In the horror genre, children can sometimes be a few steps ahead of the adults, as seen in Dibakar Banerjee’s contribution to the direct-to-Netflix anthology film Ghost Stories. Banerjee’s film is set in a small town ravaged by a zombie attack. The survivors are two children (Aditya Shetty and Eva Ameet Pardeshi) who have managed to find a way to hide from the flesh-eaters until an adult comes along and endangers them.
The children have a quicker and better grasp of the threat, and it is through them that the grown-up gets a sense of what is at stake. This device has been used in several horror films over the decades. Stephen King, whose novels and short stories often feature children as protagonists or antagonists, once explained that childhood is a “secret world that exists by its own rules and lives in its own culture”. Since children “think around corners instead of in straight lines”, they live in a “dream state”, King added. Perhaps this is why children are the first to spot unusual occurrences or oddities in their environments.
In John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), little Tommy Doyle is the one who keeps alerting the heroine about the serial killer creeping about in the neighbourhood. In Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), the youngest in the family, Carol Anne, first realises the presence of ghosts. In M Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015), the younger of two siblings is correctly convinced that something is wrong with the people who claim to be their grandparents.
Sometimes, the children are equipped with unexplained psychic powers, which brings them close to the netherworld. Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is arguably the most popular horror movie kid in this category. Danny’s extrasensory abilities grasp the dark past of the Overlook Hotel while the parents aren’t looking.
The boy in the Japanese horror film Ringu (1998) and its 2002 American remake similarly has the power of keeping track of the supernatural. More recently, in The Babadook (2014), only the child can initially see and is terrified of the titular monster before the mother becomes aware of its presence. In The Witch (2015), the knee-high twins appear to be subliminally aware of the presence of malevolence in their midst.
A similar device is used by Alejandro Amenabar in The Others (2001). Again, it is the little boy and the girl who keep noticing the spectral figures at their mansion while the mother (Nicole Kidman) struggles to join the dots.
This hyper-imagination or ability to negotiate with the supernatural often helps the kids survive in a terrifying situation that can make rational adults lose their minds.
Like Danny Torrance, Cole Sear can “see dead people” in M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). Once he stops being afraid of his power to communicate with the dead, he becomes the master of his fate.
Similarly, in Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-themed The Devil’s Backbone (2001), little Carlos has the power to see the dead. Once he befriends the spooks, he is able to face the real human danger – the fascists.
This bond with the departed can be near-romantic and even empowering. The timid boy in Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) and its American remake finds the strength to combat bullies at school after befriending a vampire, who appears to him as a girl nearly his age. Their subsequent friendship is more sensitive than scary.
A similarly tender relationship is shared by the boy and an adult mermaid-like creature in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution (2015). The creatures, who resemble adult women, behave like mothers to a commune of boys on a secluded island, even as they harvest their bodies to create more of their kind. The unlikely friendship ensures the boy’s survival in the end.
In Terry Gilliam’s non-paranormal but horrifying Tideland (2005), little Jeliza-Rose is stuck in a decrepit house in the middle of nowhere in Texas with the slowly decomposing body of her dead father. She is able to escape the horrors that come her way thanks to her over-active mind.
The power to look evil in the eye and keep it at arm’s length comes with a price. Sometimes, the kids are not alright. What happens when these impressionable children are possessed?
Before William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1971), regarded as the ultimate film about supernatural possession, there was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961). Giddens (Deborah Kerr) nearly goes insane trying to ascertain if the ghosts of two lovers are trying to get back together by using a little boy and his sister as their vessels.
In the past decade, demons from beyond the realm of the comprehensible have taken possession of the little ones a number of times. This happens in Insidious (2010) as well as Sinister (2012). In the latter movie, a possessed little girl murders her family with an axe, paints the walls of the house with their blood and films the slaughter.
In Hereditary (2018), the demon Paimon tries to take control of a family after possessing the youngest daughter, Charlie.
The most effective trick to create scares by using children is to simply go ahead and make the brats pure evil, no questions asked.
An early example is the 1956 film The Bad Seed, in which Rhoda is a sly, psychopathic killing machine who has inherited her skills from her serial killer granddaughter. A gender reversal can be seen in the 1993 film The Good Son, written by Ian McEwan, where everyone’s favourite home-alone boy Macaulay Culkin kills and maims with a beatific smile on his face.
The most popular incarnation of the kid-as-killer trope is The Omen series, starting with the 1976 Gregory Peck-starrer, in which the young boy is evil because he is, well, literally the Antichrist. In Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009), the young girl wins the family’s heart with her innocence but then reveals herself to be somebody else entirely.
Sometimes, the kid has to do nothing but just show up to scare you – as we see in The Grudge series of Japanese horror films. The pale and black-haired Toshio Saeki is pretty much a horror icon at this point.
The only way to up the ante from here is to get a bunch of scary kids together and turn them into a mob. We see it in Wolf Rilla’s brilliant Village of the Damned (1960) and John Carpenter’s middling 1995 remake, where a group of children with supernatural powers are born simultaneously across the world, presumably via an alien attack, and attempt to take over by simply staring at the adults who protest.
King included the evil-kid-mob-as-a-cult-misled-by-a-monster factor in the short story Children of the Corn, later adapted as a 1984 film. A recent take was the German film Goodnight Mommy (2014), in which twin brothers torture their mother to death, convinced that she is somebody else. What else is more terrifying than seeing a horde absolutely certain of their need and justification to kill?
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