HEAT VISION

'Doctor Sleep' and the Loss of Innocence in Horror

The Stephen King adaptation stands out from the crowd in the degree to which it explores and deconstructs familiar concepts.
'Doctor Sleep'   |   Warner Bros. Pictures
The Stephen King adaptation stands out from the crowd in the degree to which it explores and deconstructs familiar concepts.

[This story contains spoilers for Doctor Sleep.]

With its focus on innocence and those who covet it, Doctor Sleep follows in the footsteps of a well-trodden path. Stories looking at childish innocence span everything from classic literature like Peter Pan and The Catcher in the Rye to horror films, where sacrificial lambs and virginal “final girl” survivors are both genre staples. However, the new Stephen King adaptation from director Mike Flanagan stands out from the crowd in the degree to which it explores and deconstructs these familiar concepts. While not going so far as to equate childish innocence to magical powers in Peter Pan fashion, the quasi-immortal soul-sucking cult known as the True Knot specifically seek out magically powerful children and adolescents as sacrifices to fuel their eternal youth. As the True Knot’s leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), explains, growing up “spoils” the “shine” that they feed off of.

While Doctor Sleep focuses on a supernatural threat to the innocent, it makes a point of establishing that far more pedestrian sources pose comparable dangers when it introduces psychic teenage runaway Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), who uses herself as a honey trap to lure in unsuspecting pedophiles. The True Knots track Andi down, but instead of seeking to sacrifice her, they want to recruit her to join their cause. Partly, it is implied, because at a world-weary 15 she is older than ideal, and her particular talent for coercing other people into following orders Jedi mind-trick style makes her far more valuable in helping kidnap and kill other psychic youths than she would as a victim herself.

Historically, the concept that children possess a special innocence, and that this innocence is valuable and deserving of protection, is a relatively new concept with roots in 17th century. Before then, children were generally seen as tiny adults in need of training. The unknowing, unskilled state in which we are all born was not seen as having any inherent value of its own. It was something to be corrected as quickly as possible. Children suffer from ignorance, and this ignorance is a vulnerability.

One reason the horror genre is drawn to innocence may be that innocence and evil are opposites, and putting them in close proximity makes for a striking contrast. Or perhaps, as Doctor Sleep suggests, there is a sinister, inherent connection between the two. With the True Knot cult, Doctor Sleep depicts the way those who most covet innocence are often those who seek to destroy the innocent, because they are vulnerable and make for easy prey.

Over the course of the film, the True Knot members are shown targeting and sacrificing two magical children before meeting their match in 13-year-old Abra (Kyliegh Curran). Although Abra is depicted as particularly powerful and has a valuable ally in fellow psychic Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), there’s another aspect of her character that sets her apart from the earlier, less fortunate children — she is shrewd.

The first child to fall victim to the True Knot in the film is Violet (Violet McGraw), a little girl depicted as the ultimate picture of innocence, not just young and sweet but utterly guileless, wandering away from her mother straight into the clutches of Rose the Hat. She engages with the strange woman without the slightest hint of suspicion, not even thinking to be unsettled until she’s surrounded by True Knot members. The second victim, Bradley (Jacob Tremblay), knows to be suspicious of strangers when a van pulls up alongside him as he walks home from a baseball game, but he still engages. From his reactions to his kidnapping, it’s clear that while he had been warned about talking to strangers, he has little conception of why he should be wary.

Abra presents a notable contrast. Doctor Sleep first briefly introduces her at age 5 at a birthday party with a stage magician. He pulls rabbits and spoons out of hats, and Abra cheerily tells him she can do that, too. “That’s nice, sweetie,” he dismisses with a patronizing smile. But Abra knows better. Her parents avoid the subject, trying to maintain the facade of normality, but Abra knows, and is deeply curious about understanding her gifts further. Efforts to keep her in the dark, to keep her innocent about certain facts of life and truths about her gifts, are repeatedly undermined by her determined, curious nature, and these traits end up playing a crucial role in how she manages to hold her own against the True Knot cult when they end up turning their focus towards her long enough to recruit Dan to help her in defeating them.

At 13, when she goes toe-to-toe with Rose the Hat and her followers, Abra is still young and, in many ways, quite sheltered from many of the harsher realities of the adult world. She still embodies many of the traditional characteristics associated with innocence, but by chance virtue of a shrewd, precocious nature, she gives herself the tools to stand a fighting chance against the sorts of forces that target the innocent. 

  • Ciara Wardlow
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