When I was younger, I rooted for villains. I had my reasons. As a start, the 70s cool of Darth Vader—that black-leather-gloved, hard breathing father Sith—was too much. He’d strut into scene with rapid strides and glows of red that could slice butter like hot knives, and you’d drool. Others, like the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, and Norman Bates got my attention because they were everything that made them human. There wasn’t the infantilizing of idealistic BS or feel-good propaganda that came with our heroes. They were flawed, and were created from a world that made them so.
It’s why I still root for them today in fact, and it’s the reason for this post as I’ve begun to believe that the most blameless of us all—children of course—can make for great villains...because why not? Are they large? Nope. Unstoppable? Hell nope. But unlike adult baddies, who are rarely shocking at this point, there’s something that’s so twisted about children who compare to evil adults. They haven’t lived much of a life, and yet they’re just as flawed and in a sense, even more corrupt than most modern day bad guys.
Since the 60s, children have been used as demonic props: think the head spinning Regan in The Exorcist (1973), widely considered as the most terrifying transformation in cinematic history. The British and telepathically blonde schoolchildren from the Village of the Damned (1960), who were sinister in the same way as tiny animals with a vicious bite. Or the Antichrist hell spawn Damien in The Omen (1976), who could murder adults on a whim. These early titles capitalized on Christian anxieties surrounding the moral fibre of humanity, fertility, and the corruption of innocence.
Simply put, children bring out our most deep-seated fears—fears about our future, survival and fundamental capacity to shield them from wrong. The Spanish cult film Who Can Kill A Child (1976) had the audacity to play on the idea of a couple trapped on an island inhabited by murderous children. From the opening, graphic images of real war and famine play out. A narrator speaks, and in the background, children laugh and hum as if they can’t tell right from wrong. It goes on for a bit, but throughout intro and subsequent plot, you get a sense that with all the murder between their giggles, war made them this way. They were left own devices after witnessing a tragedy, and becoming villains was not a conscious act. It’s what the world made them.
It’s not what you’d associate with standard run-of-the-muck baddies. Children don’t come with mustaches to twirl and an axe to grind. They aren’t the dead giveaways of a James Bond villain. They’re made of the same unsuspecting sauce that makes Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs (1991) so effective. Lecter is classy, artsy, and intelligent, not someone you’d suspect is a murderous cannibal. Blue-eyed Rhonda from The Bad Seed (1956) and Henry from The Good Son (1993) are just as undetectable. They know what to say and when to pout, even when murder is in the cards.
More recent films have examined the potential of children as villains, but they haven’t done a good enough job of digging deeper into the premise. With David Yarovesky’s Brightburn (2019), there’s no brain behind the exploration. It uses a Superman rif—giving a baby-faced boogeyman superhuman powers—and it makes him go full The Omen on everyone. It’s one thing to explain away evil on demon possession and trauma, if you attach something meaningful to that. But it’s another to bank on the exploitation of kids who murder for the sake of boring villainy. Movies like Orphan (2009) and The Prodigy (2019) feel like clichéd follow-ups to films that said all that was needed about bad seeded children with really intense glares.
If traditional villains are some of society’s most illuminating case studies in humanity, the concept of little villains—when done right—can be some of our most honest and meditative art. Children are our future, and they learn from the present. Any fictional child who becomes a villain doesn’t just make a victim out of others, but they make us feel guilty because our society made it possible. Forget the child villains that murder, lie and kill for the sake of spectacle, give us truer ones. The villains who test how unconditional our trust is in the most innocent among us.
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