Zombie Babies and Frankenstein: Why Pop Culture Still Hesitates to Depict Undead Kids

Another Halloween has come and gone, but the ghosts of the Gothic linger in the cool air. I recently watched one of last summer's Hollywood blockbusters, World War Z (dir. Marc Forster). Despite seeing it on a plane, which is not the ideal place to immerse oneself in a movie - although it made the movie's scenes of a zombie-filled crash landing particularly harrowing - I was thoroughly engrossed. Afterward, however, doubts and suspicions began to occur to me, not so much regarding the plot's many dubious details, but regarding what seemed in hindsight like a glaring omission: despite the fact that the zombie plague appears to spread rapidly and indiscriminately, I didn't recall seeing a single infected child.

There's certainly no shortage of gory surprises in World War Z, and perhaps when I watch it again, a zombie-child will jump out at me (pun intended)! But the relative absence of infected, zombiefied, flesh-eating children on the screen made me wonder whether this was a zone of horror that the movie simply didn't wish to explore. Entire cities and countries can be shown collapsing, but slavering, rotting children must be kept safely off-screen. This reluctance to show a child (much less an infant) deformed and rendered hideous was brought to my attention all the more because just days after watching World War Z, I took my kids out trick-or-treating and saw no shortage of small people dressed as zombies, skeletons, and other assorted creatures of disgust.

Why is it OK for children to dress up as zombies on streets, but not on screens? The question even extends into the realm of video games, where the creators of one particular game have vigorously defended their decision to populate it with zombie kids as potential attackers and targets. The nature of the performance is clearly part of the issue. Zombie children on Halloween are still children first, and zombies only superficially; moreover, they are both harmless and not meant to be harmed. Of course, children can and do feature centrally in horror movies - they are especially good at generating uncanny effects, since they are familiar yet strange -- but they are often only inhabited by evil spirits (e.g. The Exorcist, The Possession) and therefore still essentially innocent; the evil comes from outside, and the child needs to be rescued or otherwise freed from it. Zombie children, by contrast, are entirely corrupt and beyond saving; they must be dispatched by the same bloody means as their adult counterparts.

Further insight into this problem recently occurred to me while teaching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) in a course on the Gothic novel tradition. As readers of the novel know, Shelley's original Creature is far more intelligent and articulate than the robotic screen versions popularized by Boris Karloff and his many imitators. Nevertheless, by the time the Creature gets to tell its side of the story -- a narration Shelley places at the literal center of her novel -- it has already been responsible for the death of Victor Frankenstein's little brother, William.

From Victor's perspective, William was an ideal child: "the most beautiful little fellow in the world, [whose] lively blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, and endearing manners, inspired the tendered affection" in all who saw him. Yet when the Creature narrates his encounter with this boy, we get a very different picture. Despite being shunned by his creator and rejected by a household he subsequently tries to befriend, as well as shot by the father of a girl he saved from drowning, the Creature nevertheless is inspired to make one more effort to befriend a human being when he spots a beautiful young boy alone in the countryside surrounding Geneva:

"Suddenly, as I gazed on him, an idea seized me, that this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity. If, therefore, I could seize him and educate him as my companion and friend, I should not be so desolate in this peopled earth."

As bad luck would have it, this angelic boy is none other than William Frankenstein, brother of the Creature's despised "master." Even before this revelation, however, the Creature's attempt to forge a connection with a seemingly innocent child goes badly awry, for as soon as William sees his would-be captor's deformed features, he cries out:

"Let me go . . . monster! Ugly wretch! You wish to eat me, and tear me to pieces -- You are an ogre -- Let me go, or I will tell my papa. . . . Hideous monster!"

Shelley doesn't comment on this moment; part of her novel's formal genius is that it foregoes omniscient narration in favor of nested first-person accounts, each of which is significantly flawed and potentially untrustworthy. But readers are clearly invited to wonder where and when William learned to identify external deformity with internal depravity, and what kinds of socialization (fairy tales? children's games? taunting?) he has already undergone to supply him with such hurtful language. Even when the Creature explains his high-minded intentions, William is unconvinced. His cries for help, combined with the Creature's anger and disappointment at being insulted by a child, and the revelation of the child's true identity, quickly lead to tragedy; in the Creature's ambiguous words, "I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet."

What do we learn from this incident? For Shelley's original early 19th-century readers, William's quick recoil from the Creature's overtures may not have seemed problematic; indeed, it may have underscored early Victorian ideals regarding children's supposedly natural innocence. From today's vantage point, however, William's denunciations sound less like the spontaneous expressions of an innocent child, and more like the insults of a battle-hardened zombie-hunter. We may not be ready to see hideous zombie children roaming our screens, but almost 200 years ago, Mary Shelley was already exposing the limits of society's tolerance for difference as well as probing our responses to scenes of violence. Hideously transformed children are still mostly forbidden by our aesthetic norms, but Shelley's novel reminds us that monstrosity takes many forms, and the most obvious are not always the most dangerous.