Something is Killing the Children is a new series from author James Tynion IV, artist Werther Dell’Edera, and publisher Boom! Studios. It began as five-issue limited series. Then, demand from fans helped change it into an ongoing series.
James Tynion IV began his career writing Batman for DC Comics. Later, he hit the indie comics scene. There his work became more horror focused with series like Memetic and The Woods. He eventually turned down a contract with DC in favor of his independent work.
Horror is a genre with as long of a history as superhero comics. In the 1980s, DC’s Vertigo Comics label merged horror and comics with Swamp Thing and John Constantine. This label allowed its writers more freedom; for modern authors, independent publishers offer this same creative freedom.
Something is Killing the Children is a scary story, but how does it scare its audience?
What is Killing the Children?Something is Killing the Children opens with the question, “What’s the most scared you’ve ever been?”
In the next scene, the police question a child named Andrew about his dead friends. He tries telling the police an invisible monster killed his friends. Of course, the police do not believe his story. However, soon after this he meets a stranger named Erica who tells him everything he saw was real.
In Something is Killing the Children monsters exist, and killing them is Erica Slaughter’s job.
How does Something is Killing the Children scare readers? Author Stephen King writes there are three ways of scaring readers: the Gross-out, the Horror, and Terror.
The gross out: […] it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The horror: the unnatural [….] it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arms. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.
This comic scares us with all three. The monsters gross out the reader by leaving blood and gore in their wake. The story captures the horror of imaginary monsters made real. Finally, the terror comes from knowing the world is not what it seems.
This story is not just about scary monsters, though. In fact, the real horror comes from the world around the characters. The terror comes from a small town in Wisconsin where children disappear and no one knows why, and additionally, from Erica’s justifiable fear that she is alone.
Instead of its monsters, Something is Killing the Children uses the world itself to scare its audience. It does this by creating the fear of living in a world where monsters are out to get you. Accordingly, it belongs to the genre of existential horror.
What is Existential Horror?
Existential horror is a close cousin of Lovecraftian-inspired cosmic horror. Cosmic horror focuses more on the bigness of the universe, which can frankly be terrifying to think about. Existential horror’s focus is on one small life. Cosmic horror makes you question the universe. Existential horror makes you question your existence.
Existentialism is the school of thought that questions the meaning of life. Thoughts of death, and whether your individual life is worth something make everyone anxious. Likewise, horror makes its audience anxious and uncomfortable.
Stuart Hanscomb wrote in their essay Existentialism and Art-Horror:
Most who write on the subject agree that, in contrast with fear, we experience anxiety in the face of something ‘indefinite’, ‘diffuse’ or ‘unretain’. Its source might be felt or intuited rather than perceived or understood, or it might be ambiguous.
In Something is Killing the Children nothing is certain. Erica fights against invisible monsters make her question reality, and she can never fully trust anyone. Both the world and the people around her seem not to care about her individual struggle.
The vague “Something” killing the children is not just monsters. Erica exists in a world where children die, and no one seems to care. That is truly scary, and that is what makes her question if her individual life and efforts are worth anything.
Why is Horror Horrifying?Horror is more than chainsaws and gore. It’s a feeling. The way it tells its story is unique from any other genre. You can open up a superhero comic and find heroes fighting monsters, but that’s not horror.
The Nature of Horror by Noel Carroll explains horror this way:
The characters of a work of horror exemplify for us the way in which to react to the monsters in the fiction. Our emotions are supposed to mirror those of the positive human characters. This is not the case for every genre […] when a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous, though we do.
When Batman fights a villain, we may fear for him, but we do not feel his fear. In horror, however? We do. For example, H.P. Lovecraft’s stories focus on long descriptions of a character losing their mind. The audience thus feels this terror of seeing an indescribable horror through their reactions.
Something is Killing the Children creates this relationship between the audience and characters. The main character is Erica, but the point-of-view character is Andrew. He is a child learning the world is not what he thinks. Afterward, she guides him into the unseen world of monsters. As the story unfolds we follow him into a new and scary world.
I know right now you’re scared. Right now you’re probably doubting you saw anything at all. The world makes a lot less sense than it used to. And every day the feeling gets a little worse.
As the reader learns the new set of rules, they question the new reality alongside Andrew. The story asks us what it asks for Andrew. What is real? What is fake? Is there something there that you’re not seeing? As those questions creep up, the feeling of terror mounts.
Something is Scaring the ChildrenMonsters in Something is Killing the Children come from the imagination. Scary stories literally make the monsters real. Since fear is what makes them real, monsters target scared children.
This story’s focus on monsters hunting children shares a lot in common with Stephen King’s novels. David Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror notes that King’s works are:
Brim with fantasies of sacrificial children. Either as victims under the threat of horrifying monsters – as in the Shining and It, or as innocent monsters created by irresponsible adults – as in Firestarter, Pet Sematary – sacrificial children occupy a prominent position in King’s fiction.
This is a story about children in danger. However, the danger comes from more than just monsters.
Erica herself uses two children as bait for luring out a monster. She also belongs to a group of monster hunters who recruit children who survive monster attacks. They then train those children into soldiers. Sadly, not many children survive this training.
Monsters eat children, and the Order sacrifices children in the fight against those monsters. This world is not a safe place for children.
I thought I was going to be part of something good. But then I found out how many monsters are out there. How many children are killed by these horrible things every single day. And James I won’t tell you because it just seems impossible it’s so many.
The reader doubts alongside Erica if a small child’s life means anything compared to a much bigger world.
A Scary Story is Killing the ChildrenIn Something is Killing the Children, believing in the monsters is what creates them. Vampires, mermaids, and dragons all exist because people believe in them. Erica explains to Andrew the difference between knowing monsters do not exist, and believing they do.
Believing is different than knowing. You’re old enough to know there aren’t monsters in the world. But you don’t believe that. Not really. You hear a noise in the woods, or see a shadow shaped wrong and you’re still afraid.
This division between knowledge and belief mirrors Jung’s ideas of ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’. According to Jung, the conscious mind is what we are aware of, and we are unaware of the subconscious mind. We know monsters do not exist, but we believe they do.
Jung posits a collective unconscious exists in every single person made up of instincts, and archetypes. An archetype of ancient primal symbols we all recognize.
This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.
These archetypes repeat themselves throughout common myths. For example, in Something is Killing the Children, there is a monster-hunting organization named “The Order of St. George.” Their name comes from the myth of St. George slaying a dragon, a western fairytale.
If monsters come from the subconscious, then reality consists of more than what the characters can see. For the readers, there is an uncomfortable feeling something deeper lurks underneath their thoughts.
Jung uses another time for the collective unconscious, the “objective psyche“:
We speak of the “objective world”, by which we do not mean that this objective world is the one we are conscious of. There is no object of which we are totally conscious. So too, the collective […] behaves exactly like the world of things, which is partly known, partly unknown.
By utilizing Jungian ideas, Something is Killing the Children leads us to doubt our everyday existence. Doubting is scary. This creates a creeping suspicion of what we can see with our eyes. If there is no objective reality, then everything is subjective.
We as an audience must question everything.
Something is Killing the Children is Kafka-esqueFrank Kafka wrote The Trial from 1914 to 1915. In it two agents from an unnamed agency arrest Josef. K for an unspecified crime. The novel only gets more confusing from there, because Kafka’s story is about the senselessness of bureaucracy in the modern world.
Frederick Robert Karl once defined Kafkaesuqe in an interview:
What’s Kafkaesque is […] when you find yourself against a force does not lend itself against the way you perceive the world. You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance.
In Something is Killing the Children, “The Order of St. George” is not a helpful ally. The Order’s rules make no sense to Erica or the reader. This confusion is terrifying, because the organizations that are supposed to make sense of a chaotic world are even more chaotic than the chaos they’re supposed to make sense of.
Erica battles against the rules around her. She struggles against unbending rules and unhelpful authorities. The police arrest her while she is hunting the monster. Authorities do not protect children in this town. Locals then blame Erica for the murders rather than facing the truth.
When Erica is alone fighting against a monster the order sends no help. Cellphone recordings of the monster then leak online. The order finally sends backup, not to kill the monster, but to silence witnesses.
Erica belongs to a monster-hunting organization where hunting monsters is not a high priority. Their rules are unfair and they do not protect children. Erica cannot escape the order, when she tries they hunt her down. Se only becomes more trapped.
Something is Killing the Children makes us question the rules in our world. In the real world, the “something” that’s killing the children is not a monster. How many school shootings happen while governments do little to nothing to try to prevent future ones?
Are You Afraid To Look In The Mirror?Horror often uses fear of the “other.” The monsters in Something is Killing the Children look grossly inhuman. The fear comes from how unfamiliar they are, but sometimes the things most familiar to us become a source of fear.
Childhood dolls look creepy in the dark. The “Uncanny Valley” is a term for unnerving robots that look a bit too human. Freud describes this eerie feeling of seeing familiar things in a new light as the “uncanny”.
For this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.
In the story’s third arc, Erica hunts down a monster known as a “Doppelganger.” The doppelganger is a folk legend of meeting a copy of yourself. Oftentimes it is a symbol of bad luck or future death. The monster she fights looks almost human.
Look, this monster is a bad one. It can make itself look like people. At first, it’s not very good at it. The shapes are indistinct. They might not have a face. Or they might have too many arms. But the more they feed, the better they get at it.
Erica, however, faces more than one doppelganger. As mentioned above the order hunts Erica down. They send another hunter named Cutter.
Cutter appears to be Erica’s complete opposite. She shows no care for human lives and commits murder on a whim. Yet the order chose her because she reminds them of Erica. They both show little to no emotion while on the hunt. This makes them both good at killing monsters.
Freud calls the uncanny the ‘fear of the repressed’. Dolls, robots, and doppelgangers creep us out because of their familiarity. Cutter scars Erica because she does not want to see herself in Cutter. She is Erica’s mirror age. While the normal human beings mixed up in this danger are our own mirrors.
The story tells us to look in the mirror. Human characters in the story panic, act selfish and turn on one another. By utilizing the uncanny and uncomfortable, the story asks why these things unnerve us so. The uncanny makes us reflect on our own behavior.
Something is Killing the Children as an LGBT WorkThere is prominent LGBT representation in Something is Killing the Children. School bullies target Andrew for being gay. The spinoff comic House of Slaughter tells of another hunter named Aaron Slaughter’s first love with another man. A lesbian woman with a dead lover is a major character in the third arc.
However, Andrew’s first crush dies in the first chapter, and Aaron dies onscreen. This may appear as another example of “Bury Your Gays“, but this is a horror story. Characters die for a reason in horror. For example, children die in this story because it’s about the dangers of childhood.
Aaron’s story provides a queer lens for the difficult lives of monster hunters. One example follows immediately after the first time Andre makes love with his boyfriend. When she discovers them, Aaron’s usually caring mother figure forbids him from seeing his lover.
Jessica: Because in our world Aaron. Love only kills.
Aaron: Love doesn’t kill, Jesica. No, only monsters do!
Jessica: You’re just a kid, Aaron. Someday you’ll see. In compliance with the house of slaughter for the sake of my novice’s survival Jace is no longer your roommate.
In-story Jessica believes that personal feelings will get in the way of the fight against monsters. Out of the story, this scene resembles a mother telling a child who they can and cannot love. Horror as a genre can communicate the terror a real LGBT person feels. This is because horror makes its readers feel what the character feels.
Something is Killing the Children shows what it is to exist in the world as a queer person. The story does not punish these characters for their queerness; instead, it tries to make them relatable.
What Does It All Mean?Something is Killing the Children scares us with more than just its monsters.
Sure, the story grosses us out with its monsters, but that’s not the main focus. The story makes the reader feel like a small person in a big world.As a horror comic, it makes a special connection between the audience and its characters. Their lives remind us of our lives. They make us question ourselves.
The monsters come from children, and the scary stories they tell each other. When imaginary monsters become real, we question reality. We challenge our own perceptions, and what we think we know about life. A work of fiction can make us think about the real world.
Horror goes hand in hand with the modern world. For instance, it can communicate things like the failure of rules meant to keep us safe. It also helps us understand the everyday fear of certain minority groups living in this world.
Ultimately Something is Killing the Children scares its audience by telling a good story.