Last year for Nerdoween, I made a list of the scariest movies meant for kids. It’s amazing how much filmmakers wanted to terrify children in the ’80s and ’90s, and they did a very good job of it. This year, staying in the same ballpark, I decided to talk about things that usually terrify me in movies: the kids themselves. When it’s the children who are scary, it’s usually far more unsettling than regular old adults. Kids are supposed to be innocent, incorruptible, and above all, pure. But throw a knife in their hand or fangs in their mouth and they become pint-sized nightmare fuel. And what do you do? After all, like the 1976 Spanish movie asks, Who Can Kill a Child?.
Below are my list of the top 7 scariest children in movies. Your mileage, of course, may vary. (For reference, you might also want to check out my list of the scary Disney movies.)
7) Henry (Macaulay Culkin) – The Good Son
Listen, most of us thought the kid from Home Alone was a little off, right? I mean, he was a little TOO articulate, was very adept at making booby traps to maim people, and what child would think to buy fabric softener? This is why it came as little shock – and yet a whole lot of shock – when Macaulay Culkin proved himself to be a terrifying murderer and tormentor of Elijah Wood in the 1993 film The Good Son. The fact that he kept smiling the entire time he was doing awful things and didn’t blink an eye when he blamed them on his cousin meant that he was a true sociopath. In fact, most kids are sociopaths; we just scare them into behaving. There’s no scaring Henry. No tears shed when he meets his snowy end.
6) All the Kids (various) – Village of the Damned
I feel like the people of Midwich, England should have seen something like this coming, when a bevy of women all became pregnant at the exact same time and had babies that were quiet and reserved. Babies are supposed to cry, you guys! And when they became platinum-haired moppets who had a penchant for standing in a line and staring at grown ups, it should have resulted in more than just the mentally resolute George Sanders to figure out what the problem was. Based on the John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos, this is one of the best paranoid thrillers ever made featuring some of the creep-tastic-est little British kids, most notably young Martin Stephens who also was the haunted kid in The Innocents (read more about that in my Top 7 Haunted House Movies list).
5) Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) – The Bad Seed
It’s sadly not very uncommon these days for kids to be in some way evil, in fiction or in real life (dark turn), but in the ’50s, it was pretty shocking. This is why people just kept on telling the same story after William March wrote the novel The Bad Seed, about a seemingly normal little girl whom her mother believes might actually be a cold-blooded killer. This got adapted into a stage play by Maxwell Anderson, and that in turn got adapted into the 1956 film directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The character of Rhoda Penmark needed to be truly chilling and believably scary, which is probably why, even though the character is 8 years old, they had to cast Patty McCormack who was in fact 10 or 11 when the movie was made. She did an excellent job at playing an obstinate, bratty villainy, though, so much that she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. “How remarkable,” thought everyone. “Surely she must be a brilliant actress if she can be child AND be evil.” Oh, the ’50s.
4) Michael (Peter Bark) – Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror
This is not a movie that’s probably been on anyone’s radar. Why should it? It’s a pretty lame but relatively effective 1981 Italian zombie movie where all the undead look like they’re wearing plaster masks…because they are. If you’re familiar with this movie at all, though, it’s probably for the beyond-unsettling character of Michael, the son of the film’s comely lead. Now, Michael is supposed to be 12 years old, but they instead cast Peter Bark, a 26-year-old actor with mild dwarfism. The result is, you guessed it, really, really weird, and made even creepier by all the Freudian and Oedipal moments between the two. When he becomes a zombie (spoilers) at the end of the movie, he even kills his mother (spoilers) in the most Freudian of ways. Guh.
[NOTE: The theatrical trailer doesn’t show him very much, but I found this fan-made trailer that specifically showcases Peter Bark’s grottiness. It’s slightly NSFW.]
3) Gage Creed (Miko Hughes) – Pet Sematary
Now, Gage being evil isn’t really his fault. If we’re blaming anyone, I’d blame his father Louis (Dale Midkiff) who knew that burying things in the eponymous ground fulla dead stuff meant they’d come back weird. But, a grieving parent might do anything if their toddler got killed by a car. It’s just a shame, then, that little Gage came back to become an evil zombie murderer thing. To his credit, 3-year-old Miko Hughes was able to be really, really terrifying. I wonder how they directed him for that? Can you direct a 3-year-old? I probably couldn’t. Easily the best/most reaction-inducing part in the movie is when Gage is hiding from Jud under his bed with a straight razor. Bye bye, Achilles’ Tendon!!
2) Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) – The Exorcist
This one is tragic on top of being really scary. Again, it’s not really young Regan’s fault that she’s been possessed by the demon Pasuzu. When she’s tormented by it and has her body thrown about all over the bedroom, you really feel sad for the girl, and her mother (Ellen Burstyn). But, when the demon takes over and gets real blasphemous and foul-mouthed and uses Regan as the conduit of all evil, you feel like maybe she’s lost forever. William Friedkin’s film was hailed at the time, and even now, for being a perfect piece of horror. It made people run from the theater, faint in the aisles, and vomit on themselves. Reportedly, anyway. It’s not quite so scandalous now, but it’s still supremely effective, and gave birth to annoying screamer videos on the internet everywhere.
1) Damien Thorn (Harvey Stephens) – The Omen
It’s one thing to be possessed by a demon, but when you’re the actual Antichrist, with “666” on your scalp, then you’re going to be number one on this list. That’s your prize, I guess. The best thing about Damien in the box-office-destroying horror hit directed by Richard Donner is that he doesn’t actually do anything scary in the movie. Bad things happen around him, and he just sort of does what he does and smiles creepily. Is he REALLY evil or is it just the people around him acting evil on his behalf? Surely, a nanny hanging herself in front of everyone is not a sane thing to do, but to do it in his name… yikes. It’s a really insidious plot, having to do with a cult trying to bring about the Antichrist and install him into the world of politics – just a lot of Book of Revelations stuff, and I love it. I mean, I love the movie; I don’t love the scary, end-of-the-world stuff. If anyone named their son Damien after 1976, those people are insane or monsters.
And there are my picks for the seven scariest movie kids. Does your list differ? Did I leave off someone who you think is the scariest? Let me know in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!