Cute Little Psychokillers: Why "Bad Seed" Films Are So Unsettling and So Popular

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Dec. 12 2011 7:17 AM

Cute Little Psychokillers

Why "bad seed" films are both deeply unsettling and confoundingly popular.

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In an interview with Vogue, Swinton said, “It’s everybody’s nightmare that, when they’re pregnant, they’re going to give birth to the devil. That when they bring up children, especially a boy, they’re going to give birth to this violence. ... What I find most intriguing about Eva is not that she gives birth to and raises this misanthropic and alienated, sociopathic child and that it’s really foreign and outside of herself. ... The thing that’s really the nightmare is that she recognizes it only too well, because its hers. The misanthropy is hers. That violence is hers.”

This kind of film taps not only into modern parental panic about the origins of violence, but manages to perfectly externalize the hyperanalytic guilt of modern motherhood. What if one’s type-A mommying actions are not enough? What if your child can sense your every internal doubt, your momentary frustrations, your guilty yearnings for alone time? And what if that sense leads to your child becoming a psycho? These are fears that most mothers must entertain at some point, but do films that play out these fears succeed in exorcising or simply enforcing them?

We Need To Talk About Kevin presents a far more terrifying premise for parent viewers than the aberrant psychopath or devil spawn child. If your child is an otherworldly monster, as horrific as it may be, it’s not your fault as a parent that your womb was hijacked by the devil. If, on the other hand, your worst characteristics manifest themselves in your child (this concept drives David Cronenberg’s The Brood, in which a traumatized analysand literally spawns killer manifestations of her rage in the form of small blond children), then it’s pretty clearly your problem, mama. There can be no resolutions for these films, as both the psychotic child and the guilty mother are inextricably linked. As Swinton said of Eva, “What's going to happen to that woman? She's never going to be intact again, not until she dies."

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And this, ultimately, raises the question: Who is the audience for these movies? As a mother, I have had these nightmares, harbored these fears, and entertained all manner of anxieties, both rational and irrational. So when I’m actually able to find the time to watch a movie, I have no interest in participating in the playing out of these nightmares, as it seems an exercise in masochism. When I was a film student I used to find nothing but derision for people who sought only escapism from film; I wanted to leave the theater challenged and unsettled. Though my insufferability level has lessened considerably in the last decade, I still appreciate film that pushes buttons and challenges, which is why I can, in theory, get behind We Need To Talk About Kevin. Also, the archetype of the selfless mother who is perfectly content to bask in the glow of her child is one that persists in making real mothers feel guilty for their every perceived shortcoming. Bad seed films can be a welcome contrast to this annoying ideal.

But on a pragmatic level, actually sitting down to watch such a film is an exercise in torture. Bad seed films are essentially built on a desire to revel in the abjection of the mother, to dissect the myth of the sacred mother/child relationship, and to deny the kind of easy exorcism of fears that horror allows. If, as Swinton says, these concepts represent every mother’s nightmare, who’s watching them?

In an email, Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies professor and author of A History of Horror wrote, “The audience for these films is the same as for the evening news —‘Thank God this didn't happen to us, but to someone else.’ With Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in the mix, We Need To Talk About Kevin will be a much more interesting project than most in the genre, but it still focuses on the fear and dread inherent in having a child; what if things go wrong?”

He continued, “Parents are hardly the target audience for this film, or films like Orphan or The Bad Seed; it's teens and thrillseekers, mostly in the 18-24 age group, who want to see a violent horror film. As with all horror films, We Need To Talk About Kevin offers us risk without risk, allows us to project and confront our fears without really dealing with them, and offers the reassuring spectacle of the murderous child as someone else's problem, and not our own. It couldn't happen to us, right? Or course, it could, but for most, it doesn't, so why not go to the film and feel reassured that in our own lives, nothing so monstrous could ever happen?”

Ultimately, this is my problem with the genre, and maybe it’s a personal hang-up with horror movies in general. I never feel reassured, never think “this couldn’t happen” to me. As a horror viewer, I’m too open to suggestion, too willing to go completely with the story and identify with even the most outlandish of scenarios. For me, there is never the post-horror-film release—what aficionados liken to roller coasters or even sex—I always imagine what happens after the credits roll. In slasher films, I imagine all the therapy the lone girl survivor will need; in bad seed movies I imagine the lives ruined, the hopes every parent harbors for their child dashed, the pain and guilt and loss. Which is another way of saying that I can't wait to catch up to the new Muppets movie, and I'm fine with that. 

Jessica Roake, a frequent Slate contributor, lives in Washington, D.C.