Aislinn Clarke’s short film from 2016, Childer, is an underseen short that established her dominance of the creeping slow dread long before her found-footage gem The Devil’s Doorway graced screens. It isn’t for the easily triggered. I’ll admit it hit all my buttons. Weird children, loud mouth noises, clinging ivy, mosquitos, and the loss of my child are all there. Clarke channeled motherhood in a way that few have ever done. Being a mother is the best and most channeling job ever. You are constantly exhausted, worried, optimistic, and ecstatic. It’s hard to balance all those warring emotions, and Childer manages to capture all those feelings in a concise story that is as unsettling as it is ambiguous.
Clocking in at a brisk sixteen minutes, Childer tells the story of a nervous mother whose paranoia about the outside world is fueled by the sudden appearance of a gang of feral children who appear in the woods by her house. The mother of a young boy lives an isolated life ruled by her phobias and her obsession with cleanliness. If she isn’t rigorously scrubbing her son, her house, or her body, she is overreacting to outside influences. For example, a kindly postman delivers mail and helps her son with a lost tooth to his detriment. She freaks out and later passive-aggressively puts up a sign refusing mail service to limit her child’s exposure to the world.
Told over the course of a week near Halloween, her meltdown is swift. She lives alone with her son, but a group of mysterious and rebellious children invades her space. The closer it comes to October 31st, the more the children intrude on her life until her son goes missing for several hours only to return filthy. She starts bathing him but snaps and strangles him in the bathtub as the camera pans down the stairs; we are left with only the lingering sounds of his furious splashing. Here’s what Childer is all about.
Childer, which is the world her son uses for children, is really about this mother’s fear and how it has ruined any chance of happiness she has. What happened to the son and the other children can be pieced together through heavy symbolism and clues. The ivy she dreams about and later finds in her bathtub drain represents the outside world. Try as we might; we can’t stop time or the world from getting in. No amount of protection can keep our children safe all the time. Additionally, the idea that children came from a cabbage patch is a cute one that Xavier Roberts capitalized on to create the must-have doll every family needed in the ’80s.
However, in Childers, the cabbage patch takes on a more sinister meaning. The patch, which is seen at the beginning of the film and then again after the mother kills her son, is where she has probably buried multiple children. The laughing kids who taunt her throughout the short film are probably previous attempts at motherhood. The children only last so long before they antagonize her by being too messy or independent and are then killed and buried in the patch only to reappear in the woods later.
Whether these children or childers are actual spirits or paranoid delusions of a guilty mind is up to the viewer. This may be a cycle that repeats every five years on Halloween, which is why the children all appear roughly the same age. Children around this age go to school and enter the world for the first time, which could easily be what triggers her phobia. Further symbolism is seen in the feral kid’s costumes. They are all predator animals. There is a cat, a fox, a wolf, and an eagle. All are carnivores who are skilled hunters. They embody the danger of anything outside of her house and control. Her son is dressed as a ghost because she knows this is likely the end of their relationship.
For the mother, children are an ideal that can’t be lived up to. Children are loud and messy. They rebel against rules and push boundaries, but when you are as controlling and terrified as the mother is, this is intolerable. For her, it is better to kill her child herself than risk having to lose her child to outside influences. For her, the act of murder is mercy as opposed to violence. Unfortunately, not all of her psyche is in agreement, which is why the children from the woods come to haunt her.
Clarke’s Childer is disturbing in its simplicity. There is zero gore and only implied violence, and yet there is something very wrong with this small family. You can feel it brewing from the first moment, and our anxiety only grows every passing second. Every time the son eats a little too enthusiastically or begs to go outside, we worry if it will be the last we see of him. Like parenthood, it mirrors our concerns. The key is to keep fear from driving our decisions. Unfortunately, the mother in Childer is unable to do that and succumbs to her mania. She is able to avoid her paranoia by destroying the source of it, but she isn’t able to run from her guilt.
You can catch Childer below and Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway on VOD everywhere you stream movies, including Prime Video.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.