There’s No Business Like Woe Business

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | Ever wonder where our obsession with child predators began?

The answer just might be at the movies. And “M” is the picture that started it all.

What a creepy film. It opens with a mother puttering around 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 that 1931 classic that taught filmmakers everywhere to hook audiences with the primal emotion of heart-stopping fear for our kids.

After bad guy Peter Lorre murders the girl he bought the balloon for — off camera, so we 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 is leading her off to buy candy, her mother appears. Hallelujah!

And that is the moral of the story: Unless you want your children to get murdered, you cannot let them go 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-television picture that came out in 1983, two years after six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Sears store in Florida and subsequently beheaded. Even more than “M” (which was, after all, German), it is the movie that branded stranger-danger onto the collective American consciousness.

Until then, the majority of child abduction movies were either police procedurals or family melodramas, says Pat Gill, professor emeritus of communications at the University of Illinois.

“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.”

“Adam” changed all that. The two-part miniseries was ratings gold, and the media world began ordering more and more kiddie kidnappings. That’s why we’ve seen flicks about teenaged abductees (Elizabeth Smart), toddler murder victim (JonBenét Ramsey), and kids ripped from their bicycles (Amber Hagerman, for whom the Amber Alerts are named). Then there are all those “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episodes.

How do you proceed to kick it up a notch? You hire Liam Neeson. In 2008, we got “Taken,” the megahit in which Neeson is convinced by his pushy ex-wife to let their 17-year-old daughter and her friend travel to Paris without supervision. The girls land and immediately meet a cute but skeevy guy who asks to share their taxi. Moments after he drops them off, he and his gang of sex traffickers return.

Neeson’s daughter sees the men grab her friend in the next room and speed-dials daddy — a Special Ops type — for advice. Matter-of-factly he tells her, “You will be taken.”

So will you, dear viewer, on what is basically an excuse for vigilante sadism as Neeson hightails it to Paris. Without a hint of jet lag, he takes on an international team of traffickers, allowing the audience to enjoy all sorts of cruelty while feeling smug: Take that, you fiends!

Meantime, it gave parents something else to be terrified of. A mom at a PTA meeting once solemnly informed me that there are more girls sex trafficked in America today than there were slaves before the Civil War (umm … wrong).

“Room,” by comparison, is a serious film. We know this because the lead actress, Brie Larson, won an Academy Award for playing the mom who raises a son within the confines of a backyard shed. Her fictional character was taken at age 17 when she was kind enough to help a man who said he’d lost his dog.

In all these pictures, a mom is overtly or subtly at fault: The mother in “M,” who didn’t walk her child home from school. The mother in “Adam,” who didn’t keep her son by her side at Sears. The mother in “Taken,” who sends her daughter to Europe unchaperoned. And even in “Room,” Larson yells at her own mother for teaching her to be nice to strangers. Maybe if she’d been a little less nice, she wouldn’t have been snatched.

The movie industry has realized what newspaper editors, cable television producers, and grandstanding politicians already know: There’s no business like woe business, and most woeful of all are stories about missing children whose mothers could have saved them — but didn’t.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker who authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com).