Why Do Creepy Kids Give Us The Heebie-Jeebies?

These days, it’s a pretty commonplace trope for a creepy kid to be the main antagonist or feature of a horror movie. Think about some of the horror classics – The Exorcist, The Ring and The Shining. They all feature some tiny terrors. By why exactly is it that these children creep us the hell out?

“Creepy”, meaning “a creeping of the flesh”, has its origin in around 1831 (according to Dictionary.com), although some sources credit Charles Dickens and his book David Copperfield with the first use of the word. The use of the word has skyrocketed since the 1960s and we can probably thank the rise of scary movies for that.

It’s not surprising that psychologists have rarely studied the sensation of “the creeps”. One small study from 2013 was conducted by Frank McAndrew, a professor of Psychology at Knox College in Illinois, and his graduate student Sara Koehnke.

Professor Frank McAndrew, Knox College

McAndrew explains:

“[Creepy is] about the uncertainty of threat. You’re feeling uneasy because you think there might be something to worry about here, but the signals are not clear enough to warrant your doing some sort of desperate, life-saving kind of thing.”

McAndrew also commented on the unpredictability of subjects considered as “creepy”. Two of the key elements here seemed to be:

  • Uncertainty of threat and unpredictability
  • Uneasiness and worry

Apply this to the creepy kids that front many modern and classic horror movies alike and we can start to see why they spook us out.

The Omen (1976)

Children are traditionally meant to be the face of innocence and naivety, physically weaker than adults and small in stature. Also, our nurturing maternal/paternal instincts kick in, so most feel an urge to protect children.

However, children in horror movies take what we perceive children to be and completely subvert it. They may be gruesome killers or hold supernatural powers – and are certainly not the innocent angels we usually perceive kids as. Essentially, they look like, act like and say things other than what we would usually expect from children.

This subversion versus our perceptions basically confuses the heck out of our heads and thus an uncertainty of the threat arises – ergo the creepy sensation sets in.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

It is innate in human psychology that we tend to fear things we can’t explain, don’t understand or conflict with the societal perception of “normality”. It is normal for children to be innocent etc., but in horror movies, it’s a whole other ball game.

Our brains “get used to” certain circumstances and therefore expect certain things – whether this be in scenario and location or behaviour, speech or looks of a person. Horror movies play on this by throwing us curveballs and conveying abnormalities in human behaviour. This, inevitably, makes us uneasy. Horror movies also are especially good at using shock tactics to give us that horror thrill. Essentially, corrupted kids are a shock to us.

What also makes us uneasy is the subversion of societal hierarchies which generally put children beneath adults. Their parents, family and teachers all have a degree of control over children – they tell them what to do, how to behave and teach them right from wrong. The government also has countless laws about what children can and can’t do.

Village of the Damned (1960)

But, in horror movies, perhaps one of the most frightening aspects is that these individuals and institutions have difficulty controlling and even “defeating” the killer kids. This lack of control by what is regarded as “powerful” makes for some uncomfortable viewing!

There is also a comment to be made on watching films in general. Usually, we relax and focus on the screen. Our other senses and actions take a backseat, so we engross ourselves in the events of the movie.

Furthermore, most humans have an instinctive care for the wellbeing of others. This, of course, is a survival feature, as it is important in the development of social groups. Basically, films breakdown the barrier between fiction and reality, and we can’t help but care for the characters.

Pet Sematary (1989)

Our care for the characters therefore manifests in a worry for their well-being. Hence, when there is an approaching threat to the characters, we feel the suspense too. This sense of suspense (try saying that five times fast) is heightened by other features of movie-magic, like the use of lighting, camera angles and soundtrack.

Horror, as a genre, has certainly seen a rise in using children as the focal point and it’s clear why. We must also remember that the film industry is a business, and there’s something compelling about corrupted children that keeps us coming back for more. Ultimately, it looks like the “creepy kids” trope is here to stay.

Who are your favourite tiny terrors? Let us know in the comments below!


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