Upcoming horror movie Antlers centres around a young child who is sheltering a feared supernatural creature in a dilapidated house. The malevolent entity is known as the ‘wendigo’, an evil spirit that has been known to strike terror into the heart of Native American tribes. And when the being escapes, it causes all manner of havoc in the local community.
Adapted by Nick Antosca from his chilling short story ‘The Quiet Boy’, the movie is directed by Out of the Furnace and Black Mass filmmaker Scott Cooper, and produced by The Shape of Water’s Guillermo del Toro. The film stars The Rise of Skywalker’s Keri Russell and The Irishman’s Jesse Plemons, although the show may well be stolen by newcomer Jeremy T. Thomas as Lucas, the young boy harbouring a terrifying and deadly secret.
Children are frequently at the centre of horror's scariest moments, often because it’s terrifying to think of an evil force coming from something as innocent and precious as a child. Creepy kids have been a staple of the genre for decades, and we’ve selected eight of them that sent a shiver down our spine…
1. The Children (The Village of the Damned, 1960)
In 1995, Halloween director John Carpenter tackled a remake of this famously creepy British chiller, adapted from John Wyndham’s classic novel The Midwich Cuckoos. But there’s no topping the original, in which a group of malevolent, blonde-haired kiddies causes madness in a small English village. The restrained terror of this British-made film has made it unforgettable, eclipsing the remake.
2. Regan MacNeil (The Exorcist, 1973)
This is probably the character most people think of when children in horror are mentioned. Actor Linda Blair became a movie icon, aged just 13 when she played the possessed child of Ellen Burstyn in William Friedkin’s horror classic, adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel. The image of Blair, covered in ghoulish green makeup and dubbed with a terrifying voice, shook the souls of many cinema-goers, earning her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win.
3. Damien Thorn (The Omen, 1976)
If you’re looking for horrific children, the son of the Devil is a pretty good place to start. An innocent-looking boy, Damien becomes the source of a number of heinous acts in the lives of his adoptive parents (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick).
The most memorable moment, is, of course, the final scene where, having destroyed all his enemies (including his parents), he turns to the camera and smiles demonically. Child actor Harvey Spencer Stephens was ordered not to smile by director Richard Donner, who well knew that reverse psychology would result in him grinning. The beaming expression is given an even more sinister edge when paired with Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, Oscar-winning music.
4. The Grady Twins (The Shining, 1980)
Even 40 years on, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, taken from Stephen King’s book, is a masterpiece of visual horror. One of the images that still haunts everyone is that of actors Lisa and Louise Burns as The Grady Twins, the eerie dead children who appear at the Overlook Hotel to Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) in a vision and ask him to play with them “forever, and ever, and ever”.
It’s an excellent use of innocence as terror, as the ominous, expressionless delivery alludes to the awful events about to occur in Danny’s life. The twins made another appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, in a sequence set within Kubrick’s film. Then they made their canonical return in last year’s Doctor Sleep, played by Sadie and KK Heim.
5. Charlie McGee (Firestarter, 1984)
In a movie that plays on our twin fears of government control and the paranormal, a young Drew Barrymore plays the fire starter of the title. She’s a child who develops telekinetic powers and uses them to protect herself and her family from a government agency that wishes to weaponise her.
A la Stephen King’s original story, the creepiness here comes not from Charlie’s evil intent, but rather the fact that her powers are uncontrollable. At one point, when she sets agents on fire, her father exclaims “she’s never done anything like this before, and I don’t know if she can stop!”
6. Cole Sear (The Sixth Sense, 1999)
This is a tough one because Haley Joel Osment’s Cole is not an evil character, nor does he wish to inflict harm on anyone. However, if you didn’t feel unsettled when he whispers “I see dead people” to child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), you’re made of stronger stuff than us.
Cole does stand out in this list, however, as one of the few children who enjoy a happy ending. (By contrast, although The Exorcist’s Regan is saved at the end of the first film, she’s facing demons again in the 1977 sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic.) And it was a happy ending for Osment too: his powerful performance landed him with an Oscar nomination at the tender age of 11.
7. Esther (Orphan, 2009)
'There’s something wrong with Esther,' reads the poster for this 2009 hit, and if anything that’s a bit of an understatement. Following the well-trod plotline of a couple who adopt a young child (Isabelle Fuhrmann) only to be confronted with her increasingly dangerous behavior, Orphan takes those tropes and gives them a fresh feel.
This is largely thanks to the performance of Fuhrmann, infusing an oddly adult manner into a young character that lets you know from the first scene that there are secrets being hidden.
8. Charlie Graham (Hereditary, 2018)
Young Milly Shapiro made her name as Roald Dahl’s hero Matilda on the Broadway stage before transforming into Charlie, the disturbed, clucking pre-teen in Ari Aster’s horror hit. Almost everything she does on screen hints at something unnatural about to occur, and indeed it does. She becomes the source of her family’s downfall, connected to an evil prophecy that results in a third act that leaves you speechless.
However, it’s the scene midway through the film, one that takes Charlie’s destiny in a completely different direction, that continues to horrify us – it’s one of the most effectively wrought depictions of grief and trauma we’ve ever seen.
James Luxford is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team. Follow him on Twitter.