The "Creep Factor" With Childlike Villains
What is it about childlike villains, or as TV Tropes so eloquently puts it, the “Psychopathic Manchild,” that creeps us out a little?
When I say childlike villain, I’m not referring to the killer kid trope. I’m talking about adult villains or antagonists who behave and/or think like children. These two tropes are related, which I will discuss, but they’re also very different.
The childlike villain is pretty common in a lot of genres. It is particularly popular in kid’s cartoons. It’s a favorite of Disney movies. Still, Looney Tunes, Tiny Toons, and, perhaps especially, Animaniacs used this trope a lot. Animaniacs’ best-known sketches involve the main characters driving adult buzzkills crazy to the point where they throw toddler-Esque temper tantrums. Rugrats also did this many times. The popularity of this in kids’ shows, especially cartoons, makes sense: adults acting like kids are funny.
In horror, on the other hand, the childlike villain takes on its own strange life. There are several childlike villain characters, and I’ve chosen to look at Bing Partridge of Joe Hill’s novel N0S4A2, a novel I adore. For purposes of clarity, I’m going to be referencing the novel alone and not the TV adaptation, as there are some differences in Bing’s story arc between the two versions.
Bing Partridge is functionally a henchman of Charlie Manx, and this is, of course, not an uncommon role in placing the childlike villain in. It’s not as difficult for the reader to suspend one’s disbelief when the young villain is a secondary antagonist. They are often not the people coming up with the primary plan. In the context of the story, one can justify why he is valuable to Manx- he’s easy to manipulate.
What makes this particularly interesting is that Manx takes his adult persona from a child’s fantasies. He’s the charismatic, fun-loving guy who takes children to a magical land where “unhappiness is against the law and every day is Christmas,” after all. A man like Bing is the only sort of henchman that can work for Manx and stay loyal to him for as long as he does with only the promise of an eventual reward. This is especially true when you remember that N0S4A2 takes place for decades.
So that’s why it works in the story Hill is telling. But why is it disturbing?
TV Tropes argues that, much like killer kids, the childlike villain is creepy because of the juxtaposition of behavior we associate with childhood against violent maliciousness. Indeed, that’s part of it. As a culture, having apparently forgotten what being a child is actually like, we tend to associate childhood with innocence.
We generally think of childhood maliciousness as unintentional or in some way beyond the child’s control. Because of this, the idea of a child being malicious enough to kill people is in direct contrast to that. While there have been elementary-school-aged children who have killed others in real life, such as Mary Bell, it is very rare.
When we consider an adult childlike, we typically use that phrasing to refer to an adult who has maintained such innocence. A childlike adult is an adult who has managed to maintain naivety into the adult world, a world that we tend to look at with a lot of pessimism.
There’s something likable about an adult with a childlike side, to a degree. We’re aware that it can become irritating in excess- we all know “that guy”- but we see parents play with their kids, and it is endearing. We see grown men get excited over puppies and kittens, and it’s usually adorable. An adult allowing oneself to express goofy youthfulness now and again can be adorable.
What Bing Partridge does to the “mommies” that Manx drags off to Christmasland, on the other hand, is less than adorable.
We’re introduced to both Bing’s childishness and his violence early in the book. We know he has an obsession with Christmas, and we know that he killed his parents. We know that his thought patterns, justifications for his actions, and vocabulary emulate a relatively young child. He doesn’t quite understand that you’re probably not going to get X-Ray specs from responding to a pulp comic ad from the 1950s.
You do end up getting a response from Christmasland, however.
So yes, the juxtaposition between the childlike villain’s personality and their actions certainly plays a role in making it creepy. Still, I’d argue that there’s more to it than that. This is where the childlike villain begins to differ from the killer kid.
No one feels any sympathy for Rhoda Penmark of The Bad Seed or the kids from Children of the Corn.
Killer kids don’t generally act like kids when the adults aren’t looking.
What tends to make killer kids creepy is that they look like children and tend to be played by adorable child actors but do not fit our perception of what a child is. It’s not merely that we consider violence and homicide to be adult behavior; it’s that in a lot of these movies, killer kids only behave like kids when they want to manipulate adults. When they are alone or around other kids, they are often too precocious for their own good, and their malice is as intense as the malice of an adult killer. Most adults have an instinct to protect children, making the fact that we don’t sympathize with them in these movies a significant part of what makes us uncomfortable.
With the childlike villain, there’s more variance in our relationship with them. Baby Firefly, for instance, isn’t sympathetic, but she’s somewhat likable. Norman Bates isn’t particularly likable, but the film does present him as partially sympathetic, at least insofar. He isn’t in control of his actions.
It’s not so much what the connection is to the character that’s so disturbing; it’s that we feel connected to the character at all.
In N0S4A2, Bing Partridge is both the secondary antagonist and, in some respects, the deuteragonist. We follow him through the story almost as much as we do Vic. We can see into his mind throughout a significant portion of the book. His mind is naive, childish, and easily deceived.
We understand more about the situation Bing is in than he does. We know he shouldn’t trust Manx, but he trusts him completely. We know he shouldn’t be doing what Manx tells him, but he thinks what he does is important and admirable.
It’s kind of like when the cheerleader runs up the stairs, except that Bing Partridge is a serial killer and a serial rapist.
And that is the key. Bing Partridge is a character that we want no connection with whatsoever, yet we have one. It’s a connection that makes us uncomfortable, but it is there. We like Baby Firefly because she’s funny, easy to sympathize with Norman Bates because of his Freudian circumstances, and with Bing?
He’s pitiful. Pity is a connection, however, and that connection creates a disturbing dissonance in our minds.
So, do you want every day to be Christmas?