How can you be sure your child is really your child? Could that innocent-seeming baby be a changeling – a cuckoo in your nest? There is something about the evil elf child, reborn as the alien walking among us, that continues to fascinate and terrify us. So much so, the broadcaster Sky has announced it has commissioned a third version of Village of the Damned from David Farr, the writer of The Night Manager.
Both were based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, in which a whole village briefly loses consciousness. Nine months later, eerily identical alien babies with telepathic powers are born to the women. They are smarter and grow faster than normal – and are soon threatening not just their “parents”, but all humankind.
Originally published in 1957, the story is based on myths of changeling babies swapped by fairies. The idea of otherworldly children masquerading as human has resonated down the centuries, and still speaks to our anxieties today.
Monsters like us
All stories, however far-fetched, speak to both our internal and societal fears. That’s why monsters are almost always only a step away from human: zombies, giants, werewolves. Even dragons – malicious and vengeful – are more human than animal, such as the dragon in Beowulf, which is an allegory for miserly greed.
As CS Lewis wrote:
When you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.
Confronting these monsters allows us to confront our own, lesser selves. So the un-child, who goes a step further and simulates the purity of the innocent, is even more disturbing and can be brutally punished.
The “hungries” of MR Carey’s ecological zombie tale The Girl with All the Gifts grow, learn and love stories like all children, but are dissected without anaesthetic. Even the gentle clones of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, created to save humans, are shunned as monsters until they give their lives.
More terrifying yet is the changeling, who can slip under our radar. The changeling myth plays on deep fears of the subversion of the adult/child relationship, in which the preternaturally intelligent changeling hides behind a cloak of innocence while controlling everything.
Secured from harm by our loving instincts, the changeling can even look out from behind the mask to mock our assumptions.
As the literature academic Karen Renner wrote in her work on evil children in the popular imagination:
More disturbing is the changeling who no longer feels the need to pretend and reveals that the relationship between adult and child is actually an elaborate dance, which the child has been leading all along.
Who are the real changelings?
Wyndham’s 1957 book and his mirror image story from the mutants’ viewpoint, The Chrysalids (1955), played on adults’ fears of their children.
The Baby Boom infants were growing up. These children were taller, heavier and faster growing than any previous generation. The idea of the teenager was establishing itself with the rise of the first youth cultures: the rebellious Teddy Boys in mock Edwardian clothes, who were the forerunners of the Mods and Rockers.
The first grammar school boys, who had won free places at selective schools after the 1944 Education Act, were now growing up into the Angry Young Men. These were British novelists and playwrights, including John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, who were disillusioned by the established sociopolitical order. They were intent on change, rendering their parents’ beliefs and traditions obsolete.
Wyndham was writing while the memory of the Holocaust was still fresh. Wyndham himself had been a cypher operator in the liberating army that fought from Normandy through the Reichswald forest. In both stories the new race is telepathic, and the menace of the children’s “hive mind” mirrors the strength of the communist threat compared to the liberal, individualistic West.
This gives us a clue as to why we are again turning to these unsettling stories.
Meanwhile, the widespread use of social media in itself can produce a hive mind effect. Although social media was intended to support free speech and allow anyone to share their opinion, the effect of a Twitter pile-on can be to crush nuance, doubt or divergence. Commentators, such as Gavin Haynes, have highlighted the resulting purity spirals in which nobody can stand alone.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we are also seeing blunt power on a global stage – similar to that Wyndham knew. Communist China has clamped down hard on its people, disregarded individual freedom and appears to have largely got past COVID-19. By contrast, in the USA, activists protest for their rights and coronavirus continues to rage.
Both the single-minded power of the Chinese state and the collective force of an online horde echo the strength of the Midwich aliens versus the fragmented, conflicted arguments of the humans opposing them. The aliens’ power was that they were not individuals – they were parts of a single entity with a single idea – to survive. As in Wyndham’s time, we again face a real contrast between individualism and groupthink.
Once again, an older generation is disturbed by a sudden change in a new and powerful generation so unexpected that it begs the question: can these really be our offspring? In short, changelings are not terrifying because they are aliens. Changelings are terrifying because they are truly our children.