I just finished watching the Spanish movie 'The Orphanage' and I suddenly observed that many of the horror movies, especially some very popular ones, involve children as a central part of the story, e.g. The Shining, Exorcist, The Omen, The Ring, Insidious etc.

What could be the possible reasons for this?

  • 1
    Wow, by coincidence I just thought the same when watching (the admittedly not particularly good) Village of the Damned. I'd say it is the effect of contrasting the innocense of children with evil (especially in the common case of the "evil child") which makes them seem more evil than just an evil adult would.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 1, 2014 at 12:48
  • lots of horror movies also have adults as the central focus. I think it's in both cases due to the fact that the real world is full of adults and children.
    – DA.
    Apr 24, 2015 at 20:58

3 Answers 3


This is a topic of Which there is a huge body of work, circulating different theories of why Children are such a prevalent theme of horror, so its unlikely you will find a single comprehensive answer/theory, but there is one unifying reason that all parties are in agreement upon:

Kids are scary, yo.

Children are able to operate as Microcosm for social anxieties. They are largely denied 'a voice' (particularly if they are infants), or when they do have a 'voice' it is distorted by the 'inexperience of youth', and so something that should sound innocent can come across as sinister. Think of "They're here" from Poltergeist, "1 - 2 - Freddy's coming for you, 3 - 4 - Better lock your door.." from Elm Street and "I see Dead People" from The 6th Sense.... but there are plenty more.

As a personal aside (but a good example!) a friend of mine once told me that when he was tucking his son into bed, his 3 yr old son said "Goodbye". He said, "No, its Bedtime now, so we say "Goodnight". His son replied, "I know Dad, but this time its Goodbye"... He slept with the light on that night.

Children are something that are familiar, but still refracted through their own experiences; under-developed and 'alien'. There is no equivalent word in the English language for this apparent dichotomy, but the German word is 'Unheimlich', meaning un-homely (the opposite of what is familiar - or not right within the home, as a place of safety). This is to say the fear doesn't come from something being obviously sinister grotesque, but just slightly not right, but without being able to fully explain why.

German Culture actually has a legacy of being slightly obsessed with the Unheimlich, and Freud wrote a great deal about it (claiming it is where our fear originates). The idea of a Doppelganger originates from the Unheimlich, and as such there are sinister connotations associated with twins. Twin Children, as in the Grady Twins of "The Shining", are perhaps the ultimate representation of Unheimlich.

Come and Play with us Danny..Forever..and ever..

Children are not governed by the norms of society, as they are not yet participants of it. As our general notions of safety are governed by our shared assumptions to 'play by these rules', and Children are outside of this, they are considered 'Unpredictable', which can create anxiety, often turning them into 'folk devils'.

As an opposing theory to this (Which is particularly pertinent to Horror) Children who have a supernatural or sociopathic understanding of the rules of normality but elect to disregard them are a classic origin of horror.

Damien from the Omen is an example of this type of fear, as he is considered the ultimate 'the Possessed' Child who demonstrates an awareness of and is complicit of his own evils. The book You're only Young Twice by theorist Tim Morris features a chapter 'Panic attacks: children as adults, adults as children in the movies' which explores the origin of Horror within these parameters, and will be able to provide you with a long history of terror being extracted from children in this way.

Film Theorist Mary Jackson identifies this films with their own nomenclature as a sub-genre 'Children as Horror', and identifies our fear of these 'Evil Children' as the representation of our societal fear of failing the younger, emergent generations:

‘Not surprisingly, in the run of child-as-monster films, frequently the real point is not the evil of children, often the victims of demonic possession themselves, but rather the ineffectiveness of the family, church, and state – America’s most highly valued institutions – to guard themselves against deception and impending destruction.’

Regan from the Exorcist is a similar case, although hers is a story of the corruption of innocence as penance for her mother's implied heresy/blasphemy/impiousness. Hers is a meta-religious allegory to the Angel of Death taking the children of the impious, but much more sinister: The devil 'takes them', but the terror is not through removal but through defilement.

The most obvious (perhaps) reason for Children being so numerous in Horror needs little explanation:

Children aren't supposed to be scary.

By subverting our expectations of Children as non-threatening entities, Horror is able to force doubt into our natural assumptions, which is a staple of effective horror.

Of course, it's become so common place for Children to be 'Evil' in Horror movies, and this genre tradition has become so entrenched, that its hard not to automatically consider children as the de-facto evil in a horror movie. Such is the way of postmodernism.

  • "I suddenly observed that most of the horror movies especially the good ones involve children as a central part of the story." I do not agree with this premise. It is subjective to what films you've watched and consider to be the "good ones." Feb 1, 2014 at 16:21
  • Now that is what I had in mind! And as an aside, I, though not being an expert on the topic, would regard "uncanny" a fitting English expression/translation for "unheimlich". As the common phenomenon of the "Uncanny Valley" drives its effect exactly from this unknown insecurity about things that are somehow "slightly off".
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 1, 2014 at 16:21
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    "As a personal aside (but a good example!) a friend of mine once told me that when he was tucking his son into bed, his 3 yr old son said "Goodbye". He said, "No, its Bedtime now, so we say "Goodnight". His son replied, "I know Dad, but this time its Goodbye"... He slept with the light on that night." - I've heard this story probably five times from people swearing it to be true. I do not believe it. Urban Legend. (Sorry John, but I don't believe it. I believe you were told this, I just don't believe it's true.) Feb 1, 2014 at 16:25
  • @MeatTrademark Nobody argues that the question isn't worded perfectly, yet this answer answers the much better question hidden in it. Just change "most (especially the good ones)" into "many" and viola!
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 1, 2014 at 16:25
  • I didn't try to reword the question. I'd have started from a different premise if I just rewrote the question... ;) Feb 1, 2014 at 16:29

I think it is about taking something normal and innocent and turning it scary. That is why most truly scary films take place on perfectly normal places 'The Strangers' is in a normal house owned by a couple, 'Rec' takes place in a regular apartment block. The horror comes from taking what we see as safe and turning it on us. Personally I don't find Sci-fi films at all scary because encountering a UFO is not something I do daily. But to take a child and use their innocence to commit a crime (Halloween) or channel evil (The Exorcist) is shocking which is where the horror comes from. I don't have any facts to back this up but if you look read up on interviews with a lot of horror writers (film and book) a lot of them talk about taking taking the viewer, or reader, out of their comfort zone by using things we encounter daily against them.


I think your question is beginning from a false premise.

I take @user7829's point, but would suggest that the closer it hits where you live is more in category of Terror. Horror can be anything from Dracula to Zombies. The movie tropes we've grown up with. Even Frankenstein encountered a child. The Strangers is Adult fear.

Most horror seems to be seeking a younger demographic, as it's always done. Then we get home-invasion movies like The Strangers or completely "random" victims in things like the Hostel franchise. It's a storytelling choice that preys on fear of the unexpected, while still being in the realm of possibility (as opposed to supernatural attacks like ghosts, demons, vampires and zombies, etc.) I'd argue your premise that "most of the horror movies especially the good ones involve children." That is subjective to what YOU consider the best horror movies. I think that for every "great horror movie" involving a child, there is one that doesn't. Maybe you have a child or have more empathy toward children so movies that put them in jeopardy are more "intense" and "scary" to you due to some paternal instinct.

From the trailer for The Strangers:

"Why are you doing this to us?"

"Because you were home."

THAT scares me.

Most horror films are about adults. It's more shocking when the horror happens to children, and can be be more memorable. Doesn't mean or prove anything about the quality or how efficient a film was delivering scares.

I have no kids. When I see a person my age in a horror movie I have a better chance relating to them as opposed to relating to a younger or older person. It's subjective.

  • While I agree that the line "most of the horror movies especially the good ones involve children" is over-generalizing and subjective. But one cannot overlook the fact that especially the "evil/posessed child" is a common motif of many horror films (and what I would have liked the question to adress in particular instead of any kind of involvement of children, even if it probably doesn't). When concentrating on the phrase "especially the good ones", your answer provides some value, but that would be concentrating on the worst out of an otherwise interesting question.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 1, 2014 at 12:55
  • Most invasion movies, vampire movies, zombie movies, monster movies, etc, do not have a child protagonist. Some do, yes, but not the majority. The majority of victims in horror movies are teenagers and adults. From the OP's example: "Eg. The Shining (1980), Exorcist, The Omen, The Ring, Insidious..." The Shining was mainly about Jack Torrence, not Danny. The Exorcist and The Omen seem to be about children, but in each case there is a much older force at work. There are horror films involving children, but I strongly disagree they are in the majority of horror protagonists. Feb 1, 2014 at 16:05
  • "but I strongly disagree they are in the majority of horror protagonists" - Well, in this case you certainly don't disagree with me, as I never stated the opposite.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 1, 2014 at 16:14
  • Horror movies was very generalized term. I have changed it to ghost movies. I hope that fits better.
    – Ankit
    Feb 1, 2014 at 16:28
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    @Ankit In fact "horror" was much better. What you could have changed would be "most especially the good ones" into just "many" which would remove the slightly subjective by-taste that the answerer is adressing.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 1, 2014 at 16:29

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