Children of the Corn by Stephen King Short Story Analysis

Children of the Corn Stephen King

What is it about corn? Sure, Stephen King can make anything creepy, and so he does in “Children of the Corn”. But long before Stephen King filled his first diaper, humans have been very wary of… yes, corn.

Read it online. This resource also has an audio version. Alternatively, you might find it on YouTube.

Before we get started, I have an excellent idea for Thanksgiving finery. (Americans wear costumes to Thanksgiving dinner, right? Right?)

Search online for: 1pc Novelty Horror Halloween Mask Costume Party Latex Vegetables Head Corn Mask Full Face Mask Halloween Costume Props Decoration. You may need to a cut a hole in the mask in order to shovel turkey into the mouth hole area.


  1. How would you define the horror genre? Now what about the subcategory of ‘folk horror’?
  2. In four sentences, describe the deep level structure of “Children of the Corn”. Don’t talk about the individuated characters or the specific setting, but instead focus on what is common to the most popular folk horror stories. It helps if you’ve seen The Wicker Man (1973) or The Ritual (2017), or Midsommar (2019), all in the same category of folk horror as “Children of the Corn”.
You will also find the subcategory of folk horror satirised in comedies. Season 2, Episode 1 of Schitts Creek (“Finding David”) is a good example. One thread focuses on Alexis’ love life. In the other thread, David takes off from Schitts Creek after learning sale of the town hasn’t gone through. Now he feels stuck forever. When the family finally locate him, three days later, it turns out he’s been camped out at a nearby Amish farm the whole time, and that technically he texted Alexis, hoping she’d come directly and ‘rescue’ him. The Amish are pleased to be getting rid of him as he is no help whatsoever in a farming environment.

Actually they were Mennonites.

  1. Commentators have suggested “Children of the Corn” is an allegory. An allegory is basically a metaphor which lasts the full length of the story. What can you say about this?
  2. We don’t know much about Burt and Vicky, but Stephen King’s details let us fill in some gaps. What can you say about the sort of live Burt and Vicky live when they’re not driving through Nebraska, running over corn kids?
  3. What does the story say about religion and human’s relationship to it?


Beware: The guy who reads “Children of the Corn” (Bradley Lavelle) deploys an achingly bad Southern accent, and even I can tell, as a non-American. He reads the wife’s voice in a way which makes you want to jump out of the arguing couple’s moving car.

To be fair, that’s how Stephen King wrote her. And if you haven’t read this story yet, here’s your warning: “Children of the Corn” features a super annoying young couple who argue interminably on a long car trip West through Nebraska, and King hews mostly to the man’s point of view, which means we’ve got a Whiny Female (TM). A Stephen King specialty. He’s calmed that down in more recent work, but honestly. “The Jaunt” is another example. Partly it’s just bad writing, with overuse of words like “shriek” and “hysterical” (always applied to the women). I find it painful to read, and even more painful to hear read aloud.


“Children of the Corn” has enjoyed numerous popular film adaptations over the decades since the short story was first published in 1977.

These films score in the range of 3-6 on IMDb and when I say ‘6’, I mean 5.6.

Although the films aren’t exactly arthouse cinema, “Children of the Corn” has an important ecological message which only gets more urgent as the decades pass us by.

Over the past three centuries, we’ve been damaging our soil by planting monocrops in place of the naturally occurring local biota. This can’t continue forever. The film Interstellar (2014) begins with the premise that humankind have planted our last crop, and unless we find a new Earth, the population will starve to death.

This particular story happens to feature corn, but might also feature as backdrop any number of crops such as wheat, maize, sugar, coffee, palm oil… and so on.


Green Giant Niblets Corn advertisement from the July 1947 issue of Life magazine, in which the corn is larger than Life.

Even when aiming for hygge, there’s something ominous about the children’s illustration below by Joan Walsh Anglund. For one thing, her girl character is about the closest the West has to Hello Kitty, the creepy Japanese kitty which stands for everything kawaii. (Neither this girl nor Hello Kitty has a mouth. Note that ‘kawaii’ does not simply mean ‘cute’ — there’s far more to it than that.)

Moreover, if the turkey eats the corn, the turkey will fatten up. Then what happens? This is basically the everyday version of Hansel and Gretel, except the girl without a mouth is the witch.

Joan Walsh Anglund turkey corn
Joan Walsh Anglund

In Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, we learn about Susan, Laura’s homemade doll created from a corn cob. We have long personified the corn cob, and the tradition of the corncob dolly for little girls exemplifies this tendency.

Why corn? Who knows, but at least it’s plentiful, cheap and non-toxic. Also, when a two-year-old cradles a corncob, the size differential makes the corncob about the size of a human baby, I guess?

There’s nothing at all creepy about the corn cobs below, except for some weird reason there still is?

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse Illustrated by Ethel Hayes 1942

Enough about corn cobs. I’m sure I’ve persuaded you to be scared of them. Let’s talk about corn fields.

Stephen King isn’t the only writer to utilise the horror potential of corn fields.

It’s the summer of 1960 in Elm Haven, Illinois, and five 12-year old boys are forming the bonds that a lifetime of changes will never erase. But then a dark cloud threatens the bright promise of summer vacation: on the last day of school, their classmate Tubby Cooke vanishes. Soon, the group discovers stories of other children who once disappeared from Elm Haven. And there are other strange things happening in town: unexplained holes in the ground, a stranger dressed as a World War I soldier, and a rendering-plant truck that seems to be following the five boys. The friends realize that there is a terrible evil lurking in Elm Haven…and they must be the ones to stop it.


Below, American picture book author and illustrator makes excellent use of creepy corn in a well-known Hallowe’en children’s story A Hallowe’en Happening, companion story to A Woggle of Witches.

For as long as humans have been able to imagine what is not there, we have been populating every nook and cranny with supernatural creatures. The “Corn Angel” is basically a human pollinator, doing good for the village.

Corn Angel of Midnight from Joseph Breck and Sons, 1886

Corn farming is terrifying partly because we rely so heavily on this foodstuff for our nutritional needs. Corn products proliferate, though generally we don’t think of corn products as ‘corn’.

Cornstarch advertisement 1909

If there were some worldwide corn plague tomorrow, we’d be in big trouble.

Story Poems 2 by Peter Neumeyer and Robert Pierce 1973
image via mostlysignssomeportents on Tumblr

Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen (1857 – 1914) knew all about the supernatural potential of cornfields. Those stacks by day give off a completely different vibe by night. Cornstacks turn into monsters. Without modern technology, humans are only able to make haybales a little bigger than themselves. That’s how they end up looking like very large men.

Corn Stacks in Moonlight 1900 Theodor Kittelsen
Corn Stacks in Moonlight 1900 Theodor Kittelsen. In Donald P. Borcher’s 2009 adaptation of “Children of the Corn”, an aerial shot late in the film shows Burt running through the corn. The corn sways, as if alive. Next, the audience learns that the corn is waving because the children of the corn are chasing Burt. Human activity ‘activates’ the corn somehow. In the original short story, the corn makes ‘a weird sound like respiration’. ‘Someone’ cut the boy’s throat, and that ‘someone’ is a personified cornstack.

When an Australian ad agency was asked to create a series of commercials for Tooheys extra dry, they took the creepy, magical mythology of agricultural stacks and stooks and ran with it, resulting in the exhibition of creepiness below.

Another word for “cornstack” is “corn stook“. This word is used in northern English regional dialect. The earliest known use of the noun corn-stook is in the 1880s.

Cornstooks (1927) William Nicholson
Edzard King - Calendar magazine August 1920 hay
Edzard King – Calendar magazine August 1920
‘Corn Stooks and Farmsteads.’ Painted in 1938, Eric Ravilious




Some commentators consider “Children of the Corn” an allegory for America’s involvement in The Vietnam War. At the beginning of the story we’re told Burt is a Vietnam veteran. The story as a whole is about sickness across a culture and moral guilt. The US ‘defoliated’ the Vietnam landscape, after all. This might be payback. (In the 2009 movie adaptation, Burt has flashbacks to Nam as he runs through the corn.)

Elsewhere in the world, the USA is well-known for its so-called American Exceptionalism — the belief that the USA is a unique and special country, and also morally superior. This idea can be traced back to The American Revolution. It gets a bit tiresome if you happen to be from Canada or Australia or various other countries with gun control, socialised healthcare and democracies which arguably work better than America’s democracy right now.

But the truth about American Exceptionalism is a little more complicated than it first appears. America actually goes through periods of great hubris followed by periods of great self-flagellation. The post-Vietnam War era was a period of self-flagellation for Americans. Even while that was going on, there was much commentary from inside the USA about the role of the USA in the conflicts between other countries. This discussion has never really stopped.

What does that have to do with “Children of the Corn”? Well, when America is going through a self-flagellation period, this has an impact on American authors and the types of stories they tell about the American people.

King’s “Children of the Corn” might also serve as an allegory for the USA farm crisis in the early to mid 1980s, though it was first published in 1977. King may have been critiquing the policies which led to the crisis. The 1980s saw a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. This only lasted for two years due to massive grain surpluses.

When the country is overflowing with crops no one can sell or make a living from, those vast fields of monoculture take on a new meaning, for sure. In a way, “Children of the Corn” might be read as a modern take on “The Magic Porridge Pot” category of ancient fairy tales. America wasn’t experiencing outright famine, but a different sort of overflow; a surplus can also lead to suffering and misery when the world works on capitalism.

Rather, we might think instead of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

Water water everywhere not a drop to drink 

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

In the famous ballad, a sailor is stuck on his boat deep inside the ocean without potable water. Vexingly, he is completely surrounded by water, but in its natural state he can’t drink it. Ditto for America’s surplus of corn.


A fictional small-town in the flyover county of Nebraska, an inland state considered deserted by Americans from more populous areas.

Nebraska gets short shrift in this story, I must say.


The fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska, and the nearby highway.

Stephen King describes the town as indistinguishable from any other rural town of the era.


I believe cornfields are unsettling partly because they sit in that uncanny valley between ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’. There’s nothing natural about a monoculture, and we sense this on some level. Like, the corn is too uniform.

Insects don’t like uniformity of crops, either. And even if you know nothing at all about gardening or agriculture, a mistrust of acre upon acre of monoculture might be baked into us, somehow.

Country Gentleman Magazine August 1947 William C Griffith
Country Gentleman Magazine August 1947 William C Griffith

Another reason why cornfields can give you the willies: If you drive and drive through never-ending miles of them, you can start to lose perspective on size. I experienced this most vividly myself driving not through farmland but up through the middle of Australia, which is desert. Especially around Coober Pedy, with the hills made from mining, I really felt as if I were an insect. The skies are massive, there are no buildings around to give you a handle on scale.

Perhaps when we run through a cornfield, our lizard brains remember when we were small rodents making our way vulnerably through undergrowth.


Burt enters what used to be Grace Baptist Church, since repurposed. The children have reverted back to Paganism.


Most people these days have a sense of witchcraft which comes from fantasy/children’s literature. Those ideas are far removed from reality.

As an example, we have an idea that the ‘real’ historical witch comes from Roman Paganism. Instead, most historians of witchcraft say Christianity functioned to stigmatise what were once Orthodox Pagan beliefs by calling Orthodox Pagan beliefs witchcraft.

Early Christians (up to the 11th or 12th century) treated witchcraft as a joke. If women ever confessed in church that they were having witchy dreams and so on, confession manuals from this era (studied by people working in the church) advised that women should be told to calm down. Witch stories were considered nonsense.

As evidence, an 11th century penitential advises people to tell their parishioners that if they say they’ve gone flying at night with Diana that they’re making it up, it was just a bad dream. Paganism did not actually influence the beginning of the witch craze. (Cf. Scholasticism, which had far more to do with the witch craze than Paganism.)

Today, not all Pagans identify as witches. Witches exist on a particular branch of Paganism. Some don’t want to use the word ‘witch’ because of all the baggage. (For example, many people think witches are Satanists. In another misrepresentation, witches are associated with the New Age movement, which many witches also despise.)

Pagans were happy to say occult powers came from some uncatalogued minor deity, whereas Christians were hung up on the question of where supernatural beings came from.

Christianity couldn’t sit happily with Pagan ideas because, according to Christianity, there is only one God. This is how Christianity ended up with a more thorough theology of the occult, eventually leading them to the conclusion that if occult powers don’t come from that one singular God, they must come from his opponent — Satan.

The 12th century onwards was a period when ideas about Satan, devils and Hell became concretized in people’s imagination.

This way of thinking cost about 30,000 people their lives during the Witch Craze.


The people of Gatlin experienced a drought which destroyed their community. I imagine a bright, searing day.


The couple own a T-bird, which allows them to make their own way across the continent. The Ford Thunderbird was a personal luxury car manufactured and marketed by Ford from model years 1955 to 2005. This couple requires a city income or two to afford this particular car, which is flashy by rural standards.


Stephen King has concocted a new religious cult for the purposes of this story, but its basis if firmly based in fundamentalist Christianity commonly seen across the USA. The reason given for why the children slaughtered the adults: Too much sinning, not enough sacrifice. The Book of Job speaks of disaster; these children interpret disaster as punishment by God.

Wider than that, this story is about the rural/urban divide which was exacerbated once Americas highways had been built.

For more on that see my post on Road Trip Stories, of which this particular category of folk horror is a subcategory.


Folk Horror uses elements of folklore to invoke fear and foreboding. The most popular examples are:

  1. anthropocentric
  2. with a focus on unwitting outsiders
  3. who are brutally sacrificed
  4. after stumbling into a rural, pagan community

The Ritual (2017) is another good contemporary film example, along with The Wicker Man (1973) by Robin Hardy.

This type of folk horror revolves around conflict between the modern/urban/global outsider and the rural/’pagan’ community. The rural communities are primitive while the urban outsiders are sophisticated, to their downfall.

Now for a non-comedy example from a drama series.

The early 2000s TV series Big Love is about a big FLDS family who try to live quietly in suburban Utah. In one episode (“Come, Ye Saints“), the entire family decide to take a trip to ‘their roots’ to learn more about the history of Joseph Smith. But as the journey progresses, the family starts to fall apart, until the patriarch of the family is left walking on his own without one shoe along the side of the highway.

Aside from the satirical and subverted examples I mentioned above, modern folk horror quite often steps away from the anthropocentric folk horror story.

Another far more recent Stephen King story called “In the Tall Grass” (2012) co-written with his son Joe Hill, does not put people at the centre. The children’s TV series Children of the Stones (1977) is another example of folk horror which is not anthropocentric.

In episode one, a father and son are driving to a small town in England. The father is an academic and they must stay in a rural area for three months so the dad can conduct his research. As they drive past some ancient and ominous stone statues, a woman suddenly appears in the middle of the road.

In this category of folk horror, humans are nonetheless present, if only because they have been displaced from their central role. These stories offer a critique on how much damage humans have on their environment.

Another way of looking at folk horror (Adam Scovell, 2017) is via the ‘Folk Horror Chain’ of events:

  • landscape
  • isolation
  • a skewed belief system
  • the happening or summoning (an often violent and sometimes supernatural culminating event)


A very annoying married couple called Burt and Vicky Baxter drive across Nebraska.

I’m in the habit of looking up the meaning of fictional names. Sometimes there’s a symbolic link. Sure enough, I don’t think King plucked the name “Baxter” out of thin air:

Baxter, a boy’s name, comes from the occupational surname that was used by bakers. It’s derived from the early Middle English word bakstere, and the Old English bæcere and its meaning is, quite simply, “baker.” This name might be several centuries old, but the “x” adds an easy contemporary touch.

The Bump, a baby name website

Stephen King could have chosen ‘Baker’ but ‘Baxter’ is a more modern form, which underscores the fact that this couple hails from modernity.

Basically, he’s given this couple a name connected to food. They’re driving through a surplus of food. They’re going to be killed, indirectly, by food. (Apologies to anyone reading this whose name is connected to food. I just write what I see…)


The reason for the trip: The Baxters are driving to visit Burt’s family who live in California.

Do they really want to save their relationship? I don’t see much evidence of that.

When things turn bad, they just want to get out of Gatlin alive.



Burt and Vicky are bickering the entire car journey. Stephen King hints that they don’t get on because they coupled young, when they were both good-looking — especially Vicky — which suggests they chose each other based on looks. Looks don’t endure. Will their unintended adventure bring them closer together or drive them further apart?


We first meet them when Burt runs over a boy who emerges from a cornfield bordering the side of the highway.


The couple decide to put the dead boy in the trunk then drive to the nearest town of Gatlin to inform police.


Unfortunately, the mostly abandoned town of Gatlin is now inhabited by a cult of children who worship ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows.

These children sacrifice themselves in a ritual at the age of 19. Since Burt and Vicky are well past the age of 19, this isn’t good news for them.

How do Burt and Vicky work this out? Records have been kept of the names and date of birth and (when applicable) death of each resident. I suspect Stephen King was inspired by the possibly true lore around the legend of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin“, but I’ll let you check that out for yourself.

We learn that these children have previously slaughtered all the adults in the drought-stricken community. Their leader is a boy called Isaac, a ‘seer’. We’re not sure if their deity is real or an illusion.


Eventually Burt sees the deity with his won eyes: ‘something huge, bulking up to the sky… something green with terrible red eyes’.

In cosmic horror, the human witness is so horrified they’re having trouble explaining what it is, exactly:

It was composed entirely of something awful and alive which was lashed together in a messy semblance of a human form. Whatever it was made of looked so polished and hard, that if it weren’t for the minute writhing of the stuff, I’d think it was made of granite.

The Thing That Stalks The Fields

Readers still can’t be sure if Burt Baxter is seeing something from the veridical world of the story, or if he’s experiencing a visual hallucination triggered by stress and the power of suggestion. Either way, he’s face to face with his own death in the form of a malign god.

Revelation for readers: Gods are made by humans to explain natural phenomena, and to psychologically cope with the aftermath. Notice how, all through this story, whenever The Corn is supposed to have done something, it was actually humans. Even when it was the corn, the corn only acts in response to humans.


As readers probably guessed the moment the city slickers ran over the boy, Burt and Vicky are sacrificed to propitiate He Who Walks Behind the Rows.


The 1960s marked a schism between many parents and their children, as the new, modern culture of America did not always bring its older generation along for the ride. “Children of the Corn” features a division between the older generation and the young, with the adults positioned as enemies of moral progress. The adults brought on the terrifying drought themselves with their bad farming practices.

Although climate change was not on people’s radar nearly so much when this story was written, the generational divide is possibly even more stark now than it was back then, with Gen Z and younger left to deal with the consequences of the last 300 years, or really, the thousands of years since humans left the African continent.

Rockwell Kent 1926 Corn black and white photo of a colour painting which has been lost
Paul Landacre, Growing Corn


Keetley, D. (2021) Dislodged Anthropocentrism and Ecological Critique in Folk Horror: From ‘Children of the Corn’ and The Wicker Man to ‘In the Tall Grass’ and Children of the Stones. Gothic Nature. 2, pp. 13-36. Available here. Published: March 2021.

America The Great“, Tuesday 7 November 2023 episode of Preconceived podcast about American Exceptionalism.

The New Gods: A short history of the fictional origins of modern paganism, Daily Grail


The Thing That Stalks The Fields is a supernatural story about a cornfield. It is also an example of a creepypasta.

A creepypasta is an urban legend for the Internet age: a paranormal story that has become a meme. In earlier days of the Internet, memes were ‘copy and pasted’ rather than ‘reblogged’, ‘retweeted’ and ‘shared’. ‘Creepypasta’ is a corruption of ‘copy paste’. (Nothing to do with pasta.) Like a tall tale told around the campfire, the aim is to shock readers by sort of getting them to… believe it.

Side note: “Pasta” is a nice example of how the same word can be borrowed into English multiple times.

“Paste” came into English way back in the 1200s. The OED says it’s of multiple origins—partly from Anglo-Norman French, partly from Middle French, and partly from Latin.

Jonathon Owen (@ArrantPedantry) June 23, 2021
(Via silent but vehement notes.)
Note that ‘pasta’ only got a tiny “foreign term” entry in Webster’s Second (first published in 1934, this a 1950 printing). Language change–it’s what’s for dinner.

“The Thing That Stalks The Fields” is the first person account of a farmer whose haybales seem to approach his farmhouse. One night something decapitates all of his horses. Then he sees a cat-like creature with a caved-chest. The thing next kills a visitor, and suddenly the farmer understands; he is the monster’s captive. It has used his haybales to delineate the bounds of his ‘cage’. At story’s end, he is thinking of making a run for it, and the reader can easily deduce that he is about to die.

This creepypasta is a good example of modern cosmic horror.

creepy pasta

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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