In late 1993, when two 11-year-old boys were convicted of murdering 2-year-old James Bulger, battering him to death beside a railway line near their home on Merseyside, the popular press blamed (erroneously) their capacity for such incomprehensible violence on their supposed viewing habits. It could well be more than a coincidence that the video which was the focus of this virulent outcry was called Child's Play III. That title drew attention to the dangerous ambivalence of play, but it also did something more. Child's play may be threatening enough, but this was not just child's play pure and simple. It was repeated, insistent child's play, child's play for the third time. It was, of course, the 'compulsion to repeat' that first led Freud away from his belief in the dominance of the life-asserting force of the libido and towards his darker accounts of the human psyche-in particular the death drive (Freud, 1984). The title, and the repeated reproduction of the fearsome cover of the video in the press at the time, mobilised a fear of both children and childhood. It insisted that play can indeed be a terrible and murderous activity, not subject to adult social limits.
Within the interweaving discourses of contemporary culture, certain images have gained a particular power. They have the ability to resonate back and forth, repeated in different media, accumulating meanings and values as they go, and coming to stand as a shorthand for shared social judgements. These are the images that are mobilised within the potent narratives of our contemporary media (Holland, 1992). I am here concerned less with real children and actual events than with the construction and reconstruction of such