1. Joffrey Baratheon, Game Of Thrones (2011—)
The product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and her brother, Joffrey Baratheon is more or less arrogant evil incarnate. Dubbed a “vicious idiot” by his uncle Tyrion Lannister, Baratheon assumes the Iron Throne after the death of his “father,” King Robert Baratheon. And while he wasn’t very nice before his ascension to the throne, he’s an absolute monster after. He beheads his betrothed’s father, the beloved and just Ned Stark, and then has the court jester’s tongue ripped out for singing about the act. He cruelly tortures Sansa Stark, his betrothed, and kills prostitutes for sport. After jilting Sansa for a more fortuitous match with Margaery Tyrell, he still keeps her around, ultimately threatening to rape her on the eve of her marriage to Tyrion. Though he’s more or less a puppet ruler once Tywin Lannister returns from war, his regal inactivity makes him crueler, more tactless, and much more dangerous, and he causes far more problems in power than he ever solves. Joffrey is a terrifying example of a young man raised with absolutely no rules and infinite praise, and he grounds Thrones in cruelty and terror.
2. Sweetrobin, Game Of Thrones (2011—)
Also starring in Game Of Thrones’ roster of terrible children is the current Lord Of The Vale, Robert—a 6-year-old who goes by the nickname Robin or Sweetrobin. His mother, Lysa, still breastfeeds him, which might help explain some of his massive issues. After his father was assassinated—which kicks off the storyline for the entire series of A Song Of Ice And Fire—Robin became Lord Arryn in his stead. Sweetrobin isn’t as vicious as Joffrey, but he makes up for it with spoiled petulance—he nearly kills Tyrion because he wants to “see the bad man fly” out the Moon Door, which is the Arryn family’s quaint way of hurling their enemies off of a cliff.
3. Thomas, The Eyes Of The Dragon (1987)
Stephen King’s 1987 fantasy novel The Eyes Of The Dragon stacks its deck against 12-year-old Prince Thomas long before his birth: While his handsome, kind, capable older brother Peter was conceived in love and pride, Thomas was conceived with the intervention of an ugly, malicious magic that demeaned his father and hurt his mother, and that bad beginning marks him in the womb. Growing up tubby, stunted, and neglected compared to Peter, he winds up so petulant and angry that at one point, he stones a crippled dog to death out of petty malice. When court wizard Flagg—also the villain of King’s The Stand, which is set worlds and eras away—poisons Thomas’ father, Roland, Thomas sees it happen, but chooses to keep quiet as Peter is falsely accused and condemned; still a prepubescent child, Thomas gleefully takes the throne, but lets Flagg rule over him and the kingdom, taxing and tormenting it into destruction. Meanwhile, Thomas gets drunk, stews over the horrible choices he’s made, and tries to think as little as possible. His eventual shot at redemption (a very literal one, as it happens) helps him appear more sympathetic, and makes it clear he’s trying to overcome his weakness and jealousy, and reclaim his self-respect. But while he isn’t the world’s worst person, he is, as he acknowledges when he steps down, a terrible king.
4. Peter Pan, Once Upon A Time (2011—)
Once Upon A Time’s bread and butter involves reimagining familiar fairy tale characters in unexpected ways. Since J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a capricious boy with a never-ending childhood and a penchant for adventuring, OUAT naturally reinvents him as a ruthless, selfish leader whose Lost Boys are a group of children he’s basically kidnapped and brainwashed. During an 11-episode Neverland arc, the show manages to subvert most of the original Peter Pan story’s lighthearted elements. Pan uses a demonic shadow to hunt down his enemies, keeps Wendy locked in a cage, and blackmails John and Michael Darling into doing his bidding. With Captain Hook recast as a bad-boy pirate with a heart of gold, Pan is the true villain of Neverland. To really drive that point home, he even plans to kidnap and murder a young boy in order to maintain his immortality. Actor Robbie Kay brings the right balance of charm and smarm to the role, and some rather complicated mythology about his backstory make this Peter Pan one of the most interesting—and creepiest—villains the show has ever produced.
5. Jack Merridew, Lord Of The Flies (1954)
While some stories juxtapose their terrible child rulers with the more rational adults who attempt to guide them, Lord Of The Flies imagines what would happen if a group of children were left to govern themselves. The results, it turns out, are less than pleasant. When a group of British schoolboys crash land on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean, they initially elect the logical Ralph as their leader. As the boys grow more and more removed from their civilized roots, the power dynamic swings decidedly in the favor of Jack Merridew, a redheaded choir leader with a penchant for hunting wild pig. Jack is the violent, primal answer to Ralph’s civility. Where Ralph favors democracy as a way to unite the group, Jack uses bloodlust and war paint to earn his followers. His ritual dance leads to the slaughtering of one of the boys, and he eventually encourages his group of “savages” to steal from Ralph’s now dwindling group—leading to another murder, a manhunt, and the “end of innocence” for everyone involved. William Golding’s highly allegorical novel posits Jack as the representation of man’s violent, baser instincts that emerge without the confines of society to repress them. The fact that Jack manages to sway the other boys to his side and turn a once well-organized group of survivors into a chaotic band of murderers speaks to the “terrible ruler” potential that resides in almost every child.
6. Owen Krysler, Judge Dredd: The Judge Child (1980)
The Judge Child, a multi-part story arc (written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, with artwork by Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland, and Ron Smith) in the Judge Dredd comics series, is basically a sick-joke variation on tales of the reincarnated boy Buddha. The title character, Owen Krysler, is a child with telepathic and precognitive abilities, and a birthmark in the shape of the Judges’ eagle insignia on his bald pate. He is the powerful “Judge Child” who, it is prophesied, will rule over Mega-City One and save it from its imminent destruction. Judge Dredd is dispatched to collect the boy and deliver him to his rightful place, only to embark on a planet-hopping chase when the Judge Child is abducted by a gang of thugs. They’re no match for either the Judge Child, who uses his psychic powers to mess with their heads, or Judge Dredd, who shows up at the climax to waste them. But after the Judge Child dispatches the last surviving gang member himself, Dredd, who can see how much the boy enjoys killing, diagnoses him as a sadist who’s too powerful for his own good and certainly can’t be entrusted with a major city to play with. Defying orders, he leaves the kid to rot on an alien planet.
7. Isaac Chroner, Children Of The Corn (1984)
In the horror movie Children Of The Corn, a married couple (played by a pre-thirtysomething Peter Horton and a pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton) have car trouble and find themselves stuck in a little Nebraska town where the children, under the sway of a boy preacher named Isaac (John Franklin), have murdered their parents and begun offering human sacrifices to something nasty called “He Who Walks Behind The Rows.” A squeaky-voiced Munchkin intoning Biblical prophecy in an off-the-rack department store suit, Isaac would be pure nightmare fuel even if he weren’t overseeing the crucifixion of people in cornfields. At least in the movie, the grown-up heroes make it out alive. In the original Stephen King short story, they both end up as monster fodder, and Isaac’s reign, and the sacrifices, will presumably continue.
8. Tran, Tropic Thunder (2008)
”Goodbye, Mama. Now you can have ice cream in heaven. I’ll see you tonight when I go to bed in my head movies. But this head movie makes my eyes rain.” In a moving performance, Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder character Tugg Speedman reprises his fictional-fictional role of Simple Jack, the slow-witted boy who stole the hearts of a southeast Asian paramilitary group known as the Flaming Dragons. Tran, the Dragons’ pint-sized leader, rules with a dictatorial terror that belies his young age. As a ruthless despot at the head of a grassroots heroin-producing concern, Tran knows that he must use both the carrot and the stick to keep order. To that end, he compels Speedman to daily reprise his unaccountably popular “full retard” turn for the troops while they await the $50 million ransom they are demanding for Simple Jack’s safe return.
9. Ptolemy XIII, Rome (2005-2007)
Egypt was already ancient when the Roman Empire was born. In fact, the land of the pharaohs started declining in the 11th century B.C. Rome’s mythical founding by the brothers Romulus and Remus isn’t even said to have happened until some three centuries later. The events of HBO’s Rome are later still, when the Republic is in the ascendant, and Egypt finds itself reduced to a powerless Middle Eastern satellite. For Ptolemy XIII, younger brother to Cleopatra and ostensible ruler of Egypt, geopolitical realities aren’t germane to his bossing everyone around like he was the sun god himself. Ptolemy’s governing style is bullying, almost Chris Christie-esque. He goes so far as to use slaves as stepping stools for his limited stature. Ptolemy only interacts with sycophants and servants, so it’s hardly surprising that he gets too big for his britches, so to speak. It takes a Caesar (or the Caesar, in this case) to give him some much-needed tough love and bring him back down to earth.
10. The Catalyst, Mass Effect 3 (2012)
When an unstoppable hoard of robot space squids threatens to wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy, the denizens of the Mass Effect universe scramble to find a solution that doesn’t involve meekly submitting to complete extinction. After three games, players finally come face-to-face with the controlling intelligence behind the scourge. This super-advanced AI takes the form of a small, translucent boy. The Catalyst isn’t evil, exactly. Instead, he’s worked out the nature of existence and played it through to its rational end. Rather than let synthetic life destroy organic life, as is inevitable, the Catalyst “reaps” advanced civilizations every 50,000 years and leaves the less-advanced species alive, creating the cycle anew. It’s for our own good, we’re told, but humanity is all, “Thanks, but no thanks.” As a reward for being really good at killing robots, mutants, and aliens, the Catalyst allows your character to determine the fate of the universe. It can’t, however, allow any player to live long enough to see their messianic handiwork come to fruition.
11. His Supreme Highness, The Maharajah Of Pankot, Zalim Singh, Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom (1984)
The 13-year-old leader of Pankot sure could put on airs and talk a good game. It’s easy to brag over a lovely snake-and-bug buffet that the vicious Thuggee cult could never thrive while he’s in charge and that Pankot will be a peaceful kingdom under his rule. But then a group of human-sacrifice enthusiasts are getting hammered on mind-control juice in the palace basement and people are getting their still-beating hearts ripped out of their chests by Telly Savalas’ stunt double. When an underage Maharajah Singh comes under the cult’s ghoulish power, he uses a voodoo doll to torture a shirtless Indiana Jones. Aloof and unlikable under normal circumstances, his Supreme Highness becomes completely insufferable under the effects of the Black Sleep. The Maharajah, it seems, doesn’t have to worry about having his heart forcibly removed: Pankot’s child ruler was born without one.
12. Norse gods, Erik The Viking (1989)
In Kenneth Branagh’s imagining, Asgard—the godly realm of Odin, Thor, and the rest of the Norse pantheon—exists as a sort of nexus between science and magic, where Viking aesthetics mix seamlessly with advanced technology and Idris Elba’s soothing baritone. Terry Jones’ version in Erik The Viking, on the other hand, is a dank mead hall stuffed with dead souls and negligent, childlike gods more concerned with their own amusement than with the well-being of the mortal realm. Erik and his shipmates embark on a journey to find the gods and bring peace back to the world of men. When they eventually find Odin, he presents himself not as a proud one-eyed warrior, but instead as a golden-haired choirboy. Odin then explains to an incredulous Erik exactly why he doesn’t care a fig about the travails of men. Adding insult to spiritual injury, Odin decrees that Erik and his crew will not be permitted to return home now that they’ve set foot in Asgard. Nor will he allow them to stay in Valhalla, which is reserved for those slain in battle. Odin is sometimes referred to as the All-Father, but here he shows himself to be anything but.
13. Abdullah Ben Kalish Ezab, Tintin: Land Of Black Gold (1950); The Red Sea Sharks (1958); Tintin And Alph-Art (2004)
Abdullah is the son of Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, the capricious and unpredictable emir of the oil-rich land of Khemed. Father and son make their first appearances in the Tintin adventure Land Of Black Gold (originally published in serial form in 1939 and 1940, then substantially reworked by the time of its first English publication, in 1972). Abdullah is privileged, self-centered, and a bit sadistic, though given the innocence of Tintin’s world, he’s less of a menace than a royal pain in the ass, whiling away his days planting springing traps and playing practical jokes on his hapless servants and Tintin’s hot-blooded sidekick, Captain Haddock. He is also constantly being kidnapped or entrusted to Tintin’s protection during periods of political turmoil, which means that people who might be happy to be rid of him are repeatedly obliged to come to his rescue instead.
14. Anthony Fremont, The Twilight Zone (1961)
Although never formally declared the leader of Peaksville, Ohio, there’s certainly no question among the inhabitants of the town that no one holds more power than Anthony Fremont, who possesses numerous inexplicable abilities, the most notable of which is the ability to transport anyone who displeases him into a cornfield from which there is apparently no return. Rod Serling’s opening narration describes Anthony as “6 years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes,” but adds that “when those eyes look at you, you’d better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge.” Knowing the fate destined to befall them if they dare to argue with anything he says, the people of Peaksville—from the boy’s family on down—can do little more than smile, nod, and assure Anthony that everything he does is good, lest they find themselves banished to the cornfield for the long haul. As a result, every day in Peaksville is a good day… or else.
15. The Anointed One, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Collin, the 8-year-old boy/Anointed One who would lead Buffy to her (first) death, never realized the full scope of his powers, so maybe he would have been more terrible and terrifying than he actually was. Still, as The Master’s protégé, he led Buffy to the mouth of hell and later tried to revive The Master for even more evildoing. When The Three, an imposing trio of badass vampires, failed at their duties, the small, cherub-faced Anointed One watched happily while The Master allowed the vampire Darla to kill them. In this he learned an important lesson: Even if a murder brings only a little pleasure, sometimes a little pleasure is enough. Though mostly a plot device who was killed by Spike—“we’re gonna have a little less ritual and a little more fun around here”—Collin was a reminder that in the Buffyverse, anybody could be evil and powerful.