Evil kids are number one in the trifecta of shit I can’t handle (followed closely by demons and aliens, and no, they’re not mutually exclusive). I’m convinced that there are several reasons why we (because I know I’m not alone in this disturbia) find evil children scarier than evil adults:
1) We expect children to be innocent, good, and sweet, even though they are not. It’s our oxytocin talking here.
2) We expect children to depend on adults, so when they act of their own accord, especially to our detriment, it’s both shocking and unsettling.
3) In the case of one’s own biological children being evil…well, you just never want to think about the myriad ways in which the parasite you’re growing in your womb could turn against you. It’s like your own body betraying you.
This evil kid trope is ubiquitous onscreen, from classics like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby to more recent debuts like Orphan, mother!, or even small-screen sensations like Stranger Things and The Haunting of Hill House. Or, God forbid, the scariest movie of all time, Robert Eggers’ The Witch. It should come as no surprise that evil children, pregnancies, and the crimes involving them are just as present in books. Here are six favorites—yes, I said I can’t handle them, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
This book unmistakably wins for best title, but its content is just as juicy: the novel alternates perspectives between anxious stay-at-home mom Suzette and nearly silent seven-year-old Hanna. When Hanna does speak, it’s only as a 17th century girl burned at the stake for witchcraft. Hanna adores her father and sees her mother as only a distraction from their total devotion to one another. Driven to the edge of her sanity, Suzette oscillates between wanting to save her daughter or kill her. Whatever the outcome, this book is certain to captivate.
Recently adapted to a Netflix movie by the same name, Fever Dream follows Amanda, lying in a rural hospital clinic, a boy named David sitting beside her. She does not know David. David’s own mother finds him disturbing since she took him to a witch doctor to heal him from the same disease wracking Amanda. The doctor says he will not be the same after the treatment, and she is right. Read this immediately, and then all the rest of Schweblin’s work that’s been translated into English.
When one of Emily Atkinson’s party bender’s lands her in the hospital, she learns that she’s pregnant. Soon after this realization, Emily realizes she’s being stalked, too, but when she tries to tell people, no one believes her. It’s not until women in her glamor-party circles go missing that she learns just how dangerous her life has become.
After witnessing a crime, mother, wife, and pilot Leah Trenton faked her death in Florida and went into hiding to protect her family from the retaliation of the criminal. When her husband dies in a freak accident, Leah’s children are returned to her in Maine, and they’re told she’s a distant aunt. Though happy at the reunion, Leah now has more attention on her than ever, even as she still evades the blowback from the crime she witnessed a decade before.
No one has quite mastered the uncanny like author Karen Russell, and while every single story in this collection is deeply unsettling, the most horrific to me is the titular one, “Orange World,” in which a new mother has to nurse a xxx-formed demon to keep her child safe. She even has to leave her home in the middle of the night to do so for fear of alerting her husband and setting off alarms throughout the demon world. Though it sounds fantastical, there’s grit in the whimsy, and it's much closer to horrific magical realism.
When Hannah packs up her past and moves to the cottage next-door to her sister, she hopes the luxe neighborhood and close family ties will be the perfect escape for her son and the shadows that trail them. But when a young girl goes missing days after they unload their final boxes and her son is quickly thrown under suspicion, Hannah must do whatever it takes to protect her child.
Even if that means pointing the blame her sister's way instead.
With investigators swarming and neighborhood scrutiny closing in, the divide between two sisters grows. As one fiercely defends her husband, the other shields her boy from the crime, keeping quiet the secrets that might unravel it all.
And all the while, one young girl has vanished, and someone is to blame.
What to Read Next
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.