One of the hot back-to-school tickets at the theaters right now is The Possession, which is based on the true(ish) tale of the Dybbuk box, the supposedly haunted wine cabinet that became the first ghost story of the Internet age. (It began in 2001, and the actual Dybbuk box has been sold several times on eBay.) According to legend, the cabinet contained a dybbuk, a ghost of Jewish folklore, that haunted a series of owners, each of whom unloaded the cabinet on the next unsuspecting owner until its final owner had a rabbi seal it back up and hide it away for good. Those owners complained of physical ailments — hair falling out, hives — but the dybbuk box of The Possession details a far more ominous consequence: demonic possession of a little girl.
The little girl is terrifying even in the trailer — you saw those fingers coming up through her throat past her tonsils?! — and her presence clearly completely terrorizes her parents (played by Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who may or may not end up victims of the dybbuk. But The Possession is just one story in a long history of Hollywood films in every genre that portray children not as reasons to rejoice and glue for your marriage, but as catalysts for trouble and reasons to run for your lives. The moral is not that Hollywood enjoys torturing child actors; it's that no matter who you are, no matter how well you nurture, there's no interfering with nature, and sometimes you end up with the wrong side of the coin flip. So many films portray little ones behaving badly, whether they're murdering, stealing, lying, or just being ill-mannered, because they portend what will becomes of us as adults, and illuminate certain truths about the worst of humanity. We fear these silver-screen children because we know that one day, they'll come of age.
Here are a few films, from horror to romance, that will inadvertently convince you to never, ever have children — if only because their little fingers can so handily open Pandora's Box.
1. The Orphan. This film was roundly attacked by adoption rights groups for its horrific portrayal of an adopted child, and frankly we can't blame said groups — anyone even remotely on the fence about adopting a child might be convinced otherwise after seeing this film's homicidal antagonist. That said, it's a horror buff's dream, with a plot that unfolds like a modern-day update of The Bad Seed, with a twist. The Bad Seed, of course, was the original of these types of films — kids who, for one genetic predisposition or another, are prone to murder if they don't get what they want. Obviously this is pretty far-fetched, but at the same time, if you've got doubts about having children ... wouldn't you want to weigh every single possibility? Honorable mention in this category goes out to The Omen. Parents, be sure to regularly check your kid's head for lice -- and the mark of the devil.
2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Could this creepy classic be considered a horror as well? Both the original (with Gene Wilder) and the remake (with Johnny Depp) portray kids at their absolute worst, cherry-picking from the deadly sins, with a slew of little snotnoses acting bratty until they're finally murked out by their own avarice (or greed, or sloth). The moral of the story is that the Charlie of the title is a humble, sweet boy who ends up triumphant by the grace of his own manners, and that bad parents lead to bad kids. But by the time all of the bad kids are gone, you might be convinced that even the angelic nature of Charlie will flip to the dark side once he gets a taste of the river of chocolate (that is, presuming you haven't read the Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). Even worse than the kids, though is Willy Wonka, a man who seems to have no moral compass, keeping Oompa Loompas in some kind of work-study sweatshop situation and letting all the dastardly kids croak because they don't follow his rules. In the remake, Depp channels Michael Jackson to create a Wonka that's nothing more than a stunted child, one of the disturbed kids as a grown-up and a stand-in for the son you might have if you decide to procreate.
3. Friends with Kids. This romantic comedy is actually about wanting children — two best friends decide to hook up in order to satisfy their late-30s reproduction urges, but promise never to get romantic. Yeah, right. But its weirdly neat portrayal of the ensuing chaos (not to mention the "friends" of the title, who are roundly awful), is a pretty good warning off getting rid of your pill packet just yet, even if the cast is star-studded and likable (Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, etc). Friends with Kids makes great use of children as a catalyst for driving the plot forward — in this case, a kid is simply catalyst for love, as opposed to terror — and yet it still manages to turn off any kid-bearing instincts, portraying them as simply pawns in the onward march of midlife crises. And if there's anything cinema does not need more of, it's films about pampered white people having midlife crises.
4. Problem Child. The Bad Seed-meets-Dennis the Menace kid character in this 1990 film is so irritating it's a slog to sit through the whole hour and a half, much less 18 years of child-rearing. Playing on the concept of unconditional love, Problem Child follows the antics of Ben (John Ritter), who adopts a devilish kid named Junior (Michael Oliver) who has already been returned to the orphanage over 20 times for his transgressions, like being pen pals with a serial killer and destroying peoples' homes. Despite Junior essentially ruining Ben's life (and wiping out his bank account), Ben decides he is going to keep Junior because of fatherly unconditional love — and also indirectly because he hates his own father, a subconscious corrective which is never a good reason to have kids. Again, the child antics in this film are so annoying it might as well be filed as an effective form of birth control. In a disturbing twist, just before the filming of Problem Child 2, Michael Oliver's mother-manager (momager) tried to sue the studio to pay her son $500,000, instead of the contractually agreed upon $80,000. It's understandable considering both films swept the box office -- but Oliver never worked again.
5. Juno. Not to get cliche and redundant, but it's not about the teen pregnancy — it's about the fear of having teenagers who will grow up halfway and use that horrible made-up Diablo Cody slang. Honorable mention here goes to Knocked Up, which is a sort of 20-something precursor to Friends with Kids, and with Kathryn Heigl and Seth Rogan, it drew from the same general, white/cool/liberal actor pool.
6. Baby Boom. A vehicle for the great Diane Keaton, this film came out in 1987, during the nascent state of the Mommy Wars, when professional women were solidifying themselves in the boardroom but still trying to figure out how to deal with careers and babies (as if we're not now). It's amazing how prescient this film was in framing the discourse that still ravages feminism (the movie poster looks like a cover ripped off the Atlantic or Newsweek in 2012). Keaton plays a sharkish business manager who's known as the Tiger Lady, but of course, when she "inherits" a baby from a long-lost cousin, her life falls apart. She loses her job, her boyfriend dumps her, and all because she can't find the tiniest bit of balance in her life between consulting businesses and filling bottles. She ends up in a cabin in rural Vermont — for a Manhattanite? Horror of horrors! — broke and alone with the infant and her own anxiety. Soon, though, she puts together a plan based on her experiences, which includes manufacturing baby food and becoming a millionaire. It's a feminist work to be sure, and it's depressing that we're still debating the same issues 25 years later. So if Keaton's character finds inspiration in her child, why would this warn you off having one? Because the concept of even having to defend your own decisions is exhausting — and, frankly, more nightmarish than another demonic film-child, Samara from The Ring.