Scariest Children in Horror Movies

You don’t have to be a childless millennial at Disney World to be afraid of kids. There’s a whole time-honored sub-genre of horror that plays upon pedophobia, the fear of children. It’s yielded ghost girls aplenty and more than one son of Satan.

Writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala ventured into pedophobic territory with their 2014 Austrian film, Goodnight Mommy. It’s been a long road to the release of their new feature, The Lodge, which premiered at Sundance last year and earned some rave reviews, only to see its release date pushed back until after this year’s festival. Now, the wait is finally over and The Lodge is almost here. It hits theaters on Friday and this film has some elements that will poke at the child-fearing part of the brain.

In honor of that, we’re diving back through the last 60 years of film history, taking a reverse-chronological look at the 10 scariest movie children. Of course, there are any number of horror films where precocious youngsters say or do things that contribute to the overall creepy atmosphere. (“I see dead people,” “They’re heeere,” etc.) However, with this list, we’ll be focusing mainly on the kids who are straight-up evil or possessed and whose desire to harm others plays an integral role in the plot. You’re about to wade into a playroom where the tykes are all finger-painting with the blood of adults.

It might get a bit spoilery as we discuss the vile acts of the evilest movie children, so before you read a section, consider crossing that movie off your to-view list first.

1. Elias in Goodnight Mommy (2015)

If you’re wondering why only one of the twins in Goodnight Mommy made this list, then either you don’t remember the movie that well or you haven’t seen it and didn’t heed the friendly spoiler warning above. What makes the nine-year-old Elias so scary isn’t just the fact that he tortures his own mother. At first, we can’t even be sure she is his real mother because her head is bandaged, almost mummy-like, and she’s acting out-of-character, refusing to even acknowledge the other twin, Lukas. Maybe this woman is just an imposter.

The film keeps the viewer off-balance, suspicious of the unnamed woman as we share the twins’ perspective of this stranger in the lake house with them. Sympathies shift and give way to unimaginable horror as the twins set about tying her to a bed, burning her, super-gluing her mouth shut, and cutting it back open.

Goodnight Mommy milks the egocentric nature of kids for all it’s worth. Lukas is dead, it turns out; Elias has been palling around with a hallucination. Yet there’s no reasoning with him because he can’t conceive of an objective reality apart from his own disturbed, make-believe world. Imagine babysitting a kid who talks to the air and refuses to believe his twin his dead …

2. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Before she put a hammer in Joaquin Phoenix’s hand for You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay directed the deeply unsettling We Need to Talk About Kevin. While most of the films on this list have an expressed supernatural bent, We Need to Talk About Kevin delivers a different kind of horror that’s more ripped from today’s headlines. Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, the mother of a dark-haired boy who grows up to become the perpetrator of a high school massacre. Splashes of red paint mark her and her white house like the scarlet letter. The title is a line that’s never spoken in the film: it’s the line Eva should have used to open a dialogue with her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) about their back-talking son, who is clearly troubled even when he is young. Ezra Miller plays the teenage Kevin.

Scored by Jonny Greenwood, We Need to Talk About Kevin starts out in a dreamlike way, showing us without explanation as Eva crowd-surfs through a sea of crushed tomatoes and people. (The unidentified setting of this abstract imagery is the Spanish festival La Tomatina). In its final minutes, the film reveals a shocking, arrow-riddled sight in the backyard that situates it firmly within the realm of domestic nightmare.

It’s one thing to have a poltergeist in your home; it’s another thing to realize that something inhuman wears the face of your child and indeed is your child. Less the Antichrist and more a demon of the natural world, Kevin embodies the guilt and shame of an unforgivable crime that Eva’s own womb has unleashed on society. At the time of its release, memories of Columbine informed We Need to Talk About Kevin. What’s even more horrifying is that, since then, six of the ten deadliest shootings in U.S. history have occurred. We sure need to talk about something.

3. Samara/Sadako in The Ring (2002) and Ringu (1998)

Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ring has given rise to several screen adaptations, the two most famous being Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese film Ringu and Gore Verbinski’s 2002 American remake The Ring. Together, both movies helped ignite a J-horror boom that still produces the occasional remake like The Grudge in January of this year. (Shout-out to another scary kid, Toshio, the chalky-skinned ghost boy given to wailing like a cat across multiple Grudge movies). The Ring had box office legs while Ringu made more of a splash on the DVD market; whichever version you prefer, the basic premise is the same. There’s a cursed videotape that kills the viewer a week after they’ve watched it. “Before you die, you see the ring.”

It’s a great high concept, made scarier by the need to copy the cursed tape like a malignant chain letter. But for me, this twice-told tale of VHS terror remains indelible because of its ending. A dead wet girl (quite a few of those going around; see also Nakata’s Dark Water) crawls out of a well and through the TV screen to enact vengeance. In Ringu, we see Sadako’s nailless fingers clawing the tatami mat. In The Ring, Samara’s squishy, waterlogged corpse feet track across floorboards.

Like many stateside viewers, I saw The Ring first—and I had to walk home alone at night from my local 8-screen after seeing it, so that ending really stayed with me. Sure, it’s more Hollywoodized, with Verbinski cross-cutting between the victim’s loft and Naomi Watts’ exhortations of, “Pick up the phone!” as she races across town in her car, the way characters in movies do. What I appreciated, however, was the fake-out where you think you’re going to get the nice, happy Sixth Sense ending with the misunderstood ghost just needing to make its peace. Samara/Sadako ain’t having any of that.

4. Claudia in Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Kirsten Dunst had her big breakout at the tender young age of twelve in Interview with the Vampire. Her Goldilocks child vampire, Claudia, is as devious as they come. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise play Louis and Lestat, the same-sex vampire couple who find her on the plague-ridden streets of New Orleans in the 18th century and turn her into an immortal with an unquenchable bloodlust. “I want some more,” she whines after lifting her cherubic, fanged face from the veins of a victim. They take it upon themselves to raise her as their own daughter but soon find out that vampire children aren’t always easy to corral.

Claudia is the kind of girl who keeps rotting corpses hidden under a mound of dolls on her bed. “A little child she was, but also a fierce killer, now capable of the ruthless pursuit of blood with all a child’s demanding,” Louis narrates morosely. The more fun-loving Lestat can only scold Claudia in exasperation as she dispatches the dressmakers and piano teachers they’ve hired for her. Basically, any human adult put in close proximity to Claudia is liable to wind up becoming a casual snack for her.

Other vampires aren’t safe around her, either, least of all Lestat, who feeds on families with her until her resentment at being trapped in a child’s body backfires on him. Claudia is at her most vicious when she poisons her vampire dad on the dead blood of twins, then slits his throat and stands there smirking coldly as he bleeds out. Elevated by Eliot Goldenthal’s rich, Oscar-nominated score, Interview with the Vampire rips the heart out of its melancholic protagonist when it exposes Claudia to the sun … but let’s not forget all those people she killed.

5. Gage in Pet Sematary (1989)

In his defense, young Gage Creed isn’t quite himself when he starts murdering Munsters with Maine accents. The boy that his parents knew and loved has already died, having been run down by a truck in front of their house. “Sometimes dead is better.”

Because the Creeds have an ancient Indian burial ground in their backyard (and really, what family in a ‘80s horror flick doesn’t?), Gage’s father is able use its mystical rock piles, or cairns, to resurrect his son. There’s never any question about zombie Gage’s intentions: he shambles home and goes straight for the scalpel in his father’s medical bag. Worse yet, the evil little bugger tracks mud all through the house. Truly, this child is insidious. He then proceeds to start stalking his kindly old neighbor, Jud Crandell (Fred Gwynne, who did play Herman Munster on TV). Gage’s way of “playing” with people is to hamstring them and bite out their throats.

Pet Sematary deals with the grief of an unthinkable loss, but parts of it are cheesy and it isn’t necessarily the most well-acted Stephen King adaptation. That said, pour one out for Miko Hughes, the child actor who played Gage. Rarely has a toddler been able to convey cuteness mingled with malice in such an effective way. It’s all in the sneer.

6. The Twins in The Shining (1980)

The Grady Twins had very little actual screen time in The Shining. They weren’t particularly essential to the plot, and as ghost occupants of the Overlook Hotel, they’re arguably outshone by the woman in room 237. Yet the image of these two girls standing in the hallway in their blue dresses and knee-high socks remains iconic, enough so that it’s still being evoked in recent films like Ready Player One and Doctor Sleep.

Ax-murdered by their father, the previous hotel caretaker, Delbert Grady, the twins make an unforgettable impression as they beckon the big-wheeling Danny Torrance to come play with them “forever and ever and ever.” Part of what makes them so chilling is how director Stanley Kubrick frames them in the moment. While child actor Danny Lloyd peddled through the hallways on his low-riding trike, Steadicam operator (and inventor) Garrett Brown rode on a wheelchair behind him, capturing fluid tracking shots with a wide-angle lens.

The resulting footage puts the audience down on Danny’s level, letting viewers see things from a kid’s perspective as the camera glides smoothly through the halls. Then Danny rounds the corner and, with the crash of a gong, comes to a dead stop in the hallway, where the twins have blocked his path. The camera skips closer and closer to them, interspersing flashes of their bodies in a bloody murder scene. Still catching his breath, Danny can only stare at them in abject horror. These two girls are his peers, a leering vision of the fate that might await him if his spirit gets trapped at the Overlook.

7. Damien in The Omen (1976)

From 1968 to 1976, an unholy trinity of devil child films made their mark on pop culture: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Directed by Richard Donner, The Omen is the lesser of the three. Yet there’s no denying that the name Damien would forever be associated with the Antichrist after this. (Apologies to any readers out there who might be named Damien and are not the Antichrist).

Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn, an American diplomat who adopts an orphan baby at a Rome hospital after his newborn dies. He passes Damien off as his own son but his wife senses that something is not right with the boy. Maybe it’s because Damien is prone to attacking her face outside churches and knocking her over second-story railings with his tricycle. “She fantasizes that your child is alien, that your child is evil,” her psychiatrist tells Thorn, sounding as though he could be speaking for many of the mothers on this list.

It turns out Damien’s real mother is a jackal buried in an Etruscan cemetery. (That’s my favorite maternal insult, actually: your mother is a jackal buried in an Etruscan cemetery!) Fiercely defended by Rottweilers and Satanic nannies, Damien is the kind of kid whose smile drives baboons at a safari park into a car-attacking frenzy. He’s got a way with animals and even his own theme song: “Ave Satani,” (Latin for “Hail Satan.” Composer Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar for his score). The Omen tells us the obvious: “The devil’s child will rise from the world of politics.” Politics is theater, however, so on his way there, Damien treats his loyal constituents to a bloody spectacle of hangings, impalements, and decapitations. Then he looks back over his shoulder and smiles.

8. Regan in The Exorcist (1973)

12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is a sweet girl until she starts messing around with Ouija boards. Mothers, take note: if your daughter befriends a spirit named Captain Howdy, there’s a chance it’s a centuries-old demon in disguise. Parents can try to protect their kids and filter out bad influences but they can’t be around them 24/7. The demon Pazuzu is sort of the ultimate bad influence, a parent’s worst nightmare for what might happen when their child loses his or her innocence and grows more knowledgable (and vulgar).

Under Pazuzu’s sway, Regan morphs beyond recognition, stabbing herself up with a crucifix and undergoing a nasty voice transformation that makes it sound like she’s gargled raw eggs and whiskey (actress Mercedes McCambridge actually swallowed those things and chain-smoked before she performed the demon voice). Yep, it’s fair to say that The Exorcist turned some heads back in its day … literally, insofar as Regan’s head does a slow, bone-crunching, 360-degree spin as she’s hurling obscenities at priests.

Instead of throwing up after heavy drinking like a rebellious teen, Regan projectile-vomits pea soup in people’s faces. She only kills two or three men, but she’s easily the most foul-mouthed devil child on this list. I learned a new application of at least one four-letter word from listening to Pazuzu speak through Regan. If you’ve seen The Exorcist (and why wouldn’t you have; it’s the greatest horror movie ever made and should have won Best Picture), you can fill in the gaps on this line of dialogue for yourself: “Do you know what she did? Your bleeping daughter?”

9. Adrian in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Even though Adrian, the infant son of the devil, never appears onscreen in Rosemary’s Baby, his presence can be felt all throughout the movie, beginning with its very title. He’s the result of a nightmarish conception: the titular Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow, is drugged by her neighbors and forcibly impregnated by Satan himself while a shadowy coven of witches hovers naked over her bed. As the baby grows inside of her, Rosemary doesn’t take on a healthy glow. Instead, she endures crippling pain and becomes a gaunt, skeletal figure with sunken cheeks and dark circles under her eyes.

The thing in her womb is more like a parasite that sucks the vitality from her. It becomes a threat to her own health and wellbeing. Craving pickles and chocolate is one thing, but when your pregnancy drives you to consume raw liver, that’s generally a bad sign. (The vegetarian Farrow actually did this on camera for the movie).

By the time Rosemary wanders through a secret passage to her next-door neighbors’ apartment and finds her newborn in a black cradle with an upside-down cross hanging over it, Adrian has become such a looming specter that the imagined terror of his eyes is stronger than any visual the movie could ever conjure up. “He has his father’s eyes.”

10. David in Village of the Damned (1960)

With a lean running time of 74 minutes, the original black-and-white version of Village of the Damned almost plays like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s a classic of British horror with an intriguing setup. One day, everyone within a set radius in the village of Midwich mysteriously loses consciousness. Even pilots in planes that fall below a certain altitude overhead are affected. After they wake up, the women in the village, including some who are virgins, soon realize that they are pregnant.

Based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos, Village of the Damned is, as we have seen, not the only film on this list to depict a mother’s fear that the life growing inside of her is somehow foreign. The real fear in this movie, however, comes when the pint-sized platinum blondes are born. Preternaturally intelligent yet emotionless, the children share a hive mind and they’re never scarier than when their eyes are glowing.

When we first meet David, the ringleader of the bunch, he’s chilling in his crib, using his mind powers to make his mom stick her hand in a pot of boiling water. Such a nice boy. Later, he makes a man drive himself into a wall and another man set himself on fire. Speaking of walls, it turns out that picturing one made of bricks is a good tactic to stall the mind-reading of alien brood parasites. Watch your children.

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