Slasher movies are a classic staple of the horror genre. There’s just something that draws a horror audience to the everyday murdering psychopath. In a previous post, I speculated why horror fans are drawn to the genre. Suffice it to say, there’s something tempting to the horror fan about mindless malice. Perhaps, as human beings – flawed though we are – most of us are so far from being able to commit such acts that their mere inconceivable nature fascinates and perplexes us. Why do murderous sociopaths exist? Are they born or created? What goes on in the mind of such a person?
If one homicidal maniac is fascinating, a cult of them is more interesting, still. And a cult of killers who happen to be children, well, the thought is so far flung that we can’t help but be drawn to it. Which is why I’m surprised that Stephen King – so far as I know – was among the first, if not the first, to toy with this concept. (Village of the Damned aired before King came into popularity and also dealt with evil children. This film is the only example I can think of that approaches what King tries to do). In Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, a cult of children will stop at nothing to keep their convoluted community safe, even if it involves murder or ritualistic sacrifice.
The opening of Children of the Corn is a veritable gore fest. The movie, including the introduction, is full of creepy music; in the background, children croon a dark melody. Action begins immediately, as most of the children in the small town of Gatlin unite to brutally murder the adults. The result? Only children remain in the town, and they mechanically follow a leader, Isaac. Isaac listens to “he who walks among the rows” and sees himself as an all-knowing messiah. Together, this cult community of children lives, cloistered, and estranged from the rest of America.
A young couple, Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicki (Linda Hamilton), find Gatlin. They’re driving around country backroads when someone throws a dead boy in front of their car. Alarmed, Burt surveys the scene, then they wrap the boy in a blanket, put his body in the car, and look for help. They search for a larger town that is supposedly 20 miles away, but the force that works in the corn must be working to lure them in, because no matter where they drive, they only see signs for Gatlin.
Stephen King’s critique of religion is obvious early in the film – at least, a certain type of religion. When Burt and Vickie flip through the radio, they hear a vocal pastor condemning the so-called evils of the world (in the form of, for example, homosexuals). The pastor proclaims that there is “No Room” for such people. While Burt and Vicki shout “No room!” mockingly, the viewer receives stark commentary from Stephen King on the excluding, discriminatory nature of some churches, churches that have “no room” for certain categories of people. If King is hesitant toward religion in general, he’s blatantly critical of religious extremism.
Indeed, the way the town is run bears a strong resemblance to a religious cult. When Vickie and Burt stumble upon the town, they enter a vacant house where Sarah and Jobie are playing. Sarah and Jobie are the only children who weren’t in the cornfields before all the adults were massacred, and are thus the only ones who don’t rest under the heavy influence of mob-cult mentality. Sarah, however, has a gift of foresight; she draws pictures of things that will come to pass. When she draws a picture of Vickie and Burt’s car approaching the town, the other children arm themselves and prepare for murder. In typical cult-fashion, they are threatened by outsiders who they consider dangerous “others.” Violence is an inherent part of their cult, and they won’t hesitate to use it to exercise their perceived liberty. But, is their violence provoked by Isaac’s urgings, or by the force in the corn?
Regarding violence, the film is filled with weapons. Part of its scare lies in the blood-doused blades that the children are wielding throughout the piece. Isaac dubs himself the leader of the children, and states “I act according to his will.” Interestingly, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether Isaac is talking about God, or “he who walks among the rows.” Significantly, a higher powers seem to be garbled in this film. Isaac proclaims he is blessed with the ability to understand the will of a higher being, but sometimes he refers to the Bible, and sometimes he refers to “he who walks behind the rows.” This child-dictator has, presumably, chosen the wrong God.
Regardless of who Isaac’s worshipping, his motives are insidious and his religious code is flawed. When Burt and Vickie find the town, their lives are overtly threatened, and Burt tries to enlighten the children. Here is where King’s critique is most straightforward, although it’s important to note that the movie is only an adaptation of a story. As a boy is about to kill himself on his 19th birthday – which the children’s custom demands – Burt interjects. Why, he asks, would you do this thing “just because some self-proclaimed holy man says this is what God commands?” Here, the film critiques not only cults, but religious leaders who falsely claim to know the word of God, like Isaac, the “self-proclaimed holy man.” In the most strongly thematic line of the movie, Burt says “Any religion without love and compassion is false. It’s a lie.”
Burt’s interjection raises an important question: why do the children blindly follow Isaac? Isaac has a second in command, Malichi, who is even more hungry for murder than Isaac and ultimately rebels against him, but not because he doesn’t want to commit evil acts. He wants to continue committing evil acts, but he wants the power and the glory that accompany such acts. By the end of the movie it’s apparent that there really is something in the corn. Is this monster, this entity, “he who walks among the rows,” able to warp a group of children and sway their mentality, or has Isaac created a persuasive dictatorship that results in some severely detrimental groupthink?
This movie isn’t a must-see for every moviegoer, but it’s a must-see for the horror aficionado who seeks an eclectic range of influential horror movies to add to his or her canon. Frankly, I’ve seen scarier, but the commentary is intelligent, the bloodshed is moderated well, and, hey, everyone loves Linda Hamilton. If you’d like to see what Stephen King thinks of religious extremism and you’re in the mood for a moderate scare, then, for sure, check out Children of the Corn.