My new book is a YA novel called The Monster of Her Age; about a young woman who played the child-monster in an indie Oz horror movie, and who at 17-years-old is still dealing with the emotional repercussions of the traumatic filming experience, and the spotlight being thrust upon her at such a young age, and in a truly terrifying role.
To celebrate The Monster of Her Age – a book that is an ode to horror movies, features a fictional Australian film history, a made-up Tasmanian family of thespians, and a Feminist Horror Film Club – I thought I’d draw up a list of some of my favourite child-actors featured in classic horror movies, even those that have complicated behind-the-scenes stories.
Exorcist director William Friedkin once said he cast then 13-year-old Linda Blair in the role of a possessed child because; “She was the only one of all the young girls I felt would not be destroyed by this experience.” Blair may not have been ‘destroyed’ by the film, but it was certainly a harrowing experience; freezing cold temperature on-set when Blair was only dressed in a night-dress, being strapped to a harness in the scenes where she’s bedridden and possessed, and an intense make-up and prosthetics process. Not to mention after the film came out, Blair also found herself being asked uncomfortable questions by media and journalists, about the complex themes in the story – and copping criticisms for how terrifying the film was. It seems people misplaced the fear they felt in the film onto then 13-year-old Blair, and she received threats for promoting Satanism among other things; to the point that she needed police to keep vigil outside her house for a time. Blair’s experiences and the ways she can now talk about them are one of the reasons I thought to include a very apt quote from her at the start of my book; “The Exorcist has been a very interesting cross to bear.”
The American horror-gothic tale based on Anne Rice’s book is one of the most iconic child actor film-roles. Dunst was 11-years-old during filming, and 12 when the movie came out; and her parents wouldn’t let her watch it upon release because they thought it would be too scary for her. The role also became instantaneously notorious, for the fact that Kirsten Dunst shared her first on-screen kiss in the film with co-star Brad Pitt, with whom she had an 18-year age difference (and it could have been worse; Dunst’s character Claudia is five-years-old in the Rice novel!). In subsequent interviews about the film, Dunst has revealed the scene made her uncomfortable. She once remarked: "I thought it was gross, that Brad had cooties. I mean, I was twelve."
The film’s writer and director, Guillermo del Toro, has said that this 2001 movie is a prequel to his 2006 award-winning Pan's Labyrinth. Both films spin around the Spanish Civil War, and are focused on children uncovering magic, underworlds, ghostly figures, and hauntings while the cruel subterfuge and survival strategizing of the adults threatens to destroy them. Fernando Tielve played the 12-year-old protagonist Carlos in Devil’s Backbone, and it’s since been reported that in order to make Tielve cry if he was unable to, Guillermo del Toro would complain of his acting skills out loud and express his disappointment with his work. This is quite a common occurrence on film-sets (though I do hope it’s part of a bygone era of working with child-actors) even if Tielve did submit a stunning performance for one so young. In fact – one of Hollywood’s most famous child-actors of all time, Shirley Temple, had a similar “method” imposed upon her during filming, as revealed by her co-star Adolphe Menjou who once confessed that a director got her to cry on cue by telling the terrified Shirley that her mother had been "kidnapped by an ugly man, all green with blood-red eyes" - and then kept his cameras turning.
Maybe a sign of changing-times in Hollywood and filmic practices, especially where young people are concerned, is the story of Deaf actor Millicent Simmonds and a stand-out performance in A Quiet Place I & II. The films are about a family struggling for survival in a world where most humans have been killed by blind but noise-sensitive creatures. They are forced to communicate in sign language to keep the creatures at bay, and 15-year-old Simmonds plays Regan Abbott; the teenage deaf daughter of the adult leads. Writer and Director John Krasinski said he sought a Deaf actor for the role; "...for many reasons; I didn't want a non-deaf actress pretending to be deaf ... a deaf actress would help my knowledge and my understanding of the situations tenfold. I wanted someone who lives it and who could teach me about it on set." That lived experience and intimate understanding comes across in the film, tenfold – and all of the actors have since spoken about how learning ASL (American Sign Language) bonded them on-set; https://youtu.be/g-Q6wqxy_ls. Simmonds effectively took on multiple roles during filming, not just in her breakout performance – but actively teaching and correcting the ASL all the hearing actors were using. So effective was Simmonds in her dual-roles as actor and expert, that the showrunners decided to show her scenes involving ASL without providing subtitles so viewers could focus on figuring out the sign language. The role and responsibility has led Simmonds to aspire and strive to see more representation in all forms of media; ‘What I want to do is encourage more of that, more deaf presence in TV, movies, acting, modelling - that's really what I want to work toward.’
Danielle Binks is a writer, reviewer, agent and book blogger who lives on the Mornington Peninsula. In 2017, she edited and contributed to Begin, End, Begin, an anthology of new Australian young adult writing inspired by the #LoveOzYA movement, which won the ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children (Ages 13+) and was shortlisted in the 2018 Gold Inky Awards. The Year the Maps Changed, Danielle's debut middle-grade novel, was a CBCA Notable Book for Younger Readers 2021, longlisted for the ABIA Book of the Year Award for Younger Children 2021, shortlisted for the Readings Children's Book Prize 2021 and longlisted for the Indie Book Awards 2021. The Monster of Her Age is Danielle's debut YA novel.