liam neeson on phone

Predators and Popcorn: The Four Films that Gave Us Predator Panic

From an article I wrote for Reason ryzdhkybaf

A mother is puttering in the kitchen, waiting for her daughter to come home from school. We see the clock on the wall. We see her expression grow from cheer to terror. And somewhere in the streets below, we see a man buy a little girl a balloon.

If your pulse is racing already, thank Fritz Lang, director of M, the 1931 picture that taught filmmakers everywhere to hook audiences with the primal emotion of heart-stopping fear for our kids.

The latest iteration of this formula is Kidnap, wherein loving, gorgeous Halle Berry takes her loving, gorgeous son to the park, where they decide to play hide-and-seek. “Marco!” calls the beatific mother. “Polo!” replies her cherub, peeking around a post. “Marco!” calls Berry. “Polo,” comes the child’s reply. “Marco!…Marco?…MARCO!

“The majority of child abduction movies suggest that a child can disappear if you look away for a moment,” says Pat Gill, professor emeritus of communications at the University of Illinois. It’s a lesson audiences have so taken to heart that I once heard from a mom who’d been reading a book on her lawn while her children frolicked around her. A woman passing by screamed, “Put down that book! Don’t you realize your kids could be snatched at any moment?”

That is society’s mantra, repeated by cops and child protection officials as they arrest parents for letting their kids wait briefly in the car. And a small handful of movies may be responsible for it.

There’s Adam as well as Adam: His Song Continues, two films about real-life abducted child Adam Walsh. There’s Taken, the first of the franchise starring Liam Neeson. And there’s Room, the bleak independent picture about a kidnapped teen who has a child by her abductor and then raises that child in captivity.

But M is the picture that started it all. After bad guy Peter Lorre murders the girl he bought the balloon for—all off camera, so viewers can imagine the worst—the city rises up to hunt him down.

He nonetheless manages to befriend another child on the street. But just as he’s leading the happy little girl off to buy candy and a toy, her mother appears. Though the child normally walks home by herself, today mom decided to meet her halfway. Hallelujah!

And that, in fact, is the moral of the story: Unless you want your children to get murdered, you simply cannot let them be outside on their own. Lang himself said he made the movie “to warn mothers about neglecting children.”

“It almost feels like those hygiene films that warned you to brush your teeth,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. “That’s what I think Adam did as well.”

Adam is the made-for-TV picture that came out two years after the 6-year-old’s abduction from a Florida department store in 1981. Even more than M (which was, after all, German), it’s the movie that branded stranger danger onto the collective American brain.

Until then, says Gill, the majority of child abduction movies were either police procedurals or family melodramas. “In some way, the child is an abstraction—the ‘time-is-ticking-away’ prompt. You often don’t see the child at all, or if you do, it’s got some gangster’s moll taking care of the kid. He’s not tied up or anything.”

But Adam changed all that. “There was a Greek-tragedy quality to it,” Thompson says, “because by the time that movie came out, we all knew how it ended.” (The child was beheaded.)

The two-part mini-series broke all records, and the media world began ordering more kiddie kidnappings, on the double. It also introduced the five little words that would change TV forever: “based on a true story.”

Read the rest here, including my take on Taken!

Liam Neeson has “Taken” hold of our brains and scared us even MORE about kidnapping. 

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26 Responses to Predators and Popcorn: The Four Films that Gave Us Predator Panic

  1. James Pollock January 27, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    I don’t think any of these movies can be said to have “given” us predator panic… fear of strangers in white vans offering candy to kids predates 1987. I think it’s more accurate to say that they tapped into fears that were already there..

    The problem isn’t that they created fear-of-strangers, the problem is that they validated the fears that already existed.

    TV and movies also have an overabundance of serial killers. Every sweeps period, when a show that normally focuses on cops catching bad guys, they’ll trot out a serial killer, because that’s so much more dramatic that regular-old-fashioned murderers.

    The mistake isn’t that any particular filmmaker makes any specific film. It’s not even that people choose to watch any particular film. The problem is that people confuse “what’s on TV/in the movies” with “what real life is like”.

  2. SteveS January 27, 2017 at 9:29 am #

    The same thing applies to Taken. The disappearance of Natalee Holloway predates this movie. Movies and TV certainly don’t realistically portray most things.

  3. Andrew January 27, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    Here is a link to a “stranger danger” public information film from England. I remember seeing this sort of thing at school.

    When was it made? 1973

  4. Andrew January 27, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    Links to the others in that series here:

  5. Andrew January 27, 2017 at 10:49 am #

    I suspect the Moors Murders in the 1960s might be the starting point for continually increasing concern about “stranger danger” in the UK. That said, there were famous historical cases like Sweet Fanny Adams.

  6. James January 27, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    There’s a difference between being the first to introduce a topic, and being a major driving force in embedding the concept into the public’s view of the world. The Lindberg kidnapping was in 1932, for example, but in the 1940s we didn’t worry if kids weren’t watched every second of every day. Kidnapping stories predate the Bible in fact, so finding the first is going to be tremendously difficult. But there’s a difference between discussing the topic, and obsessing over it.

    I will agree that there had to be a thread in the public discourse regarding this issue–truly novel concepts simply don’t gain traction. See the impact the movie Equilibrium had, for example (ie, none). “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had a profound impact not because it was the first book to discuss the brutal nature of slavery, but rather because the society was already primed to accept the message.

    So I think both points are valid: these movies helped drive the discussion in the direction of “Never let your children out of sight or they’ll die/be kidnapped”, and there was concern over this prior to these movies. The latter had to be true in order for the former to succeed.

  7. John B. January 27, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

    Quote: “Put down that book! Don’t you realize your kids could be snatched at any moment?”

    Pay better attention! Don’t you realize that a meteorite could strike you down at any moment?

  8. Havva January 27, 2017 at 2:46 pm #

    As much as these films induce horror, and fill the imagination, I don’t think they would induce the level of panic we see without oft repeated, factually true, but highly misleading and misused statistics. This panic is, I believe, in no small part an act of congress. Specifically, the Missing Children’s Assistance Act of 1984 which required the FBI to compile national statistics, and created the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children (but made them a private non-profit). So they use the big headline number 800,000 missing children per year. It’s a great fundraising hook. And they can run you past lots of donate buttons and horror stories while you go looking for info. And “missing children” just sounds so horrifying.

    You should have seen my daughter’s face yesterday when I offered to tell her the story of how my best friend and I became “missing children.” Completely horrified, even as I assured her it was no big deal, we were safe and fine the whole time. That I was safe BOTH times that I was a missing child. She just wasn’t buying it. Obviously ‘missing’ has to be bad! Right?

    My friend and I are an example of the second largest category of missing children, estimated to account for 43%* of missing children reports. While the police, and our parents were worried and searching. The two of us were exactly where we said we would be, having a perfectly lovely day, enjoying a luxuriously long visit to the pool… a pool our mothers hadn’t heard extended it’s summer season.

    So here are the estimated breakdowns from the 2002 Justice Department NISMART Report. (Which is hard enough to find that it didn’t make the crime stats tab here at Free Range Kids)

    The approximately 800,000 missing children breaks down into approximately:
    12,100 Nonfamily abduction
    (of which 115 qualified as Stereotypical Kidnappings)
    56,500 Family abduction
    357,600 Runaway/thrownaway
    61,900 Involuntarily missing, lost, or injured:
    340,500 Benign explanation missing

    *The 95% confidence interval for the estimate of benign explanation missing (i.e. my missing episode) is from 34% to 52%, suggesting the weakness of the FBI’s data for tracking and reporting on why a child was missing.

    I should also note that the largest category that of runaway/thrownaway children is a travesty. It’s a category that screams of child abuse and neglect and yet it goes mostly unmentioned while being used to make people think there are more kidnappings than there actually are. And it deserves a sorting of it’s own. How many runaways ran from a truly bad situation? And how many had a tiff with their parents, spent the night with a friend, and came home after they had a chance to cool off? How many of those children were abandoned by their family? Yet the only attention that category gets is their risk of “sex trafficking” (what was once called, a runaway turning to prostitution). It is tragic, but it is more like some of the time streams in Butterfly Effect, than it is like Taken.
    I think we would see a very different National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, if they recruited people who have been runaway or throwaway children in their youth.

  9. donald January 27, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    During emergency situations, we can spring into action. I compare this to a car. Imagine if you have a car with two gasoline tanks. At the press of a button, you can switch from the regular gasoline tank to the one that stores rocket fuel! Fight or flight has served us well for millions of years. Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are the types of ‘rocket fuel’ that spring us into instant action.

    However, in the last few decades, we learned that we can use this ‘rocket’ fuel as recreational drugs. They’re free and easily available. All you have to do is to turn on the TV. This is why people DEMAND from Hollywood to make movies that will give us our fix.

  10. donald January 27, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    stories of mysterious men with white vans use to do it for us. However, that’s tame now. We need something stronger such as, “Marco….Polo…..Marco…..Polo…..Marco…….Marko……MARKO!!!!!!

  11. MH January 27, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

    I haven’t seen any of these movies except for parts of “Adam,” which aired when I was a kid. My fear of child abduction started when a girl my age was actually abducted in my neighborhood and was never seen again. Years later we learned that she was murdered by a serial killer.

    Years later when I was in high school, another girl (a year or two older than me) disappeared when she returned to her school locker to get a book one night. She was found raped and murdered the next day.

    These kinds of stories can stick with you much longer than fictional movies.

  12. James Pollock January 27, 2017 at 6:31 pm #

    Another thing that has changed “recently” is 24-hour news. It used to be, we got a half-hour of national news and a half-hour of local news every night. The local news would have coverage of car crashes and house fires (because they make dramatic backgrounds for the reporter “on the scene” to talk about. National news would cover, well, national news.

    Then CNN happened. Suddenly, there’s a need to fill 24 hours a day with news coverage, and the whole country gets the same feed. So suddenly we start hearing about crime cases from some other city, that previously, wouldn’t have reached us. What? A child missing in Atlanta? Yikes! What? Another child missing in Wisconsin? It’s a national epidemic!

  13. Heresolong January 27, 2017 at 10:00 pm #

    Liam Neeson, “worst father of the century” award after Taken 3 came out? Will he ever learn?

  14. Dana -chi burb girl January 27, 2017 at 10:58 pm #

    I am a child of the 80s and I remember seeing a TV movie (based on a true story) named “I know My Name Is Steven” about a kidnapped kid who escaped his captor and made it home. I remember watching this movie a few times! Since I remember it, it must’ve gotten to me when I was all of 8 or 9. Luckily, we were still able to roam the neighborhood how liked! I think these movies definitely keep the fear factor going!!

  15. James Pollock January 27, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

    “I am a child of the 80s and I remember seeing a TV movie (based on a true story) named “I know My Name Is Steven””

    Actually a miniseries, says IMDB, from 1989:

    So… they probably had a little bit better budget than the “afterschool specials”, like this one:

  16. NOTFreeRangebutCommonSense January 28, 2017 at 1:27 am #

    I guess you never have looked on the side of milk cartons. I’ve read a lot of really nasty “judgey” comments from parents on here who are supposedly laid back. Instead you come across like you want to tell the world how to parent. Just because you were raised a certain way doesn’t mean everyone else was. For example, comments about parents who play with their kids in the park — mock the parents and make snide remarks. I personally let my child play in the park freely unless my child asked for me.. but I don’t sit there and JUDGE other parents. I think nice thoughts like “gee, that dad must have left work early to take his son to the park,” etc.
    Or the post from 2012 where 100 pages of commenters call a mom rude for wanting to know the house her 5 year old son was going to for a play date! Crazy! I do not know what planet you are on but here on planet Earth, most people are going to want to know where and who their 5 year old is going! WTH. I do not get this at all. I like nice normal people who don’t think society is against them. TAKEN is scary because there is scary shit out there. Especially for women. Don’t be blind, don’t delude yourself. You seem like a very judgmental bunch so put in the extra effort and take care of your kids since you are judging all parents so unfairly with your mocking tones.

  17. BL January 28, 2017 at 5:08 am #

    “I guess you never have looked on the side of milk cartons.”

    You mean where it tells me it has zero grams of dietary fiber?

    I really wasn’t expecting any.

  18. James Pollock January 28, 2017 at 5:37 am #

    “I don’t sit there and JUDGE other parents.”

    What DO you call it, that thing you’re doing now?

  19. Buffy January 28, 2017 at 10:27 am #

    Oh, THANK GOODNESS we now know that it was a miniseries and not a TV movie. The horror of getting that one wrong!

  20. Jessica January 28, 2017 at 11:25 am #


    I disagree with you about how scary the world is. But I absolutely agree about the judgy-ness. I used to take my son and worry “If I’m not attentive enough, the helicopter brigade will judge me as neglectful.” Now, I realize that if I DO play with him, there’s another group of parents judging me for being TOO attentive. It’s exhausting. Parents can’t win.

  21. MichaelF January 28, 2017 at 9:41 pm #

    “Then CNN happened.”

    Well it was more like The Gulf War happened. In the build up CNN began to have to fill more and more time, we had a TV in the restaurant I worked at the time, each hour we saw the same 4 or 5 stories then filler such as interviews with some tattoo artist in Virginia Beach on what the sailors were getting. Or maybe somebody near a Marine base talking about what they heard the soldiers were saying.

    After that, CNN and other networks knew they had a goldmine as we kept tuned in, so had to work in more and more to fill up the time.

    They also scooped everyone with the Baghdad bombing, which definitely got eyeballs glued, and never left.

  22. Richard Jones January 29, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    The best antidote to these movies is to watch Home Alone or Tom Sawyer or Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Not to mention a whole slew of teenage targeted movies that empower and praise kids for independence of action and thinking.

  23. John S January 29, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    M’s story was adapted from a real-life story then just reaching its end, the capture and trial of serial killer Peter Kuerten. The screenplay made Peter Lorre’s character an amalgam of Kuerten and serial killers Fritz Haarmann and Carl Grossmann, who committed their crimes several years earlier. Fritz Lang delivered some very sharp social criticism as well, some of the strongest barbs hitting the police and their methods.

    What was–perhaps still is–not really noticed is that Hans Beckert is a rarity. His actions enrage and incite so many people because serial killings remain relatively rare; look at Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer in this country as examples. Even at the “trial” of Beckert near the end of the film can serve as a reminder that a “one size fits all” approach is fundamentally wrong.

    Just a few thoughts to share.

  24. Mark Roulo January 29, 2017 at 6:04 pm #

    “The best antidote to these movies is to watch … Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Not to mention a whole slew of teenage targeted movies that empower and praise kids for independence of action and thinking.”

    Or … not (if the goal is to convince folks that the kids will be fine)? I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but season three, episode one begins with a football player at Sunnydale talking to his buddy:

    “This is our year, I’m telling you. Best football season ever. I’m so in shape, I’m a rock. It’s all about egg whites. If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna *rule!* ”

  25. Steve N January 30, 2017 at 11:55 am #

    I think that Taken is a fantastic movie. For me it’s not about tapping into the fear of my daughter being kidnapped. It’s all about tapping into my primal desire that if my daughter somehow was in trouble that I could cut a swath of death and destruction through society in order to rescue her. It’s revenge porn for fathers.

  26. Daniel January 30, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    “I Know My Name Is Steven” came out in 1989 and effected a generation. I had read the story before that in Reader’s Digest, it was the true story of Steven Stayner, kidnapped on his way home from school at age 7 in 1972, escaped 7 years later when his abductor took another child. (Perhaps Steven felt his “shelf-life” had expired and worried what would happen now that his “replacement” had been taken). Steven took the new captive and found his way to the police. He was returned home after 7 years of abuse.

    What struck me about the film was the obvious need for family counseling following all of this. His father berates Steven for “letting” his molester do those things to him. Very sad. Steven’s older brother Cary went on to become the Yosemite Park killer, murdering 4 women before he was caught. Would family counseling have changed that? Unknown, but it would have been a step in the right direction.