The horror genre has used many devices, plots, imagery, and sounds to make audiences feel uncomfortable. Nothing terrifies me more than when a movie makes a child the centerpiece of the horror experience. There's a few reasons for this.
First, I was quite literally scared of my own shadow as a child. I attended a religious school from kindergarten through eighth grade. The nuns and priests made one message very clear: If you're not a good boy, the Devil (or some other evil from Hell) is going to get you. That message radically alters the childhood experience, because you can't live without wondering what's going to happen to you when the lights go off, the house turns silent, and the darkness of your room engulfs you for eight hours.
Second, kids get the benefit of the doubt in every scenario. They're just being kids. They don't know any better. So when something goes awry with little Sarah, my natural inclination is to think that she is just being a kid. In this way, children play a cruel trick on the mind: You want to believe that little Sarah is still cute and innocent, but you also have to start developing a plan that addresses the very real fact that she's probably ready to feast on your soul.
Finally, the mind of a child is very susceptible to external forces like nature, graphic media, and even whispers in the dark. A kid's system of reasoning is not fully developed, so there is no rational context for me to make it about a moral plight, or a simple manner of sanity. If kids do evil, or are evil, they've fully bought into the system without a second thought.
Kids are effective horror movie tools because it doesn't require much for the audience to suspend disbelief that a child can be easily influenced by evil forces, or that a child can do harmful things to others without much of a conscious override.
Over the years, the horror genre has given us quite a few of these maniacal munchkins. Note: This list is in no real particular order.
1. Lily: Mama (2013)
It isn't so much that Lily is malicious or evil as it is that she is so young and instinctive that she prefers to be with the murderous "Mama." In the film, Lily is attached to the malevolent spirit like any child is attached to her mother: It's all Lily knows. While the ending was meant to expose the true attachment that forms when a mother nurtures her daughter, it's difficult to wholesomely swallow that Lily is somehow better off with "Mama."
2. Rhoda: The Bad Seed (1956)
Rhoda is a terrifying little girl. Not only is she ill-tempered and violent, but extremely manipulative and deceiving. The latter two descriptors are credit to the actress that played Rhoda, Patty McCormack. Rhoda knows how to play to the strengths — and weaknesses — of the adults in her life. Towards the end, Rhoda also shows vulnerability which reminds the audience that she is still a naive child. Simply put, she is wicked, and her wicked ways continue throughout the film because — murdering aside — she's the perfect daughter.
3. Eli: Let the Right One In (2008)
This movie is, perhaps, one of the best vampire movies to emerge from the genre in the past twenty years. The story focuses on the complexities of adolescent friendship, love and peer interactions by tackling concepts such as bullying, low self-esteem, romance and bonds. What makes Eli terrifying is that she needs to consume blood, thus making all of the victims offered to her some sort of twisted necessity for the film to work. As an audience member you therefore ask yourself "Would it just be better off if Eli was killed?" And before you can bring yourself to an answer, you remember "Dammit, it's just a kid!" Eli is not evil, but her existence requires her to do evil things. Not to mention the bond between Eli and Oskar is, at times, very sweet, complicating a moral compass even more. Eli kills and drinks blood for the same reason we kill animals for meat and drink water. Even though morality is somewhat of an issue for Eli, it does not replace the primal urge to feast on the good stuff.
4. Isaac: Children of the Corn (1984)
Isaac, the demon-worshipping preacher's son, represents the terror associated with my religious upbringing: Small children who, under the influence of some deity, repeat messages of worship, praise and sacrifice of that deity over and over again. But Isaac also represents the horrors of groupthink and spiritual dictatorships which, unfortunately, still happen in the modern world today. When I was younger, it was difficult to separate how Isaac innocently "preached" the word of his demon-god from how the adults in my life "preached" the word of their god.
5. Gage: Pet Sematary (1989)
Gage was a good kid before his idiot father brought him to a cemetery made for pets, even if after burying the whole pet thing didn't go so well. Gage represents a turn in this list. Demonic forces take over Gage's soul and animate him into a killer kid who associates knife play with "playing." However, there are times where Gage shows that he still has some modicum of a bonding fabric between he and his parents, despite being compelled to joyfully murder. This is what makes Gage scary. And, in like other examples, Gage is the perfect host to carry out a demonic will: Young, innocent and bonded through nature and nurture with parents who will always give him the benefit of the doubt; even after he's been resurrected by evil.
6. Scut Farkus: A Christmas Story (1983)
Scut Farkus isn't scary in the way that some of the other children on this list are, but in a very practical manner, Scut is pure terror. He's a bully, and everyone is too scared to stand up to him. The children submit their bodies to his will of twisting and contorting bones to avoid something potentially worse. It's this sort of interference into one's life — a fear-driven one at that — which lands Scut on my list. Also, we all know, or maybe have been hurt by a kid like Scut Farkus. Though the bullying usually dissipates after a certain point in time, those who are seriously bullied are usually scarred for life. And, come on, you have to admit that smile is in need of a young priest and an old priest.
7. Danny: Salem's Lot (1979)
Danny, the little vampire boy from Salem's Lot, is on this list because he is easily controlled by the will of the master, and still sort of childishly cute. However, he's mostly on here because this scene still sticks in my mind. I remember being 10-years-old, lying in my bed in the dark, staring at the window, and waiting for someone to knock on the glass. That's all.
8. Joffrey: Game of Thrones (2011)
How can any modern list not include Joffrey? He's everything that we fear about children. Because of his genetic lottery pool, he gets to fulfill our fears under the guise of being king. Joffrey is the product of a child raised without a thread of balance. Even though he has a major responsibility, the young and emotionally dumb mind of a child that is not taught basic morals, ethics, and decision-making responsibilities can not process responsibility. Joffrey is sort of like a demon, or starved animal; primitive desires and indulgence above all else.
9. Emily Rose: The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
I propose that all lists include Jennifer Carpenter's masterful portrayal of demonic afflicted teenager, Emily Rose. Did I mention just how good Jennifer Carpenter is in this movie? The movie would have been just another possession film if it wasn't for Carpenter's dedication. Unlike The Exorcist, where exorcism is the last resort, Rose's family embrace it due to their religious background. This is the underlying scariness to the film. Emily, along with her family, believe they can take it to the demon, and she willingly submits to the demonic oppression until death turns her into somewhat of a martyr. And that's supposed to be the happy ending. The formula is pretty similar of how Emily becomes possessed, but her consciousness and acceptance of her affliction make this movie have a few standout moments.
10. Dalton: Insidious (2011)
Boy with the ability to astral project? Check. Held hostage by evil entities in those planes? Check. Dalton represents the true loss of innocence, and the perversion of the gifts of children by those who seek to exploit their genius. Dalton's done nothing wrong except do what parents always tell their kids: "Use your gifts to the best of your abilities." Dalton acts like a conduit for evil to interface with the plane earth exists on. From his own point of view, he's lost in the dark and being held hostage. So, in many respects, Insidious is a movie about being kidnapped while playing, as well as the challenges of parenting a truly special child.