Why are we so fascinated with horror movies about homicidal children?
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Murderous little children—we never have to wait long for a new one to tricycle into the multiplex, butcher's knife in hand. The latest pint-size sociopath arrives in this summer's Orphan, in which Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga adopt Esther, a little girl whose dainty smile and perfect posture soon give way to malicious car-brake-meddling and playground homicide. Orphan belongs to a cinematic tradition as long as its villains are wee. In 1956, The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark turned her tap shoes into deadly weapons, and ever since, the appeal of the evil-kiddie movie has proven inexhaustible. The biggest reason for this is the most obvious: What's creepier than a 4-foot-tall killer in Spongebob pajamas? But the genre's resilience runs deeper, expertly mining deep-seated fears and anxieties: In evil-kiddie movies, we get wild explorations—sometimes unsettling, sometimes hokey, often both—of what it means to raise a child and build a family.
The Bad Seed is the first evil-kiddie movie to speak of, and many of its elements have become staples of the genre. Like most movie parents unlucky enough to discover that their children are maniacs, the Penmarks are well-to-do: Their social standing puts them at a marked remove from their unkempt, leering cleaning man and tacky working-class neighbor (who suspect before anyone else that Little Rhoda is up to no good). Partly, the Penmarks' affluence adds to the sense of a "perfect" home, making the backdrop for Rhoda's crimes that much more pristine, her aberrance that much more shocking. But it also suggests that Rhoda's biggest problem is that she's too perfect—that to desire a perfect child is, in fact, to desire something other than human. Rhoda curtseys compulsively, keeps her clothes unsullied and unrumpled, and practices the piano constantly. But all this good behavior quickly grows unnerving, as we realize there's a dark void behind it. There's a whiff of class satire here, the sort Monty Python or Luis Buñuel might enjoy. When Rhoda's mother, Christine, eventually becomes an accomplice in covering up her daughter's killings, she seems motivated as much by the need to keep up appearances as by love for her daughter.
Rhoda's mother, we learn, was adopted—the revelation is part of the film's tussle with whether evil is an environmental symptom or a genetic fact—and adoptees figure into many evil-kiddie movies. There's Esther in Orphan, Damien Thorn in The Omen(his biological father is Satan), Junior in Problem Child, the titular psycho in Mikey, and Samara Morgan in The Ring. The plot device of the adoption-gone-wrong plays on a fear that the family will be infiltrated and torn apart by a malevolent outsider it's foolishly welcomed in. (The Good Son, an Ian McEwan-penned Macaulay Culkin vehicle from 1993, flips the structure inside-out, so that the adopted son is the hero nobody believes, while Culkin plays the coddled family demon.)
In these movies, the eruption of evil often comes hand in hand with the disruption of traditional family order. Single moms don't have it easy in the evil-kiddie universe: Rhoda starts acting out after her father has left home on a long business trip, and normality reasserts itself only when he returns. In 1973's The Exorcist, Regan's transformations come in the wake of her mother's divorce. In The Ring, the murderous Samara can be read as a manifestation of little Aidan Keller's anger and confusion at growing up fatherless—the film's one (brief) untroubled moment comes when Aidan's dad finally commits to being part of his life. Time and again in the evil-kiddie canon, it's driven home that Mom and Dad can survive (if not prevent) their child's attack only by sticking together.
The family dynamic doesn't always play out so literally. In 1984's Children of the Corn, Mom and Dad are Vicky and Burt, who stumble on a town where the children have systematically slaughtered anyone older than 18. Ditto the 1976 Spanish cult film ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?), which tells a similar story from the perspective of two British tourists. Who Can Kill a Child? adds an ambiguous abortion debate to the mix—the father broaches the subject with his six-months-pregnant wife early on, and the conversation has a grisly thematic echo at the movie's off-putting climax, when he machine-guns a horde of kids. Unwanted children are a motif never far off in the evil-kiddie movie. Rosemary's Baby from 1968 and Demon Seed from 1977 both feature expectant mothers frightened by the unborn.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Still from Orphan © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures.