Not all children are little angels. In the realm of horror movies, the creepy kid trope is king. Some tiny terrors are born evil (The Omen) while some suffer from a supernatural affliction that threatens to destroy everyone around them (The Exorcist). The appeal of a small hand gripping a butchers knife (Child’s Play) or a ghostly girl back from the grave for revenge (The Ring) has obsessed horror audiences for decades.
Nothing is more potent for fright fans than when innocence is corrupted or lost—and the underdeveloped brain of a child becomes a primal force of evil, blurring the line between victim and monster. Whether these fears stem from real-world fears about parenting, gender, and social responsibility, or myths passed down in different cultures, the appearance of pint-sized fiends in horror films evokes the darkness of a juvenile psyche that remains mysterious. So let’s explore the history of creepy children in cinema.
1950 – 1969
The Bad Seed (1956) was one of the first films to really place the child as the evil protagonist in film. Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) looks like butter wouldn’t melt, doesn’t she? But she terrorised her family, school friends, even the gardener—killing off anyone that stood in the way of what she wanted. It turns out that the evil was hereditary—her mother was adopted, and her birth father was a serial killer. The evil skipped a generation; little Rhoda was the bad seed.
The film was based on a play of the same name by Maxwell Anderson. His story ended with Rhoda killing her mother and the evil child surviving. But back in 1956, the film censors did not want to allow “crime to pay”. So, Rhoda is struck and killed by lightning and her mother survives. Yes, this film is still pretty psychologically scary, but it’s the final scene that creeps me out the most. The cast is introduced in a theatrical-style curtain call. After her credit is announced, Nancy Kelly puts Patty McCormack over her knee and gives her a spanking. Both are visibly laughing, possibly intending to remind an unnerved audience that what they’ve watched is fictional. The spanking continues as the film fades out; a screen card then requests that the audience not divulge the climax. So yeah, that really is creepy and weird.
Outside of The Bad Seed, most children were influenced paranormally as seen in Karen (Night of the Living Dead), Damien (The Omen), Regan (The Exorcist), and the Satan’s spawn in Rosemary’s Baby. Their terrorisation was a result of infection, demonic possession, or their parents making a pact with the Devil. I believe these earlier representations of horrific children, are indicative of fears on several levels—fear of the younger generation on a broad scale, being surpassed, taken over, rendered irrelevant. On another level, there is a fear of being a bad parent, making mistakes, and not being able to control your past or your present.
Take Village of the Damned (1960), for example. All of the children in this 1960 movie are nightmarish. It’s set in a town that is beset by strange events, with first everyone in it falling unconscious then eventually all the women who live there becoming pregnant at the same time. They all give birth to platinum blonde ghouls with white eyes, oversized craniums, and all the warmth of Ian Duncan Smith. David Zellaby is their de facto leader; he’s just that bit odder than all the rest. These kids are telepathic and force their parents to do things against their will, going as far as making them kill themselves. The only solution to getting rid of them is literally killing them with fire.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is the story of a woman being raped and impregnated by the devil, and also her husband (they are basically one and the same on a metaphorical level). The film is ultimately an empathetic genre study of feminine subjugation and ruin—and, as a result, a harrowing depiction of the paradigms that feminist movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp are currently striving to dismantle. That’s never more apparent than during its finale, in which Rosemary, confronted with her demon baby, overcomes her horror and embraces her traditional role as its mother. Forced to care for her monster child, Rosemary suffers one final cruelty and, in doing so, becomes the poster child for women who’ve been denied their agency and freedom—and had their maternal instincts turned against them—by those they most care for, and by society at large. Half a century later, it as relevant as ever.
1970 – 1989
Children are symbols of purity. We tend to project innocence onto childhood and its experience. Creepy children, in all their forms (possessed kids, ghost kids, killer kids) quickly subvert that and unsettle us. We do project that innocence, though, and I think deep down, we also realise they’re capable of strange thoughts and nasty behaviour. We all were at a young age. Childhood is weird. It’s messy and aggressive, and as brains and personalities form, strange ideas bubble around in there. Maybe we don’t like to acknowledge those darker aspects, and creepy children in horror are confrontational reminders.
There’s no doubt that the insanity that crept into and eventually drove Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance, was the driving force of 1980s The Shining. But there were a few totally creepy kids in the film as well. We’ll start with poor Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), Jack’s young son. His creepiness stems from his psychic power (“the shining”), which rarely predicts anything shiny and happy. He’s always had an imaginary friend called Tony, who Danny impersonates with a gravelly voice. But at the Overlook Hotel, Tony inhabits Danny, who groans in that voice, “Redrum! Redrum!” Which, of course, is “murder” backwards. Worse, he says this while creepily caressing a giant knife and finally writing the word in red lipstick in his mother’s bedroom while she sleeps. I feel a sort of resonance with Danny. I had an imaginary friend called Nelly when I was about five. She got me in trouble a lot for leaving a mess wherever she went. It wasn’t me. It was her. Years later, we found out a little girl called Nelly died in my mother’s house and that my brother had seen her too. Yep, even young me creeps me out.
Then, of course, there are the Grady twins. Danny is riding his Big Wheel through the halls of the vacant hotel, when he turns a corner to see two little girls dressed exactly alike at the end of the hallway, holding hands and not moving. They creepily call to him, “Come and play with us. Forever. And ever. And ever.” And cut in between the girls are images that Danny sees of the two girls hacked to death in the same hallway. Terrifying.
The late ’70s saw the rise of the Slasher genre, which stayed strong throughout the ’80s. It is true that kids, or at least teenagers, were often the victims in these movies, but little sociopaths were often the protagonist too. Take Michael Myers (Halloween, 1978) for example; he murdered his sister at the tender age of five. Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th, 1980) was bullied and drowned as a young boy, then rose from the Crystal Lake to avenge his mother’s death. Angela in Sleepaway Camp isn’t particularly creepy, until the last two minutes of the film in which the whole movie is turned on its head.
Not forgetting, Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) which has one of the weirdest trailers of all time. Firstly, there’s no need to watch the film after you’ve seen it as the entire plot is spoiled. Secondly, on the back of Brooke Shields rise to fame, the trailer leads you to believe she plays the 12-year-old murderess Alice—she doesn’t. She plays her little sister Karen and is on-screen for 15 minutes if that. For some inexplicable reason, they also include her headshot three times. The film borrows heavily from Don’t Look Now and has quite a cult following, with its damning representation of Roman Catholicism, themes of childhood emotional neglect, and the disintegration of the American nuclear family.
When lethal things come in small packages, it’s the ultimate reversal of expectations. Children symbolise innocence. They depend on adults for survival. If the audience’s cinematic fight for survival comes against a pint-sized, bloodthirsty pre-schooler, it’s beyond our comprehension and violates our sense of right and wrong. Films where kids are the killers present us with an unspeakable moral dilemma: what would you do in the face of evil in the form of a child? Would you kill a kid if it was the only choice you had to survive? These films present us with a terrifying scenario that strikes a deep emotional chord. I think that’s why audiences will always flock to them.
1990 – 2009
As for the plethora of horrific children that burst forth in the 1990s/2000s, well, that’s a whole different ball of wax. Something was going on at this point that allowed so many movies to make the child the monster and also someone worth vanquishing. So what changed? Is it our definition of innocence, of childhood? Who knows. There was no marked increase in delinquency, drug use, abuse, or a massive uptick in divorces. In this case, I think it has to do a lot with power dynamics. Children are the targets of advertising. Children syphon off our hard-worked, underpaid wages. As more and more parents work, the children grow up without us around, and maybe the world compensates by trying to cater to them in every other way. Realistically, it’s probably because of their power to consume. They are the targeted consumer, so they are a bottomless pit of wants. Adults are no longer in control of their world. Advertising, pop culture, technology, and home life are centered around the child—which, in turn, is very threatening and possibly contributing to our desire to depict them this way in horror.
Orphan (2009) tells the story of an adopted 9-year-old girl who isn’t quite what she seems. The theme of parents not really understanding their children runs through horror a lot around this period. Childhoods have changed so much in a short space of time, that the priorities for a child in the ’90s were very different from a child’s in the ’60s and ’70s. Parents felt their kids were growing up too fast and knew more than they did at the same age. Innocence had been lost. In addition, it seems to posit that when you adopt, you honestly don’t know what you are getting into. So explosive is that issue that the DVD of the film starts with a disclaimer stating that in no way is the film meant to criticise adoption, and also a P.S.A. about how wonderful it is to adopt a needy child.
It was Japanese Horror that really won the award for making children utterly terrifying for me though. Ringu (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), all featured kids so creepy I could barely watch. I don’t get scared easily at all, but Sadako climbing up out of the well and through the TV really hit a nerve in my subconscious, as it did millions of others. Sometimes my seven-year-old son makes that Grudge-y clicking sound, and it is unnerving, to say the least.
Dark Water was a real tear-jerker in addition to being creepy as hell. A single mom is doing her best to stay in control and provide for her daughter while going through a messy divorce and struggling with her mental health. In the end, she gives her life to save her daughter from a creepy ghost child in a yellow raincoat. Subliminally it is a movie about depression, and the threat of her child being taken away from her led her to her death, where she could live with the ghost child forever as a doting mother. Single mothers, sometimes close to the edge, with young, creepy children either being haunted by or doing the haunting, were very popular around this time. The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001) Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), The Babadook (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), are just a small sample of the Horror films that featured lone, vulnerable mother’s, doing their best to protect their young.
So where are we at with kids in Horror now? Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag of everything really. With so many horrors happening to children in the real world, putting them through hell on-screen as well perhaps seems too much. That being said, some of the most successful horrors and thrillers of the last few years; Hereditary (2018), Bird Box (2018), A Quiet Place (2018), Us (2019) Midsommar (2019) and Brightburn (2019), plus remakes of Pet Sematary and Child’s Play, and sequels; IT: Chapter 2 and Doctor Sleep, all feature creepy kids or child victims, it appears that our love for the spooky kids trope is nowhere near dead yet.
It’s not hard to understand why the theme of creepy kids is so attractive, even though it’s also so repulsive. Children are supposed to be innocent. Adults deserve what they get if they are bad, but children should always be exempt. Our entire moral understanding depends on everybody agreeing upon this. Audiences project onto children their own feelings of protectiveness, and depicting a child in distress is one of the most effective ways of engaging an audience in any story.
But what about children who are not innocent or good? What about children who don’t seem like children at all? Such strange creatures act as deeply destabilising influences. A calm and chilly-eyed child is scarier than a monster in the forest. Those dead-eyed twins in blue dresses still call to us from down that long hallway, and they will forever, and ever, and ever.