There are few things creepier than horror movies that involve children. Whether it’s standard jump scares or hair-raising tales of Gothic horror, the mere imagery of children in these movies are terrifying. The presumed innocence of children usually adds to the feeling of dread one feels while watching these films. The idea that either a child has been hurt or worse yet, is the perpetrator of evil is quite discomfiting.
Children don’t always have to be the origins of evil in these movies, either. Often times, they can be the heroes that save the adults from impending doom. They may have a compelling backstory or may be dealing with some emotional trauma but they have a haunting presence that is magnified by the horrific elements of the screenplay.
Our preconceived ideas of innocence or what it means to be a child are challenged as we have been conditioned to believe that children are not capable of harm and that their lives should be free of any malcontent.
Films of this nature seem to waiver between the lone, evil, child genius to a legion of the former determined to take power from adults by killing everything in sight (Island of the Damned). They often press upon the idea that parents remain vulnerable, as they believe they must love their child unconditionally. A certain thread of sadness weaves itself throughout many of these films as the stories unfold.
Some of the better horror films are the ones that create a frightening timbre rather than overwhelm us with gore or worn out tropes. The presence of children only serves to add to the eerie atmosphere. Even the added levity of some humorous scenes (think Child’s Play or Gage from Pet Sematary) is not enough to offset the ensuing horror. Here are some horror films featuring children that are bound to do more than give you a few jump scares.
15. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
When Toshio first makes his appearance in this film, you can feel the unease settling over you. He is not featured prominently but the screen time that he does have is quite disturbing. This is the first in a series of Japanese films that spawned an American remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
A young social worker is assigned to a family. The house she enters is host to a curse, unbeknownst to her. Spirits will plague those who goes inside the house. The tragedy that occurred involves a Toshio, a young boy who appears suddenly with a croaking voice that really gets beneath your skin.
Toshio is sad and terrifying all at once. His mother is no less frightening but the eeriness that Toshio conjures along with the circumstances that led to the “Ju-On” make this movie worth seeing.
14. The Brood (1979)
David Cronenberg’s obsession with the human body and all of its functions and dysfunctions play prominently in most of his films. Those who are squeamish may have to watch his movies through their fingers. The Brood features not just one but a legion of mutant children who unleash a series of violent attacks on adults.
Frank Carveth entrusts the care of his institutionalized wife to a less than conventional therapist who uses psychodrama and other odd techniques to break through psychological barriers with his patients. His daughter returns from a visit with her mother and appears to have been physically abused. He believes his wife is the perpetrator and confronts the therapist about the incident. Frank decides it’s best to take his daughter to her grandmother’s house for safety.
This is where Cronenberg lets the audience know where things are headed as the creepy mutant children wreak havoc on their unsuspecting victims.
True to form, the mutants and other physical abnormalities take center stage in this film. “Psychoplasmics” are the physical manifestation of pent up emotional rage that appear on his patients. The brood itself carries out the will of their progenitor’s rage, in this case Frank’s wife. The subtext is not loss on the audience amidst these creepy little mutant children.
13. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Some of Guillermo del Toro’s best work has revolved around using children in cautionary tales or other macabre fables. This Spanish horror film serves up a perfect mix of vengeance and not so subtle critique of Franco. Horror movies that take place in orphanages are nothing new but the suspense and chills in this movie are clever.
Carlos is brought to a remote orphanage by his tutor toward the end of the Spanish Civil War. He believes he will soon be reunited with his father, who has unfortunately died in battle. Carlos not only has to deal with a bully and mean orphanage caretaker, he is haunted by the ghost of a young boy who hounds him incessantly.
In the courtyard sits a large bomb that never detonated but cannot be moved. It sits there as a large reminder that death lurks around the corner. The ghost is frightening enough and young Carlos always has a look of unease or sense of terror about him. The backdrop of war, death, and totalitarianism is equally as scary. Emotionally, this is very compelling horror film and a great effort by del Toro.
12. The Village of the Damned (1960)
This film exemplifies why sinister children are terrifying in large numbers. There are but a few horror films from this decade that hold up even now and this is definitely one of them. Steer clear of the remake and the sequel, however. This gem is perfect just the way it is.
In the small, English town of Midwich, everything and everyone suddenly comes to a stop for several hours. When life resumes, things are seemingly normal until, weeks later, all of the women of childbearing age are pregnant. They give birth to identical blonde children with glowing eyes who telepathically can control the actions of others, much to their detriment.
Mind control as a weapon or super power featured prominently in many horror and sci-fi films in the 60s and 70s. The idea that young children can use mind control to cause adults to commit suicide is unnerving. The imagery of these carbon copy, other worldly children will truly give you the chills. It’s not just the bright-eyed stare but the inflection in David’s (the leader of the pack) precocious voice is disturbing. It was a novel concept for its time and still a classic that horror fans will enjoy.
11. The Bad Seed (1956)
Sugar, spice, everything nice, and murder. That’s what little Rhoda is made of. The wholesome images of the rosy cheeked, little innocent girl is turned on its head in this movie. Bold and daring for its time, The Bad Seed is presents viewers with one of the most terrifying children ever to come across the big screen.
Christine Penmark seems to have the perfect life. Her father is a well-known writer and she has a wonderful husband in the military. Christine also has a disarmingly charming little daughter named Rhoda. Freud has analyzed her housekeeper, so she has a keen eye for disturbed children. With Rhoda, she is in great company.
A young girl in the 50s would typically be considered the antithesis of evil but The Bad Seed set out to destroy this notion. Don’t let those braids, curtsies, and cute dresses fool you. This little angel has murder coursing through her veins, as Christine is about to discover a dark secret from her past. This is really a fun movie to watch decades later.
10. The Babadook (2014)
Noah Wiseman was scarier in a way that no special effects can compete with. While not the necessarily the scariest of all horror movies, the premise of the film was effective and it told an interesting story. If you are a parent, the subtext of this film probably really resonated with you.
Amelia is a single mother who is still reeling from the tragic loss of her husband. She is raising her young son, Samuel, who has a tendency to grate on her nerves. Sam is an eccentric little kid and doesn’t have the easiest time connecting to others, but he means well. One night before bed, he asks his mother to read him a children’s book that is sitting on the shelf. He is a handful as is, let alone when he suddenly starts seeing the monster that is in the book. Amelia is forced to confront the monster and her own demons in this atmospheric tale.
Noah Wiseman was well cast in this role. The sounds of his voice when he is distressed and the contortions of his face really amp up the frightening aspect of the Babadook. The scene in the car when he faints was one of the more disturbing scenes in the whole movie. He is arguably the hero of the film as he is the one who unconditionally loves his mother and helps her fight in the end. Given the circumstances however, we do understand her impulse to want to wring his neck every now and then.
9. Orphan (2009)
One could assume this is a reworking of The Bad Seed with some added elements but that would be a deceptive way of conceptualizing this film. Esther is infinitely more evil and sinister in a way that the previous film can’t touch. There’s nothing like an adopted demon spawn to reveal hairline fractures in a marriage.
John and Kate Coleman are recovering from the loss of their unborn child. Kate was suffering from alcoholism but is seeking treatment and appears to be doing better. They currently have two children and decide to adopt a preternatural Russian girl named Esther.
Esther seems sweet and innocent enough even though she possesses a certain level of intensity. Kate soon becomes suspicious of Esther even though John dismisses her concerns. As Kate digs deeper into Esther’s past, she soon realizes she is not who she is pretending to be.
Esther has maturity beyond her years that can be off-putting but not atypical for children in horror movies. The effect she has on the family and others around her gives the film the ultimate chill factor. The secret she harbors also sets the film a part form other child horror films. She does not necessarily come off as innocent as pie as her predecessors because there is a certain coolness about her. It runs circles around The Good Son, though, so stick with this one.