What’s your favourite type of horror movie? Do you prefer being freaked out by a haunted house or is it more fun to see lots of blood and gore? To steal and adjust a popular line from an iconic Slough office branch manager “Different sub-genres for different needs”. There’s no correct answer to the question of what makes a horror movie scary but can we all please agree that you have to go a long, long way to find something more terrifying than a creepy kid doing creepy things.
Before we get into some of the most famous examples of scary kids we need to have a discussion about why the hell kids are scary in the first place. Why are kids used so readily in horror movies to give us the creeps?
Well it’s pretty obvious why children are used as a tool in horror so much. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out, it’s simply because children aren’t supposed to be scary. A staple of effective horror is the idea that something can corrupt our expectations so much so by manipulating our natural assumptions and creating a kind of chaos, planting doubt into our naive minds. It doesn’t work so much these days since we’ve now been programmed to expect the unexpected but it’s been a highly efficient and persuasive method in scaring audiences over the years.
Children are innocent to the world and everything that exists within it. They are oblivious and require the mentoring of their parents, elder siblings, teachers and so on and so on. Until they hit a certain age children are disowned from the rules of society. Governed by their own intermittent decision to follow. Lambs to the slaughter. They’re often not allowed to have their own voice so when they speak in horror movies, literally or metaphorically, it generally always comes across as being very sinister.
Part of what makes children terrifying is the fact that they are a cornerstone of familiarity. A kind of blueprint for normality. As the horror genre evolves on the big screen so does the scares. We’ve moved from gothic horror monsters to religious possession to masked serial killers to scary clowns to home invasions to jealous, hormonal, teenage murder schemes. Very little of this is the norm to the majority of us (after all that’s what attracts us to cinema isn’t it?) but the introduction of a child can be a comfort zone. The safety net in our otherwise anarchic society. But there’s an unpredictability in children. The lack of a distinguished voice breeds fear and uncertainty in others but much of this fear echoes the real life concerns about the failings of our younger generation. It's almost like a metaphor for being a bad parent or guardian.
In Tommy Lee Wallace's 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's best selling novel "IT" children are used in a more traditional way. Instead of them being 'evil' they are actually used to project evil to the world around them. Something similar happens in Tom Holland's Child’s Play. Andy Barclay, played by Alex Vincent, is just a normal kid but it’s him who befriends the killer doll and through him, and eventually his mother, we see the evil unfold. The same can be said for Dylan in Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Having an innocent child go through these horrific experiences makes the nightmare more effective. As mentioned above, the child's voice isn't given any gravitas. Nobody of authority listens, until it's too late.
In Freud’s essay "Das Unheimliche" or "The Uncanny", he explores the aesthetics of popular culture relating to what is frightening and repulsive to us in our everyday experiences.
“Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.”
One of the theories he touches on is that of the dopplegänger or in layman terms, the double. A dopplegänger is sometimes portrayed as an evil twin but in most cases relates to a look-alike. Sometimes it is presented in ghostly form representing a supernatural entity, however whether real or not it always equates to being a harbinger of bad luck. The look-alike is a trope that has almost been done to death in horror cinema, often envisioned in 'invasion' sub-genres like the many big screen adaptations of Jack Finney’s seminal 1955 novel The Body Snatchers and more recently in Jordan Peele’s Us. The idea of someone or something pretending to be someone or something familiar to us is truly horrifying.. There’s been a bunch of variations of this trope too in films like The Faculty, Shivers, The Thing and even The Stepford Wives. Wolf Rilla's 1960 classic Village of the Damned and Jaume Collet-Serra’s creepy 2009 film Orphan are both fine examples of this happening with children but an even better one transpires in Lee Cronin’s excellent 2019 thriller The Hole in the Ground. When single mother Sarah relocates to the Irish countryside she begins to see increasingly disturbing behaviour in her son. After returning from a visit to the nearby woods she soon suspects that her son isn’t actually her son after all. The double theory is the omen of paranoia, the seed of psyche disintegration. It’s incessantly used to blur the lines between reality and insanity and often purposefully leaves an ambiguous taste in our mouths at the end of the film.
Going in the opposite direction to this by making the child pure evil can often be an even more satisfying scare. Kids are never truly evil though and are more often than not used as a carapace of sorts. The vessel of evil or messenger of doom. Carol Anne in Poltergeist utters the words "They're here" and just the thought of that, the idea that malevolent forces would use this innocent little girl to convey their existence is spine-chilling. This is infamously taken to extremes in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist when the demon takes over young Regan and turns her into a foul mouthed, vomit spewing, beast from hell. In this particular instance it could be surmised that Regan’s demonic possession is a subsidiary consequence of the lack of faith in the world surrounding her. The demon uses Regan’s body but the attack isn’t about her specifically, there’s much more to it than that. It’s a devious plan aimed to create a very aggressive and hostile intrusion into the belief of God or more to the point, the ambiguity surrounding the disbelief of Satan. We get some sort of confirmation about this later in the film when the demon speaks directly to Fr. Karras. There’s something personal going on here. It’s implied that Regan was simply a host in it’s game until Fr. Karras explicitly invited the demon to take him instead, which it in turn does so.
If you want to dig even deeper than this, outside of the obvious realm of religious belief, then there is some theories that have been discussed, one in particular by film analysist Rob Ager, that Regan’s possession could be allegory for sexual abuse. But that’s an entirely different article all together.
There’s some belief, which I don’t particularly give any weight to, that Regan’s possession could also be attributed to her mother’s sins. A sort of ‘crimes of thy parents’ type of scenario. This approach has certainly been applied elsewhere in horror cinema most notably in Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. The kids in question are teenagers in this one but the same theory applies. The kids are being used as a vessel for the evil to project itself where it wouldn’t otherwise be able to touch. In this case the evil is Fred Kreuger, the horrifically scarred child killer who years prior was burned alive by the parents of the children he is now haunting. The Elm Street series continues to use this approach though it does sway from film to film. The third film in the franchise, Dream Warriors, does a notably good job in conveying this horror as the kids have all been committed to a mental institution. Another prime example of the young being cut off from reality by an authoritative hierarchy. They have become ciphers to an adult driven society which in the end almost destroys them all. That in itself is even more terrifying.
Scary kids will always be a mainstay in horror cinema. Children, especially infants and toddlers, have a strange hold over all of us. We were all kids once. Then we become parents. Then our kids have their own babies and we get to vicariously relive certain moments of our youth again. I’ll leave you with this quote from American author Robert Fulghum, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they’re always watching you.”
- Gavin Logan