Child Stars & Feminism in Annabelle: Creation

The following article contains Annabelle: Creation (2017) spoilers.

Annabelle: Creation is the fourth installment in James Wan’s The Conjuring cinematic universe. This film, of course, has James Wan written all over it– everything from the skillful dolly shots to spooky background attention-getters. Annabelle: Creation follows the famous Wan formula meticulously, which is why many claim this film is the weakest in the franchise. But, much like sex, pizza and ice cream, when it’s not its best, a James Wan horror film is still pretty good. Annabelle: Creation managed to make me peak through my fingers at some sequences and check over my shoulder when I was readying for bed.

Annabelle: Creation may not be the next Psycho (1960), nor does it compare to Wan’s notorious Insidious (2010), but it was still a successful, fun summer horror flick. The film in no way hindered the franchise; it carried on the mythology of The Conjuring universe with cohesion. The famous, terrorized doe-eyed spirit of the series was kept alive by the film’s cast comprised mostly of children.

Wan’s previous works have centered themselves around families, in which young children often take the brunt of the poltergeist’s shenanigans. Annabelle: Creation, however, focused on children who were distinctly family-less. The Mullins family, who lost their young daughter in tragedy, open their home to girls from a Catholic orphanage. Wan’s previous narratives left parents to fend for their children in the wake of demonic activity, but the latest in the franchise leaves most of the work up to the kids. Make no mistake, the Annabelle sequel is not a children’s flick– it’s a highbrow horror film led by a strong cast of child stars.

At one time, child stars ruled Hollywood. Dating back to the Shirley Temple era, some executive in an office figured out that innocence and cuteness is profitable. I think back to the favorite films of my childhood and recall a slew of child stars that appeared in popular movies. In the 90’s, audiences were enamored with young talents like Christina Ricci and Kirsten Dunst. America’s sweetheart came in the forms of Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan, and the cast of the original Harry Potter film. Films at the time were able to incorporate child presences that were dynamic, solid and in the foreground.

Particularly in the horror genre, children have proved their abilities as vehicles for terror. M. Night Shyamalan’s famed The Sixth Sense (1999) would be nothing without Hayley Joel Osment’s performance at the age of 11. Referring further back to films like The Shining (1980), that same profitable innocence of children has heightened horror viewing experiences. Child stars brought an extra element of excitement to the table in filmmaking, which helped many of them reach household-name status. But in a market that once boomed with young talent, in the last 10 years or so, child stars have been noticeably absent in the film industry.

I can find blame in the rapid maturation of millennial culture, where people like Kylie Jenner are adult sex symbols by the age of 17. Eventually stories from youth and teen points of view were overshadowed by the accessible glimpses into adult life made possible by social media. The lines between child star and young actor blurred and suddenly there weren’t many authentic child perspectives in film. There’s a certain nostalgia to be found in these perspectives– a fondness that many movie-viewers have expressed.

It appears that child stars are on track to make their resurgence in pop culture. Hit series Stranger Things brought back the Goonies-esque boyhood to sci-fi storytelling; a throwback that captivated all of Netflix. The children in the cast of Stranger Things are gaining traction in the media with well-received appearances on the Tonight Show, at the Emmy’s and across notable magazine covers. Finn Wolfhard, who stars as Mike Wheeler on Stranger Things, joined the cast of the upcoming film It (2017)– a project that also has a predominantly youth cast. The premiere trailer for It broke the online record for most views of a trailer in a single day; an accomplishment for a film whose protagonists barely crest the legal driving age. The recent success of these recent works leads me to believe filmmakers are shifting their focus back to the simplicity of youth narratives. Annabelle: Creation is a step in this direction.

Talitha Bateman, who portrays Janice in Annabelle: Creation, delivers a genuine performance as the handicapped outcast of the girls’ home. Her counterpart Linda (Lulu Wilson, 11), upholds the same sweetness in her terror. Aside from their honeyed, all-American looks, these two leads will easily land more work in the future as they succeeded in the challenge of their respective roles.

In fact, all the girls in the home deliver a star-quality effort as young horror actresses. At no point in time did the film suffer from its youth perspective; I was able to indulge in the characters with credibility. These child stars were able to entertain me in the way adult actors do. The child stars of Annabelle: Creation do not come across as phony or immature, rather they prove that talented youth can lead films with an honest screen presence and a robust spirit.

It also occurred to me halfway through my viewing of Annabelle: Creation that the film is distinctly female. The girls in the home are watched over by a nun from their original orphanage, Sister Charlotte. In James Wan’s previous films, the father character typically takes on the entity, protecting his family. However Mr. Mullins, Annabelle’s father, is essentially disposable and shows no qualities of heroism. Ultimately, Sister Charlotte bands the girls together when the demon attacks and damns Annabelle’s possessor herself (well, to her knowledge at least).

The final sequence of the film links the story to the Conjuring universe. Janice, possessed by the entity, escapes the Mullins’ home to later be adopted. She introduces herself as Annabelle, and times lapses to reveal that she is the cult follower who murdered her parents in the introductory scenes of the first Annabelle (2014). This tie-in was purposed as the final OMG! moment in the film, but I couldn’t help but appreciate that a female now carried the responsibility of the franchise.

Female characters in horror films are too often featured as topless, shrieking imbeciles or demonic temptresses. Yes, characterizations in Annabelle: Creation were not as full as they could have been, but it was refreshing to see a non-sexualized female character scare the pants off of viewers. By some stretch, The Conjuring universe now has more bite to it with this discreet layer of feminism.

A brief Easter egg in Annabelle: Creation hinted at the franchise’s continuation with Wan’s upcoming The Nun, due in 2018. Continuing with this theme, The Nun could open up more discussion about females in horror films and also their role in religious settings. In the meantime, I hope for more young actors and actresses to make their debuts in works of significance. Too often I spend time trying to convince others– and myself– of how grown I have become. But I look to popular child stars of this generation with such admiration. Youth is the most precious gift we will ever be blind to.

Child stars remind me of the delightful possibilities of girlhood– if only for 2 hours at a time.