Book Review:

 The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema, by Jessica Balanzategui

Reviewed by Anna Mae Duane

University of Connecticut

Review of Jessica Balanzategui's The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema: Ghosts of Futurity at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 340 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-9462986510).

Even the most casual consumer of horror films is familiar with the trope of the creepy child. Whether inherently evil (as in The Omen, or Rosemary’s Baby), or somehow a pawn of larger forces (The Shining, Pet Semetary), the pairing of children and danger scare us. The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema argues that our collective terror at the sight of dangerous/ endangered children does not simply emerge from our collective instinct to protect innocence. Rather, this book suggests, uncanny children terrify us because they—in true uncanny fashion—reveal truths that we are afraid of seeing. Children are often in great peril precisely because adults want to pretend that there is nothing to fear. 

As one might imagine from the title, Balanzategui draws from psychoanalysis—particularly Freud’s concept of unheimlich—to theorize the uncanny child as it has appeared in American, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese horror films. Yet this sophisticated and insightful text avoids the pitfalls of ahistoricism that can accompany some psychoanalytic readings. Balanzategui does not use the idea of the uncanny to impose one theoretical structure across a broad cultural and chronological range. Rather, she brings the concept into conversation with both queer theory and nuanced cultural-historical analysis to explain how horror films use children to evoke the dread of unsettled time within national obsessions with their own progress. 

Queer theory, which has offered particularly powerful critiques of the sort of “natural” progress that children are used to represent, allows Balanzategui to demonstrate how the uncanny child produces a sense of timelessness that makes audiences uneasy. In particular, she draws from the work of Lee Edelman and Kathryn Bond Stockton and their critiques of the inexorable pressure to “grow up” into a particular form of heteronormative reproductive futurity. Children, we like to tell ourselves, represent the reassurance that life will go on, that our current patterns will continue unabated. “Yet uncanny child films,” Balanzategui argues, “trouble our unthinking equation of childhood with progress and futurity, as these eerie visions of childhood instead disturb the constrictive temporal structures with which the child is usually intertwined” (21). Instead, these films confront us with “the horrifying qualities of uncanny child figures” who exert “resistance to natural, cultural and individual ‘growth’” (22). 

The terms within which that growth is defined are shaped by the particular cultural traumas that these diverse films express. For example, the uncanny child in American films of the 1980s tap into worries about a disjointed and uncertain national future that arose as familial and international orders underwent dramatic changes. Spanish films, on the other hand utilized the uncanny child to tap into past traumas that had been long repressed under Franco’s regime. In Japan, the child’s uncanny nature was again oriented towards the horror of stunted development, which tapped into Japan’s “quasi-sacred beliefs” in the importance of rapid growth and eventual success in the post-war years. 

The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema is organized to reflect both these cultural and historical trends, with each section dedicated to tracing the chronological developments of particular national anxieties. The opening section features two chapters dedicated to the American horror film. The first examines the child’s capacity to express the disorienting cultural shifts of the 80s, while the second half of the section explores how the child manifested the fears that gripped the nation as the millennium approached. Section Two turns to Spain to explore how the uncanny child channeled Spain’s traumatic past as understanding of that past evolved from the 90s to the 2000s. Japanese horror is the subject of Section Three, in which two chapters consider how the child first tapped into anxieties about national progress. The second half of the section explores how the child evolved as a site of disjointed memory, threatening national unity with alternate memories of the Japanese post-war narrative. Lastly, the book considers the transnational influence of these cinematic children by exploring how, in the post-millennial years, these nations have remade each other’s films, collectively suggesting the emergence of a “post-modern conception of childhood that resists traditional ideas” about the child’s ability to modulate adult fears about the power of the past to destroy the future (27). 

One of the most impressive chapters in the text comes in the first section, wherein Balanzategui offers a virtuosic reading of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that demonstrates how little Danny’s relationship with his invisible but all-knowing friend Tony provides insight into “the repressed pasts of both the hotel and his father’s psyche” (52). Even as he allows us to see the horrors of the past, Tony also represents the adult future latent within Danny, and ultimately within all children.  “Thus,” Balanzategui argues, “the Danny-Tony dyad reinforces the overarching implications in The Shining that the traumas of childhood” are entangled with an adult’s own dark history. The terror Danny invokes, then, is not because somehow the young boy is “possessed or evil,” but rather because he the child “is impossibly intertwined with yet simultaneously impenetrable to the adult’s psyche” (52). In other words, the uncanny child represents what adults already know but wish they didn’t.  

This theoretically sophisticated and narratively compelling text has much to offer film scholars, childhood studies scholars, and fans of the horror film genre. Through careful and sophisticated analysis, The Uncanny Child manages to illuminate an understudied yet ubiquitous trope in ways that will shape discussions of the genre going forward. 

-18 Apr. 2020