The Horror (of Kids in Horror Movies)

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The original IT was rated R, and just five minutes in you could see why. As such, children were strongly advised against seeing the movie.

But children had to star in it, too.

Blame Stephen King for featuring seven 12-year-olds (and a few kids who were even younger) in his original 1986 novel. Or, perhaps, blame the whole horror genre. Ever since Hansel and Gretel were nearly roasted alive by a witch with a fondness for dessert architecture, children and chills have fit together, hand in bloody glove. And sometimes that’s to the detriment of the children themselves.

Think about some of the scariest movies ever put to celluloid: The Exorcist. The Babadook. The Conjuring. The Omen. Most of them have children in them. Sometimes, the kids are being chased by the monsters. Sometimes they’re the monsters.

It makes perfect sense, from a moviemaker’s perspective. Nothing will engage or frighten your typical moviegoer more than putting a child in danger. And let’s face it: When you flip the script and turn what looks like an innocent kid into something scary, it can be deeply and intentionally unsettling.

But to leverage the power of children in horror, you have to, y’know, get a kid to play the part. And that means a child—sometimes a child still too young to cross the street by himself—has to take part in an intentionally terrifying, often bloody movie shoot for weeks, maybe months.

The movie’s makers often try to shield the children from the scary story they’re telling. They might bring the kids in only for certain scenes or hide the gross visuals as much as possible. When I talked with the director and cast from this year’s The Curse of La Llorona, they told me how the actress who played the movie’s monster would spend lots of time with the two children at the center of the story—reassuring them that there was a very friendly lady underneath all the scary makeup.

But sometimes kids can’t get away.

One of the reasons why The Exorcist was so controversial when it was released in 1973 was that Linda Blair, who played a possessed 12-year-old girl, was asked to say and do some pretty horrific things. It was impossible to shield any young actress from the movie’s terrifying content: The actress was at the very center of it. Worried that no child could handle the stress, director William Friedkin considered auditioning adult dwarves for the part.

Blair survived the experience with, she says, few lasting scars. “I did what I was told to do,” she said many years later.

But for some, the trouble comes only after production has wrapped.

Before she found fame as an adult as part of Bravo’s Beverly Hills Housewives, Kyle Richards played an imperiled little girl in the original Halloween. She, like many other child actors who take part in horror movies, says that her time on set wasn’t particularly traumatizing. The cast and crew did what they could to shield her from the terror.

But then she went to the premiere. That, she says, was a mistake.

“Seeing it for the first time all pieced together was a very, very different movie,” she said. “It was just really scary. And I really did sleep with my mom until I was 15 years old after that. I was terrified.” Richards added:

I think that’s what sealed the deal for me to get out of horror films. After seeing myself in that, I was always thinking there was someone hiding behind the drapes or outside my windows or under my bed.

Elsewhere, Richards has talked about how she still deals with debilitating anxiety. And when she was discussing those issues on Twitter one day, someone asked her if her work in horror movies had something to do with it. “100%,” she tweeted back.

As we head into October, horror flicks will fill theaters and Netflix queues. Many of them feature children. Some of you may consider watching some of these films yourselves.

But if you do watch, give some thought to the real kids you see on screen. And as carefully as the folks on set may try to protect them from the terror around them, sometimes these horror movies can impact those young actors deeply.

Just as they can impact those of us just watching them.