By: Richard M. Max Mara
Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” follows a couple on the cusp of divorce that take a trip to California as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. The trip takes a turn for the worst when passing through rural Nebraska, the couple accidentally hits a child who they discover was brutally mutilated moments before they struck him. This sparks a chain of events which causes the couple to uncover a sacrificial cult hiding in a seemingly-abandoned town called Gatlin. The town appears to be deserted at first, which prompts the husband to search for signs of life in various dilapidated buildings across town. The husband then stumbles across a strange church, where he uncovers information about the cult that runs this town. Through his development of the history of the cult and its actions, King draws a parallel to how mainstream contemporary American Christianity is perverted.
The couple’s first introduction to this cult is the crazed rants of a child preacher on the radio about “sacrificing lambs” and “no room for sinners.” (Par. 29). The rant is very reminiscent of an Evangelical one might hear on the radio, raving about the current state of America and spewing general hatred. The wife, Vicky eventually cuts it off saying “That drivel makes me sick” (Par. 29). She then opens up about her religious upbringing and how her and other children were indoctrinated from an early age. “That’s what’s so monstrous about that whole trip. They like to get hold of them while their minds are still rubber.” She then divulges into an anecdote about the revival tents her mother would take her to and all the shocking things she saw there. One common theme in her story is just how young some of the performers were. “They were good draws.” (Par. 30) she describes them.
King intentionally mentions Vicky’s backstory to highlight the indoctrination that is vital to many forms of modern Christianity, and how young it starts. This is not only to characterize the cult, but to comment on how bastardized Christianity is set up to brainwash young people from the start in order to get their hooks in them. This is because someone raised in this form of Christianity from day one is less likely to challenge its teachings. And since it’s teachings are usually inherently hypocritical, this integral to the survival of these splinters of Christianity. The true Christian God is good, pure, and accepting at his core and expects his followers to act as such. These sects of Christianity are anything but pure and holy, but prey on people’s fears and misrepresent the Bible constantly.
Back to the radio broadcast, it is all normal religious hatred until the child preacher mentions “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” right before being switched off my Vicky (Par. 29). This is the first hint that something is strange about the interpretation of Christianity by the local inhabitants. He Who Walks Behind the Rows is the bastardized God that this child cult as later revealed. The name “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” has significance within itself. It denotes a hidden puppet master secretly operating behind the scenes. This is nothing like how God is depicted in the Bible. God acts either directly or through some sort of vessel (Jesus, an angel, etc.). He is never some sort of hidden figure. Unlike Satan, who is often depicted in this manner. King using a heavily-loaded name like this since quite a few lines are drawn between this bastardized God and Satan since he behaves much more like a pagan God or Satan.
Another important thing to note is that King intentionally used the radio to introduce the crazed religious leader as a commentary on modern contemporary American Christianity; specifically, televangelism. America is a capitalist country with a free market, which to over -simplify, means anything can be profitable. This opens a window for even religion to be a business venture. Televangelism is one such example since as it mixes entertainment with Christianity, and generates a profit in doing so. This is obviously problematic since the religious leaders of televangelist organizations are not necessarily concerned with religious doctrine/morals, but profitability. This can push the religious organization to do things not necessarily coded within their own religious, yet their followers are doing it in the name of religion. These scams are not actually Christian at all.
Later, on the body of the child they accidentally ran over, they find “a crucifix made from twists of corn husk, once green, now dry.” The crucifix represents the children’s faith within this small town. King went out of his way to say it was “once green,” just like how the children of the town were once true Christians (Par. 42). After their religious purity was tainted though, they like the doll, were no longer green, alive, or pure. King draws other parallels between the green of corn and liveliness.
This doll connects to the twisted vision of Christ Burt sees in the church as described in the passage. King uses strong diction to describe the Christ figure. He tells us that its grin is eerily wide and vulpine and its eye “wide and staring.” Within each of its eyes, King describes a picture of a sinner painfully drowning in the lake of fire. Adorning its head is “twinning mass of early-summer corn.” This I interpreted this cult’s form of the crown of thorns Jesus is forced to wear by the Romans. All of these descriptions are nothing like the Jesus depicted in the New Testament. Jesus was supposed to be a counterpart to the more violent form of God in the Old Testament and he directly symbolized God’s forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The radio broadcast and Vicky’s revival backstory tell us about how capitalism has created opportunity for Christianity to be twisted into something designed for profit. It is important to note that many facets of capitalism, such as excessive wealth while others suffer is entirely anti-Christian. (Jesus was low-key a communist). The corn husk doll tells us about how children’s innocence can be tampered with from a young age by these messed-up forms of Christianity and how this makes the modern Christian. While the Christ figure seen in the church depicts how Christianity can be perverted in a more direct manner to create something evil and hypocritical. Through his characterization of the cult and its associated religious idols, King makes an obvious comment on modern contemporary American Christianity.
King, Stephen. “Children of the Corn.” Sakai, originally published in the March 1977 issue of Penthouse
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