Any list of the scariest horror stories likely includes at least a few featuring young protagonists. Children and teenagers are well-represented in horror for a few reasons: They represent powerlessness, as most kids lack the freedoms adults enjoy, making them especially vulnerable to supernatural terror, and not especially well-equipped to deal with it. Kids themselves can be a little spooky to adults who have lost their connection to that imagination-fueled, morally simple time in their lives. And kids generally embody innocence, making them ideal prey for the monsters under their beds. For teenagers, on the other hand, the parallels between the loss of that childlike innocence and exposure to the often troubling realities of adulthood make for potent fuel for storytelling.
No one knows all of this better than Stephen King, the master of modern horror. If you compile a list of his best-loved novels, a large proportion of them will feature kids as primary protagonists. Below, find 12 young King lead characters for whom “suffer the little children” isn’t just an old saying.
Luke Ellis in The Institute
Luke is a special kid, with special abilities. One night his parents are brutally murdered during an apparent home invasion that turns out to be something more. Luke is kidnapped by the killers and forced into the titular Institute, where Luke and other children are overseen by a sinister staff led by Mrs. Sigsby, who hopes to extract their powers, which range from telekinesis to telepathy. Luke soon discovers that eventually all the kids in the Institute graduate to the “Back Half,” from which point they are never seen again. In announcing this novel earlier this year, King specifically invoked past favorites like Firestarter and It (prompting me to imagine what would have happened if pyromancer Charlie had the benefit of a Loser’s Club of her own, one full of similarly superpowered kids). Dark powers forcing a vulnerable, orphaned child with powers beyond understanding to grow up too soon? This one covers all the “young horror protagonist” bases.
Carrie White in Carrie
Carrie’s not just a kid—she’s actually very obviously a sheltered one, her development stunted by her mother’s fanaticism and cruelty. King’s debut novel can be seen as a metaphor for adolescence and the loss of innocence, as Carrie’s abilities are directly connected to her physical maturation and sexual awakening. King has said he intended to write a feminist story, and that still scans, despite some dated elements. Certainly Carrie’s rage after seeing her life turn into a series of one humiliation after another will resonate with girls raised in an era of cyber bullying and social media, as she is shamed and deprecated for her power at every turn. In some ways, Carrie is the ultimate young King protagonist, stepping cautiously into the adult world and being revolted and disappointed by what she finds. She is a tragic hero—but a hero nonetheless.
Danny Torrance in The Shining
Danny Torrance is a victim of child abuse, and the lingering trauma from his father’s violent acts infect the whole story. Danny also suffers because of his “shine,” the mental powers he exhibits, which expose him to a darkness no young kid should have to face. No sooner has the Torrance family’s snowbound isolation in the remote, otherwise empty Overlook Hotel begun than does Jack Torrance’s mental breakdown and recruitment by supernatural forces into murderous rampage begin. And all of it is really just illustrating the subtext of Danny’s life, which is marked by post-traumatic stress disorder (he copes with the help of an invisible friend Tony who lives in his mouth) and sheer terror, made text. It’s remarkable how much of a kid Danny remains despite his suffering, including the way he clings to the idea that his father still loves him. That’s part of the psychological richness of the book, as is the masterful way King brings Danny’s terrifying experiences to visceral life.
Gage Creed in Pet Sematary
Gage is just three years old when he’s hit by a truck and killed. A sweet, loving little boy, his death is a powerful moment in the novel, despite coming so early in the story. The sweetness King establishes in him before that point magnifies the horror when Gage is brought back by the animating force of the Sematary but it no longer Gage at all. Interpretations of the character usually focus on imagining the horror of your own child returning from the dead not-quite-right, but there’s so much going on psychologically in this novel—from the fear of your children changing into people you don’t recognize, to the way we can be blind to problems when it comes to our loved ones (even when they’ve turned into murderous, undead demons). King’s weaponization of hope and love is almost cruel, and makes this one of his most terrifying books.
The Losers Club in It
King returns to childhood over and over again, exploring is the idea that all kids are tormented or damaged in some way large or small. (In his novel’s, the torments are usually… not small.) It’s inevitable: life isn’t safe, and the moment we can start making our own decisions, we’re in danger (of course, the real horror comes in the realization that we are always in danger). That understanding informs all of King’s work, but never more effectively than as embodied by the Loser’s Club. All the kids in this gangly gathering of like-aged friends is struggling with a different sort of damage, but together, they find the strength to not only survive their own traumas but to resist an immense evil terrorizing their home town (which, not coincidentally, preys on children, using their innocent imaginations as a weapon against them).
Jack Sawyer in The Talisman
Jack, the hero of King’s foray into portal fantasy, co-written with fellow ’80s horror master Peter Straub, faces truly nightmarish circumstances in his quest to save his dying mother, but remains a stalwart hero throughout, battling epic forces of evil as her travels through the otherworldly alternate world known as the Territories. Jack is introduced as an independent, intelligent, and cynical 12 year-old, older that his years thanks to his mother’s illness. But his fierce dedication to her, and his lack of hesitation when it comes to risking his life to track down the mystical Talisman that might cure her, demonstrate the best aspects of childhood—loyalty, innocence, a stubborn persistence of hope, and an unflagging ability to adapt (even to the realization that you’ve traveled to a parallel universe).
Jake Chambers in The Waste Lands
It’s not a spoiler to say Jake Chambers dies more than once before the end of Stephen King’s epic, seven-volume Dark Tower series. The first time he’s pushed in front of a car in New York City and wakes up in another world—that of Roland Deschain, Mid-World’s last gunslinger. In short order, Roland chooses his obsession with the Man in Black over saving Jake’s life, and is haunted by the decision. Later, a bit of time travel magic gives him a chance to undo Jake’s first death, but the decision has disastrous consequences for them both. In the third novel of the series, The Waste Lands, Jake becomes a second lead of sorts, spending the first portion of the book trying to make sense of his fractured memories and find his way back to Roland’s world. As he grows and matures across the remainder of Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower, Jake becomes one of King’s most well-rounded young creations—sensitive and smart, funny and faithful, and very good in a fight.
Ray Garraty in The Long Walk
King was just a kid himself—only 18—when he wrote this novel (though it wasn’t published until years later, under his onetime pseudonym Richard Bachman), so it’s not hard to imagine 16 year-old Ray as a stand-in for King himself, placed within a story that tests him to his very limits. Every year in its dystopian alternate America, 100 teenage boys are selected via lottery to simply start walking, and continue doing so until only one of them is left alive. Considering the time in which it was first written, it seems a clear allegory for thefates of all those boys who went off to die in the Vietnam War—the draft making it a real world example of a death lottery for the young. Ray is a very normal kid, but King skillfully positions him as a bit of an outsider—he’s not athletic, and his passions include dancing and cooking. Ray’s motivations for winning are prosaic and universal: the prize is basically anything he wants (including not dying, I suppose), but his true goals are left open to interpretation.
Arnie Cunningham in Christine
King skillfully builds this surprisingly down-to-earth killer car story around a villainous protagonist. Arnie Cunningham is 17 and a stereotypical nerd when the story begins.He has just one true friend and nothing but a life of bullying and misery to look forward to every day. When he acquires a 1958 Plymouth Fury from a creepy old man, he begins to be possessed by a malevolent spirit that unleashes his inner demons, leading to vehicular mayhem. King transposes the sort of adolescent play-acting kids go through when they’re trying to figure out how to adult, transforming it into full-blown horror. Arnie slowly evolves into a cartoonish caricature of what a teenager thinks being a grown man is supposed to look like, all surly cynicism and superficial cool. The story likely hits home for any parent who goes to bed one night with a sensitive, caring kid in the other room and wakes up the next morning to a monosyllabic, sex-obsessed monster. King also injects a careful optimism into the book as, amid terrible events, Arnie actively struggles to remember who he really is.
Marty Coslaw in The Cycle of the Werewolf
Marty is ten years old and a paraplegic—a double-down on the perceived vulnerability of a child. Marty is attacked by a werewolf and manages to survive, only to find that no one—not one adult—believes him. It’s left to him to investigate, identify, and oppose the creature. The idea that children are receptive to concepts that adults are closed off to is a pretty classic trope, and King twists it by making them party to insights more horrifying than magical: Marty isn’t living in a world of pure imagination that gives him special perspective and powers, he’s struggling to survive against a predator. In the end, it is brains and determination that win the day, not physical prowess—showing kids can sometimes be the strongest among us.
Trisha McFarland in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
While the horror bonafides of this short, strange novel can be argued, King leaves the door cracked open just enough to allow you to believe all the supernaturally tinged weirdness Trisha McFarland experiences after she becomes lost in the woods really happens, and can’t be chalked up to a hallucination brought on by exposure, hunger, and dehydration. King plays with very straightforward young protagonist tropes—as she searches for a way home, Trisha is both completely vulnerable and extremely resourceful, forced to deal with her own fears (both literal and metaphorical) without any help from parents, friends, or even society (but a little help from a vision of her hero, a baseball player for the Boston Red Sox). Childhood can be dark and full of terrors, and King makes the struggle to get through it visceral by placing Trisha all alone in the middle of nature. The fact that her inner strength—coupled with the emotional scars inflicted upon her by a tumultuous home life—is what enables her to survive her ordeal is a celebration of the resiliency of children.
Charlie McGee in Firestarter
Mentioned above, the telekinetic Charlie is in many ways a typical eight-year-old girl, although we never get to see her living a normal life. Her mental abilities, which manifest mainly as the ability to non-spoiler alert, start fires, are as awesome as they are deadly, but she actually only uses them purposefully to hurt someone once in the story, and only then when her father’s life is threatened. Otherwise, she’s a pretty cheerful and friendly kid whose abilities only slip out of her control unintentionally, causing damage. Just like any other kid that age, Charlie struggles with emotional control and proper social behavior—only her tantrums result in things near her being burned to a cinder. An interesting element in narrative is the fact that she inherits her powers from her parents, who gained their own abilities through a drug experiment, a bit of mad science that underscores a primal fear experienced by many parents: not only are they incapable of protecting them from the evil in the world, they may have also doomed their offspring to suffer their same mistakes.
Who’s your favorite young protagonist in a horror novel?