Creepy Kids: Don’t Turn Your Backs On ‘em

kidsopeningAs Halloween week begins, horror fans look forward to an array of scary movies offered by cable television networks who promise marathons of new favorites and familiar classics. TCM joins this week’s fright fest by showcasing Dracula movies and horror anthologies on Tuesday, ghost stories on Thursday, and a full “24 Hours of Horror” on Halloween.

In the line of duty as a movie historian, I have watched films from all eras of horror—from the genre’s German Expressionist beginnings to contemporary Grand Guignol gore-fests like Saw. While my personal favorites are heavy on gothic atmosphere, I tend to feel the most anxiety during stories with murderous clowns, psycho ventriloquist dummies, and killer dolls. However, one type of horror tale freaks me out like no other—stories with creepy kids. I confess that I am not remotely maternal, and I am inclined to believe that children in real life are only one step removed from those in horror films. It’s just that most of the world is blinded by sentimentality and look upon children as bastions of innocence. In reality, the little whelps are only waiting for their chance to bash in our skulls so they can take over, forcing us to listen to Justin Bieber and watch endless Transformers sequels. Below are ten horror films that nearly did me in with their creepy kid characters.

kidsbadseed

Nature vs. nurture was a theme in The Bad Seed (1956) starring Patty McCormick as child sociopath Rhoda Penmark. Rhoda’s mother, Christine, suspects her sweet-faced, pig-tailed daughter murdered a classmate, prompting her to investigate her own parentage. The adopted Christine discovers her real mother had been a serial killer and she has passed on the bad seed to her child. The word “sociopath” is never used, but the film offers a fairly modern depiction of the symptoms of that disorder: Rhoda has no conscience and no understanding of emotions; she kills her puppy, which is a stepping stone toward murdering humans; and she gets her way by manipulating adults with her calculated little kid’s charm.

kidsvillage

When I was little girl, my mother and I watched Village of the Damned on television while my father was at work. It frightened both of us, and this may have been the film that left me with a life-long aversion to creepy kids—onscreen and off. On seeing it again years later, I realized that the depiction of super-children as Aryan-looking blonds evoked Hitler’s plan for a master race, a subtext that would have resonated with audiences in 1960—just 15 years after WWII.

kidsinnocents

While The Bad Seed is a thriller, The Innocents—another film with seemingly virtuous children—is a traditional gothic ghost story based on Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr plays the new governess who is convinced that her two charges are possessed by the tainted ghosts of a former governess and valet. Without the use of elaborate make-up or special effects, director Jack Clayton made common household settings seem frightening and ordinary children evil. Of course, given my opinion of domesticity, this seemed more like a documentary.

kidsother

Directed by Robert Mulligan, The Others (1972) is a little-known horror flick about twin boys who grow up on a farm with their grandmother. The twins are psychic like their grandmother, though one boy is evil and the other good. The twins make up a doppelganger, representing the duality of childhood: Kids are at once totally innocent and brutally self-absorbed.

kidssalems

Based on Stephen King’s novel, Salem’s Lot (1979) was originally a TV mini-series directed by horror auteur (horr-teur?) Tobe Hooper. There are many frightening moments in the series, but the most excruciating scene occurs after the adolescent friend of young Lance Kerwin has died and turned into a vampire. While Kerwin sleeps, the little-boy vampire hovers outside the second-story window, floating in mid-air and scratching on the glass with his newly long fingernails. He begs Kerwin to let him in, banking on their friendship while he was alive to persuade him to open the window. Salem’s Lot is yet another reason that I don’t like open curtains in my house, and I don’t look out a window at night—you just never know what’s on the other side.

kidslivingdead

The little girl turns into a ghoul and eats her parents in Night of the Living Dead (1968): Is it just me, or is this a metaphor for parenthood?

kidsdevils

At once a horror story and a political allegory, Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) made me simultaneously fear the ghost child and feel great sympathy for him. This film not only proves how smart the genre can be but also showcases del Toro’s talents. All the more reason I was so disappointed in him for taking on Pacific Rim.

kidsshining

No list of creepy kids would be complete without the Grady girls from The Shining (1980)—the twin daughters of the hotel’s bartender who are doppelgangers for Danny and his imaginary friend Tony. Their empty expressions and dead eyes are the very essence of a ghostly apparition. Their subtle eeriness frightens me much more than Linda Blair’s overwrought make-up in The Exorcist. Don’t get me wrong: I love William Friedkin’s entry into the horror genre, but because I  believe little Regan has disappeared to make way for the Devil, I just don’t think of her as a child. Creepy kids are creepy because they look like kids—once removed.

kidsjuon

At the turn of the millennium, Japanese horror tales featuring deadly ghost children began to influence the genre. Pasty-faced, hollow-eyed Toshi Saeki of Ju-on was not only frightening because of his appearance but also because he could pop up anywhere—even outside the haunted house. When the ghosts do not follow the rules set forth by the genre, the effect is doubling unsettling for the audience. Ju-on was remade as The Grudge, which some critics dismissed as just a remake, but I found it equally as frightening.

kidsring

The Ring, an American remake of the Japanese horror flick Ringu, was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Gore Verbinski. The subtext of the film is a swipe at our modern-day, high-tech society in which too-busy parents depend too much on electronic “babysitters”—in this case, television and videos. This mistake comes back to haunt them in the form of the ultra-creepy, stringy-haired Samara, who climbs out of television sets to destroy her next victim. You might want to re-think that Ipad or Smart phone for your six-year-old.

 

24 Responses Creepy Kids: Don’t Turn Your Backs On ‘em
Posted By Ben Martin : October 27, 2014 4:42 pm

Oh well done.
Not to be a name dropper, JUST THIS MONTH at Pittsburgh’s October Monster Bash I met and had a long chat with Martin Stephens, the little boy star of both The Innocents and Village of the Damned. He’s the only child you have TWO photos of above. In fact, he signed the one you have of him from The Innocents – the one with the incredibly scary ghost of Quint (Peter Wyngarde) staring in the window behind him. Mr. Stephens is a marvelous person and a great conversationalist who possesses amazing recall. Please if you have any say in these matters, have him invited on TCM for a double feature of his two most famous films. – Ben
PS: One film you may not have seen that would be right at home on this list is Who Can Kill a Child. Yikes.

Posted By James : October 27, 2014 5:11 pm

The not-as-well-known sequel, Children of the Damned, is an interesting reversal of the first film (it’s not exactly an extension of Village‘s story, but more of a variation). The children are intrinsically good, but feared and hated for their abilities (only attacking anyone in self-defense). It’s implied that they are the next step in human evolution (shades of 2001) and interesting Christian metaphors are used throughout the movie (the six children were the result of virgin births).

That scene from Salem’s Lot. I think it scared many children of a certain generation (and beyond, maybe).

Posted By Susan Doll : October 27, 2014 5:34 pm

Ben: I am envious. It would be great if TCM invited Stephens to one of their cruises or the classic film fest to chat before a showing of one of his films.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 27, 2014 5:36 pm

James: I dislike CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED for the very reasons you mention. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t have the courage of their convictions to depict children as evil so they re-spun the story to fit the cliche that children are really good at heart. It’s the same reason I loathe the sequel to THE RING. It completely reverses the disturbing subtext of the original.

Posted By Andrea : October 27, 2014 6:20 pm

Great selection! I have always loved The Bad Seed

Posted By robbushblog : October 27, 2014 6:46 pm

No list of creepy kid movies would be complete without THE OMEN. And I agree with you about kids too, Suzi.

Posted By Bob Golden : October 27, 2014 6:51 pm

“Salem’s Lot is yet another reason that I don’t like open curtains in my house, and I don’t look out a window at night—you just never know what’s on the other side.”

I agree. The scene of the kid scratching on the window is etched in my memory.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : October 27, 2014 9:10 pm

“Let the Right In” (original) is one you missed.

I’m glad you included “The Other” (not “The OtherS — that’s the Nicole Kidman movie) — The book is terrific for its slow accretion of doom — written by Tom Tryon (who was an actor — maybe the children in that story were based on a few child stars he had met, who knows?)

Posted By george : October 27, 2014 9:52 pm

The little boy in THE INNOCENTS gets my vote for “creepiest kid in movies.”

And there’s Pamelyn Ferdin as the girl who picks the mushrooms for Clint Eastwood in THE BEGUILED. She has a great evil smile in a closeup near the end.

Posted By Richard Brandt : October 27, 2014 10:38 pm

I always thought it was more likely that the root of Rhoda’s issues in THE BAD SEED was that her parents seem to have spoiled her rotten.

Posted By AL : October 27, 2014 11:10 pm

Susan, you’re amazing. Identical twins Udvarnoky & Burns. Martin Stephens.

Posted By Osfan : October 27, 2014 11:39 pm

Yes, Susan, the “little whelps” ARE just waiting to take over- they might have thumbs but they don’t have incomes, otherwise they’d waste no time in bashing our skulls. I, too have a particularly strong reaction to the ventriloquist dummy/doll coming to life theme- I check all the closets and under the bed after a film like “Magic”. And although you never see the kid until near the end of the film, in “The Changeling” with George C. Scott the ghost turns out to be a young boy. I had to sleep with the lights on after watching that one.

Posted By LD : October 28, 2014 12:22 am

Both Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin gave wonderful performances in THE INNOCENTS playing Miles and Flora. It was Franklin’s debut. A few years later she was in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and was able to hold her own with Maggie Smith. I feel she should have received a best supporting actress Oscar nod for her performance as Sandy but she was overlooked.

SPOLIER ALERT! I guess.

In THE INNOCENTS Miles and Flora have been abused mentally and perhaps physically by Quint. They have certainly been exposed to abusive adult behavior. Miles therefore displays it in the way he relates to Miss Giddens. Miles and Flora can be creepy but ultimately I find them to be sad.

Posted By george : October 28, 2014 12:33 am

As a young adult, Pamela Franklin starred in another classic horror film: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. She was also in the made-for-TV movie SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, which, despite its hilarious title, is not a bad little B movie.

I wish she hadn’t quit acting in the early ’80s. She had something special.

Posted By Ben Martin : October 28, 2014 12:57 am

Susan – I will send you his email address. He wants to hear from fans.

Ben

Posted By Susan Doll : October 28, 2014 3:12 am

Ben: Thanks. Maybe I can get a blog post out of it in the future.

Posted By Cool Bev : October 28, 2014 1:10 pm

Recently revived Hammer Horror’s The Woman In Black features some pretty gruesome kiddies, but maybe they don’t count, since they are possessed and actually the victims. Not really a spoiler.

Posted By Leo Sigh : October 28, 2014 2:57 pm

I find kids in movies to be far creepier than adults most of the time (I’m not a kid person at the best of times). But Ju-On and Ringu were truly terrifying. I’ve lived in Asia for 12 years, and still find Asian ghosts far more frightening than western ones.

There’s also a Thai movie called Shutter that I saw here in Bangkok with friends and didn’t sleep with the lights off for 3 days afterwards. Highly recommend it, as it has a very surprising ending :)

Posted By robbushblog : October 28, 2014 4:09 pm

Robert Mulligan directed THE OTHER. Richard Mulligan starred on Empty Nest.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 28, 2014 4:21 pm

Rob: Thanks for the correction. I knew something didn’t sound right when I was proofing it but couldn’t quite figure out why.

Posted By osfan : October 28, 2014 5:59 pm

Has anyone seen Andy Warhol’s “Dracula”? I seem to remember a couple of creepy kids in that film- a brother and sister, the son and daughter of Drac and HIS sister. I have’nt seen it since it’s original release circa late 1970′s, but I’m pretty sure it was “Dracula” or maybe A.W.’s “Frankenstein”. I think the creepy kids end up killing mom & pop- so you’re right, Susan, then the little ghouls take up where the P&M left off!

Posted By Susan Doll : October 28, 2014 9:36 pm

Osfan: I saw DRACULA way back in the day when I was a film student. I remember begin excited to see it but ultimately disappointed. I don’t remember creepy kids but there could have been.

Posted By Ben Martin : October 28, 2014 9:56 pm

Yes osfan and Susan –
Those weird kids are in Warhol’s Frankenstein. Creepy indeed.

Posted By Osfan : October 28, 2014 10:51 pm

Thanks, Susan and Ben. So it was “Frankenstein”, not “Dracula” that had the kids. Now that you said it I remember that the Frankenstein Monster actually ends up killing the mother as the kids look on, apparently undisturbed.

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