoat—it’s impossible to determine. And no one has to die to make the guilt set in: Consider James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, in which a hard-working single mother spends her life struggling on behalf of her daughters, then realizes, too late, that one of them is a scheming, conniving, morally insupportable monster. Parents have to get through entire childhoods worried that they’ll say or do something that will permanently damage their kids; possibly the ultimate parental nightmare is learning that they did, and nothing can be done to fix the problem.
For all the great strides modern medicine has made, there’s something frightfully medieval about the “see if this works” approach that’s still a key part of the field, especially when the patient lacks the ability to tell a doctor what hurts. Movies, for the most part, like to focus on the extraordinary: the immunosuppressed teen of The Boy In The Plastic Bubble, or the boy in Lorenzo’s Oil whose disease is so rare that most doctors have never heard of it. But for sheer terror, as well as riveting, scrupulously empathetic filmmaking, there’s no equivalent to Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary A Lion In The House, much of which takes place in a pediatric cancer ward. The four-hour film is laced with anguish that’s difficult to bear even at a distance, and the images would make even hardened observers shield their eyes. Movie metaphor is one thing, but the wasting effects of illness on a young body can’t be faked.
7. Accidental death
Honestly, new parents should just stay the hell away from the work of Stephen King. Kids are often considered off-limits in genre film and literature, but King takes a seemingly malicious glee in sacrificing toddlers to his muse. With a novel like It, it’s easy to dismiss the deaths—they’re terrifying, but supernatural. Moms and dads generally don’t have to worry about giant spiders manifesting themselves as psychotic clowns. But in Pet Sematary and Cujo, King turns the screws as tight as possible by delivering awful—and entirely plausible—fates for children. In Sematary, a truck strikes a toddler; in Cujo, a mother beats remarkable odds against a rabid dog, but is too late to save her son from dehydration and sunstroke. In both deaths, King nails just the right feeling of impossible horror, of the world thrown off its axis by bad luck that doesn’t requite occult forces or monsters to ruin lives. (Any parent really desperate for some rabid-St. Bernard action should consider checking out the Cujo movie, which is mediocre, but does let the little boy survive.)
The phrase “every parent’s worst nightmare” has been rendered all but meaningless by overuse, but for a genuine contender, try the subject of Dana Heinz Perry’s documentary Boy, Interrupted: the suicide of her 15-year-old son. Filmed by her husband, storied documentary cinematographer Hart Perry, the film is their collective attempt to understand the unthinkable, as well as a chronicle of a valiant battle against an ultimately implacable foe. Evan Perry struggled with bipolar disorder for most of his tragically abbreviated life, expressing a desire to kill himself at an age when most boys are still playing with action figures. That isn’t a circumstance most parents would want to contemplate for an instant, let alone the length of a film, though plenty of stories have mined youth suicide for drama nonetheless, including Dead Poets Society and the book and film The Virgin Suicides. But the Perrys’ story is oddly hopeful in its portrait of family banding together to face the inevitable.
A kidnapped child of any age is a perfect drama-seed for anything from a kick-ass action film (Taken) to a weighty drama about societal hierarchies (High And Low); it’s the ultimate tool to motivate a parent character to take action, whether that action is to resist the kidnapper and take a stand (Ransom) or collude in an political assassination (Nick Of Time). But the most painful stories about kidnapping tend to just focus on the uncertainty of not knowing where a child has gone, what they might be enduring, or whether they’re still alive. Consider all the anguish kicked off by a kidnapping in Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone and the later movie adaptation, or by the disappearance in Changeling. Ransom demands create their own misery, but far more painful to a parent is the prospect of a child simply going missing, with no answers available, and possibly no answers ever forthcoming.
Part of the emotional impact of any kidnapping story is the fear that the experience will permanently alter or damage the victims. (See Lehane’s Mystic River, book and film, for an example of one scenario, where a child is kidnapped and raped, and it affects him, his family, and his friends for the rest of his life.) Molestation is horrific and transformative for the victim, but it can also be profoundly world-shattering for a parent, who has to deal not just with the guilt of failing to protect a child, but with the problem of parenting a child who’s been brought forcibly into the complexity and horrors of the adult world. And then there’s dealing with the knowledge that someone could actually commit the act in the first place.
Parental love is so blind that it’s almost inconceivable that someone could willingly take their children’s lives. The murder of a child is arguably the barest, most abhorrent form of the crime, which may be why two pieces of entertainment that tackle the subject don’t mince words in their titles: AMC’s new drama The Killing and “Killings,” a short story by Andre Dubus, later adapted into the film In The Bedroom. The Killing examines how the mysterious murder of a high-school student transforms a seemingly normal family into a mess of resentment, suspicion, and anger; it also unpacks just how complicated and dangerous life can be for teenagers, living among their reckless peers while beginning to form relationships with other adults who can take advantage of them. And parents can’t stop worrying when the kids turn 18. As In The Bedroom shows, the naïveté of young love can be disastrous even for college-age offspring, forcing parents to imagine being deprived of their only child and left with nothing but injustice and rage. “What would I do?” is a tough question with potentially unpleasant answers, so it might be best just to stay away entirely.
12. Losing custody
Sometimes cinematic parenting tales are horrific because of their realism rather than their extremity. 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer details the nightmare that divorce can be for both parents and children: After Meryl Streep leaves Dustin Hoffman, he must acclimate to being a single working dad, and just as he begins to master the task, Streep returns and instigates a nasty custody battle over their son, essentially robbing Hoffman of the boy who’s become the focus of his life. The film’s ending is semi-happy for Hoffman, but not so much for Streep, or especially their son. Just to kick things up a notch, the quieter drama of the characters’ divorce is made more gruesomely real thanks to a bloody playground-accident scene.
13. Being supplanted as a parent
Hillary Clinton once used the slogan “It takes a village to raise a child.” But even at that time—when Clinton was First Lady, and was advocating increased government involvement in raising America’s kids in 1996—she certainly wouldn’t have hesitated to burn that village to the ground at the slightest inkling that someone in it had designs on replacing her as Chelsea’s mom. Whether it’s a not-so-innocent crack-addict mother leaving her child in a dumpster like Halle Berry in Losing Isaiah or a homemaker looking for a nanny and accidentally hiring the woman whose life she indirectly destroyed—like Annabella Sciorra in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle—mothers value their unique connections with their children. That’s why Berry cleans up her act and tries to win back custody of her son from a well-intentioned Jessica Lange, and that’s why Sciorra isn’t pleased when she finds out Rebecca De Mornay has been swapping Sciorra’s breast milk for her own. Nobody takes mommy’s place, even if mommy has to kick a crack addiction or tackle a bitch to keep it from happening.
14. Being forced to choose between children
“Sophie’s choice” is an often-used slang term denoting a situation in which someone has to make an impossible decision. The phrase has been used so often that it’s more widely known than the movie that inspired it, but it’s doubtful that the term has ever been applied to a circumstance more hellish than what Meryl Streep faces in the movie. No parent wants to lose a child, but even worse is being responsible for the loss. In Sophie’s Choice (book and film), Streep is forced into such a situation, as a Nazi soldier makes her decide which of her children will go to the gas chambers. It’s a nightmarish position that understandably haunts Streep’s character for the rest of her life; it’s hard to imagine a new parent wanting to pick which of their offspring they consider more expendable. Wendy Crawson faces a similarly dramatic choice in The Good Son, where she literally has to choose whether to let go of her sociopathic son or her milksop nephew. But since the son is creepy Macaulay Culkin and her nephew is sad-eyed Elijah Wood, it probably isn’t that hard a call, and a few hours of therapy will most likely put her right.
15. Children in emotional/moral danger
The titular barber/serial killer of Sweeney Todd slashes so many throats over the course of his musical that it’s easy to overlook the movie/play’s subtler victims. As if the V.C. Andrews-meets-Jane Austen plotting of the judge who destroys Todd, rapes his wife, adopts his daughter, and plans to marry her weren’t enough, parents are doubly advised to brace themselves against the travails of Toby. An orphan who begins the story in the questionable care of an abusive barber, Toby is informally adopted by Mrs. Lovett, who’s willing to commit any crime to get her way, including condoning the murder of her nominal “son.” And if being betrayed by the closest thing to a loving relative wasn’t bad enough, Toby then watches his surrogate father burn Mrs. Lovett alive, and he survives only by committing murder and going mad himself. On second thought, though, maybe new parents should watch Sweeney Todd. At the very least, they can take comfort in the knowledge that, bad as they are, they won’t be feeding their newborn human-meat pies any time soon. Still, while Toby experiences only minor physical hurts throughout the story, it’s shattering to watch a loving, needy kid grow up to be as insane and violent as all the adults around him, all for want of a decent role model or a stable household.
16. Parental responsibility goes wrong
Whenever a young child repeats a phrase or mimics a gesture for the first time, it’s a good-news/bad-news moment for parents, who can take pride in junior’s ability to be influenced by external stimuli, and be chilled by what else the little nipper might pick up. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence dramatizes those fears through the example of a robot child named David, who can be programmed to give unconditional love. In one of the movie’s most heartbreaking scenes, the boy’s reluctant “mother,” Monica, imprints David by reading a series of words that program him to bond with her as a son, not just a toy. It’s as quick and simple as unprotected sex; in less than a minute, Monica has a child who’s programmed to love her to the point where he’d bring her back from the dead to be by his side. He’s a burden that never goes away. In a smaller and less fantastical way, the narrator’s mother in Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room experiences a similar scenario: Her son has been confined to a single room since birth, and everything she tells him shapes (and painfully warps) his limited understanding of his limited space. As much as some parents want to shelter their kids from harmful influences, being a child’s source of all wisdom and knowledge is more burden than blessing.