Kids Draw Weird Shit, but It Doesn't Make Them Murderers

When I was seven, I created a 24-page book of drawings in which people were being horrifically murdered, but I turned out OK.

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Oct 31 2014, 1:25pm

All illustrations courtesy of the author, aged seven

Alan Moore wrote that school is where you go to learn punctuality, obedience, and the acceptance of monotony, and if this is true, there is no greater Exhibit A than a plastic plate I made when I was seven. It was one of those melamine picture plates on which you draw a special form with felt tips, then post the form away, and a month later your drawing comes back magically printed onto a plastic plate. It was one of those "treasured mementos of childhood" that just tend to follow you through life because your parents can't bring themselves to throw them out. Except mine did. Because it was shit.

Deep down, my parents knew I was capable of something so much more interesting and raw than a generic picture of a pink heart-shaped flower, a tree, and a sun wearing Ray-Bans. They knew that because I had already made my first book, just weeks before:

It was a compendium of all the ways a human being could die other than "at home, in peace, surrounded by loved ones." I drew it on an upturned cardboard box next to my dad's desk with some birthday felt tips. When finished, it was 24 pages of drawings in which people were being horrifically murdered. They were "basht" to death, cut up while they were sleeping, murdered in the woods by the "hich-hiker" murderer (this was Australia, it was a big thing in 1993), boiled by witches, tortured to death, buried alive, maimed by zombies, etc.

But did that necessarily mean that I am insane?

If I'd created this murder catalogue at school, there can be no doubt that I would have landed myself and my parents a meeting with the principal. My dad, however, thought it was brilliant and collected it into a ring binder that he would show off to visitors. He knew that it was just a case of his adorable young daughter mimicking what he did for a living.

At the time, dad was drawing the comic From Hell, and had pictures of butchered Victorian prostitutes pinned to his drawing board as reference. There's even a drawing where we worked off the same still life: a kidney on a handkerchief-or, if we go with my title, "rotton kidney on a hang kachef." He'd bought it from the butchers' and laid it out in the sitting room to illustrate the kidney allegedly cut out of one of the Ripper victims and posted to George Lusk in a box. My version was more realistic because I included the flies.

Films have a very particular way of treating kids who draw death scenes with their crayons. If I were a kid in a movie, I would have grown into a homicidal maniac-or at the very least warranted a violent exorcism. But I turned out OK. Which makes me wonder why there's this movie cliché of spooky kids drawing spooky drawings and turning out to be wrong'uns. 

Horror-movie reviewer Kim Newman says the first movie he remembers the spooky kids' drawing trope appearing in was Dario Argento's 1975 giallo film Profondo Rosso (Deep Red). In it, David Hemmings investigates a series of murders, traces a bunch of leads back to a murder house, and finds a kid's drawing of someone stabbing a man to death. He thinks the kid (now an adult) is the murderer for a bit-these pictures being proof enough-but it turns out he'd seen his mom kill her husband years previously and drew a picture of it happening. 

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Luana Lewis, films read far too much into kids drawing spooky stuff: "I wouldn't draw any conclusions based on the drawings alone," she told me. "It would flag up for me that the child might have witnessed or been exposed to violence, and I would ask about that. I would also wonder if the child was exposed to age-inappropriate programs, etc. But I wouldn't assume there was an emotional problem in the absence of other information or symptoms."

Newman has his own theory about why the combination of children and horror films is so powerful. "Society expects us to love children, when sometimes, especially with other people's horrible kids, it's not possible. The meaning of the title The Turn of the Screw [the Henry James gothic novella adapted several times for the screen] is that any given ghost story or tragedy is more upsetting if children are involved (it's an extra turn of a thumbscrew)." Basically, kids are supposed to need our protection, and all it takes is a drawing or something that shows they know something you don't to subvert that. 

The creepy-kids-drawing thing has turned up in so many films that someone made a creepy-kids-drawing mash-up, spanning from Children of the Corn (1984) to Sinister (2013). In the 1988 British film Paperhouse, the drawings are the cause of the horror rather than a reflection of it. A girl draws her estranged father in the house looking angry, thinks better of it, and crosses his face out-he turns up both furious and blind. Yet anyone who knows the genre well will tell you that, more often than not, these kids don't turn out to be plain old murderers-there's always another aspect. "There are drawings in The Amityville Horror, The Orphanage, etc, but none of these come from inherently evil children," said Josh Saco, who runs Cigarette Burns. "More often than not, the child is possessed in some way or another. For obvious reasons people steer clear of making children actual bastards."

Whole books have been written on child psychology through the art kids produce. But as far as Dr. Lewis is concerned, there's no clear causality between drawing disturbed images as a child and growing up emotionally disturbed: "If a happy child with secure attachments drew a picture such as yours, it may well be they have a rich imagination, artistic talent, or have been reading or watching some gruesome material."

That'll be my dad's dead prostitutes, then.

Follow Hayley Campbell on Twitter.

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