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The scariest kids in horror movie history

Horror is a genre that constantly pushes the boundaries of fear, and one of the creepiest and most transgressive ways it's found to do this is by making monsters out of children. This overturning of a perceived natural order, where children are presumed innocent, brings with it some of the scariest and most haunting movies ever made. These are the true forays into the deepest hearts of darkness, where social rules and norms about protecting children go straight out the window to splatter several stories down below, traumatizing everyone who sees the horror in a singular way. 

From ghosts and demonic possession to supernatural creatures and even pure psychopathy lurking inside young bodies, the films featuring the most terrifying children are in categories of their own. Turn on all the lights and make sure your own children are safely tucked away before exploring the scariest kids in horror movie history.

(Be warned — major spoilers below.)

Gage Creed is one of Stephen King's scariest villains

When Stephen King originally wrote Pet Sematary, he kept the manuscript locked in a desk for many years because the content of the story was beyond disturbing, even to the man who thought it up. The main reason for this was the horrific death of Gage Creed, a baby who's hit by a huge truck just off his family's home, as well as Gage's subsequent resurrection by his father, Louis, in the ancient burial ground where the dead don't stay that way. 

Played by Miko Hughes in Mary Lambert's 1988 adaptation, Gage Creed goes from being one of the cutest kids on screen to easily the scariest after he's brought back to life and turned fully evil because his father couldn't bear to say goodbye. Even all these years later, watching Gage terrorize the adults with a medical scalpel is a skin-crawling experience. Thanks to Lambert's excellent use of practical special effects — things get really gory – Pet Sematary has aged incredibly well, and Gage Creed is as scary as ever.

Karen Cooper makes Night of the Living Dead a true nightmare

There's so much in George Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead that has withstood the test of time, including the remarkable social commentary that was incredibly progressive back in the '60s. This tale about a zombie invasion and the folks trying to survive it was the first of its kind, and not just because a Black man, Duane Jones, played the hero lead. 

But arguably one of the scariest moments of a movie that's gone down in horror movie infamy is little Karen Cooper down in the basement, "resting" after having been attacked by a horde of the undead. Karen's parents insist she's fine and sleeping, but little do they know, she's been bitten and has turned into a zombie in the meantime. A dead-eyed Karen murders her parents viciously with a trowel in one of the most disturbing death scenes ever put on screen, made so much worse by the fact that a little girl is doing it.

Esther is a terrifying not-child child

After a series of family tragedies, John and Kate Coleman decide to adopt an orphan to round out their family, which already includes their son and hearing-impaired daughter. They meet an enchanting young girl named Esther, an orphan from Russia who seems wise beyond her years and quickly takes to the Coleman family. But as strange and violent things begin to happen in Esther's orbit, including murder and disappearances, the Colemans discover that Esther isn't who she says she is at all ... nor is she a child. 

No doubt inspired by Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Esther is revealed to be a 30-something woman with a genetic condition that makes her look like a child. Worse, Esther has joined and destroyed multiple families over the years, making the series of deaths look like terrible accidents. Esther is played to perfection by Isabelle Fuhrman, and it's hard to believe the actor is an actual teenage child playing a psychopathic woman, making this character easily one of the scariest children in horror movie history.

Tomás makes this one creepy orphanage

In J. A. Bayona's The Orphanage, a woman named Laura returns to the orphanage where she was raised and adopted, with a plan to make the looming Victorian manor into a home for disabled children. Along with her husband and son, Simón, the family seems to be doing well and settling in until the day that Simón disappears without a trace. Plus, Laura quickly finds herself tormented by a child in a sack-cloth mask, who's locking her in rooms and staring her down in creepy silent ways. 

In the desperate search for her son, Laura discovers the truth about the masked boy and the horrible tragedy that befell her childhood home after her departure. The local caretaker's son, Tomás, had a facial disfigurement that forced him to cover his face so the other children wouldn't bully him. One day, as a prank, they stole his mask, and Tomás hid in a nearby cave out of embarrassment. Horribly, the cave filled with water, and Tomás drowned. In retribution, his mother killed all the children responsible and buried them on the orphanage grounds. Tomás might look scary with and without his mask, but his story is equally heartbreaking.

No matter which version, the girl from The Ring is always horrific

If horror movies featuring monstrous children transgress social and cultural boundaries, the events of The Ring bring this violation of the natural order into the physical realm in both the Japanese and American versions of The Ring. Young Samara/Sadako by herself is terrifying as she haunts a videotape that guarantees death in seven days after you've watched it ... unless you show the tape to someone else to receive the same fate. 

But the moment that deeply shocks and unsettles even the most hardened horror audiences is when the veil between the screen and reality is pierced as Samara/Sadako crawls out of the television, revealing this is how she scares her victims to death. It's a shocking and unexpected turn of events, made all the worse by this demon child figure being the one causing so much damage and chaos. The Ring questions the very nature of evil, positing that evil is born innately in some people, unlike other horror movie children, many of whom become monstrous figures due to outside circumstances.

The Grady twins want to play forever and ever

Stanley Kubrick's horror classic The Shining is jam-packed from end to end with some of the scariest figures in the genre's history, including some members of the Torrance family who are tending the haunted Overlook Hotel over the winter. Young Danny Torrance himself could've been a contender for a list of the scariest kids in horror movie history, especially when he talks to his imaginary friend Tony and receives horrible visions of the hotel's past. 

But Danny gets beat out by the Grady twins, the two daughters of the former caretaker who went mad one winter and hacked his family up with an axe. The ghost twins follow Danny around the hotel, inviting him to play with them "forever and ever and ever" while psychically transmitting grotesque visions of the soul-hungry hotel into Danny's impressionable brain. Unlike some of the other horror movie kids, the Grady twins don't physically cause any harm. Theirs is purely psychological damage that will haunt Danny for the rest of his life, as we see in the sequel Doctor Sleep.

Eli is one of horror's most tragic monsters

It's one thing to be cursed with a bloodlust and immortality through becoming a vampire. But it's another thing entirely when this terrible process happens to a human child, now forced to spend millennia trapped in a young person's body. In the Swedish horror noir Let the Right One In, we meet Eli, a pre-teen girl with the eyes of an adult who has seen terrible things. Eli walks around in the snow barefoot and without a coat. She can jump huge distances. And she lives with an old man who doesn't seem to be her father. But if she enters your home without an invitation, she begins to bleed from every single pore in her body. 

After befriending her bullied neighbor, Oskar, Eli not only helps him defend himself, she even ends up brutalizing the people who tried to kill Oskar, and this odd pair run away together. Lina Leandersson's performance as Eli is so nuanced and adult it's hard to believe she was only 12 when filming Let the Right One In. Eli isn't just a terrifying figure as she kills adults for food and revenge, she's also a tragic figure forced to spend her long life in the body of a small child.

Regan is one of the scariest horror movie kids ever

After messing around with a Ouija board and connecting with an invisible friend she calls Mr. Howdy, Regan MacNeil begins acting completely bizarre. She urinates on herself and begins making uncomfortable statements about when people she meets will die. Thinking that she's having some kind of psychotic break, Regan's mother has her tested with MRIs and all the newest technology of the day, none of which reveals anything wrong. 

As Regan's horrifying behavior and physical degradation escalate, a local priest begins to suspect that the girl is possessed by the demon Pazuzu, and he goes forward with an exorcism. In spite of being released in 1973, practical special effects have kept The Exorcist as one of the scariest films of all time thanks to the horrific things that Pazuzu makes Regan do to herself and others. While it isn't necessarily Regan's fault that she got possessed, it doesn't change the fact that what she goes through is so dramatic and vile it still makes her one of the scariest kids in horror movie history.

Damien Thorn is absolutely diabolical in The Omen

After Robert Thorn is told his newborn son has died, he keeps the news a secret from his wife and adopts another child whose mother supposedly died in childbirth. Years later, Robert gets a much-coveted role as the US ambassador to the UK and moves his family, including the boy Damien, across the pond. Already a rather strange character, Damien's behavior gets even more bizarre after the move, having fits to avoid going into church and seeming to have an odd, violent effect on animals that come near him. 

As the story unfolds and Damien tries to kill his adoptive mother, Robert begins properly investigating the circumstances around his adoption to discover that not only was his new son born to an actual jackal, Damien is also the Antichrist reborn. Robert tries to undo his terrible mistake, but Damien's evil is much stronger, and his reign of terror only begins in The Omen. What's remarkable about Damien as one of the scariest kids in horror movie history is that he actually does very little that is scary himself — it's what he provokes around him that's beyond disturbing.

The twins from Goodnight Mommy are tiny identical terrors

Unlike many horror movie kids who have a supernatural aspect to their creepiness, Elias in Goodnight Mommy is just a regular boy hanging out with his twin brother, Lukas, when their mom returns home from major facial surgery. As their mom is much more aggressive and stern with them than she was before the operation, Elias gets it in his head that the woman is actually an imposter, and he and his brother put her through some brutal tests of torture, like supergluing her mouth shut to figure out if she's actually who she says she is. Elias seems to delight in hurting this woman, who continues to insist she's really his mother. 

Elias is also troubled by the fact that his mom completely ignores Lukas, only to eventually find out that Lukas had actually died in an accident and Elias has been experiencing a psychotic break featuring hallucinations of his twin. The violence that Elias enacts almost without second thoughts for the duration of Goodnight Mommy situate him firmly in horror canon as one of the scariest kids ever.

Village of the Damned is full of scary horror movie kids

While the 1960 horror classic Village of the Damned might be a little bit dated today, the children it features remain stupefyingly scary. After an unexplained incident knocks everyone in Midwich, England, unconscious for a few hours, it's discovered months later that every single woman in town is in advanced stages of pregnancy. When born on the exact same day, all the children have almost identical platinum hair and weirdly luminous eyes that suggest they share parentage, even as the mothers have no clue who the father(s) might be. And it just gets worse from there. 

The children have psychic powers and begin moving through town, killing folks who upset them. They also have the ability to make people do things against their will, forcing suicides and other self-harming bouts. All the while, the children display no human emotion at all, and they're completely devoid of empathy as they wantonly murder. Their glassy eyes reflecting the light brings to mind the devouring gaze of a shark as it seeks out prey. The fact that we never find out exactly who or what created this horde of monstrous children only adds to the horror of this movie.

Alice isn't such a sweet kid

While many folks like to credit M. Night Shyamalan for reinventing the shocking twist ending, all the way back in 1976, Alice, Sweet Alice introduced horror movie audiences to one of the creepiest bait and switches of all time. In the film, there's a killer running around, complete with an iconic plastic mask and a yellow raincoat that belong to young Alice. The slasher has killed quite a few people, including Alice's younger sister. As a result, Alice is institutionalized under suspicion of being the perpetrator. But when the murders and attacks by a masked and yellow-raincoated murderer continue, Alice is released from the asylum to discover that it was actually the local priest's housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni, who was punishing people for their variety of perceived crimes. 

However, Alice isn't fully off the hook by the end of the film. After her landlord, Mr. Alphonso, tries to sexually molest her, he also turns up dead, with his killing pinned on Mrs. Tredoni. The final frames of Alice, Sweet Alice show the titular anti-heroine has a bloody kitchen knife in her bag, suggesting that she may have been involved in more murders than suspected. It's a chilling ending that sticks with you long after the screen goes black, as she shows no remorse for what she's done.

Henry Bowers is one of Stephen King's most terrifying bullies

Both the 1990 and 2017/2019 adaptations of Stephen King's It feature the terrifying machinations and many faces of the child-eating monster Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But alongside Pennywise is a perfectly human child who equally terrorizes the other children of Derry, Maine — Henry Bowers. Henry has no supernatural powers. Instead, he's a pure psychopath and sadist who enjoys killing neighborhood pets and cutting up his classmates. He even murders his own father in cold blood. He becomes an eventual vessel for the evil of Pennywise, but it's only because he already has that level of darkness living inside him. 

While the 2017 version of Henry presents a brief moment of sympathy for him as we meet his abusive father, it doesn't fully account for the horrible acts of violence Henry enacts as a child. And unlike many of the scariest kids in horror movie history, Henry actually grows up on screen to continue committing violence against children and his peers, putting him in a class of his own.

Bughuul's children are some seriously scary kids

There is something singularly unsettling and stomach-churning about stories featuring small children who murder their own families, and Scott Derrickson's Sinister features an entire team of these kids. Washed-up crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves his family into a home where the previous family had been hung and killed in the backyard. He discovers a box of home movies in his attic that suggest an entire pattern of gruesome crimes that he and a local deputy end up tracing to a demon named Bughuul, who might be possessing the reels of film. In each of the murders, one of the family's children went missing without a trace. 

Ellison finds out the hard way that it's the missing child who murders their entire family, films the crimes, and then joins Bughuul's grisly cohort. The brutality of these children in the elaborate and gleeful ways they butcher their families is beyond disturbing and haunting, making them all top contenders for the scariest children in horror movie history.

Isaac leads a truly creepy cult

Most horror movie kids don't have huge body counts to their name, it's just the fact that they're children hurting others at all that makes them terrifyingly remarkable. But this isn't the case in the least for Isaac in the adaptation of Stephen King's Children of the Corn. Not only is this 12-year-old the leader of a religious cult made up of children, he goes ahead and brutally slaughters every adult in the fictional hamlet of Gatlin as a sacrifice to the god he calls He Who Walks Behind the Rows. The only adult Isaac leaves standing is Diehl, a mechanic who provides petrol and other assistance in exchange for his life. 

Isaac also happens to be one of the creepiest looking children in genre history, with his piercing blue eyes and old-fashioned style of dress. Isaac didn't just make us scared of what kids might do when supervised by a religious fanatic, he also made us scared of fields of corn in general.