The best horror writers take us out of our comfort zone and challenge our deepest held beliefs. What better way to do this then by making the villain of a story a child? Children aren’t supposed to be physically or mentally threatening to adults, after all. You might even say that societies treat children with intolerable pomp, until they reach a certain age where, as if by magic, they’re deemed to be grown up (and, by extension, now a threat).
On a biological level, we’re wired to care for and protect our own offspring with unquestionable zeal. From an anthropological point of view, we’ve even evolved to want do the same with the young of others – “it takes a tribe to raise a child”, as the old proverb goes.
Disagree? Consider this scenario: you’re on a packed bus in rush hour and you see a toddler playing and laughing with their parent. Before you know it, you’re smiling and feeling all warm inside.
Let’s take this even further: if, for some nefarious reason, someone on that bus decided to lash out at that child, the majority of people would jump to its defence – we just don’t like to see children harmed or involved in evil in any way. Collectively, as a species, we’ve decided that just isn’t on.
It is for this reason that evil children in cinema work so well. When we see them playing the part of the malevolent antagonist, we are deeply disturbed. It all flies in the face of universal facts and it’s downright terrifying. With that in mind, here’s a bunch of kids we’d keep well away from.
1. The Children (Village of the Damned, 1960)
Village of the Damned (1960)
What can we say about these emotionless, creepy, clone-like kids with glowing eyes and white hair? In this classic horror, a haunting brood of children are born to every fertile woman in a sleepy English town. They grow unnaturally fast and are shown to hold a strong telepathic connection. They dress impeccably, walk as a group, speak as adults and behave maturely, but this is due to a collective hive mind rather than a regimented upbringing. Their eyes are able to hypnotise others to commit awful acts, even gruesome suicide. The children might only attack when they feel threatened, but they do so without hesitation or remorse and it’s this golem-like state that evokes much of the viewer’s fear.
The severity of the situation is heightened when we learn that these dangerous creatures have appeared across the globe, and the Soviets are so threatened that they nuke an entire town to remedy the problem. Our protagonist takes a slightly more reserved approach; he learns how to combat the children’s mental capabilities and sneaks a time bomb into their room. One child (his ‘son’) sees through the deception at the last minute and experiences an emotion for the first time – astonishment. It’s too late, however, as the bomb goes off and all are killed.
Are we scared of these children because we fear their powers or personality? It’s more of the latter; as a species we don’t actually mind a good fight, even against the odds; we just want things to act how they’re meant to!
One final terrifying thought: this movie was based on a novel called The Midwich Cuckoos. Cuckoos, of course, manipulate other birds to raise their young. In this story, who (or what) was the cuckoo?
2. Rhoda Penmark (The Bad Seed, 1956)
The Bad Seed (1956)
The Bad Seed presents us with what’s supposed to be a picture-perfect middle-class family in the 1950s; the father is a high-ranking Colonel in the U.S army and the mother is beautiful, dutiful and keeps a good home. With her blond pigtails and pretty frocks, their eight-year old daughter Rhoda is apparently the icing on the idealised cake – however, all is not as it seems.
Beneath her lovable façade, Rhoda is a sociopath who is willing to harm and kill to get what she wants. She’s talented beyond her years and a gifted con artist; she can wrap adults around her finger with ease. Her true self is revealed early in the film, after her father leaves for Washington to defuse Cold War drama. Incidentally, this plot devices helps feed into the stereotype that as soon as fathers leave home, families fall apart.
Rhoda’s first victim (on screen) is fellow-class mate and rival Claude Daigle, who drowns in a ‘tragic accident’. She also kills her family’s live-in gardener in an incinerator and it is revealed that she has previously killed an elderly neighbour and her dog. As she learns these horrible truths, her mother Christine discovers that she was adopted and that her birth-mother was a serial killer, implying that Rhoda has inherited a ‘killer gene’. In the words of one character, some people “are bad seeds. Plain bad from the beginning. And nothing can change them”.
A botched murder-suicide attempt on Christine’s part finds the two family members in hospital. Rhoda eventually is returned home while her mother recovers from a coma. However, her tyranny is quickly put to an end: whilst retrieving a trophy from one of her victims, she’s struck by lightning and instantly killed.
Rhoda proves that supernatural elements are not always necessary in horror; her evil came from sheer human nature and, according to the narrative, is literally encoded in her DNA.
3. Isaac (Children of the Corn, 1984)
Children of the Corn (1984)
Based on a Stephen King short story of the same name, Children of the Corn tells the story of a malevolent entity referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” which entices the children of a rural town to ritually murder all the adults. This demonic spirit poses as a twisted fertility deity; this is seen when the children blame their elders for “defiling the corn” (read: destroying the planet with pesticide and irresponsible farming). In typical King fashion, the entity is never really shown and its true nature and motives are never truly explained.
The plot of the movie revolves around a young couple who stumble upon the town years after the children have successfully committed senicide. In that time, the children have created their own bizarre society, donning Amish-like clothing and habits. They’ve also started to literally worship corn. Their leader, Isaac, is a crazed religious fanatic and came to the town as a boy preacher to spread the entity’s message.
Children of the Corn blends your standard creepy child-villains with the zealous drive of religious extremists. At one point, we see the tiny terrors drink the blood of one of their own, after carving a pentagram into his flesh. The musical score when the children chant is also done brilliantly and conveys a special sense of eeriness. Collectively, it makes for a chilling package.
The 1984 adaptation has always been a contentious movie for horror fans; it has a few plot holes and the acting can leave a lot to be desired. Yet, the kids are still insanely creepy and the scene where Isaac emerges from the corn, revived from the dead with a demonic voice, still makes us shiver.
4. Samara Morgan (The Ring, 2002)
The Ring (2002)
We’re going to assume you’re largely familiar with the plot to The Ring; it’s one of highest-grossing horrors to be made in the past twenty years and is regularly parodied in popular culture. The sinister paranormal antagonist – Samara Morgan – also helped to popularise the ‘long-haired ghost girl’ horror trope now found in Western cinema (think: The Grudge).
Samara is the vengeful ghost of a young mass murderer. She appears to her victims on a VHS cassette; her long black hair concealing her hideously waterlogged face. Anyone who views the cursed videotape receives a phone call from Samara warning them that they will die 7 days after their initial viewing.
The Ring’s sombre tone, big scares and visual eccentricities are what make Morgan a stone-cold terror. That her killing methods are purely psychological in nature rather than physical reinforces just how impossible she is to confront; how do you fight what you don’t understand? Her back story is somewhat sympathetic, but unlike her Japanese counterpart Sadako, she only wants to kill for sake of being wicked. She is evil incarnate and full deserves to be in this list.
Also, that scene where she comes out of the television is a downright cruel move on the director’s part. Seriously, keep that away from us!
5. Regan MacNeil (The Exorcist, 1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
Arguably one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Exorcist has had a significant influence on popular culture and we could well write an entire article about the many, many reasons it strikes fear into us. There is an argument to be made for not including Regan in this list; she’s not a villain per se, but rather the unfortunate victim of a demonic possession. However, the same argument could be made for many children who occupy antagonistic roles in horror. Linda Blair’s portrayal was so believable that it would be a crime not to include her; she brilliantly played a character that was both the villain and the primary victim.
Regan plays up to our prejudices and assumptions of what a normal young girl is supposed to look like. She’s cute, cuddly and curious about the world. Her possession turns her into a vomit spewing decadent abomination and no one with half a heart would ever want to see a 12 year old act in such a way. Throughout the movie, her actions become more and more primeval and animalistic, culminating with the infamous crab walk.
Second to these visual horrors are her interactions with Father Damien Karras, which set the scene for the movie’s heart-racing crescendo:
Demon/Regan: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Father Karras: You would like that?
Father Karras: But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?
Demon/Regan: It would bring us together.
Father Karras: You and Regan?
Demon/Regan: You and us.
Blair’s portrayal has become legendary in the horror genre and the character of Regan MacNeil remains a primary influence for countless films depicting demonic possession; she pushed the boundaries for what Hollywood could get away with in terms of child actors. There’s just no way The Exorcist would have enjoyed the legacy that it has if it’d been an adult strapped up in that bed; Regan is a distressing, uncomfortable and dread-inducing antagonist.