Nothing Creepier Than a Creepy Kid: Creepy Kids in Cinema

This article originally appeared on Capital New York.

Hollywood loves scary children. The most haunting image in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the Grady Twins, those dead-eyed girls in identical blue dresses standing at the end of the hallway. The twins call out in unison to the boy on his bicycle, “Hello Danny. Come and play with us. Come and play with us, Danny. Forever … and ever … and ever.” Jack Nicholson galumphing about with an axe is pretty scary, but he’s got nothing on those creepy twins.

Creepy kids strike fear into our hearts. Our souls shiver away from them as repulsed. A preternaturally mature and cunning child messes with our assumptions about the world in which we live. It seems really wrong. When kids do horrible things, the culture jumpstarts into jittering overdrive, wondering why. Did Marilyn Manson do it? Too many video games? Were the parents neglectful? We Need to Talk About Kevin, which opens nationwide on Friday, features another creepy kid who does horrible things, and his evil seems to emerge from a clear blue sky. How did this happen? Was he born this way?

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shiver’s book and the film adaptation, provides an opportunity to look at the Creepy Kid Genre, and what it has to say about anxieties regarding the nature vs. nurture argument, where evil comes from, and what to do when evil emerges in someone so young.

“There’s a maturity about her that my husband and I find disturbing.”

In The Bad Seed (1956), Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) makes this statement about her 9-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Patty McCormack (in one of the creepiest of Creepy Kid performances of all time), is a sweet-faced little blonde, with pigtails and a pinafore, roller-skating and skipping through the house. She snows the upstairs neighbor, an elderly lady quite taken with the child. Rhoda is always polite when grownups are around, but can be vicious to those she perceives as foes. She has exquisite manners. When she wants to get her way, she cuddles up to her mother. It works like a charm. And yet her mother can’t quite shed the feeling that something … is a “off” with her daughter.

There is a lot of literature out there about “bad” children, even more so now with recent breakthroughs in genetic mapping and MRI-work on brain functionality. It now appears that psychopaths may very well not be made, but born. It has been a common belief for about two centuries that a child’s environment is the key factor in developing character, although psychiatrists and neuroscientists are now arguing otherwise. While coming from a good home can impact your chances of living an upstanding life, there have always been horrifying crimes committed by children of middle-class so-called “good” families. This throws the whole belief system into chaos. How could this have happened? Their parents were so nice? the community worries. The Columbine killers are the most notorious example, but the list is a long one.

Can badness erupt from nowhere? And if it can, where does that leave us?

The human race has been coming up with explanations for evil since the dawn of time. The devil fell from heaven, took up residence on earth, and has been making mischief ever since. Man has the capability for evil because Eve ate the apple. Cain slew Abel. That sin reminds us what we all are capable of. It’s in all of us.

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a Biblical parable of the Cain and Abel story. There are the “bad” brothers (whose names start with “C”), and the good brothers (whose names start with “A”), and their fates seem sealed from birth. Cal, in the third generation, (played by James Dean in the film adaptation) is the first “C”-named character who tries to be “good”, at least as good as his brother Aron. Cal was born of the union between a saintly man named Adam and a devilish woman named Cathy. After the birth of Cal, Cathy abandoned the family and set up a bordello in a nearby town. When Steinbeck introduces us to Cathy as a small child, it is one of the most insightful portraits of a psychopath ever put on paper. It is worth it to quote it at length:

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.

It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighed, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community…

Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her…

Since Cathy was an only child her mother had no close contrast in the family. She thought all children were like her own. And since all parents are worriers she was convinced that all her friends had the same problems.

Cathy’s father was not so sure. He operated a small tannery in a town in Massachusetts, which made a comfortable, careful living if he worked very hard. Mr. Ames came in contact with other children away from his home and he felt that Cathy was not like other children. It was a matter more felt than known. He was uneasy about his daughter but he could not have said why.

Jo Van Fleet as “Cathy” in East of Eden

Many psychiatrists now agree with Steinbeck, and the studies of psychopaths have proliferated in recent years. Like being born colorblind or hard of hearing, it appears some people may be born without a conscience, the brain doesn’t fire correctly, empathy is lacking. The word “psychopath” is out of favor now, whereas “sociopath” or “anti-social personality disorder” or even “malignant narcissism” are more common terms, although meaning the same thing. There are “unsuccessful psychopaths” (who fill up the prisons), and the “successful psychopaths” (who are CEOs). You can see the problem in even discussing such issues when even the terminology can’t be agreed upon. And “evil”? It’s rare to hear such a word now outside of a religious context, although Ph.D Barbara Oakley recently wrote a controversial book about psychopaths and genetics called Evil Genes.

The Bad Seed faces these problems head on. Rhoda’s evil appears to have sprung from nowhere, and yet you can also see her point. She hates the conventional world she lives in, it’s stifling, it’s claustrophobic. Her parents are loving, although her father often has to be away due to his job. The “nature vs. nurture” argument is a running theme of the film, and shows the Freudian obsession exploding in the United States in the 1950s. Everything has a root cause. But as the secrets of Rhoda’s lineage are revealed, what Rhoda’s mother sensed all along is now a horrifying reality: Rhoda is a “bad seed”.

Parents of these strange children often find themselves under suspicion. It is not difficult to see why. A parent who warns a teacher “My child is not to be trusted”, or “My child is a compulsive liar” seems very unnatural indeed. Psychopathic personalities are notorious for resisting treatment, and also for snowing psychiatrists, guidance counselors, and social workers. Even a world-famous psychopathy expert like Robert Hare has found himself conned by a charming psychopath (“charm” is one of the defining characteristics), and he describes some of those chilling encounters in his book Without Conscience.

Talking about adults is one thing. But labeling a child as a “psychopath” is iffy in the extreme. Childrens’ brains aren’t developed yet. Brains aren’t fully developed until we’re in our mid-20s. One must tread carefully. Creepy Kid movies often deal with the helplessness parents feel when confronted by a child who is so completely unchildlike as to seem almost supernatural. How do you confide in friends/family that you think your child is actually possessed by Satan?

The Omen (1976) features a child who, Lord have mercy, turns out to be the Antichrist. Harvey Stephens, as Damien the child (thereby assuring that the name “Damien” would forever be associated with Beelzebub), is a smileless preternaturally calm little sociopath. His parents try to love him, although Damien is not lovable. But he doesn’t seem to need love. Love is actually an irritation. His parents wonder if something is wrong with them. His fate was sealed at his birth (and so, too, is Rosemary’s poor “baby” in Polanski’s classic film), and Damien views everyone who gets in his way (even his parents) as obstacles to be destroyed. Damien is a small fragile boy, and we naturally feel protective of small children. Damien destabilizes the universe because we want him destroyed.

Jacob Kogan plays “Joshua” in 2007’s Joshua, the prodigy child of two upper middle-class upper West Side parents (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga), as a smileless robot of a boy who is unable to feel love. He cannot receive it, and cannot give it. His parents are proud of his prowess at the piano, but they wonder if something might be a little too, well, serious, about their son. When they have a second child, Joshua begins to wreak his silent revenge. Joshua is terrifying but not just because of the creepy kid. It is terrifying because it is an indictment of the kind of well-heeled status-conscious urban parents portrayed by Rockwell and Farmiga. They make fun of their neighbors, trying to reassure themselves that they aren’t like “those people”. Joshua takes place in a soulless world, and you can’t help but think that Joshua may have a point.

In The Exorcist, a good child “goes bad” when Satan possesses her spirit and makes her vomit pea soup and shout expletives. Linda Blair was 13 years old when she played Regan in The Exorcist and while much of the horror came from the prosthetic makeup, her performance was so searing she was nominated for an Academy Award. The tragedy of The Excorcist is that Regan had memories of being “good”, and was no longer able to find her way back to her “self”. Unlike little Rhoda in The Bad Seed, who was born that way and so saw nothing wrong with her behavior, Regan is aware of the price she is paying. Regan has respites when the Devil recedes, and she remembers who she used to be. It is a harrowing performance and still a nearly unwatchably scary film.

The British horror film Village of the Damned (1960) features an entire tribe of glowing-eyed children, all with blonde hair and unnatural maturity. Because children are, well, children, they are given the benefit of the doubt, even when the horror movie tropes scream at the other characters “Something is not right here!” Children are cute, they are small, they are presumed to be innocent. The wonderful George Sanders plays father to one of the children, and although he immediately realizes that something is up with this brood of children, he counsels caution to the nervous villagers. Like Joshua, and like so many other horror movies, Village of the Damned reveals the anxieties of the culture from which it emerges. The children reveal the dark underbelly of middle-class aspirations and domestic bliss. They point the finger towards things no one wants to admit.

2009’s Orphan, starring one of the creepiest children in recent memory (Isabelle Fuhrman), posits the iffy position that when you adopt, you don’t know what you are getting. This is so explosive that the DVD of the film starts with a disclaimer stating in no way is the film meant to criticize adoption, and also a PSA about how wonderful it is to adopt a needy child. The film tells another story. Esther is from Russia, and speaks with a slight accent. She is an accomplished artist although her drawings are disturbing. She is perfectly behaved, and dresses in colorful frocks and patent leather shoes, completely out of sync with her more casually dressed American schoolmates. She has serious black eyes and knows how to win over adults, although there is an uneasy look on the nun’s face at the orphanage when Esther first interacts with her new parents (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga. This is Farmiga’s second Parent of Creepy Kid role in two years).

Once ensconced in her new family, Esther befriends the youngest daughter (who is hard of hearing), quickly dominating her into a fearful ally. Esther stays far away from the older brother, who seems to know that something is not quite right with his new sister. Esther pits the parents against one another, and her machinations are subtle and cloaked with plausible deniability. The mother thinks something is “off”. The father says she is overreacting. Rifts open up. Esther’s background is mysterious, similar to Rhoda in The Bad Seed, and the film is disturbing in its presentation of adoption as a crap-shoot. Esther leaves a trail of destruction in her wake, none of which was known by her new parents when they adopted her. Once her true nature is revealed it is too late.

I haven’t even mentioned the horrifying Toshio in The Grudge, or Samara in The Ring, or little Drew Barrymore starting fires with her mind in Firestarter.

In Hollywood, teenagers are expected to go on murderous killing sprees. In the real world too, sadly. It is a rite of passage. And adults … we all know adults are capable of just about anything. But evil children push the envelope.

It’s not hard to understand why the theme is so attractive and yet so repulsive at the same time. Adults deserve what they get if they are bad. Audiences project onto children their own feelings of protectiveness and to see a child in distress is one of the most effective ways of engaging an audience. But what about children who are not innocent or good? What about children who don’t seem like children at all? Such strange creatures are deeply destabilizing. A calm and chilly-eyed child is scarier than a monster in the forest.

Those dead-eyed twins in blue dresses in The Shining will always call to us down that long hallway.

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8 Responses to Nothing Creepier Than a Creepy Kid: Creepy Kids in Cinema

  1. george says:

    How true about creepy kids. I recall being creeped out as a kid by a kid in a Twilight Zone episode featuring the ‘Opie Taylor’ looking Billy Mumy. Mumy’s character could read minds and if it ever crossed any adult’s (poor Cloris Leachman’s for example) mind that here was a right little monster he would teleport them to a cornfield, never to be heard from again.

    By the way, I find your fascination with psychopaths fascinating – in an un-creepy way.

  2. sheila says:

    George – wow, Cloris Leachman? I should check it out – I don’t remember that one.

    I think Steinbeck really gets it in East of Eden when he writes that people would come in close to Cathy, when she was a child, but fearfully – almost like they wanted to inspect her. They knew she was strange, and they didn’t run … they drew in closer. I kind of feel that way, although having known a couple of these creatures in my life (only two) – I know to stay far far away.

    and to see that kind of thing in a child …


  3. Desirae says:

    I love a good creepy kid movie. It’s one of my favourite horror subgenres. And I still think the Exorcist is the scariest movie ever made. It builds tension better than anything I’ve ever seen.

    The thing about kids is that they’re stridently self-centered when they’re small, which makes a great deal of sense – they’re tiny and practically everything can kill them, so of course they think of their own needs first. Especially if they are too young to understand cause and effect and what that has to do with responsibility yet. But while most of us grow out of that, sociopaths don’t or can’t. They never learn to see other people as real in any meaningful way.

    The twilight zone ep george refers to is based on a short story, btw. You can find it here:

  4. sheila says:

    That’s a really excellent point about the self-centeredness of children, and how appropriate it is – and how normal people grow out of that, and experience other people as real, while sociopaths don’t. So to play on that – by making a child a mini adult, and not having the adorable sweetness of children – is seriously creepy.

    I still have only seen The Exorcist in its entirety once. Can you believe that? And that was when I was a kid. I had no business seeing that movie. It traumatized me. I’ve seen scenes since, but never the whole thing,

    Thank you for the story, Desirae – will definitely track all of this down!

  5. Bybee says:

    Would Rynn Jacobs from The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane fit into this category? I’ve been musing about this since I read (and enjoyed) your article.

  6. sheila says:

    I haven’t seen that, Bybee – but the title alone gives me the creeps. Is it good??

  7. marie says:

    The Bad Seed, the original, not the in color remake. Patty McCormack.

  8. Sheila says:

    Did you even read the piece I wrote?

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