A Little Evil Goes a Long Way: Why So Many Children in Horror Movies are Evil

The Grady Girls from The Shining
The Grady Girls from The Shining

Possessed, evil, and ghostly children are a staple in horror films: from Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist to Sadako in Ringu (The Ring) to Children of the Corn, they've been effectively creeping us out for decades. But have you ever wondered why? After a bit of reflection, here's what I think are the principal reasons why this trope has become such a powerful stereotype.

1. Children are Innocent

Damien from The Omen
Damien from The Omen

How bad you feel about bad things happening to another person depends entirely on how innocent you think they are. Most people don't feel too bad about bad things happening to bad people, but when bad things happen to good people, the emotions start to rise.

There really isn't anything in this world that elicits more sympathy than any sort of harm befalling a young child, and there are few things that elicit more revulsion that being possessed by the Devil or being murdered in a cruel and unusual way.

By creating a story around this event (because, let's face it, horror movies have always been more about the antagonist than the protagonist) the screenwriter is guaranteed to elicit a strong emotional response from his viewer. This emotional turmoil adds fuel to the fire surrounding the plight of the protagonists, creating tension and a greater state of unease.

2. Children are Vulnerable

Sadako from Ringu (The Ring)
Sadako from Ringu (The Ring)

By making the antagonist of a horror movie a child, the writer accomplishes a second, very important objective: they elicit sympathy for the villain.

Sympathy is a very bad thing to feel toward a person--big or small--who is trying to kill you. Sympathy puts you off-guard, it makes you vulnerable and easily swayed, and it makes you hesitate when you should act and pull your punches when you should hit hard. In short: it dis-empowers the hero, exposing them to more danger than necessary, and making them feel conflicted about defending themselves or attacking their enemy head-on. The plots of many horror movies revolve around this effort on the part of the protagonist to save or redeem the evil child.

3. Children are Unpredictable (and Cruel)

Isaac from Children of the Corn
Isaac from Children of the Corn

When dealing with adults, we often feel that there is at least some chance that our tormentor will listen to reason, or, barring that, that they will at least behave in predictable ways that can be used against them. Whether this feeling is right (and many horror movies exist purely to illustrate that it's not), with children, we don't really have that sense.

Children are unpredictable and given to tantrums, and when that troubled child has the power of Satan at his beck and call, or the terrifying omniscience and omnipotence of a ghost, or just sheer numbers, we feel the unsettling tension of not knowing how they're going to respond to the protagonist's efforts at survival.

Children are also notoriously (if apocryphally) cruel, though our cultural allegiance to their innocence tends to whitewash this aspect of childhood. (The best illustration of the cruelty of children is still, in my opinion, The Lord of the Flies, but it's technically not a horror movie.) Cruelty and unpredictability are the hallmarks of malevolence and menace and children (at least the ones in fiction) possess both of these characteristics in spades.

4. Children are Creepy

Okay, I know a lot of loving parents are going to disagree with me on this, but on a scale of dolls to full grown humans children are right in the middle.

Everybody knows that dolls are creepy. My mother collects dolls and even she knows they're creepy. This creepiness is no doubt related to something like the uncanny valley effect (and probably includes clowns as well). This creepiness doesn't apply to ordinary children, who typically elicit feelings of tenderness and protectiveness in adults, but hits full force when that innocence is perverted into something macabre and unwholesome, like a zombie-child or Regan MacNeil.

There is something peculiarly unsettling about a 'not right' child which is even more pronounced than a 'not right' adult. It's probably related to the first point I made about the direct relationship between innocence and sympathy where a perversion of innocence leads to a feeling of revulsion equivalent to the degree of corruption. Whatever the reason, there's no denying that 'not right' children are downright creepy.

5. They're Our Children

Gage Creed from Pet Sematary
Gage Creed from Pet Sematary

Often, the child that assumes the role of the antagonist in a movie is a child of, or under the guardianship of, the protagonist.

This powerful social and emotional bond has the effect of vastly increasing the intensity of all of the preceding points. An evil child is innocent, vulnerable, unpredictable and creepy, but there is no child more innocent, vulnerable, unpredictable, and creepy than your own child when that child becomes 'not right'.

When the evil child is the child of the protagonist, horror movies often acquire an element of tragedy in addition to fear. This can be a heady combination and put another spin on your already whirling emotions.

Examples in Film: The Exorcist

Regan from The Exorcist
Regan from The Exorcist

The preceding points go a long way toward explaining the mysterious power of The Exorcist. Although the movie was released in 1973, it is still widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best horror movie of all time. I think that's a good indication just how powerful this archetype can be.

Regan MacNeil, the star and antagonist of The Exorcist, embodies all of the preceding points: at the beginning of the film, like most preteens, she's innocent, vulnerable, and unpredictable. She's also the daughter of one of the main protagonists, which makes the entire situation incredibly complex. Finally—and I don't think anyone is going to deny this—post-possession, she is creepy as hell. (How many scenes are more effective than the 'crab-walking' scene or her signature head spinning?)

The protagonists in The Exorcist are bound to Regan through their obligation to protect and care for her, they must be careful how much force they apply while simultaneously overcoming their reticence to act. It's really a perfect conflict in a lot of ways, which accounts for much of the tension and suspense in the movie. Unlike the conflict in many less effective movies, where the antagonists warrant little, if any, sympathy, in The Exorcist you share the protagonists' concern for the girl: you want them to act, but you are equally concerned about the welfare of the antagonist.

Examples in Film: Asian Horror

Toshio Saeki from Ju-on (The Grudge)
Toshio Saeki from Ju-on (The Grudge)

In Ringu and Ju-on, like many Asian horror movies, a large part of the protagonist's motivations revolve around a misguided but well-intentioned desire to assist the antagonist and free them from their tortured condition. The hero often believes (though not always with good reason) that by bringing the child's murder to light, finding their remains, or proffering their love as a surrogate parent that evil may be undone and their own fate averted.

The protagonists in these movies are responding to the child-like nature of the antagonist, giving in to their nurturing tendencies, and actively becoming more involved with the antagonist in their efforts to assist them. In a way, the child-like nature of the ghost acts as a sort of lure which serves to more effectively trap the protagonist. (There is a pronounced cultural difference in the way that Eastern and Western cultures view this scenario but that's a subject for another discussion.)

The entities in these movies have also been depicted in such an unwholesomely creepy way that audiences have been conditioned to have strong reactions to the mere presence of strands of long, black hair.

Terrible Tots

Village of the Damned
Village of the Damned

The unpredictable character of children also goes a long way toward explaining the peculiarly unsettling feeling one gets on seeing the Grady twins in The Shining, or while watching Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned: children seem capable of coming up with any sort of device to justify cruel and unusual punishment. When the Grady twins say "Come play with us, Danny," you get the distinct impression that their idea of play is not going to be a wholesome one.

This conjunction of childhood play and cruelty is very unsettling for a lot of people, much more unsettling than mere adult cruelty, which often has to go to much greater lengths to achieve the same effect. I think this explains, at least in part, the reason why Let the Right One In is much more effective (and menacing) than many run-of-the-mill vampire movies.

Sand Buckets of Blood

Eli from Let the Right One In
Eli from Let the Right One In

You could spend a lot more time investigating this phenomenon (I haven't even touched on The Omen or Rosemary's Baby) but I think you get the point: evil children are a popular trope because they are peculiarly effective in eliciting strong, conflicting emotional reactions from people.

In fact, I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that an evil child is often more effective at evoking feelings of horror than buckets of blood and gore. In a way, when writers decide to 'enhance' a ghost or a victim of possession by making them a child, they aren't making the ghost or invading spirit appear more'evil by using an innocent as the vehicle of exposition so much as they are enhancing the conflicted feelings we already have about the strangeness and cruelty of children.

Comments 13 comments

Moral Man 18 months ago

There are evil children in many movies and novels, such as Lord of the Flies, Children of the Corn, The Omen, etc. They maybe evil for several reasons, whether its their environment, or whether its in their Nature, or whether they are possessed by evil spirits or by the Devil.

Kiss of the Tarantula is one such movie about an evil girl whose evil is caused by her surroundings. This horror movie stars Suzanne Ling and Eric Mason and was made in either 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, or 1977, depending on the source. Why the discrepancy in dates is a mystery. I first saw it in December 1977. Its about a girl who lives with her family in a mortuary/funeral home. Her father is an undertaker and stands an imposing 7 feet tall. Her father is the only person in the movie she loves. Her mother is a mean woman who hates her and who hates her husband. Her mother hates her because she enjoys playing with spiders which disgust her. The girl, Susan Bradley, is shown at ages 5, 10, and 15. She collects several dozen tarantulas as pets which her mother loathes. Her uncle, Uncle Walter, is a policeman and is flirting with her mother. When Susan overhears her mother speaking on the phone to Uncle Walter to have Susan's father killed, she puts a tarantula on her mother while she sleeps and the mother dies of fright. The spiders are Mexican Redknee Tarantulas whose venom isn't deadly to humans although it is painful.

Later on, some delinquent teenagers from school raid the mortuary/funeral home while the undertaker father is away and harass Susan. They kill one of her tarantulas. She gets revenge by later on going to a drive in and letting some of her tarantulas loose inside the cars of her tormentor. The people freak out when they realize the spiders crawling on them.

Meanwhile, Uncle Walter has eyes on Susan and wants to have a physical relationship with her. Its incest and its sleazy. This sleazy, corrupt uncle/policeman kills a girl who suspects that Susan had something to do with the deaths at the drive in. Why? To cover up Susan's crimes so he can have a relationship with her. When he forces himself on Susan back at the mortuary/funeral home, she pushes him away and he falls down the stairs and ends up paralyzed and totally helpless. He pleads for Susan to help him but she coldly says no and now he will be her next victim. His fate will be even worse than being bitten by large, venomous spiders. She drags him to another room, removes the dead body of the girl who the uncle killed, and then lifts her uncle with a contraption and puts him inside the airtight coffin, puts the dead girl on top of him, and closes the lid. Uncle Walter is buried alive and left to suffocate to death. The undertaker father has no clue what's going on. As horrible as Uncle Walter was, locking him inside a coffin is unimaginably cruel and sadistic. Suffocation and claustrophobia are among the worst forms of torture. This would be a case of Evil vs Evil, as both Uncle Walter and her mother were evil and the girl herself is evil. Each one is a murderer here. The movie exudes death the way a funeral home/mortuary exudes death. Theres scarcely a likeable character in this depressing, unpleasant movie. It's a horrible movie with horrible scenes.

duppycon2 profile image

duppycon2 4 years ago from Yuma AZ

Like you mentioned in the article, I think one of the reasons children can be so effective in a horror movie is that we as adults have (or should have) an ingrained aversion to strike or retaliate against them, regardless of what they've done.

If you haven't seen (appropriately enough) "The Children" (2008 - Vertigo Films), check it out when you get a chance. It's not the greatest, but it's pretty good.

Great article!

self absorbed profile image

self absorbed 4 years ago from Canada

The great thing about children in horror, is that they can do the most despicable things imaginable, but because they are children it is much easier for the audience to still recognize their vulnerability.

j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 4 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

@cperuzzi: I don't think it's any wonder why so many movies feature groups of children singing songs like "Ring around the Rosie", etc. It IS creepy. I think that ties into the unpredictability and cruelty of children. Thanks for reading.

cperuzzi profile image

cperuzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

la la... la la... laaaa la.

Hearing kids do that is still creepy.

j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 4 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

@ananceleste: I don't think your sister is alone in that feeling. Kids can be downright weird. As I recall, I was pretty weird myself. :)

@Robertlentini: Glad you liked it. Thanks for reading.

@krsharp05: It was fun to write. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

krsharp05 profile image

krsharp05 4 years ago from 18th and Vine

Bloody brilliant. Absolutely love it!

Robertlentini profile image

Robertlentini 4 years ago from Boston, MA

This is an awesome!

ananceleste profile image

ananceleste 4 years ago from California

Now I understand why my sister says that little children are creepy. I have worked with children all my life and it never crossed my mind. But now, as I read your article, she is right. Voted up!

j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 4 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

I think those are both excellent points, Dominique. The fact that children sort of stand on the border between adult society and nature creates a sort of uneasiness about them. Personalizing the fear by making viewers reflect on their own children also contributes a lot to the horror.

Thanks for reading and sharing.

Dominique L profile image

Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

I like this Hub, it brings up a lot of excellent points, but there's something else I'd like to add, especially in regard to the Asian horror. There's a saying in Japan that "until the age of 7, a child belongs to the gods." The idea being that a child that young will do whatever it wants and can't be successfully assimilated into society. Because of that, young children are a thing to fear. I don't know if children so much lure people into traps in that case, so much as they just have no moral compass and just do what they do. Also, on your point that they're our children, I think part of it may be that "my kid would never do that" thinking that is in the back of everyone's head. There's that fear that YOUR child could be taken from YOUR control and not do what YOU want by some outside force. That's my two cents anyway.

j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 4 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

@John Sarkis: Yeah, 'evil' is probably not the right word, but there's definitely something creepy about them that fits the conversation. Maybe that's just me though. They were one of the reasons why I wrote this hub. *shivers*

Thanks for reading and voting.

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub, however, the Grady Girls from The Shining were not evil from what I remember. Every other children you mentioned were....

Take care - voted up


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