Great horror reflects the audience’s collective fears, and the fear of evil lurking within an innocent child is one of the biggest tropes of all. Children are a blank canvas. They can become anything – from rocket scientists.. to cold-blooded killers.
One of the most common tropes of kid-meets-horror is the Adopted Child. It can be terrifying knowing your genes have created another living being (if this thought doesn’t terrify you, go and watch any Cronenberg film), but something about inviting a stranger into your family, albeit a tiny one – has spawned enough horror movies to make this list three times over.
It should be said that the kids featured here aren’t all bad. Some of them are the result of neglect, happenstance, or other situations outside of their control that have thrust them into a family ripe for a horror story. Others are the spawn of Satan. Here are our picks for the 10 Best Evil Adoptions of Horror!
10. Before I Wake (2018)
Before I Wake revolves around Jessie and Mark, a couple portrayed by Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane. They recently lost a son, and look to the adoption market to fill the hole left in their hearts. Cody should be an adoptive parent’s dream, but he also happens to come with a sinister ability..
Cody can dream things into reality. When he sleeps, the things wandering through his mind appear in Jessie and Mark’s living room. It starts as innocuous as butterflies but soon takes a sinister turn. It isn’t always butterflies on Cody’s mind; a nightmare man exists in there as well.
9. The Good Son (1993)
In 1993, Macaulay Culkin was everyone’s favorite abandoned child. His antics in the Home Alone series were cute and fun, even though they would have resulted in numerous fatal injuries for the Wet Bandits. Just like any child star who wants to transition into adult stardom, Culkin sought a darker role to star in as Henry in The Good Son.
Henry isn’t the adopted child in the film though. Elijah Wood had one of his earliest starring roles as Mark. After the death of his mother, Mark is sent to live with extended family. His father is a businessman who is too busy for him, so Wood’s character is essentially an orphan. He is a much different type of child, as the “evil” child in the piece is the biological one played by Culkin. Through the early part of the film, Mark is a scapegoat for the evil contained within Henry.
The scene where Henry plays the “body” game is something that scarred me as a 13-year-old moviegoer. The segment involves Culkin throwing a dummy over a freeway overpass, causing a massive pileup. It’s something that could easily happen in a child’s game gone too far, which makes it all the more frightening.
8. Problem Child (1990)
While not a traditional Horror film, Problem Child fits the bill for instilling paranoia in potential parents. Michael Oliver’s Junior is the nightmare child of urban legend proportions. John Ritter and Flo are a well-meaning couple who can’t conceive, so they decide to adopt a child instead.
Junior wasn’t an outright evil character, but couldn’t help acting out when confronted by other children. Looking at the film from a more current perspective, Junior may have been a bullied kid dealing with horrors of his own. The destruction of a camping trip was still legendary in my childhood.
Fun fact for trying to win a bar bet – This was the film Robert Deniro’s Max Cady was laughing maniacally at in the theater during Cape Fear.
7. Spider Baby (1967)
Spider Baby is easily the most bizarre and least seen film on the list. If you took Night of the Living Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre crossed them with a little Munsters and Rocky and Bullwinkle you would get the weirdness that is Spider Baby.
The film starts like an educational film in the vein of Reefer Madness, explaining a birth disorder known as “Merrye Syndrome.” The syndrome hits at puberty, causing mental and physical regression. As it worsens, the afflicted becomes a subhuman cannibal. In this dark comedy, the syndrome only affects the offspring of one wealthy family. Not being able to turn them over to the state after Ralph, Virginia, and Elizabeth become orphans, Bruno the chauffeur raises the children as if they were his own.
The film features an extremely early performance from Sid Haig as Ralph and could be the reason Spider Baby is also the name of a White Zombie song.
6. Mama (2013)
In the haunting film Mama from director Andy Muschietti, Victoria and Lily are almost murdered by their father in a cabin in the woods. Instead of succeeding with the murder, a ghostly entity the girls call “Mama” intervenes. The girls are raised by “Mama” until their uncle and his wife discover them in the woods. The girls have become “feral” so their transition to society is a difficult one.
Along with being horrific, this film is an emotional rollercoaster for the new family and the ghost that is haunting them. Jessica Chastain’s performance in this that has everyone anticipating her re-teaming with director Muschietti for It: Chapter 2.
5. Let The Right One In (2008)
To fade into society, Eli must travel with a caretaker. To Oskar, Eli is merely his new neighbor living with a single father. In reality, Eli’s father Håkan is something much darker. Let the Right One In was released the same year as Twilight, keeping some credibility in the Vampire genre. Eli is not some sparkling Vampire; she is a beast with some bite.
Her existence isn’t possible without help from Håkan, who acts as her adoptive father. He can live for her in the hours she can’t inhabit and bring her the blood that she needs to sustain life. With Eli being the immortal, and Håkan chained to mortality, the family dynamic isn’t a traditional one. If age and experience is the decider, Eli is the parent in this relationship, and her arc with Oskar is the adoption of a new family by Eli.
4. Halloween II (1981) and (2009)
The revelation that Laurie Strode is Michael’s sister put her near the top of this list. In the 1981 sequel, this revelation comes late in the film without much exploration. One of the strengths of the Zombie sequel is how he studies the psychology behind this plot point.
Scout Taylor-Compton’s exploration of survivors trauma remains underrated by horror fans. Compton takes Laurie past the brink of sanity after the adoption revelation. Not all of the expansions of the Haddonfield universe worked in Zombie’s versions, but exploring how the twist effected Laurie was a choice he got right.
3. The Orphan (2009)
Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard star in The Orphan, a thriller about a couple who adopt a 9-year-old girl after the death of a child. The couple has two other children, but the loss of the third lingers with them. They seek to fill the hole in their home with an adopted child. They meet Esther at an orphanage and take the unique girl home. It isn’t long before Esther is revealed to be more than the little girl they thought she was.
This film was controversial upon its release, prompting detractors to view it as anti-adoption. The Orphan is a great film; it’s a shame that exploration into similar stories can’t go further. Esther was one of those unforgettable characters with a twist that was startling.
2. The Orphanage (2007)
The Spanish Language film The Orphanage is a haunted fairy tale produced by Guillermo Del Toro. Simon is adopted. His adoptive mother, Laura, was also adopted. She grew up in an Orphanage for disabled children. As an adult, she moves her family back to renovate and reopen the orphanage. As in most Del Toro productions, the ghosts of the past still exist in the walls of the Orphanage.
Born with an illness, Simon would have been impossible to place. Since Laura too came from a home for disabled children, she has the right-sized heart to take him home. The only problem is that she didn’t tell Simon the truth about his origins. The pain of finding out the parent you know is not your flesh and blood is central to this story.
While Simon is the adopted child, his imaginary friend is the creepy aspect of The Orphanage. Simon draws pictures of his friend Thomas, a boy who used to live in the Orphanage. Thomas wears a sack over his head to hide his disfigured face and is one of the creepiest children in all of Horror. The journey of Laura confronting Thomas and the other children inhabiting the orphanage is an equally heartbreaking and horrifying one.
1. The Omen (1976)
Any list of “evil” adopted kids has to include Damien, and it is impossible not to have him at the top of the list. Robert Thorn’s wife Katherine has given birth to a stillborn child. To alleviate his wife’s pain, Robert agrees to adopt the child whose mother died in childbirth. The story that follows is the ultimate in child-switched-at-birth horror.
In the 1976 film, Damien is a pretty quiet child. Even as a 5-year-old, he doesn’t run around and play like other children. Katherine feels that there might be something strange to him, not feeling the attachment a mother should go towards her child. Robert joins in her paranoia, fueled by the warning of Father Brennan that Damien is not human. Not only did the couple bring an unknown child into their lives, but they also brought the son of Satan home from the hospital.
Some may call the films on this list “Adoptions gone wrong”, but we call them Adoptions gone right. They challenge our views of traditional family values, and allow the fantasy of the horror genre to touch homes that look a little bit different from the typical nuclear family. How many of these adoption horrors have you seen? Are there any that didn’t make our list? Tweet at us on Twitter, and sound off in our Fiend Club Group on Facebook!