Plot summary: After the passing of her mother, nine-year-old Emily devises an imaginary friend, Charlie, whose influence over Emily troubles her father. When people close to Emily begin getting hurt, David must ask: is Emily behind this … or is Charlie real?
Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of mental illness, suicide, murder, animal abuse, paedophilia, spousal/family violence and horror themes. There are also heavy spoilers for the film Hide and Seek.
Tragedy strikes when Alison is found dead in the bath on the first night of the new year. Emily becomes almost catatonic with grief. Deciding that a change of scenery will help Emily’s recovery, newly widowed David moves them to the picturesque town of Woodland in upstate New York, which is nearly deserted outside of the tourist season. As they settle in, Emily begins chattering about a new imaginary friend she met in the woods near their house.
Just before I turned sixteen, I realized two very important things. First, that I was not straight (by which I secretly meant “absolutely and utterly gay”), and second, that Famke Janssen was the actual most attractive human in the universe. Having just about worn out my VHS tapes of X-Men, X2, House on Haunted Hill and The Faculty, I was delighted when I saw that a new film featuring my perfect woman was coming to theatres, and near my sixteenth birthday, too!
Since I would have watched Famke Janssen in just about anything (case in point: just two years ago, I actually paid money to see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It was atrocious. But Famke was BABEN in it!), Hide and Seek could have been about practically anything, and I still would have gone to see it. But since Famke is only in the film for about fifteen minutes (as David’s friend and colleague Katherine, who serves as Emily’s psychologist), I had to find other stuff to take some sort of interest in, and so noticed that one of the film’s main characters is traumatised and mentally ill girl with the same first name as me. Emily is only carefree and innocent in the film’s very first scenes, playing at the park with her mother. For the rest of the film, she is depicted as an intensely worrying, perhaps even dangerous child.
At age sixteen, this film about the death of childhood appealed enormously because I could feel my own innocence coming to an end. I was buckling under unbearable pressure to be a good little girl, to have emotions no more complicated than people think children’s emotions are. This was becoming steadily more impossible as I began admitting to myself that I felt anger, resentment, rejection and – gasp – physical attraction to other human beings! In this frame of mind, seeing a miserable and terrified character who was younger than me felt something like being heard.
Dakota Fanning is excellent in the role of Emily Callaway. Hide and Seek (along with Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds, also released in 2005) is an perfect example of Fanning’s childhood screen persona. Made up to look hollow-cheeked, pale and haunted, Fanning’s character
reacts to but does not dominate the main action, serving to make others confront their inadequacies. The plots revolve around the lives of her high-status co-stars whose characters drive the action and undergo the greatest change. The family appears to be troubled at first; then the real troubles – brought about by dangerous threats from the outside world – begin (Merlock-Jackson 2009, 215-216).
In his fantastic book Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, Kendall Phillips proposes that horror films which resonate with audiences tend to give voice to fears which are at the forefront of our minds. Despite being a critical flop, Hide and Seek grossed $122 650 962 worldwide and so can be presumed to have appealed widely to audiences. How can we make make sense of this successful psychological horror thriller about a traumatised little girl?
First, we have to consider what is at stake in making the main character a girl. How do we define girlhood? For the purposes of my writing, I define girls as being people who define themselves as female and who are aged eighteen and under (though the transition between the late teen years and a woman’s early twenties shows that this definition can be nebulous). I enjoy focusing on both adolescent and prepubescent girls for the reason that I think that girls of all ages are both subject and resistant to the forces of patriarchy working on their lives. As people who have been following this blog for awhile might have noticed, I generally enjoy studying texts where finding a boyfriend or becoming popular are not the main goals in a girl character’s life. Part of this is due to sheer selfishness on my part: as someone who grew up poor, gay and nerdy, stories about rich gorgeous straight girls finding boyfriends (or rich straight women finding husbands) rarely felt particularly relevant to me, and so are unlikely to capture my interest. The other part is a little more noble: I believe that unless people have a diverse range of representations to draw on, the possibilities they are able to imagine, comprehend and relate to will be limited. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with stories about princesses, for instance, but if princesses are all you hear about, and all you can imagine, that’s going to limit what you can picture for yourself, and this may close you off to some wonderful life experiences. The same would be true if the only stories girls got to hear were about professional sports players, or CEOs, or lady knights. That’s why I try to draw attention to alternative representations of girlhood.
And why girlhood, as an object of study? Girls are children, and so embody both the “threat and … potential” of societal change (Jenkins, 1998, p. 3). Girls are also women, and according to Dyhouse, since the Victorian era, the fabric of society has been “seen to depend on a right ordering of male and female, and on a father’s protection of daughters” (2014, p. 8). Since girls are simultaneously children and women, they are considered doubly vulnerable. As both children and women, they are also considered doubly the property of men – or, more abstractly, patriarchy – since they represent both the future and order, and the potential for each of these to go awry. Therefore, the ways that they are represented and/or addressed media, culture and policy provide a fascinating window into the anxieties and preoccupations of societies and cultures.
So, if girl children have a high ideological value attached to them because of their perceived vulnerability, how are they typically represented in horror? Children have been consistently used as symbols in horror films such as The Bad Seed, Night of the Living Dead, Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Shining, Children of the Corn, The Good Son, Orphan and The Children. Audiences and storytellers seem to find the contrast of innocence with depravity irresistible. Leslie-McCarthy argues that:
The evil child subgenre, drawing upon cultural anxieties in the 1960s and 1970s about loss of parental control, the rise of youth culture, and the threat to the traditional notions of family and gender roles posed by the crisis in patriarchy … embodied the fears of a society who were increasingly seeing their own children as a threat (2012, 2).
In films such as The Bad Seed, Hide and Seek and Orphan, the childhood trappings positioned as spectacularly creepy are those which belong to girlhood, not boyhood. I suspect that this could be because the people who write and direct horror films are so often men. Girlhood is outside of most filmmakers’ experience, and so dolls, nursery rhymes and skipping chants are easier to couch as sinister than action figures or sports equipment.
What’s more sinister, though, are little girls who don’t behave properly, who warp our expectations of how serene and innocent girls ought to be. This is particularly apparent in a scene where a little girl named Amy is invited over to play with Emily. Amy is dressed in shades of pink and purple, smiling politely, clutching a doll to her chest. Emily is wearing drab shades of brown and blue and stares in an unwelcoming manner.
Upstairs in her bedroom, Emily sneers at Amy’s attempts to engage with her, and destroys Amy’s doll. Afterward, Emily coldly tells her father, “I don’t need any more friends.” Throughout the film, Emily rejects and then mutilates her dolls, takes pleasure in skewering a live, squirming beetle on a hook and drawing disturbing pictures as she becomes more and more troubled. She also performs sexuality in a way people find inappropriate in young girls, by arriving to dinner with her father and his date dressed in Alison’s clothing and jewellery, and by smirking to her father that her late mother would have preferred Charlie to David because “Charlie would have satisfied her.”
These displays of precocious sexuality and sexual knowledge are made even more troubling by the film’s evocation of “stranger danger” – many of the adults Emily and David meet in their new hometown appraise Emily visually, staring lingeringly at her and remarking on how pretty she is. Some even try to talk to Emily while her father is otherwise occupied, leading David to suspect that Charlie must be a “sick” neighbour with an unhealthy interest in his nine-year-old daughter.
Outside of this unsettling behaviour, I’m inclined to notice that as the film progresses, Emily starts acting in ways that are considered more like a teenager than a little girl – she becomes sullen, withdrawn, secretive and mistrustful of her father. He tries to read the diary he gave her, in to get some insight into what she is feeling, only to find that she has not transcribed her thoughts and feelings as he asked. All the pages contain is a flip book of Alison cutting her wrists in the bath.Thus, we see that the film plays on the age-old fear of a father’s failure to protect his child – whether from trauma, abuse, paedophiles, murderers or simply growing up too soon.
However, the horror of the film is actually twofold, since the malevolent force corrupting Emily comes from within the hallowed American family. The film presents the possibility that Emily is the murderer or at least an accomplice, or that Charlie is one of the inhabitants of the Callaway family’s new hometown. In the end, it goes with the “twist” ending that David and Charlie are one and the same. David murdered Alison after he witnessed her having sex with another man at a New Year’s Eve party. As a result of his monstrous act, he manifested an alternate personality, who befriended Emily and began murdering anyone who might make David happy or remove Emily from the house. Thus, what David has failed to protect Emily from is himself.
I really loathe these kinds of endings. This scaremongering shock tactic cheerfully ignores the reality that mentally ill people are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. However, thanks to the strength of Dakota Fanning’s performance, it does give the film a certain rewatch value – it’s very satisfying watching Emily interact with David, knowing that she is trying to figure out whether David is aware that he and Charlie share a body. For example, when David asks Emily “Is Charlie in the room right now?” she hesitates (seeming to wonder whether this is a trick question) before smiling and saying gently, “I think he’s sleeping.”
The film has about five different endings, which can be accessed on the DVD. It’s like the film’s writers couldn’t decide whether they wanted to doom Emily or save Emily, or if Emily’s trauma and mental illness was tragic or sinister. In the ending I saw in the cinema and on DVD, Katherine comes to tuck Emily into bed. Emily asks her to leave the door open, but Katherine tells her she cannot and locks her in, revealing that Emily is living in a children’s psychiatric ward. In this ending, Katherine walks away with another doctor, swearing that she will not give up on Emily. In another filmed ending, Emily is shown inside her hospital room, playing Hide and Seek and smiling in recognition at her reflection in the mirror, implying that she has inherited her father’s condition. In the US theatrical ending, Emily is shown living with Katherine and drawing a self-portrait where she has two heads, also suggesting that she has an alternative personality.
The endings where Emily exhibits symptoms of multiple personalities present the possibility that the darkness inside Emily has escaped people’s notice, that she can never free herself from it – or worse, that she is purposely concealing it until such a time that she can perpetrate violence against other people. While Hide and Seek did give me a point of identification as a mentally ill teenager, it’s not going to win any awards for a sensitive and nuanced representation of the realities of living with mental illness. Still, rewatching the film as an adult, I also feel that it could provide a terrific point of identification for anyone who had to put up with unpredictable parents as a child or teenager. Emily’s bizarre behaviour, which the story initially posits as evidence of her having been warped by her mother’s suicide, is slowly revealed to stem from her never knowing whether the man in her father’s body is stern, concerned David or mischievous, murderous Charlie.
As hackneyed as the film is, its twofold horror at the failure of a father to protect his daughter (from himself) provides an excellent focal point for a discussion of the perceived failure of American masculinity and fatherhood at the turn of the millennium, as well as the impact of mental illness, trauma and violence on children and families.
- Phillips, Kendall R. 2005. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. London: Praeger.
- Scahill, Andrew. 2015. The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema: Youth Rebellion and Queer Spectatorship. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Dyhouse, Carol. 2014. Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women. London: Zed Books.
- Jenkins, Henry. 1998. Introduction: Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths. In The Children’s Culture Reader. New York: New York University Press, pp. 1-37.
- Leslie-McCarthy, Sage. 2012. “‘I See Dead People’: Ghost-Seeing Children as Mediums and Mediators of Communication in Contemporary Horror Cinema.” In Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema, edited by Debbie C. Olson, Andrew Scahill. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 1-18.
- Merlock-Jackson, Kathy. 2009. “Screaming Her Way into the Hearts of Audiences: Dakota Fanning as Post-9/11 Child Star.” In The Impact of 9/11 on the Media, Arts, and Entertainment: The Day that Changed Everything? edited by Matthew J. Morgan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 209-220.