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