The Devil Is in the Doodles

Pop culture is full of kids who reveal their inner demons by drawing creepy pictures. Does that happen in real life?

A season from the "Arkangel" episode of season two of <em>Black Mirror</em>.
A season from the “Arkangel” episode of season two of Black Mirror. Netflix

In the episode “Arkangel” from Black Mirror Season 4, the anxious mother of 3-year-old Sara puts an implant in her daughter’s head to keep the child from seeing anything that stresses her out. When she reaches elementary school, Sara becomes fascinated with dark imagery, asking friends to play her violent videos, squinting and trying to see through the pixelations her own brain provides. Then we see a familiar manifestation of Sara’s inner struggle, perhaps pop culture’s favorite way to signify “screwed-up little kid”: She draws a gruesome picture on a piece of paper. Attempting to scribble blood on a stick figure’s head, she finds that even the brutality produced by her own imagination is invisible to her.

Creepy kid drawings are a longtime staple of horror movies and TV shows. Sometimes they are prophetic, as in the 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn, which features crayoned mayhem drawn by a girl who predicts murder before it happens. Or they can reveal a child with demons, as in the 2009 movie Orphan, where the adoptee Esther draws seemingly innocuous images on a wall; these cover much darker pictures that appear under black light. (Esther has many secrets.) But whatever its narrative purpose, the trope is now all but rote. Detectives on Law and Order: SVU now regularly bring in sheets of paper and let child witnesses have at it. This worn-out trope is the product of a dearly held cultural belief that children’s art is a window into their psyches. But is it really?

Before the 20th century, children were taught to draw as a way of “training the eye.” Drawing was a lesson in steadiness and, for some, a way to discover an adult vocation; precision was far more important than self-expression. But as Westerners began to think more romantically about children and childhood, our perception of the value of childhood drawing changed. Modern artists like Picasso, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró all collected drawings done by children (as art historian Jonathan Fineberg has documented). These artists considered childish artistic expression to be spontaneous and genuine, somehow closer to the wellspring of consciousness than art made by adults.

In the postwar period, educators in the United States, influenced by social scientists who argued that fostering creativity was a way to prevent the development of the “authoritarian personality” that had led Europe into fascism, began to invest in their students’ art as self-expression. Midcentury pedagogues looked at drawing as having a “developmental and therapeutic value” (as historian Amy Ogata writes). Art therapy, also a creation of the wartime period, likewise linked the act of drawing to the revelation of a child’s inner landscape.

The use of bloody drawings as visual indicators of something very wrong with a kid seems to have jumped into the movies starting with Dario Argento’s 1975 film Profondo Rosso (released as Deep Red in the U.S.). Film studies professor Andrew Scahill, who has written about creepy children in cinema, theorizes that “child monstrosity resides in the perceived absorbing quality of children—to learn too much, too fast, and to take the lessons and expectations too far.” In horror movies, the positive traits we project onto children get twisted into their bad-seed mirror images. An innocent child becomes a constant witness who sees everything terrible that adults do. A wise child is actually an alien. A dreamy child conjures up the destruction of worlds. In all of those cases, a drawing can act as a tipoff to the child’s true nature.

Unlike horror movie viewers, real-life practitioners of art therapy don’t immediately leap to a diagnosis upon seeing one scary drawing a child has made, Cathy Malchiodi, a psychologist and art therapist, explained to me. They do look for especially intense violence or sexual imagery, or a pattern of repetition that shows the therapist that the child has become “stuck” on an experience. The morbid drawing can be considered in context, along with the child’s other behaviors and conversation. Malchiodi speaks with a child about how looking at the drawing makes their bodies feel, trying to use art along with movement and other types of play to work out trauma.

The horror movie trope also relies on our understanding that children’s drawings reflect their real lives. But identifying actual trauma through examining kids’ art has become more difficult as time goes on, Malchiodi told me. “I started out working in this field more or less thirty years ago,” Malchiodi said. “My first group of kids … were victims of domestic violence. … If I saw something like that back then, I’d be right on it, because it wouldn’t be at all the norm in the drawings. They had been exposed to something, in real life, that was terrorizing them.” Now that children have heightened access to media through cellphones and tablets, their drawings look different. Images of sex and violence aren’t necessarily indicative of something real happening in the child’s life—though if the child repeats an image of media violence over and over again, the media they’ve consumed may be triggering a response to a real-life experience.

Despite the long history of this trope, Black Mirror’s “Arkangel” episode actually does something new and different. Sara’s mother wants to create a walled garden of consciousness, parentally controlling everything stressful (a barking dog, a grandfather’s heart attack) out of her daughter’s life. Eventually, the mother’s bid for control paradoxically results in the daughter’s attempt to imagine violence out of thin air. In this instance, the nightmare Sara has witnessed is not the something she saw—it’s the nothing she was allowed to see.