What is up with these kids?
Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for 1899 Season 1.
There are a number of elements at work in the Netflix hit show 1899 that make it play as a suspenseful and mysterious thriller. Being separated from a larger civilization out on the wide open ocean aboard a ship provides isolation that can be unnerving. The prospect of being in an area where no one can come to your rescue or hear your cries for help if something goes awry is an uncomfortable feeling. Being among people who are from different countries also provides a communication gap that can also make us feel uneasy. Not being understood is something that can test your nerves. And, of course, coming upon an abandoned ship with no explanation of what happened to the over 1200 passengers on board is incredibly frightening. But few things are as chilling as the plot device of using a child that either can’t or won’t speak like Elliot (Fflyn Edwards) or, “The Silent Kid” in 1899. He is the most recent addition in the history of television and film to use a young child as a vehicle to instill fear in audiences.
A lot of what goes into making a character terrifying begins with how they are introduced into the story. In 1899, Elliot is found aboard a ship called the Prometheus that has been lost at sea for over four months before being stumbled upon by the crew and passengers aboard the Kerberos. The small group deployed to make the trip to board the Prometheus, including the Captain of the Kerberos, Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), and a physician Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), is met by an environment completely devoid of light and sound. The questions you immediately ask yourself are, “Where did everyone go?” and, “How did this happen?”. The setting is already incredibly frightening. So when they discover a single boy locked in a cabinet as the sole survivor on the ship, you are immediately struck with a sense of uneasiness and dread about how he managed to survive alone, locked away for over four months and there is no one else to be found. It’s reasonable to wonder if he had something to do with such an unsettling discovery. Never mind that he is ashen white as a ghost and donning a little black suit with knickers like an innocent schoolboy.
Not Your Typical Boy
Another reason 1899’s mysterious young boy, Elliot, is so disturbing is because he doesn’t meet our expectations associated with children around his age. We expect seven, eight, and nine-year-old kids to be naturally energetic and inquisitive, wanting to know and absorb as much about the world around them as quickly as they can. When you meet an otherwise healthy kid who for whatever reason won’t speak about himself or his surroundings, that can seem extremely strange. Elliot appears like any other child but the fact that he chooses to remain silent, especially when a series of odd and scary events are surrounding his presence, male him a terrifying character.
It’s a plot device that subverts the audience’s expectations and leaves us to guess his nature and his intentions. When left to its own devices, the mind can tend to immediately leap to some unpleasant scenarios. Maura (Emily Beecham’s character) shows an enormous amount of restraint as she spends the majority of her time alone in a small cabin with the boy who, despite her pleas, refuses to say a word. The only way he will communicate is to calmly put his index finger to his mouth signaling her to be quiet. And when he finally does deliver his first line, “You’ll have to ask the Creator.” it’s the kind of cryptic response that is even more bizarre than the silence.
A History of Terrifying Silent Kids
Elliot is hardly the first silent kid to appear on screens both small and large. Some of the greatest filmmakers of all time like Stanley Kubrick have used the stoic, silent child with great aplomb. For instance, in The Shining (1980), little Danny refuses to speak except to convey the ominous thoughts of the character that lives in his mouth named Tony. That is just plain creepy. To this day if you say the word “redrum” (“murder” spelled backward) over and over again, it harkens back memories of silent, twin girls with pigtails standing hand-in-hand while a tidal wave of blood flows down the Overlook Hotel hallway. The Antichrist himself is portrayed as a silent boy in the 1976 classic, The Omen. Damien doesn’t utter a single word during a fright-filled film that sees him telepathically communicate with a Rottweiler to carry out his bidding against anyone who threatens him. All with a simple yet effective glint in his eyes.
Of course, horror fans and children of the 80s remember a film called Children of the Corn (1984) and the ringleader named Isaac. His mere presence as he led a band of bloodthirsty children in the cornfields of Kansas still sends chills down your spine. And most recently, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) a big screen newcomer in director Ari Aster‘s eerily haunting epic, Hereditary (2018) strikes fear into us. Her incessant tongue-clicking and empty gaze are far more spine-tingling than if she were to openly tell you what she was thinking.
A Lack of Innocence
The key ingredient that all these young, quiet characters share is a sense that they have lost the innocence we associate with children, and that they wield a power that is beyond their years or their control. We want our kids to be happy, harmless, and playful, blissfully unaware of the vicissitudes that are a part of living and getting older. In 1899, the fact that a mute boy holds the key to all the horrific events surrounding the cast and crew is unnatural, and we fear what we don’t understand. Whether it be Elliot, Damien, Isaac, or Charlie, the chilling element that silent kids bring to a project can be more terrifying than an enormous chainsaw-wielding maniac. Horror comes in all shapes and sometimes smaller and quieter is far more impactful and will have us peering at the screen between our fingers.
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