Kids are terrifying. You know it, I know it, heck, even the kids know it: their ability to sculpt and manipulate fear is just too good not to know it. Speak to any parent and they’ll be able to recount at least one – more likely several – occasions when their kid has done some creepy shit. Whether that’s waking up in the middle of the night to find them standing at the end of your bed in the darkness or tucking them in only to have them tell you there’s something waiting in the closet, children harbour terror the same way they harbour germs. And in the world of horror movies, they have been one of the most effective tools for decades.
The fear of children is called pedophobia, which is dangerously close to being mixed up with that other ‘pedo’ word, and has been around as long as children have. Usually stemming from someone’s own traumatic experiences during childhood, the phobia manifests in adults by them being uncomfortable around children, feeling anxious in their presence and reluctant to hold or interact with them. In the same way there are people who ‘just can’t do’ slasher movies or ‘just can’t do’ movies about possession, there are those that ‘just can’t do’ horror movies that involve creepy kids. And that’s a shame, because there are some great ones.
Village Of The Damned from 1960 – which would later be sequeled and eventually remade – was the leader in a wave of evil kid movies that popped up in the fifties and sixties. The Bad Seed from 1956 – where a mother suspects her young daughter is a merciless killer – was arguably the first, with flicks like Kill Baby … Kill and even Rosemary’s Baby (to a degree) expanding on this idea of what we see as the ultimate innocent – children – being exactly the opposite. So impactful was this brand of terror that it continued to ripple into the ’70s and ’80s, which arguably gave us the best and creepiest children in the genre. There’s the devil manifested through Regan in The Exorcist in 1973, the creepy delivery of “they’re here” in 1982’s The Poltergeist, baby-gone-bad in It’s Alive in 1974, Bloody Birthday and The Pit both from 1981 and the entirely bad scene that is 1976’s The Omen (“it was all for you, Damien!”). John Carpenter even toyed with the idea in 1978 classic Halloween, not only showing us a murder from the viewpoint of an evil child but giving us an unfiltered view of what happens when that child is allowed to grow into full adulthood. The general consensus in most of these films is kill the kid, kill the kid early and prevent further evil. Michael Myers was what happened when you failed to do that.
By the time we had Hanson’s origin story in Children Of The Corn in 1984, murderous minors was a full on, bona fide trope. But it was also beloved. What else could explain the eleven – ELEVEN!!! – sequels that franchise has warranted over the past 30 years? The Japanese really took creepy kids into the new century with the one-two punch of The Ring and The Grudge as J-horror surged to the centre of genre-lovers’ minds. In 2017, creepy kiddos have become – unfortunately – rather tired. They’re almost trimmings now in films like The Conjuring, Insidious, Trick R Treat, Woman In Black and Signs: just something expected to be present on the checklist of elements in mainstream horror and something to be ticked off. There are exceptions, though. Although not the central villain, Victoria and Lilly in 2103’s Mama were some of the most impactful vessels for suspense and an encroaching sense of dread in a film that already had a significant big bad. Orphan and Sinister both gave us original uses and spins on the juvenile-to-be feared. Yet the most promising film – and sign for hope – was the slow burn Goodnight Mommy. A hit on the international film festival circuit in 2014 and 2015, the German movie gave us a meticulous and motivated exploration of the evil children trope. With the upcoming IT remake already teasing a healthy dose of creepy kids, and pedophobia not going away any time soon, we need to face the reality that underage terrors are as much a staple of the horror genre now as a man with a mask.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author previously seen on SBS Viceland’s The Feed. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.