Children in Horror: Why So Unsettling?

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The Shining. The Ring. The Sixth Sense. Children of the Corn. The Orphanage. Village of the Damned.

It doesn’t take Danny Torrance to see that creepy children are everywhere in the movie business. They’ve become an incredibly popular hallmark for Hollywood filmmakers and an ongoing source of fright for flick after flick after flick.

My first novel, Come Little Children, includes no shortage of chapters involving eerie children (with a title like that, what else would you expect?). And while I’d like to think that they’re more than cliché plot devices, I still wonder: what is it about children that people find so unsettling in the horror genre?

Here are my three theories.

1. Innocence and the Occult

With dark tales involving kids, there are usually demonic elements involved, and those elements are often accompanied by tragic stories surrounding abuse, death, or both. For those of us who haven’t made up our minds on paranormal phenomena (and even those who consider the occasional “what if?”), seeing such disturbing events triggers a flood of visceral reactions. Children are the last ones you’d expect to harbor harmful impulses or insidious thoughts, and—when juxtaposed with horror—it’s that pure, untainted innocence that causes an inner jolt when we witness them in grim scenes or hear them singing eerie tunes in minor keys.

2. Dark Observations

There’s something to be said about the fact that kids tend to notice stuff that adults don’t. They have incredible imaginations, and it’s chilling to consider the possibility that we “tune things out” as we get older. A while ago, there was a Reddit thread about the most frightening things that parents have heard their children say. Many responses included warnings like: “Daddy, who’s that standing behind you?” and “Mommy, tell the bad man to go away.”

3. Undeveloped Moral Codes

No kid is born with all the right “moral coding.” In other words, a lot of children can be terribly mean, while some can seem downright evil. From a fiction point of view, I thought, “What if I take that to the Nth degree?” That’s basically how morality came to play such a large role in Come Little Children.

What do you think? Has your own child ever said something that sent a shiver zipping up your spine? If so, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. After all, it’s probably nothing.

Probably.

Still, between us, I’d sleep with one eye open if I were you.

D. Melhoff

D. Melhoff was born in a prairie ghost town that few people have heard of and even fewer have visited. While most of his stories are for adults, he also enjoys terrifying younger audiences from time to time, as seen in his series of twisted picture books for children. He credits King, Poe, Hitchcock, Stoker, and his second grade school teacher, Mrs. Lake, for turning him to horror.

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