Young blood: A brief look at ‘Orphan’ and the ‘evil child’ trope in horror films

(Please be warned, this article contains spoilers if you have not watched the films The Bad Seed and Orphan).

Regular readers of my blog know that I enjoy watching horror movies and I’ve written articles on why people enjoy watching horror movies, a look at scary clowns in film and television, as well as more direct and indirect in-depth looks at my personal favourites including the Hannibal Lecter and Alien franchises.

One of the most popular tropes in the horror genre is the ‘evil child’ (often referred to or seen as equivalent to the ‘demonic child’, ‘creepy child’, ‘bad seed’ and ‘demon seed’ trope). This has spawned dozens on online articles looking at celluloid examples of the evil child sub-genre such as ‘Top 25 Evil Child Movies’, ‘Evil Kid Horror Movies’, ‘16 Creepy Child Horror Movies That Will Make You Not Want Kids Ever’, ‘The Top 10 Most Evil Children In Movies’, ‘We’re Baaack: The 20 Most Evil Children From TV And Movies’, and ‘The 50 Spookiest Kids In Horror Movies, Ranked’ (to name just a few).

The film that arguably started the trope was Mervin LeRoy’s 1956 horror-thriller The Bad Seed. The film was based upon Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name (itself based on the 1954 novel The Bad Seed by William March and – for you trivia fans – the inspiration for the name of Nick Cave’s band The Bad Seeds). The ‘demon child’ of both the book and the film is sociopath Rhoda Penmark, whose mother (Christine) – spoiler alert – learns that she is an adopted child and is the biological daughter of Bessie Denker, an infamous serial killer (and believes that she genetically caused Rhoda’s sociopathy).

As a teenager, the demonic child that had most impact on me was Damien Thorn (in Damien: Omen II) mainly because I shared my middle name with the titular character. However, there are hundreds to choose from that share many of Damien’s chilling characteristics (some horror and some not) including Joshua Cairn (Joshua), Dalton Lambert (Insidious), Lilith Sullivan (Case 39), Brahms (The Boy), Regan MacNeil (The Exorcist), Nicholas and Ann Stewart (The Others), Tomás (The Orphanage), Henry Evan (The Good Son), Delia (The Omen IV), Kevin (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Toshio (Ju-On/The Grudge), Samara (The Ring), Santi (The Devil’s Backbone), The Grady twins (The Shining), and Gage Creed (Pet Sematary). In addition to this there are those films where there are a group of demonic children (e.g., Children Of The Damned, Children Of The Corn, and the ‘psychoplasmic offspring’ of The Brood), as well as ‘demon seed’ children that are yet to be born (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, etc.).

When it comes to ‘evil child’ films, one of my more recent favourites (at least in terms of the film’s twist at the end) is the 2009 US psychological horror film Orphan (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra). When it comes to horror films I much prefer ‘psychological horror’ (which tends to be rooted in reality and is why I like the Hannibal Lecter franchise) as opposed to supernatural thrillers and the archetypal ‘slasher films’ (although I do like watching gory films). Orphan centres on married couple John and Kate Coleman (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) who after the death of their unborn baby adopt Esther, a nine-year old Russian girl from an orphanage (played by Isabelle Fuhrman).

Unknown

In the scene where a provocatively-dressed nine-year old Esther attempts to seduce her new father (who had been drinking heavily) I began to guess the twist in the film that – spoiler alert – Esther was (because of a hormone disorder called hypopituitarism) a woman in a child’s body. Near the end of the film, it is Esther’s new mother (Kate) that receives a call from the Saarne Institute (a mental institution) and is informed that Esther is in fact a violent murderer from Estonia called Leena Klammer, a 33-year-old woman whose physical growth was stunted and had spent most of her adult life posing as a young girl and had killed at least seven people (including the father of an Estonian family who adopted her and who she killed for rejecting her sexual advances). According to the IMDb ‘Trivia’ page about Orphan:

“Earlier drafts of the script include more information about Esther’s past and explain why she attempts to seduce her adoptive fathers. She was molested by her father for years, starting when she was an infant; this sexualized her at a very young age and destroyed any future chance of her having her own children. Her father later took another lover, telling Esther that, because of her condition, she could never be a real woman. She murdered them both and was ultimately sent to Saarne, a mental institution. After escaping from Saarne, she worked as a prostitute in Estonia for years, mostly catering to wealthy pedophiles. When she was arrested for this, she kept up the pretense of being a child to stay out of jail and was sent to an orphanage. Esther sees herself as trapped inside the body of a child, and it disgusts her. She wants to ‘grow up’ and be a wife, a mother, and a lover (what her father considered a ‘real woman’), and tries to find ‘love’ with her father but she didn’t”.

After the film had been released, there was a lot of debate about whether the medical condition that Esther had really exists. According to Wikipedia entry on the condition:

“Hypopituitarism is the decreased (hypo) secretion of one or more of the eight hormones normally produced by the pituitary at the base of the brain…The signs and symptoms of hypopituitarism vary, depending on which hormones are undersecreted and on the underlying cause of the abnormality…Hypopituitarism is a rare disease but may be significantly underdiagnosed in people with previous traumatic brain injury…The first description of the condition was made in 1914 by the German physician Dr. Morris Simmonds”.

Not only does Esther’s medical condition exist, but her character was actually inspired by the true life case of Barbora Skrlova who was one of the individuals in a 2008 story that the Daily Mail entitled ‘Boy ‘skinned and eaten’ by his cannibal cult family after being held captive in a cellar’. The story in question was a disturbing case involving single parent Klara Mauerova (described as an aggressive schizophrenic) and the physical abuse of her two sons (Yakub and Ondrej). The story was recounted in a 2017 article on the Mundo.com website entitled ‘Barbora Skrlová: The woman who inspired the movie Orphan’. From what I’ve read, Mauerova became depressed after the father of her children left her and she asked her sister (Katerina, who also appears to have had some kind of mental illness) to move in with her to help her look after the children. According to Mundo.com:

“The sisters met Barbora Skrlová at the university, a 33-year-old woman who looked [like a] 13 [year-old] girl because of a difficult disease called hypopituitarism. [Skrlová] was really skilled manipulating, and that’s what she did with the two sisters, they became really good friends because of her tragic childhood stories, she made the sisters take her to live with them. Years before meeting Klara and Katerina, [Skrlová] had been hospitalized for several years in a psychiatric center because she had made herself known as an orphaned child to a family that wanted to adopt her, but they realized about it and sent her to an asylum”.

The story alleged that Skrlová and the Mauerova sisters imprisoned Klara’s two sons (naked) in an iron cage in the basement of their house. It was also alleged that Skrlová wanted “to fatten [the two boys] just as Hansel and Gretel and wanted to commit cannibal acts while filming with a camera”. According to the Daily Mail story:

“An eight year-old boy was skinned and his flesh fed to cannibal relatives after his mother kept him locked in a cellar… Evil Klara Mauerova – a member of a sinister religious cult – wept in court as she admitted torturing her son Ondrej and his ten year-old brother Jakub. The court also heard allegations that relatives had partially skinned eight-year-old Ondrej and then eaten the raw human flesh. The two boys told how their mother and relatives had stubbed cigarettes out on their bare skin, whipped them with belts and tried to drown them. The court heard how the family had sexually abused them and even made them cut themselves with knives. They said they were kept in cages or handcuffed to tables and made to stand in their own urine for days”.

A neighbour alerted the police that there was something suspicious going on in the Mauerova household (having picked up what was happening on his baby monitor). When they police eventually arrived they discovered “the worst scenes they had ever seen” in the Mauerova’s basement. They found the two naked boys in the cage alongside a “little girl crying” (i.e., Barbora Skrlová). Skrlová told the police that her name was ‘Anika’ and that she had been adopted by the Mauerova sisters. The ‘little girl’ was taken to a children’s home by the police but absconded the same night. She was later found many months later living with another couple who had adopted her (but this time as a boy called Adam and described by the couple as a ‘child genius’ who suffered severe anxiety and depression attacks). Skrlová was sentenced to 12 years in prison but released in 2012. Her whereabouts are currently unknown.

Given that the orphan in the titular film was eventually exposed as an adult, it could be argued that the film is not technically about an ‘evil child’ and therefore not part of the ‘evil child’ trope (but I think that’s pedantry and misses the point). For almost all of the film, the audience believes Esther to be a child and on that basis alone it belongs to the ‘evil child’ horror genre. As plot twists go, I think it was one of the better ones, up there with The Usual Suspects, The Crying Game, and The Sixth Sense (which I won’t spoil just in case there are a few of you reading this that haven’t seen these three films).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ananvisca, V. (2017). Barbora Skrlová: The woman who inspired the movie Orphan. Mundo.com, June 17. Located at: https://en.mundo.com/most_viewed/barbora-skrlova-the-woman-who-inspired-the-movie-orphan/

Daily Mail (2008). Boy ‘skinned and eaten’ by his cannibal cult family after being held captive in a cellar. June 21. Located at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1027962/Boy-skinned-eaten-cannibal-cult-family.html

International Movie Database (2018). Orphan trivia. Located at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1148204/trivia

Orphan Wiki (2018). Leena Klammer. Located at: http://orphan-movie.wikia.com/wiki/Leena_Klammer

Villians Wiki (2018). Esther Coleman. Located at: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Esther_Coleman

Wikipedia (2018). Hypopituitarism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypopituitarism

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on October 1, 2018, in Case Studies, Crime, Fame, Physiological disorder, Popular Culture, Psychology, Unusual deaths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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