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Frank Beddor
John Drain
April 19, 2024

From “Wicked” to “The Omen”: Evil Children in Film

What is the most terrifying thing you can think of? Spiders? Public speaking? Failure? All are excellent options. Now, let me raise another – evil children. It’s an inversion of expectations. Kids are supposed to be kind, innocent, and full of life. Adults are the ones who perpetrate evil. The idea of children killing someone or summoning the Devil is entirely contrary to our expectations about how the world works. So when those twins appear in the hallway in The Shining or when Damien smiles in The Omen – it’s absolutely terrifying. The creepy kid is a common trope in horror films and even in thrillers, like Wicked. These films have captured the imaginations of their viewers and certainly inspired some nightmares too. 

Here’s a list of ten of the best movies featuring “evil kids”:

Still image from Richard Donner's 1976 supernatural horror film "The Omen," featuring Harvey Spencer Stevens as Damien Thorn in a suit and cap.

The Omen
If you think raising kids is hard, try telling the Antichrist he has a bedtime. That’s what Gregory Peck and Lee Remick have to deal with in the 1976 classic The Omen. One of the original evil kid movies, The Omen opens with an American diplomat, Robert Thorn, and his pregnant wife Katherine living in Rome. When Katherine gives birth, Robert is told that the child has tragically died and is convinced by the hospital chaplain to secretly adopt another child. Robert doesn’t tell Katherine about the switcheroo and five years later, they discover that their sweet Damien is none other than the son of Satan. Helmed by Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon), The Omen is a suspenseful, spine-tingling thriller that also helped popularize “666” as a sign of the devil. It grossed over $60 million on a $2.8 million budget and routinely appears on lists of the best horror films, including AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills.

Still image of Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in the 2009 psychological horror film "Orphan" directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.

These types of films really aren’t favorable toward adoption. The 2009 psychological horror film Orphan stars Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard as a couple who adopt a nine-year-old girl after losing their unborn child. At least both parents knew this time. They soon experience every parent’s worst nightmare (I imagine). Their new daughter, played by Isabelle Fuhrman in a delightfully horrifying performance, is actually a 33-year-old Estonian serial killer with a hormonal disorder that stunted her growth, allowing her to pose as a child. Roger Ebert called Orphan a “shamefully effective horror film” and took in almost $80 million at the box office. But want to know something that will keep you up at night? Orphan is actually loosely based on the true story of Barbora Skrlova, a 34-year-old Estonian woman who posed as a child twice and even got her first adoptive mother to chain and starve her own sons. Chills.

Still image of John Franklin as Isaac Chroner in the 1984 supernatural horror film "Children of the Corn".

Children of the Corn
Children of the Corn is 92 minutes of gory 80s fun. Based on the 1977 Stephen King short story (of course), Children of the Corn features an ensemble cast led by The Terminator star Linda Hamilton and is set in the cornfields of Nebraska. After the corn crop fails, local 9-year-old Isaac Chroner takes an interesting path to ensure the success of next year’s harvest. Isaac brainwashes all the local children into serving an evil deity named “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” and leads them to slaughter all the adults in the town in an act of mass sacrifice. And that’s just in Act One! The bloodfest was met with tepid responses from audiences and critics upon its release in 1984 but has since gained cult status, resulting in an 11-film franchise and inspiring a hilarious early South Park episode, “The Wacky Molestation Adventure”.

Still image of Julia Stiles as Ellie Christianson in the 1998 thriller "Wicked".

Julia Stiles’ audition for disturbed Ellie Christianson in the 1998 thriller Wicked blew away director Michael Steinberg and producer Frank Beddor, who said, “…we knew. She was Ellie.” Ellie is a sixteen-year-old girl with a problem – her mom. Now, it’s certainly not uncommon for a teenager to have problems with their mom. But this teenager hates her mom because her mom is standing in the way of the person she desires the most – her dad. Yes, Ellie is in love with her father Ben, and will stop at nothing, including whacking her mom on the head with a stone mask, in her quest to have him. Wicked is a tense, chilling thriller with flashes of noir mixed with dark comedy. Julia Stiles is electric in her breakout role, producing a nuanced portrayal that still incites empathy for a character whose actions are truly detestable. The film was a smash at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival where Stiles’ performance made her “the darling of the festival”. She also won the award for Best Actress at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Still image of Elijah Wood as Mark Evans and Macaulay Culkin as Henry Evans in the 1993 psychological thriller "The Good Son".

The Good Son
Macaulay Culkin is arguably the greatest child actor in the history of Hollywood and he really shows off his range in the 1993 psychological thriller, The Good Son. Written by Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement), the film features Elijah Wood, as Mark Evans, who moves in with his aunt, uncle, and cousins after his mother dies. Reconnecting with your family is usually fun and a good source of healing. But not for Mark, who quickly learns his cousin, Henry (Culkin), is a brutal psychopath. Henry causes a massive car crash, tries to kill his sister Connie (twice), and admits to drowning his late brother over the ownership of a rubber duck, establishing himself as one of the great evil child characters. The Good Son fell flat with critics, who bristled at the twisted narrative and felt uncomfortable seeing Macaulay Culkin in such a villainous role. Honestly, that just makes the film more appealing audiences clearly agreed, buying $60 million worth of tickets during the film’s theatrical run.

Still image of Lina Leandersson as Eli in the 2008 Swedish romantic horror film "Let the Right One In".

Let the Right One In
Nobody ever thinks of vampires as young children. They appear to us as a dashing Romanian count, a charismatic Parisian actor, or a glittering centenarian posing as a high schooler. The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, flips vampire tropes on their head with their humanist treatment of 12-year-old vampire Eli. During a dark, snowy Swedish winter, Oskar, a shy child who’s a favorite target of bullies, meets his new neighbor Eli. The two loners bond, building a friendship that only deepens when Oskar discovers Eli is a vampire. The film is a beautiful exploration of humanity featuring moving performances and brilliant cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. Bloody Disgusting ranked it as the best horror film of the decade, calling it an “austerely beautiful creation”. Let the Right One In won dozens of awards including five Guldbagges at the Swedish Oscars.

Still image of Jacob Kogan as piano prodigy Joshua Cairn in the 2007 psychological thriller "Joshua".

Every parent would be thrilled if their child was a prodigy, right? Well, not so fast. The 2007 thriller Joshua stars Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga (her second entry on this list) as parents to 9-year-old piano prodigy Joshua (Jacob Kogan). Everything seems to be idyllic at first, (aside from Joshua’s penchant to dress like a young Patrick Bateman, a huge red flag), until Joshua’s parents come home with his baby sister Lily. The wannabe Mozart shows his sociopathic side and begins to terrorize his family. He kills the family dog, gaslights his mother until she’s committed, tries to murder his sister, does murder his grandmother, and frames his father for abuse. Joshua is a creepy, disturbing psychological thriller, with Duane Byrge writing for The Hollywood Reporter the film is a “brilliant house-of-horror tale with Hitchcockian flare.” It was also well-received on the festival circuit, being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winning the Cinematography Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Still image of Blake Woodruff as David in the 2007 horror film "Whisper".

It seems that 2007 was an especially good year for movies featuring evil children. Whisper is a chilling slow burn featuring Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies as a down-on-their-luck couple who, after being denied a bank loan, decide to take part in kidnapping a child to get the money they need. It’s a drastic step and one that backfires spectacularly when the child, eight-year-old David, starts commanding the members of the kidnapping ring to kill each other. It turns out that David is actually a demon with the power to convince mere mortals to do anything with only a whisper. Of course, David’s actions aren’t necessarily evil in this context. He was kidnapped after all. However, a demon child with supernatural powers of persuasion is pretty darn evil.

Still image of a child in a blue smock wearing a painted hood/mask from J.A. Bayona's 2007 gothic supernatural horror film "The Orphanage".

The Orphanage (El orfanato)
Another 2007 entry on our list is The Orphanage, a Spanish-Mexican gothic horror film that grossed almost $80 million and won seven Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars). J.A. Bayona’s directorial debut follows a woman, Laura, who brings her family back to her childhood home, a now-closed orphanage. She intends to reopen the orphanage as a home for disabled children, but things start to go haywire when Laura’s son Simon makes an invisible new friend and disappears soon after. The Orphanage earned praise for its grounded approach to horror, relying on craft rather than CG or gore. As Ellie Violet Bramley wrote for The Guardian, “It’s the humanity of the thing that went bump in the night that makes you shudder for a long while after.”

Still image of Lisa and Louise Burns as the Grady twins in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 psychological horror film "The Shining".

The Shining
A bonafide horror classic, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be both terrifying on screen and on set. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, The Shining follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) as a writer and recovering alcoholic who takes a job as the offseason caretaker of the Overlook Hotel deep in the Colorado Rockies. Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are soon snowed in, and that’s where the “fun” begins. Jack slowly loses his sanity, the hotel is haunted, and Danny turns out to have psychic powers (“the shining”). Now, Danny isn’t the evil child that got The Shining on this list. It’s those creepy twins in the hallway. Pure nightmare fuel. The girls are actually the murdered daughters of the former caretaker, who went insane and murdered his whole family. So while the girls may not have started out as well, there’s no mistaking their malevolent intentions when they ask Danny, “Come and play with us…Forever… and ever… and ever.”

An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.

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