Friday, 25 April 2008

Fear of Children, Changelings and Burden of Proof?

It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched The Orphanage and I’m still sometimes finding myself checking dark nooks and crannies for spooky kids as I move about the house after dark.

In other words, it was an awesome horror movie and I’m overjoyed that I got to see it. I used to be terrified of scary films as a kid (to the extent of fleeing the house rather than finish watching a film even as naff as Alligator), but I thought I had gotten jaded in the years since, most horror movies just strike me as either icky, a slightly nauseating experience like being forced to handle slugs, or shocking - but cheaply so, like the dream sequences in the remake of The Omen, they’re good at making me jump but as I don’t have any religious beliefs what’s there to provoke any sort of uneasy thoughts beyond the initial shocks and violence?

So horror movies either left me feeling unmoved, or left me acknowledging that they had shocked me, but not for any thought-provoking reason. Rather just because they had used the same crass tricks as a ghost train, or someone who knows when to shout “Boo!” Slasher movies never did anything for me because documentaries about killers are so much more disturbing, movies that rely on demons and devils never move me because I’m not a believer in heaven and hell – but a good ghost story can still do it for some reason.

The Orphanage was clever, and it left me feeling genuinely spooked for the first time in years. In most horror movies I find I stop sympathising with the protagonists if they persist in examining weird lights and rustling bushes, but in The Orphanage you knew why the heroine had to persist in roaming around her sprawling, creaking, shadow-filled house. Instead of thinking “oh don’t be so stupid” all I thought was “oh – you are being really brave!”

My favourite thing about the film was that is eschewed the use of “evil” (as in an inborn-maliciousness or a deliberate defiance of a commonly understood morality) as a motivator for its antagonists or as an explanation for their behaviour. Even the most irredeemable of the characters (some are more vindictive and unreasonable than others, of course) win some sympathy, and even though some the acts committed in the film are very cruel, injurious and unjust – the circumstances leading up to these acts render them, in the wider picture, understandable to a certain degree.

The worst thing about stories you enjoy tends to be the ending, but the resolution to the film was also satisfying. For a while it looked like it might be unremittingly grim with no sort of resolution, but it also threatened to resolve things with a happy ending. However, it managed to negotiate a bittersweet compromise, which felt apt.

Still, I was rather interested in what it was about the film that left me feeling quite so disturbed. I came across this review in the Guardian that I think may be on to something.

A sinuous modern twist is applied to the classic ghost story form by screenwriter Sergio Sánchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona. Their chiller, set in contemporary Spain, is involving and disturbing, and revives the genre's great theme: our profound yet unacknowledged fear of children. We are afraid of their vulnerability, which is our vulnerability, and the mysterious otherness of their private, mental worlds.

And this in turn got me thinking about the most disturbing of acts blamed on fairies, and a theme of the Skriker and also something that may go on to give some form of explanation for (or at least provide an influence to) the tale of Yallery Brown, which I was puzzling over a month ago.

In her essay for Fairies and the Folklore of Disability Susan Schoon Eberly discusses Changelings and how myths surrounding them may have derived from stories of child sacrifice. In particular she mentions that “the tale of Yallery Brown may in fact tell of a child left to die under a stone”, and talks about how in certain points in Britain’s history children may have been killed or abandoned in order to perform such services as the placation of fertility spirits or other sacrificial functions. Roman historical records apparently mention how deformed children, or those that display signs of congenital disability, might even have been set aside and raised so that an emergency human sacrifice would be on hand the next time there was a natural disaster or bad harvest. I’m certain the pre-Roman tribes of the British Isles hardly treated disabled offspring with greater care.

On Peta Jinnath Andersen’s blog there is a in-depth discussion of some of the details Eberly raises, as well as interesting thoughts on Changelings in general. There’s far more there than I want to go into now but of particular interest to the Yallery Brown story is the examination of the characteristics of various congenital disabilities and how they compare to the reported descriptions of various types of fairy.

Progeria is a condition that is noted for having some striking similarities to Yallery Brown’s appearance. Wikipedia gives the following description:

Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome is an extremely rare condition in which physical aspects of aging are greatly accelerated, and few affected children live past age 13. About 1 in 8 million babies are born with this condition. It is a genetic condition, but occurs sporadically and is usually not inherited in families.

Andersen’s blog post also mentions that fairy lore may have existed as a kind of covenant between members of poor communities in the past. They provided a way to educate people about poisonous plants and dangerous environments, or to encourage everyone in the community to be hygienic and hard working. As these people didn’t have the benefit of a modern education, and as ancient religious texts may not have given advice literally relevant to some of the situations a society faced in the past, perhaps putting “the fear of the fairies” into people was a good way to enforce a relevant set of values and behaviours. The bible may not literally tell you to keep your milk churn clean or your coulter sharp, so let’s invent and tell some tales that do.

One of the situations that probably sorely tested a poor community in the past was the prospect of raising a disabled child, and this may have been another root of tales about Changelings. In poor communities it may have been seen as socially acceptable (if not socially responsible) to blame a sickening or disabled child on the fairies, to the extent of accusing them of replacing the child with one of their own, and so rid yourself of the child by subjecting it to the ordeals that fairy lore proscribes in such circumstances – ordeals that almost certainly end with the death of the unwanted baby.

In short, beliefs about Changelings may well have been used to justify the murder of children.

I have mixed feelings about pondering on academic explanations for beliefs about fairies, not because I believe in fairies (I find a stated belief in fairies either deceitful and cynical or extremely naive) but because I think it might do something to the appreciation of the stories. At the end of the day I think it’s important to remember that Yallery Brown was a story told by a labourer to Mary Balfour, a collector of Lincolnshire folktales, therefore we can only infer in the vaguest manner about what might have provided the inspiration for the story. The web is full of references to Yallery Brown being a Yarthkin who didn’t receive proper sacrifices in the past, and so became bitter – but there is no evidence for this being the case, it is simply an attempt by people who figure that such a lack of respect might turn a Yarthkin bad in the same way that mistreated Brownies are said to become malicious.

The startling thing about the tale is Yallery’s malice and how relentlessly he seems to punish Tom Tiver. Because his malice is so remarkable it is tempting to find a reason for it, but I don’t want to loose sight of the fact that, as far as I am aware, all a modern audience knows about Yallery Brown is as a result of the record of the labourer’s tale.

Perhaps it was a tale handed down throughout the years that has, at its root, a story of a young child suffering from Progeria being abandoned. It may even carry a warning about refusing to abandon such children (the life of someone who tries to care for a child with a congenital illness in such an environment is probably going to be one of unrewarded toil).

Just as easily though it could be a spooky tale told by a teller canny enough to know about how audiences react to portrayals of the childlike juxtaposed against the tales of the uncanny – just like the makers of The Orphanage (presuming, of course, that the makers of the film had no ulterior motive or message that I have managed to miss).

This turned into a huge and somewhat incoherant ramble - and I'm not even sure what the whole point of it is. I suppose I will try and sum it up by saying that whilst it is very satisfying to try and think up real world reasons behind folktales the evidence behind such reasoning is scant and I feel that it is overly bold of some commentators to treat it as an open and shut case.