“We love to play games with our children,” generalizes the official website for the new show, The Whispers, premiering Monday, June 1 on ABC. “But what happens when someone else starts to play with them too? Someone we don't know.”
At a time when Free-Range parents quote statistics proving that American’s children are safer than they’ve ever been, while their helicopter brethren look for even more way to protect their own offspring because, you know, better safe than sorry… and police across the country feel perfectly justified in arresting parents who let their children walk outside alone, ABC has obviously decided to dive head-first into the Parental Paranoia pool.
According to ads and trailers, The Whispers is the story of kids in the Washington DC area (all are, amazingly enough, white, despite our nation’s capitol actually housing the 4th largest Black population in the country) who suddenly start chatting with their invisible, imaginary friends. And said invisible, imaginary friends are telling them to hurt their parents. One moppet rigs a tree house so that her mom falls through and goes hurtling to the ground. And then there’s the president’s little girl…
Creepy children possessed by malevolent forces – whether of the ghost or alien variety – are a historically familiar theme in the movies. 1956 gave us The Bad Seed (pig-tailed little devil driven by the bad genetics of her serial killer biological grandma). 1961 brought Village of the Damned (aliens impregnate all the women in town, who give birth to creepily blond, glowy-eyed monsters; it was remade in 1995). The Innocents (is the hysterically frigid governess just imaging her charges are possessed by a pair of dead loves or is she the only one who can see the truth?) came in 1961, with The Exorcist (girl, devil, green projectile vomit) in 1973, The Omen (devil-boy and his demon-dog) in 1976 (and 2006). 1989 got two Stephen King adaptations, Pet Sematary (toddler hit by truck comes back… crankier) and Children of the Corn (are these kids really, really Free Range, or is He Who Walks Behind the Rows the ultimate Helicopter Parent?). Finally, in 2013, Mama demonstrated what might happen if you leave your children alone – in this case, in the woods for five years as opposed to at home for fifteen minutes. Someone else might come to watch over them. Someone you don’t know….
At the same time, television tended to stay away from the haunted child theme, save for a random episode of Star Trek (children possessed by divorce attorney Melvin Belli – no, I am not kidding) or a Monster of the Week on Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel.
In 2012, however, the “reality” series My Little Terror was announced, promising to “show what happens to children in the aftermath of paranormal activity within the home. It appears only one episode was produced and aired exclusively online.
2013 brought Lifetime’s similar venture, Ghost Inside My Child, set to “explores many parents' most closely guarded secret: Their child is a reincarnation of someone who died violently and came back to life.” According to one participating mother, evidence of this phenomenon came from the fact that “(My daughter) would just be happily playing with me and then all of a sudden, she would start to be upset and very emotional, just out of the blue. She would suddenly start crying. Nothing had happened, there was no reason - she would just get more and more emotional.”
(If your child has also ever engaged in such unprecedented and aberrant behavior, you may want to contact the show’s casting department.)
But juvenile supernatural matters didn’t really hit critical mass until 2015, when The Whispers was set to debut the same summer as the second season of Extant (the shows share an executive producer, Steven Spielberg). Last year, Extant told the story of Molly (Halle Berry), an astronaut who returned from a year-long solo mission in outer space, pregnant. The “baby” turned out to be a homicidal alien who can control people’s minds, leading them to see what they want to see, and making them do whatever it needs.
Also now playing at a theater near you is a remake of yet another Spielberg production, the 1982 horror classic, Poltergeist, the movie that made an entire generation terrified of toy clowns, sprawling suburban sub-developments and analog television static (good thing the government took care of the biggest threat first).
Meanwhile, over on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, viewers learned that Vanessa’s (Eva Green) possession by the devil began when she was a little girl – and she hasn’t quite managed to shake it since.
So what’s going on here? Why the sudden panic over children being taken over? And why now? Is it merely the logical, 21st century extension of a paranoia that first reared it’s head during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War (if your child could be taken over by a demon or a ghost, what’s to stop them from becoming… Communists)?
Is ISIS/Ebola/Recession the new Red Scare? Or is it something a lot less political, and a lot more personal?