Stephen King, “Children of the Corn,” and Childhood Trauma in the Church

It seems like every few months, another religious group makes global news for their abuse of members, specifically children. Catholic priests molesting altar boys. Extremist Muslim groups in Africa mutilating little girls. Pagan teachers extorting teenaged students for sex. Every religion has its monsters. Sacred spaces are typically places where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and, unfortunately, there will always be people who seek to take advantage of that.

But not every case of religious abuse makes the news. Not all abuse is physical. Not all of it is intentional — in fact, a lot of it is totally unintentional, and is perpetrated by adults who genuinely believe that they are doing right by the children they hurt. I would argue that these cases are much more common than outright physical abuse, and that they can have a lasting impact on these children’s lives. These are the cases that produce adults who get uncomfortable any time they’re near a church but can never put their finger on why. It’s hard to say “I was emotionally abused by my church leaders,” when the abuse was both systemic and unintentional. And, because religion is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, those who speak out about this unintentional abuse are often seen as drama queens looking to stir up trouble.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I spent my formative years in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. You may be familiar with the Mormons — they’re the door-to-door missionaries that aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or you may have seen the church’s name in the news last year, when a man named Sam Young was excommunicated after speaking out against invasive, sexually-explicit questions being asked of teenagers in private, one-on-one interviews with church leadership.

I was never intentionally abused by any member of the Mormon faith. Most of the Mormons I knew were decent people and genuine believers, who tried to use the framework of the Church to live good, honorable lives. They were nice. They looked out for their fellow church members and were always willing to lend a helping hand. I don’t think any of them would have knowingly or intentionally hurt me or any other child. And yet, I was hurt by them. My time in the Mormon faith (from age nine to age seventeen) was deeply traumatic and has had a lasting negative effect on my adult life.

The thing is, even good people become a part of the problem when they knowingly pass on harmful beliefs and practices to their children. I was never molested by a member of the Mormon church — but when I was fifteen a grown man did ask me, in a one-on-one interview, whether I had ever masturbated and other sexually explicit questions (with the implication being that if I was doing these things, I needed to tell this leader so he could help me “fix” it). I was never physically abused by a member of the Mormon church, but I was repeatedly told that because I was a woman I was destined to be subservient to men, and that my salvation was dependent on male church leaders and on my future husband. I was never verbally abused by a member of the Mormon church, but I was told that my attraction to women was caused by Satan trying to lead me to sin and that I would be punished if I ever acted on my “unnatural urges.”

All of these things created in me a deep and all-consuming anxiety, an absolute terror at the thought of God’s wrath that has followed me into my adult life. I still get randomly hit with a sense of dread, a feeling that I am going to Hell — even though I left the church years ago and no longer even believe in Hell or in eternal damnation. It’s something I will live with for the rest of my life.

This kind of anxiety is a driving focus of Stephen King’s short story, “Children of the Corn.” You’re probably familiar with its basic premise — a small, isolated town in the middle of nowhere, a cult of killer kids, lots of murder. But the main characters, Burt and Vicky, don’t actually reach the town — or the children — until past the halfway point of the story. The first chunk takes place in their car, on a lonely country road, desperately searching for help for a reason I won’t get into because spoilers, with no company but the radio.

The only radio station within range is playing an evangelical sermon. The sermon doesn’t have much of an effect on Burt but visibly shakes Vicky, leading to the following dialogue:

“She was crying again.

After a moment, Burt said: ‘Did anything strike you funny about that radio sermon?’

‘No. I heard enough of that stuff as a kid to last me for ever. I told you about it.’

‘Didn’t you think he sounded kind of young? That preacher?’

She uttered a mirthless laugh. ‘A teenager, maybe, so what? That’s what’s so monstrous about that whole trip. They like to get hold of them when their minds are still rubber. They know how to put all the emotional checks and balances in. You should have been at some of the tent meetings my mother and father dragged me to. . . some of the ones I was ‘saved’ at.’”

In this conversation, King gets to the meat of what is really disturbing about the Children of the Corn — the idea of religion, something meant as a source of support and safety, being misused to hurt children. Vicky grew up with fanatical parents who took her to tent revivals, and as an adult she is repulsed by any mention of Christianity, as it brings up old anxieties. The children for which the story is named killed all of the adults in their town in an attempt to please God as they understood Him — as a vengeful being who demanded both sacrifice and strict obedience from His followers and who literally holds the fate of the town in His hands. Even the church that Burt eventually stumbles into reflects this theme — the walls are painted with a twisted, demonic version of Jesus Christ, showing how the children have misinterpreted him.

There is no clear villain in “Children of the Corn.” I guess Isaac, the children’s leader, is the closest thing the story has to an antagonist — this definitely seems to be the interpretation that the film series takes and runs with. Or you could argue that “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” the deity worshiped by the children, is the villain — but most of the murders are carried out by the children themselves, and we only see He Who Walks Behind the Rows get violet when the covenant he’s made with the children is broken. He is like the most twisted, most vengeful interpretation of Old Testament God. He is to be honored and feared in equal measure.

Perhaps the most chilling point King makes with his story is how we create ourselves in God’s image. We model our lives after the gods we worship. And if your patron deity happens to be dark, brutal, and unforgiving, then the church that worships him will become dark, brutal, and unforgiving. The most horrifying aspect of “Children of the Corn” isn’t that the children are worshiping a demon: it’s that they’re worshiping a demon that they have mistaken for God.

By exaggerating the violence and brutality of the Children, King is able to get across how barbaric Christianity (and any other religion) can become in the wrong hands. He expertly illustrates the way that this fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone theology burrows under your skin. We see it in the children, who are so terrified of being punished by their god that they are willing to offer human sacrifices to appease him. We see it in Vicky, who is so shaken up even by the idea of God that she can’t bring herself to enter the church with Burt when he goes to investigate. We see it in He Who Walks Behind the Rows, a god who is exactly as bloodthirsty and vengeful as his followers expect him to be.

There is no clear villain in “Children of the Corn” because the antagonist of the story is the cult itself. It’s the system of belief that allows for the corruption of innocents, the destruction of an entire town, and the slaughter of bystanders. And that is something much more terrifying, at least to me, than a handful of children with pitchforks and scythes.


Note: The cover image for this post is from the cover of Beneath by Kristi DeMeester, which is another excellent horror novel about childhood trauma within a religious setting, although unlike “Children of the Corn” it is explicitly focused on the physical and sexual abuse of children by religious leaders. It’s a book I highly recommend only if you a.) really like horror fiction, b.) have a high tolerance for “gross out” horror, and c.) are able to stomach a book that deals explicitly with child molestation and similar topics. 

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