Children are a symbol of innocence, which is why they are the perfect vessel for unleashing terror onto the world. Corrupting a person so young is a heinous crime, but they are also often considered the least likely suspects when foul play has occurred. Scary movies that focus on families pose questions that haunt parents — how can I keep my child safe, how do I raise an empathetic son or daughter?
Common anxieties coupled with whatever conflicts or sociological shifts are occurring at the time have an impact on filmmakers. Horror translates these events and trends through a frightening lens, with children being the ideal analogue for the infection of society — whether through the atomic bomb, government corruption, the breakdown of the nuclear family, or climate peril. If adults fail, the youth suffer the most.
In the 1970s, a great rift was occurring in the wake of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and divorce rates skyrocketing. Second-wave feminism was feared by many who didn’t want to see the status quo challenged, which can be seen in movies like The Exorcist. Sometimes kids are the perpetrators because it is the scariest option, and writers like Stephen King have long portrayed the young as victims and the inflictors of torment (spoiler alert: four King adaptations appear on the list below). Another common theme is some really bad parenting choices that ignore sage advice, downplay troubling behavior, and assume this is some sort of phase. Unfortunately, this is a lesson learned through violent resolutions that will require far more than family therapy.
What is scarier than one child? Make that two (or more). Joining the well-bolstered ranks of creepy kids in horror are the newest versions of Flora and Miles in The Haunting of Bly Manor. Originally appearing in Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, these children have been portrayed numerous times on screen. Precocious is one thing, but they are on another level of charming and manipulative. It is no surprise to find a version of these characters featured in our rundown. They join the possessed, murderous, haunted, and haunting figures who have been terrifying audiences for the last 60 years.
Here are SYFY FANGRRLS' 13 creepiest horror movies featuring children.
David Zellaby - Village of the Damned (1960)
Combining Cold War anxiety with parenting fears, Village of the Damned paints quite the vivid picture of an unexplained event. An English village experiences collective unconsciousness, and when they wake up, all seems well. Cue multiple pregnancies a few months later with quickly developing fetuses. The children also advance at speed, using adult language and lacking empathy or emotion. David Zellaby is the leader of the blonde-haired and hypnotic-eyed gang who can read minds and force people to do things (like crash their car) against their will. The matching outfits only add to the terrifying power grab.
Miles and Flora - The Innocents (1961)
Orphans Miles and Flora have already experienced enough death in their young lives, but they have seemingly bounced back from these tragedies. Both love to play and on the surface, they are at worst precocious. However, Miles’ mysterious expulsion from school is a concern, as is the lingering kiss he plants on his governess’ mouth in the Freudian-leaning ‘60s Turn of the Screw adaptation. Miss Giddens believes she has to protect the siblings from outside evil forces. The veracity of her claims is unclear, but there is a chance the brother and sister could be teaming up against their governess to make her think she is going mad. But just like the Henry James novella it's derived from, the ending is ambiguous. One thing we can be certain about is that Martin Stephens is very adept at depicting creepy af children, having played both David in The Children of the Damned and Miles in The Innocents. Five years later he quit acting and became an architect.
Regan MacNeil - The Exorcist (1973)
Spewing coarse language and vomit, Regan’s tween to teen transformation is the nightmare many parents fear. Some might think an adolescent is acting like they are possessed, but in the case of Regan MacNeil, she has an actual demon inside her that requires an intervention beyond medical science. The Exorcist is loosely based on a true story, but switches the boy at the heart of the case for a girl — there is nothing more frightening than burgeoning womanhood. The fear of feminism and the breakdown of the family also play a major role in this portrayal. The Oscar-winning movie had a seismic impact on the role kids play in horror by pushing the boundaries of special effects, the language spoken, and even — perhaps especially — crucifix usage.
Damien Thorn - The Omen (1976)
From the possessed to the Antichrist, the '70s had it all! Ambassador Robert Thorn agrees to swap his dead baby (who allegedly died at birth) for another who happened to be born at the same time — on the sixth day of the sixth month at 6 a.m. The first few years in the British countryside are a blissful plinky piano soundtrack affair, but this all changes at Damien’s lavish fifth birthday party when his nanny very publicly jumps to her death. Damien is unfazed by this sight and it all goes downhill for his adopted parents from there. He freaks out animals at the zoo and seemingly wants his mother dead, and he does it all with a mischievous look on his face. The latter combined with his mini suits only adds to the disquieting atmosphere.
The Grady Twins - The Shining (1980)
The ghostly Grady twins in matching light blue Sunday dress — that vary slightly in length — with girlish pink bows and knee-high white socks is an indelible image in all of horror cinema. Alexie and Alexa Grady met a very bloody end at the hands of their possessed father, which is an image Danny Torrance cannot escape even though it happened years before. “Come play with us” is not a particularly enticing offer when all Danny can see is their mutilated remains and bloodstained dresses. That is a hard pass from this tot and we don’t blame him.
Isaac Chroner - Children of the Corn (1984)
Even kids can lead cults, as Isaac Chroner proves via his ability to indoctrinate the kids of Gatlin, Nebraska to murder all the adults of the town. The reason? The bloodthirsty deity “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” demands it in exchange for a successful harvest. Wielding a piece of corn while encouraging every other child to pick up weapons, the persuasive Isaac is serving a sermon to be feared. Sometimes a boy with a powerful (and terrifying message) is all that is needed to encourage impressionable youth — even if his blunt bangs and drab look could do with some sprucing up.
Gage Creed - Pet Sematary (1989)
When someone warns you to not attempt human resurrection because the person in question will be unrecognizable, you should maybe listen to them. Unfortunately, Dr. Louis Creed doesn’t heed such advice and pays in blood for his very bad choice. After his toddler Gage is killed in a road traffic accident, he tries to make up for his lapse in concentration by bringing his son back to life. Unfortunately, the sweet baby angel who told him he loved him comes back as a maniacally giggling monster who uses a scalpel to inflict violence — and inexplicably dresses like he is a Victorian ghost. His weapon of choice is small but deadly. When Louis fights his son, the doll that stands in for the child is visible, which actually makes this sequence creepier.
Toshio Saeki - Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Ju-On: The Grudge is of the most frightening haunted house movie (and TV) franchises, which features Toshio Saeki haunting the place where he was murdered by his violent father. His ghostly skin, wide-eyed look, and the distinctive horrifying cat-like noise he makes are part of his unsettling actions. While his mother’s grudge ghost is more aggressive in her actions, Toshio's passive staring is just as chilling. Yuya Ozeki played this role in both the Japanese original and the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring U.S. remake of the popular horror.
Emily and Jack Poe - Home Movie (2008)
The found-footage genre is very hit and miss, but what is so creepy about nine-year-old twins Jack and Emily is how little they speak in Home Movie. When they do, it is in hushed tones using a secret language only they understand. They have a “wacky” dad who is a pastor and loves to do impressions and a doctor mom — there’s a whole science-vs-faith side plot — but these kids have no time for these shenanigans. From disruptive behavior at Thanksgiving to a grisly Christmas morning surprise, these parents probably should’ve put the video camera down sooner.
Esther - Orphan (2009)
Disclaimer (and spoiler alert): Esther isn’t a child but a 33-year-old woman with a rare hormonal disorder that makes her appear younger than she is. A serial killer who uses her childlike visage to find her next victims, this story takes the psychopathic kid trope and pulls the rug out from under the viewer’s feet with an effective twist. "It must be difficult to love an adopted child as much as your own” was a line featured in the Orphan trailer, which caused controversy regarding the unfair stigmatism of adoption — including the trustworthy nature of these kids.
Georgie Denbrough - It Chapter One and Two (2017/2019)
So it isn't Georgie's fault that he goes from a cute kid in a yellow raincoat to a terrifying specter screaming at his older brother Bill that "You lied, and I died. YOU LIED, AND I DIED!" In Chapter 1, the horror is laid on thick when a terrified version of his baby brother appears, he tells the guilt-ridden Bill through sobs that "I couldn't find my way outta here." Scary movies love to elevate creepy child imagery with a big dose of self-loathing. And an adorable kid like Georgie who just wanted to play in the rain is prime haunting material. Yellow coats have never been the same since King's novel debuted in 1986.
Charlie - Hereditary (2018)
Playing with dead animals is a quick way to gain entry into the creepy kid hall of fame, which is one of the reasons why Charlie is on this illustrious list. Cutting a pigeon’s head off with scissors and using it to create a doll-like figure is both resourceful and incredibly disturbing. Additionally, her signature clicking sound is unsettling and pervasive. Much like the rest of her family, her fate is not a pleasant one — and it is still one of the most shocking things to happen to a child in horror.
Pluto and Umbrae - Us (2019)
"Umbrae was born laughing," explains Red about her daughter during the living room siege in Us, partially explaining why she has an unnerving smile on her face. The Tethered have lived underground, which accounts for their off-kilter movements and behavior. Umbrae's smile is hard to shake, but Pluto's mask is even more frightening. We have spent the first half of the film with the Wilson family so when the unwelcome intruders rock up in the middle of the night brandishing scissors and lighters as weapons, it is already scary before the mirroring similarities elevate the terror further. The family that wears red boiler suits together stays together.