Young blood: A brief look at ‘Orphan’ and the ‘evil child’ trope in horror films
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
(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).
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
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
Posted in Case Studies, Crime, Fame, Physiological disorder, Popular Culture, Psychology, Unusual deaths
Tags: Alien (film), Bad seed, Barbora Skrlova, Cannibalism, Case 39 (film), Children Of The Corn (film), Children Of The Damned (film), Creepy child, Damien: Omen II (film), Demonic child, Evil child, Evil child trope, Film trope, Hannibal Lecter, Hormone disorder, Horror films, Hypopituitarism, Insidious (film), Isabelle Fuhrman, Joshua (film), Ju-On: The Grudge (film), Klara Mauerova, Nick Cave, Orphan (film), Pet Sematary (film), Psychological horror, Rosemary's Baby (film), Schizophrenia, Sexual abuse, Slasher films, The Bad Seed (film), The Crying Game (film), The Devil's Backbone (film), The Exorcist (film), The Good Son (film), The Grudge (film), The Omen (film), The Omen IV (film), The Orphanage (film), The Others (film), The Ring (film), The Shining (film), The Sixth Sense (film), The Usual Suspects (film), We Need To Talk About Kevin (film)
The schlocky horror show: Why do we like watching scary films?
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
Regular readers of my blog will know that I love horror films (based on articles I have written such as the psychology of Hannibal Lecter). Although I am not a great fan of the archetypal ‘slasher’ movies (franchises such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc.), I do like a bit of ‘schlock horror’ (such as the David Cronenberg’s films Scanners and The Fly) as well as ‘psychological horror’ (such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan). But why do we love to watch scary films? Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht (and for who I have written book chapters on various aspects of video game play) in a 2013 interview for IGN (formerly Imagine Games Network) was quoted as saying:
“People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. That’s certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects…[Horror films must] provide a just resolution in the end. The bad guy gets it. Even though they choose to watch these things, the images are still disturbing for many people. But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise”.
According to a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology by Dr. Glenn Walters, the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unrealism. Walters made reference to a number of psychological studies to support his argument. For instance:
“Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin (1994), in conducting research on disgust, exposed college students to three documentary videos depicting real-life horrors. One clip showed cows being stunned, killed, and butchered in a slaughterhouse; a second clip pictured a live monkey being struck in the head with a hammer, having its skull cracked opened, and its brain served as dessert; a third clip depicted a child’s facial skin being turned inside out in preparation for surgery. Ninety percent of the students turned the video off before it reached the end. Even the majority of individuals who watched the tape in its entirety found the images disturbing. Yet many of these same individuals would think nothing of paying money to attend the premiere of a new horror film with much more blood and gore than was present in the documentaries that most of them found repugnant. McCauley (1998) posed the logical question of why these students found the documentary film so unpleasant when most had sat through horror pictures that were appreciably more violent and bloody. The answer that McCauley came up with was that the fictional nature of horror films affordsviewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed. Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events are unreal, which furnishes them with psychological distance from the horror portrayed in the film. In fact, there is evidence that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal (Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999)”.
According to research published by Dr. Deirdre Johnston in a 1995 issue of Human Communication Research into motivations for viewing graphic horror, there are four main different reasons for why we (or at the very least a small sample of 220 American adolescents) like watching horror movies (gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching and problem watching). These four reasons were also discussed in relation to various dispositional characteristics such as fearfulness, empathy, and sensation seeking. Dr. Johnston reported that: “The four viewing motivations are found to be related to viewers’ cognitive and affective responses to horror films, as well as viewers’ tendency to identify with either the killers or victims in these films”. More specifically she reported (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).
A really good article on the psychology of scary films by John Hess on the Filmmaker IQ website claimed there were many theories on why we love to watch horror films. I wasn’t able to check out all of the original sources (as there was no reference list) but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the theories outlined. For instance, the psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung believed horror films “tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious – images like shadow and mother play important role in the horror genre”. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theorizing, such notions are hard to empirically test. Another psychoanalytic theory – although arguably dating back to Aristotle – is the notion of catharsis (i.e., that we watch violent and frightening films as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up aggression (an argument also proposed as a reason as to why some people love to play violent video games). Dr. Dolf Zillman’s Excitation Transfer theory (ETT) is arguably an extension of catharsis theory. Hess’ summary of ETT notes:
“Negative feelings created by horror movies actually intensify the positive feelings when the hero triumphs in the end. But what about movies where the hero doesn’t triumph? And even in some small studies have show that people’s enjoyment was actually higher during the scary parts of a horror film than it was after”.
Hess then goes onto outline the thoughts of Noël Carroll (a film scholar) who claimed that horror films are played out outside everyday normal behaviour, and comprise curiosity and fascination. Hess writes:
“Studies by [researchers such as Zillman] have shown that there is a significant correlation between people who are accepting of norm-violating behavior and interest in horror movies. But that doesn’t explain why some viewers respond positively when the norm violators such as the sexual promiscuous teenage couple, the criminal, the adulterer – are punished and killed by the movie monster. This ‘enjoyment’ of the punishment of those that deserves it makes up the Dispositional Alignment Theory. We like horror movies because the people on screen getting killed deserve it. But this may give us insight into who the audiences want to see eat it but it’s not a clear picture of why horror films are popular in the first place. Another theory put forth by Marvin Zuckerman in 1979 proposed that people who scored high in theSensation Seeking Scale often reported a greater interest in exciting things like rollercasters, bungee jumping and horror films. Researchers have found correlation but it isn’t always significant. Even Zuckerman noted that picking only one trait misses the fact that there are lots of things that draw people to horror films”.
Dolf Zillmann (along with James Weaver, Norbert Mundorf and Charles Aust) put forward The Gender Socialization theory in a 1996 issue the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (and sometimes referred to as the ‘Snuggle Theory’). Zillman and his colleagues exposed 36 male and 36 female undergraduates to a horror movie in the presence of a same-age, opposite-gender companion of low or high initial appeal who expressed mastery, affective indifference, or distress. They reported that men enjoyed the film most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman. Women enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man. Hess says these findings don’t explain why some people go to horror films alone or what happens after adolescence. Finally, cultural historian David Skal has argued that horror films are simply reflect our societal fears. As Hess notes:
“Looking at the history of horror you have mutant monsters rising in 50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, Zombies in the 60s with Vietnam, Nightmare on Elm Street as a mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears. But for as many horror cycles that fit the theory, there are many that don’t. And horror films work on a universal level crossing national boundaries while still working in different cultures”.
Basically, none of these theories fully explain why we love watching scary films. Different people like watching for different reasons and no theory has been put forward that explains everyone’s motives and reasoning. I will continue to enjoy watching even though I don’t fully understand my own motives.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16, 701-713.
Hess, J.P. (2010). The psychology of scary movies. Filmmaker IQ. Located at: http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movies/
Hoekstra, S. J., Harris, R. J., & Helmick, A. L. (1999). Autobiographical memories about the experience of seeing frightening movies in childhood. Media Psychology, 1, 117-140.
Johnston, D.D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21(4), 522-552.
McCauley, C. (1998). When screen violence is not attractive. In J. Goldstein (Ed.), Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment (pp. 144-162). New York: Oxford.
O’Brien, L. (2013). The curious appeal of horror movies: Why do we like to feel scared? IGN, September 9. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/09/09/the-curious-appeal-of-horror-movies
Walthers, G.D. (2004). Understanding the popular appeal of horror cinema: An integrated-interactive model. Journal of Media Psychology, 9(2). Located at: http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/horrormoviesRev2.htm
Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N., & Aust, C. F. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 586-594.
Posted in Adolescence, Fame, Gender differences, Marketing, Popular Culture, Psychology
Tags: Cathartic film watching, Excitation Transfer theory, Film unrealism, Gender Socialization theory, Horror film psychology, Horror films, Horror gore, Psychological horror, Psychology of being scared, Schlock horror, Snuggle theory