In the last few months, to coincide with their respective holidays, mothers and fathers in horror films have been brought into the spotlight. In both cases, some have been parents in scary situations, and others have just been major contenders for “Worst Parent” awards…but what about the kids themselves? One of our most primitive fears is that of a dangerous child, a fear that has translated itself a number of times into books, television, and motion pictures. After all, something as innocent and pure as a young boy or girl isn’t capable of terrible acts…right? So when they do turn out to mask something evil, it can be both surprising and incredibly unsettling. In this list are the five most threatening, diabolical, and downright evil children in horror films…some due to their genetics, some due to their heritage, and some…well, they’re just evil for the sake of being evil. And as usual, some spoilers will be ahead.
Rhoda Penmark “The Bad Seed” (1956)
Though not considered a horror film by now, the circumstances surrounding the pristine, sweet-looking Rhoda Penmark are certainly horrifying. Based on the 1954 novel of the same name by William March, 1956’s “The Bad Seed” follows the the eight-year-old Rhoda (Patty McCormack) and her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), both living alone while the patriarch of the family (William Hopper) is away for military duty. Everyone thinks Rhoda is the perfect little girl…that is, until something bad happens and Rhoda becomes a suspect: A young boy, Claude Daigle, is beaten and drowned after Rhoda was seen fighting with him over a penmanship award given to him that she believed she deserved. No one thinks anything of it except for the janitor at the building in which the Penmarks live, LeRoy (Henry Jones) and the mother of the deceased boy, Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart). Rhoda maintains her innocence to her mother until she is caught trying to destroy a pair a tap shoes, which Christine realizes caused the bruising on Claude’s face and hands, and finally the young girl reveals herself as a violent sociopath, admitting to the murder of Claude and even a neighbor from a year before, while masking her deeds with tears. Digging for answers, Christine ultimately learns that she herself was adopted at a young age and her birth mother was an infamous serial killer…and perhaps she has passed the terrible trait on to her daughter (the film and novel both claim that insanity is genetic). But it’s when Rhoda brutally burns LeRoy alive to keep her secret that Christine makes a bleak decision: after throwing the medal into a nearby lake, she gives Rhoda an overdose of sleeping pills and takes a gun to herself to put an end to the horrible bloodline. The plan fails, as both Rhoda and her mother survive while everyone questions what happened and why, but Rhoda meets her end when trying to recover the medal during a severe thunderstorm, lightning striking her and destroying her once and for all (a product of the Hays Code in Hollywood, which stated that evil could not win). Unlike the film, the novel doesn’t have little Rhoda miraculously killed by a lightning bolt, and her mother ultimately succumbs to the suicide attempt…leaving the pint-sized sociopath to resume her murderous impulses. Though films now would have Rhoda surviving and returning in sequel after sequel, her creepy stare and horrifying mood swings that showed the evil behind the smile and blonde pigtails still endure today and make her the precursor to all killer children. Don’t trust the pigtails.
Damien Thorn “The Omen” (1976)
Some children are considered by their parents to be the spawn of the Devil when they throw tantrums, kicking and screaming when they don’t get a toy or they don’t want a nap. But consider the Thorn family whose adopted son, Damien, turns out to be the literal Anti-Christ. In Rome, American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) tends to his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), as she gives birth…sadly, the child dies, and Robert is convinced by the hospital chaplain to adopt a newborn whose mother died in birth, a secret kept from his wife, who believes the child to be hers. Once he reaches the age of five, odd and sometimes terrifying things happen around Damien (Harvey Stephens): animals are afraid of him, aside from the larger dogs that congregate around the home, he screams and fights when brought near churches, and his nanny publicly hangs herself at his fifth birthday party, the latter of which prompts the arrival of a new caretaker, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw). Now Ambassador to Great Britain, Robert is confronted with the idea that his son may not be human by a priest named Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who is mysteriously killed soon after meeting Thorn. This, along with an attack on Katherine by Damien that causes her to miscarry her unborn child, prompts Robert to join forces with photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) and travel to Rome, and later Israel, to investigate the mysterious events around Damien’s birth. It’s soon fully realized by Robert that his son is the spawn of Satan and, if he continues to live, he will bring an end to mankind, and he resolves to put an end to the nightmare after the deaths of Keith and Katherine. After he finds a birthmark in the shape of three sixes on Damien’s head, Robert plans to murder the boy with the seven daggers of Megiddo he took from Israel. Of course, since there are sequels, the attempt obviously fails (the end of the film shows Damien adopted by the President of the United States), seeing Damien rise in power, both politically and demonically, but the original film (and even by the default, the remake, though not as effectively) sees the idea of an evil child becoming even more terrifying due a malevolent background. Suffice to say, creepy dark-haired, blue-eyed kids with pale complexions in a horror movie? Yeah, likely Devil kids. Be sure to check for the 666 birthmark on his or her scalp…just to be sure.
Gage Creed “Pet Sematary” (1989)
In a previous list for Father’s Day, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) of “Pet Sematary” was put on the list as a father with good intentions but lacking in simple common sense driven by loss…and the monstrous thing his son becomes is the product. The Creeds move to Maine so that Louis can work as a physician at the University of Maine, and once at their new home, they meet an elderly neighbor named Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) who shows them a nearby cemetery made for pets, namely those killed by the vehicles on the highway separating the Crandall and Creed houses. Later on, after the death of a college student (who visits Louis in dreams and visions) and the Creeds, except Louis, are away for Thanksgiving, the family cat, Church, is killed on the highway, prompting Jud to take Louis to a burial ground on the outskirts of the “Pet Sematary,” burying it there and telling Louis of its dark, magical power. Soon, the cat returns, but is not its normal self, acting hostile and violent toward the family. But the family’s greatest loss comes from the death of toddler Gage (Miko Hughes), killed on the very same highway as Church by a speeding semi-truck, leaving Louis, his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), and daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) in shambles. But Louis, against the warnings of the ghost of the dead college student, Pascow (Brad Greenquist), and Jud, plots to bring Gage back. To dissuade him, Jud tells the story of a boy who was resurrected many years before by the burial ground and returned as a bloodthirsty, vicious beast lacking all humanity…but Louis doesn’t listen. In his entirely misguided attempts to return his family to what it was, Louis makes the worst mistake he could have possibly made, and his little boy returns from the dead, though definitely not as precious as he was in life. Now sporting dirty, brown hair, a graveyard pallor, and a long, jagged scar from the impact of the truck, Gage seeks to kill anyone in his path, including his own family. Gage slaughters Jud and Rachel, and eventually sets his sights on Louis, possessed by the evil forces of the Micmac burial ground, forcing Louis to confront the inhuman creature he has helped bring forth and put an end to it once and for all. Though Gage is not the center of the film, his death (based on an experience of author Stephen King that, thankfully, didn’t end as tragically as in the novel and film) and resurrection is the stuff of nightmares, taking an undeniably sweet little boy and transforming him into an unholy monster of tiny stature. Don’t worry, though…he only wants to “play wiff yewwwwwww!”
Henry Evans “The Good Son” (1993)
So far, all of the children on this list have had reasons for being what they are. Demonic lineage for Damien, inherited traits for Rhoda…but for Henry Evans, there is no motivation for his sinister purpose; he is simply evil for the sake of it. When Mark Evans (Elijah Wood) loses his mother, his father (David Morse) takes him to stay in Maine with Wallace (Daniel Hugh Kelly), his brother, and Susan (Wendy Crewson) while he goes away on business in Tokyo. Mark quickly bonds with his cousin Henry (Macaulay Culkin), a polite, kind young boy, and the two of them become close friends, playing, laughing, and spending all of their time together. As time passes, Henry begins revealing to Mark signs of disturbed behavior, whether it’s his bizarre fascination with death as he speaks of what his deceased younger brother, Richard, looked like after he had drowned, or when he shoots a dog with a hand-made gun that fires metal bolts. But it’s when Henry states his desire to murder his little sister, Connie (Quinn Kay Culkin), that Mark sees his cousin for the monster he truly is, and he sets out by any means possible to show the family what Henry is capable of. After Henry nearly succeeds in killing Connie by causing her to fall through thin ice and nearly drown while skating, Mark openly begins telling the family of Henry’s malevolent nature…and no one believes him, all while Henry manipulates everyone into thinking Mark is the “evil one” and continues making dark threats to his cousin, fueling his growing paranoia; the worst threat being that Henry plans to kill Susan because of the mother-son bond Mark shares with her. Eventually, though, Susan becomes suspicious of Henry herself and realizes that her oldest son murdered Richard out of jealousy and that he would rather die than accept help for his “condition.” It all culminates in a tense standoff that sees Susan trying to save both Mark and Henry from falling off of a cliff to their deaths on the rocks below. Would you save your nephew, a boy you don’t know that well that has tried to protect you, or your only living son who has killed and will kill again? Henry is truly an unsettling and devious character, helped by Culkin’s off-putting, cold glare and creepily calm smile, but what makes him the most frightening is his lack of a motivation behind his violent tendencies…he just simply does it because he can. Definitely a kid you’d want to leave home alone…ha, get it?
Esther “Orphan” (2009)
The last and most recent on this list is a bit different than the previous killer kids, but on the surface, she seems to be just another gentle orphan girl with something of a shady past, but Esther is something a lot darker. Enter the Colemans: parents Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard), deaf-mute daughter Max (Aryana Engineer), and son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). Kate is a recovering alcoholic going through the tragic circumstance of her third child being stillborn, and to cope, she and John decide to adopt another child: an Estonian girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Esther is a nine-year-old girl who dresses like a little princess with ribbons in her hair and around her neck and wrists; she’s also an incredibly talented artist and pianist. She seems perfect…but Kate becomes suspicious of the child when she’s open about what she knows in regards to sex between adults, and there is a situation involving Esther hurting another child who had been bullying her. And when Kate confronts Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), the head of the orphanage where Esther was residing, she reveals that “bad things” always seem to happen around the girl and that she came from a place called the Saarne Institute. It’s only then that Esther’s devilish side is revealed as she murders Sister Abigail after overhearing the conversation between her and Kate and forces Max to help her conceal the crime. Later, Daniel learns of Esther’s crime and tries to prove to the family what she is, leading to his hospitalization when Esther attempts to murder him. All of this proves to Kate that Esther is not what she seems, and when she attacks Esther at the hospital after the girl tries to finish off Daniel, she is sedated while John, Esther, and Max return home. When she awakens, she receives a phone call that reveals the true horror: Esther isn’t even a little girl at all, and the Saarne Institute isn’t an orphanage; it’s a mental hospital. Esther is in reality Leena Klammer, a thirty-three-year-old woman suffering from hypopituitarism, a hormone disorder that caused her to stop growing and live with the physicality of a child, and that she has killed a number of families when spurned by the husband, whom she tries to seduce so she can have a family of her own. She tries this with John, who vehemently tries to stop her advances, leading the insane Klammer to strip herself of make-up and prosthetic pieces that give her the youthful appearance of Esther and violently lash out, killing John and attempting to murder Max and Kate. Like Rhoda especially, Esther is a girl that seems incredibly sweet on the surface, but hides within a terrible dark side…only with the twist that she isn’t really a child. So, sure, maybe this is something of a cheat on a list of “killer children,” but Esther doesn’t care. She gets the job done.
Didn’t see your favorite killer kid? Sound off below!