In a recent interview with Ann Turner, she shared with me her journey from disappointment to cordial acceptance of the promotion of Celia, her 1989 debut feature film, as horror. “At first I didn’t like that label,” Turner confessed, before adding that “over the decades, new audiences can read things differently, and what might once have been an annoying marketing strategy has perhaps ended up being not completely wrong.” The horror label to which Turner refers initially came about as a consequence of her film’s direct-to-video release in North America. Celia’s fate was similar to that of many non-genre films that evade easy classification. Uncertain how to promote a psychologically complex Australian sociopolitical drama to the lucrative genre-driven American video rental market, Celia’s proverbial round peg found itself jammed into the square hole of horror where, for the US and Canadian markets at least, it has remained.
Celia certainly contains moments of atmospheric eeriness and genuine frights courtesy of its grotesque imaginary Hobyahs and monster children, but do these justify the film’s classification as horror? Stephen Crofts insists Turner’s film “owes virtually nothing to any generic formula,”1 while John Stanley stresses that, “except for brief moments involving imaginary Aussie creatures called Hobyahs, and unexpected acts of violence during its climax, horror fans will feel misled.”2 Briony Kidd likewise contends Celia is “not really a horror film,” preferring instead the appellation “art house coming-of-age story.”3 Conversely, Peter Shelley asserts in his compendium of Australian horror films, that Celia contains what he refers to as “the theme of the horror of personality,”4 while film scholar Andrew Scahill includes Celia in his list of “revolting child” films in his study, The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema: Youth Rebellion and Queer Spectatorship.5
Celia’s ‘official’ journey towards horror classification began with its release on video. During its limited theatrical release in the US in 1990, Celia received generally positive reviews6 and was picked up by short-lived boutique VHS distributor Trylon Video, who adopted an exploitation approach, promoting the film explicitly as horror. Renaming the film Celia: Child of Terror, Trylon included a hyperbolic synopsis on the VHS slipcover describing how, “through a horrifying course of events,” Celia is “corrupted into adulthood.” In addition, a quote on the slipcover attributed to the Sunday Times describes how Celia’s “brisk narrative” is “gloriously subverted by shades-of-Carrie horror,” inviting comparisons to Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s debut horror novel. Furthermore, the cover art used by Trylon includes the image of a gnarled blue Hobyah hand reaching out through the darkness towards Celia, who wields a shotgun with a clear sense of menace, evoking The Bad Seed’s (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) Rhoda Penmark.
In 2013, Scorpion Releasing made Celia available on Region 1 DVD in North America under their sub-label “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater”. Named after its presenter – professional wrestler and actor Katarina Leigh Waters – Scorpion’s “Nightmare Theater” catalogue is devoted entirely to exploitation horror film titles that Waters introduces in her native British accent with Elvira-style flair. For its release of Celia, Scorpion retained Trylon Video’s horror-infused cover art and Child of Terror subtitle. Curiously however, Waters’ introduction of Celia downplays its horror associations and invites audiences to view the film as a sophisticated drama that employs occasional horror tropes.
As Turner has observed, over the years audience reception of Celia has shifted increasingly towards horror, demonstrated by its selection as the 2014 opening night film for the horror-centric Stranger With My Face International Film Festival in Hobart. Celia was also recently shown to Screen and Cultural Studies students at the University of Melbourne where Turner was guest-lecturing. Discussing the film with students after the screening, Turner learned that they “read Celia far more as a horror movie than a political/historical one” and that this interpretation was a direct response to the Hobyahs that appear early on in the film.
Over the course of Turner’s film the significant relationships Celia establishes beyond the boundaries of her immediate family are successively severed and, in response to the cumulative trauma of separation she increasingly retreats into a literary and media-inspired fantasy of Hobyahs, dark magic and crime stories that become more real to her than the quotidian horrors of her repressed suburban setting. Celia’s fixation with Hobyahs leads her to imagine that the slimy-skinned monsters have abducted her recently deceased Granny and are now coming for her and Murgatroyd, her pet rabbit.
Much like the fearsome eponymous Babadook in Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, the Hobyahs emerge from a children’s storybook and lurk on the periphery as a monstrous manifestation of Celia’s repressed trauma and loss. The story of the Hobyahs is first introduced to Celia at school when her teacher reads it to the class. In the story the Hobyahs creep up to the house of an old man and his wife but are frightened away by the loud barks of the couple’s faithful dog, Turpie. Unfortunately the barking keeps the old man awake and in his anger he cuts off Turpie’s tail. Each night the Hobyahs emerge from the darkness and flee at the sound of barking. And each morning the sleep-deprived old man cuts off another limb until, with no tail and no more legs to remove, he takes Turpie’s head. That night the Hobyahs attack the house and carry off the old woman in a sack. Hiding under the bed, the old man realises that Turpie had been protecting him and his wife all along and he reassembles the dog. Newly restored, Turpie follows the scent of the old woman to the Hobyahs’ lair and, finding the creatures asleep, he cuts open the sack with his teeth, frees the old woman, and climbs in. The story ends with the ravenous Hobyahs opening the sack to find Turpie, who leaps out and eats them all.
The first written account of the Hobyah folktale did not appear until 1891 when the Journal of American Folklore published a letter by S. V. Proudfit who retells the story and claims it is a “Scotch Nursery Tale” told to him as a child by a family that had immigrated to America from the region of Perth in Scotland.7 In Proudfit’s version, the old man and his wife are eaten by the Hobyahs who carry off their daughter in a sack while Turpie remains dismembered. The daughter’s saviours are a passing hunter and his large dog who hear her cries and go to the rescue. Proudfit’s account of the folktale was reprinted in 1894 in Joseph Jacobs’ second volume of indigenous British folklore, More English Fairy Tales. From there the story made its way to Australia where in 1926 “The Hobyahs” was included in the Victorian School Paper, a reader produced by the state government for primary/elementary school students. In 1930 The Hobyahs was adapted to reflect a specifically Australian context for the Victorian government’s Second Grade Reader, one of eight age-specific texts replacing the more generic School Paper. In the Grade Reader the Little Old Man and his wife lived in a hut in the bush, Turpie was renamed Dog Dingo and instead of woods, the Hobyahs crept silently through the grey gums and into the nightmares of many a Victorian second grade child.
A 1951 headline in Melbourne newspaper The Argus announced, “Hobyahs Are On Way Out!” and reported that the Victorian Federation of State School Mothers’ Clubs (VFSSMC) strongly objected to the story, explaining how, “as mothers, we teach our children that there is nothing to fear from the dark. Then they go to school and hear how the Hobyahs – horrible little men – come creep, creep, creeping through the forest and carry off a little old woman in a bag.”8 The VFSSMC considered the folktale to be a “horror story” that was “very disturbing to sensitive children.” However, a spokesperson for the VFSSMC added that, “Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Little Red Riding Hood are just as bad,” revealing a belief that readers, especially children, are incapable of differentiating fantasy from reality. The approach taken by the VFSSMC concerning Hobyahs reflects a conservative paternalism that determines what children should and shouldn’t be exposed to. Despite being one of the most popular story in the reader for generations of second grade students, in 1952 the Education Department in Victoria excluded The Hobyahs from that year’s Grade Reader and all subsequent printings, although parents continued to tell the folktale to their children, ostensibly returning to its oral storytelling traditions.
With the character of Celia, Turner presents us with a child who struggles differentiating fantasy from reality and the consequences are deadly. Celia appears highly susceptible to fantasy, and her early exposure to the Hobyahs story has her convinced that the monsters are real and coming after her. While in reality Hobyah terror was not uncommon amongst 1930s and ‘40s Victorian schoolchildren with overactive imaginations, in Turner’s film Celia is alone in her fear. When one of the Tanner boys learns that Celia is afraid of Hobyahs, he asks in a mocking tone, “You don’t still believe in the bogeyman?” implying she should have outgrown such childish fears. Yet such comments serve only to further isolate Celia and emphasise her otherness, causing her to retreat further into a fantasy world.
Celia’s escape into fantasy is an understandable response to the significant losses she experiences. Her attempts to make new friends and nurture healthy attachments away from her parents are thwarted as she is constantly pulled back into the nuclear family unit where her insecure father and compliant mother maintain a suffocating home environment. Discussing the primacy of family in the contemporary horror, Shelley Stamp observes how its “perverse social relations breed monstrosity”9 and this is true in Celia where the Carmichael household’s repressive suburban environment cultivates deep resentment in Celia, creating a monster child who ultimately explodes into violence and murder.
Implicit within Celia is the suggestion that the moral panic surrounding the negative influence of film and other media on impressionable viewers is warranted. Celia demonstrates acute susceptibility to the images she sees and hears in books and films. After her exposure to the Hobyahs folktale at school Celia begins to imagine that behind the faces of men in positions of power lurks an evil Hobyah. Outraged by the pet rabbit muster ordered by Victorian Premier Henry Bolte as part of his campaign to rid the state of rabbits, Celia draws Hobyah features on a newspaper picture of Bolte, portraying him as the monster she sees him to be. Closer to home, she increasingly sees her uncle – Police Sergeant John Burke – as a Hobyah, first in brief glimpses until, finally, his monstrous visage takes over altogether. To Celia, Uncle John is a Hobyah wearing a human mask, confirmed by his repeated efforts to take away Murgatroyd, just as the Hobyahs repeatedly attempted to abduct the old lady in the folktale.
The films Celia sees at the local cinema also feed her fantasies. One film in which white explorers witness a forbidden tribal ritual featuring a man in a large ceremonial mask inspires Celia to think of her Granny’s Japanese mask as containing “special powers.” Celia recruits the Tanner children to help her assemble effigies of her father and Uncle John, as well as John’s spiteful daughter, Stephanie. Recreating the ritual from the film, Celia dons the Japanese mask and summons spirits to strike down John and Stephanie, sticking pins into their effigies. Later, after feeling betrayed by her father, Celia throws his effigy onto a fire in an act of symbolic patricide.10.
After Celia shoots Uncle John, she steals her mother’s jewellery and ransacks her parents’ bedroom, thereby constructing a crime scene suggesting it was a thief that murdered the sergeant. In so doing, Celia recreates a scene from a film titled Mike Mayfield and the Great Diamond Heist that she saw at the cinema. In the film, a gunman shoots a woman in her bedroom, which he then ransacks searching for diamonds that he finds and hurriedly exits the scene. The implication is that the influence of film plays a significant role in developing Celia’s criminality, however as Maslin states, Celia is chiefly motivated by her “mounting anger at the tyranny of the adult world.”11 In a film about scapegoats, it is tempting to blame film and literature for Celia’s monsterfication when in truth the real culprits are the adults in her life that consistently betray and disappoint.
Child of Terror
While Turner does not see Celia as a monster child film, it nevertheless shares curious commonalities with LeRoy’s The Bad Seed, which is commonly thought of as “the seminal work for the child’s rebirth as monster”.12 Despite significant stylistic differences and a thirty-year gap between the two films, Celia and The Bad Seed are intriguingly alike. Both occur in the entrenched post-war patriarchal conservatism of the 1950s, yet both feature young girls who are unswervingly headstrong and independent. Both mothers learn that their prepubescent daughters are killers and rather than seek justice, step into the role of accomplice. Both girls owe something of their otherness to their grandmothers: Rhoda’s grandmother was a serial killer whose psychopathy is passed down through her DNA, while Celia’s grandmother is a first wave feminist and Marxist who passes her revolutionary non-conformist values on to Celia. And, curiously, in both films the parents are dark haired while their daughters sport blond pigtails, further highlighting their otherness.13
Where the two films markedly differ is in their representations of monstrosity and appeal to audience sympathies. While Rhoda is overtly presented as a diabolical monster motivated by selfishness, greed and a homicidal pathology – a monster the film concludes is so repugnant that nature itself cannot abide such an abomination and she is struck by lightning in the incongruous denouement – Celia is not a perpetrator, but the hapless victim of trauma, betrayal and systemic oppression. Whereas Rhoda’s teratology is portrayed as entirely the product of toxic genes inherited from her grandmother (nature), Celia’s is the result of multiple emotional traumas coupled with an unsupportive home environment (nurture). Her murder of John Burke is certainly shocking, however it lacks the intentionality of Rhoda’s calculated killings (although Celia swears vengeance against John after she buries Murgatroyd) and is consequently not met with condemnation either by the film or, for the most part, its audience.14
While Celia shares commonalities with Rhoda, the two girls are separated by intent. The “child of terror” tag attached to Turner’s film by both Trylon and Scorpion invites audiences to view Celia as a monster child. But is Celia the source of terror, as with other monster child films? Or is she plagued by terror? For most of the film, Celia is terrorised, either by Hobyahs or her cousin Stephanie Burke, the daughter of Sergeant John Burke. Although not a killer, Stephanie has more in common with Rhoda Penmark than does Celia. While Celia’s monstrosity is a result of trauma and her retreat into fantasy, Stephanie epitomises the monster child who derives pleasure from her deliberate sadism. Indeed, Stephanie takes great delight in victimising and tormenting Celia, and Turner’s film provides several scenes in which Stephanie’s monstrosity reflects particular codes and conventions pertinent to the monster child horror film.
Typically the monster child film centres on the dual constructions of the child as innocent and malevolent. Innocence in the monster child film is often presented as a mask worn by the child to conceal their nefarious true intentions. Masquerading as helplessness and dependence, innocence is showcased, using Debbie Olson’s phrase, as “a symbolic distortion, a hyperreal mask.”15 Unwilling to acknowledge the child’s duality or contemplate what lies beneath the reassuringly innocent facade, the adult invested in the illusion of childhood innocence is forced to disavow the idea of innocence as mask. The Janus-faced monster child conceals its malice behind a cherubic mask of innocence and it is this duplicitousness that typifies Stephanie. Throughout most of the film, Celia is unswervingly honest, outspoken and loyal, and it is these qualities that, ironically, often cause her to be punished, while Stephanie is rewarded for her duplicity and deceit.
Stephanie’s spite is introduced in the classroom that she and Celia share. Stephanie clearly dislikes Celia and derives pleasure from tormenting her cousin. Her persecution of Celia, the film implies, is made possible by news she hears from her indulgent father about Celia’s family. For her birthday, Celia has her heart set on a pet rabbit, however Stephanie already knows that Celia’s father does not intend to grant this wish. While the rest of the class is wishing Celia a happy ninth birthday for that weekend, Stephanie draws a picture of a rabbit that she then puts a cross through. Later, in the film’s most distressing scene, Stephanie graduates from drawing a cross on the picture of a rabbit to cruelly branding a cross on Celia’s pet rabbit Murgatroyd with a red hot metal rod. In the classroom, Stephanie sneaks her rabbit drawing to Celia’s desk and waits for a reaction. Upset by the image, Celia looks over at Stephanie who wears a self-satisfied smirk. At that moment the class is asked to pray and Stephanie instantaneously switches from spiteful imp to pious cherub, obediently clasping her hands and closing her eyes in a gesture that parades earnest spirituality. On cue, Stephanie performs innocence, using it as a mask to hide her spite. Her theft of Celia’s Japanese mask, which she then wears to torment Celia, is symbolic of her penchant for hiding her cruelty behind masks.
In a revealing scene that alludes to Stephanie’s duality, she stands on a desktop at her father’s police station, showing off her new white confirmation dress. As the sergeant looks adoringly up at Stephanie, she croons, “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the prettiest of them all?” The line, adapted from Disney’s 1937 animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is famously delivered by the evil queen, who later dons the mask of a kindly old woman who presents the unsuspecting princess with a poisoned apple. Like the evil queen, Stephanie presents two faces. Her Janus-faced presentation mirrors the two opposing constructions of the child as either angel or demon. Analysing biased parental attitudes towards their own progeny compared to that of others, Gill Valentine highlights how adults readily apply contradictory constructions of childhood. “Contemporary parents,” she observes, “perceive their own children to be innocent and vulnerable (angels) whilst simultaneously representing other people’s children as out of control in public space and a threat to the moral order of society (devils).”16 The idea that one’s own children are innocent while others are not is clearly demonstrated in Celia. Stephanie’s father John calls her “Angel” while vilifying the Tanner boys because of their communist parents. Stephanie leads a violent attack against Celia and the Tanner boys, yet when the sergeant breaks up the fight he blames the skirmish solely on the Tanners and beats them, making them scapegoats for his own daughter’s behaviour. John’s daughter mimics his brutish behaviour so that, in Stephanie, we see the replication of his thuggery as the family becomes the mechanism whereby culture reproduces itself.
Robin Wood insists that the nuclear family is the horror genre’s “true milieu” 17 and this may go some way towards explaining Celia’s classification by some as horror. Certainly, its depiction of the family as the site of trauma and a domain wherein resentment festers until it finally explodes into violence shifts the text legibly towards contemporary horror, as do its Hobyahs and monster children. Yet Celia is ultimately not a horror movie. Rather, it is that rare film that escapes easy classification, whose multiple themes are imbued with great scope and complexity, psychological realism and nuanced storytelling.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
Ann Turner’s 1989 debut film Celia has often been classified as horror, due in large part to the presence of the monstrous Hobyahs that haunt Celia’s dreams. While Celia is not a horror film per se, this is complicated by the film’s application of horror tropes. Film scholars acknowledge the family as a common site of the horror film and for the character of Celia, who lives in an oppressive home environment, the Hobyahs clearly signify one of horror’s key concerns: the return of the repressed. In addition, Celia shares numerous narrative similarities with Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 monster child film The Bad Seed, leading some commentators to compare the two films. Like Rhoda in The Bad Seed, Celia and her spiteful cousin Stephanie, can both be read as monster children. Through close analysis of key scenes in Turner’s film and a reconsideration of genre, this essay concludes that the close relationship Celia shares with the horror genre justifies its reception by some audiences as horror.
- Stephen Crofts, “Public and Private in Celia” in Metro, 87 (Spring 1991): p. 27. ↩
- John Stanley, Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide (New York: Berkley Boulevard, 2000), p.83. ↩
- Briony Kidd, “They Kill Rabbits, Don’t They?: Ann Turner’s Celia,” Spectacular Optical Book One: Kid Power!, Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe, eds. (Windsor, ON: Spectacular Optical Publications, 2014), p. 166. ↩
- Peter Shelley, Australian Horror Films, 1973-2010 (Jefferson, NJ: McFarland, 2012), p. 114. ↩
- Andrew Scahill, The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema: Youth Rebellion and Queer Spectatorship (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), p. 174. ↩
- Janet Maslin’s review of Celia in the New York Times describes Turner’s film as “transfixing, assured, extremely lucid.” Janet Maslin, “A Child’s Response to the Tyranny of Grown-Ups,” The New York Times, 19 March 1990, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE1D61E3FF93AA25750C0A966958260 ↩
- William H. Babcock, “Folk-Lore Jottings from Rockhaven, D. C.,” The Journal of American Folklore 4.13 (April-June 1891): p. 173. ↩
- “Hobyahs Are On Way Out!” The Argus, 12 September 1951, www.trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/23079351 ↩
- Shelley Stamp, “Horror, Femininity and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty,” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, Second Edition, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015), p. 330. ↩
- Celia is not the only monster child in film to use a voodoo doll to exact revenge against an authoritarian father. In the Amicus-produced anthology film, The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971), the segment titled “Sweets to the Sweet” portrays a stern widower whose daughter creates a wax effigy that she uses to torture him and final kills him by throwing the doll into a fire. So too, George A. Romero’s anthology film Creepshow (1983) ends with a young boy sticking pins into a voodoo doll to punish his tyrannical father ↩
- Maslin ↩
- William Paul, Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) p. 267. ↩
- Rebecca Smart recalls that for the character of Celia, Turner had wanted to make her look more “overtly sinister” by cutting her hair into a bob and dyeing it black. Smart recalls “My father had a big argument with production and said, ‘Take a look at (The Bad Seed) and then tell me you want to cut her hair’ and Ann said, ‘Oh. Oh right.’” Kidd, p. 167. ↩
- Commenting on Celia’s murder of her uncle, Crofts observes that the film not only refuses to blame her for his death, it manages to “endorse the killing of a most cherished cultural symbol of authority.” p. 30. ↩
- Debbie Olson, “The Hitchcock Imp: Children and the Hyperreal in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds” in Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema, Debbie Olson and Andrew Scahill, ed. (Lanham: Lexington, 2012), p. 297. ↩
- Gill Valentine, “Angels and Devils: Moral Landscapes of Childhood,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14 (1996): 581-2. ↩
- Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 85. ↩