Why Hollywood makes Creepy Kid movies, and why America can’t look away

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Creepy kids. ()
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Hollywood loves scary children. Of all of the frightening images in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, the most haunting is the Grady Twins, those two dead-eyed girls in identical blue dresses standing at the end of the hallway. The twins call out in unison to the boy on his bicycle, "Hello Danny. Come and play with us. Come and play with us, Danny. Forever ... and ever ... and ever."  Jack Nicholson galumphing around with an axe is pretty scary, but he's got nothing on those creepy twins.

Creepy kids strike fear into our hearts, and make us shiver. A preternaturally mature and cunning child messes with our assumptions about the world in which we live and how it operates. This is true in real life as well, which is why Hollywood loves to toss out a creepy kid once a season, because it reflects something accurate. When kids do horrible things, the entire culture jumpstarts into jittering overdrive, wondering why. Is it Marilyn Manson? Too many video games?  Were the parents neglectful?  Or were the kids given too much? There is never just one answer, and that is the scariest thing about it, because it can't be predicted or prevented.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, which opens nationwide on Friday, features another creepy kid who does horrible things, and his evil seems to emerge from a clear blue sky. How did this happen? Was he born this way? 

As it happens, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which stars Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, is not a great film. But the fact that top-tier Hollywood keeps coming back to this theme, year after year, is testament to the power of the Creepy Kid genre, and what it has to say about our anxieties regarding the nature-versus-nurture argument, where evil comes from, and what to do when evil appears to emerge from nowhere.

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In The Bad Seed (1956), Christine Penmark (played by Nancy Kelly) makes the following statement about Rhoda (Patty McCormack), her 9-year-old daughter: "There's a maturity about her that my husband and I find disturbing."

Patty McCormack (in one of the creepiest of Creepy Kid performances of all time) is a sweet-faced little blonde, with pigtails and a pinafore, roller-skating and skipping through the house. She knows the upstairs neighbor, an elderly lady who is quite taken with the child. Rhoda is always polite when grownups are around, but can be vicious and ruthless to those she perceives as foes. She has exquisite manners. When she wants to get her way, she cuddles up to her mother in an adorable and yet pitiful way. It works like a charm. And yet her mother can't quite shed the feeling that something is a bit "off" with her daughter.

There is a lot of literature out there about "bad" children, mini-psychopaths, and even more so now with the recent breakthroughs in genetic mapping and MRI-work on brain functionality. The new consensus, which is an idea as old as time itself, is that psychopaths are often not made, but born. It has been a common belief for about two centuries that a child's environment is the key factor in developing its character, although psychiatrists and neuroscientists are now arguing that this is often not the case. While coming from a good home impacts a child's chances of living an upstanding life, there have always been horrifying crimes committed by children of "good" families, which throw the whole belief system into chaos. The Columbine killers are the most notorious example, but the list is a long one.

Can badness erupt from nowhere? And if it can, where does that leave us?

The human race has been coming up with explanations for evil since the dawn of time. The devil fell from heaven, took up residence on earth, and has been making mischief ever since. Man has the capability for evil because Eve ate the apple. Cain slew Abel. That sin reminds us what we all are capable of.

John Steinbeck's East of Eden is a Biblical parable of the Cain and Abel story. There are the "bad" brothers (whose names start with C), and the good brothers (whose names start with A), and their fates seem to be sealed from birth. Cal, from the third generation, (played by James Dean in the movie of the same name) is the first one who tries to be "good," at least as good as his brother Aron. Cal was born of the union between a saintly man named Adam and a devilish woman named Cathy. After the birth of Cal, Cathy promptly abandoned the family and set up a bordello in a nearby town. When Steinbeck introduces us to Cathy as a small child, it is, along with Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, the most insightful portrait of a psychopath ever put on paper. Steinbeck doesn't mince words, and it is worth it to quote extensively:

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.

It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighed, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community...

Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her...

Since Cathy was an only child her mother had no close contrast in the family. She thought all children were like her own. And since all parents are worriers she was convinced that all her friends had the same problems.

Cathy’s father was not so sure. He operated a small tannery in a town in Massachusetts, which made a comfortable, careful living if he worked very hard. Mr. Ames came in contact with other children away from his home and he felt that Cathy was not like other children. It was a matter more felt than known. He was uneasy about his daughter but he could not have said why.

It is one of the creepiest passages in all of literature. Many psychiatrists now agree with Steinbeck, and the studies of psychopaths have proliferated in recent years. Like being born colorblind or deaf, it appears that some people are born without a conscience, without the possibility of empathy. The word "psychopath" is out of favor now for the less scary "sociopath," or the more clinical "anti-social personality disorder." They are also sometimes referred to as "malignant narcissists."  There are "unsuccessful psychopaths" who fill up the prisons of our nation, and the "successful psychopaths" who tend to flourish in business situations. You can see the problem even in discussing such issues, when the terminology can't even be agreed upon. And "evil"?  It's rare to hear such a word nowadays other than in a religious context, although Ph.D Barbara Oakley recently wrote a book about psychopaths and genetics called Evil Genes.

The Bad Seed faces these problems head-on. Rhoda's evil appears to have sprung from nowhere. Her parents are loving, although her father often has to be away due to his job. The nature-versus-nurture argument is a running theme of the film, and shows the Freudian obsession exploding in the United States in the 1950s. Everything has a root cause. But as the secrets of Rhoda's lineage are revealed, what Rhoda's mother sensed all along becomes a horrifying reality: Rhoda is a bad seed. 

Parents of these strange children often find themselves under suspicion, and it is not difficult to see why. A parent who warns a teacher that his or her child is not to be trusted, or that the child is a compulsive liar, must be hiding something. Psychopathic personalities are notorious for resisting treatment (there is no cure) and also for fooling psychiatrists and guidance counselors and social workers. Even a world-famous psychopathy expert like Robert Hare has often found himself conned by a particularly charming psychopath (charm is one of the defining characteristics), and he describes some of those chilling encounters in his book Without Conscience.

Talking about adults is one thing. But labeling a child as a "psychopath" is, of course, an iffy proposition. One must tread carefully. The Creepy Kid movies often deal with the helplessness parents feel when confronted by a child who is so completely unchildlike as to seem almost supernatural. How do you confide in friends and family that you think your child is actually possessed by Satan?

The Omen, from 1976, features a child who, Lord have mercy, actually turns out to be the Antichrist. Harvey Stephens, as Damien the child (thereby assuring that the name "Damien" would forever be associated with Beelzebub), is an unsmiling, preternaturally calm little sociopath, and his parents try to love him, although Damien is not lovable. His nannies dangle from their necks out of windows, after all. But he doesn't seem to need love. Love is an irritation to him. His parents wonder if something is wrong with them. His fate was certainly sealed at his birth (and so, too, is Rosemary's poor "baby" in Polanski's classic film), and Damien views everyone who gets in his way (even his parents) as obstacles to be destroyed. Damien is a small, fragile boy, and we naturally feel protective of small creatures. It is part of our genetic makeup to protect those who are weak. Damien destabilizes the universe because by the end of the film we want him destroyed within an inch of his life. 

Jacob Kogan plays "Joshua" in 2007's Joshua, the story of the prodigy child of two upper-middle-class Upper West Side parents (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga). He, too, is an unsmiling robot of a boy who is unable to feel love. He cannot receive it, and cannot give it. His parents are proud of his prowess at the piano, but they wonder if something might be a little too, well, serious, about their son. When they have a second child, Joshua begins to wreak his silent revenge.

Joshua is terrifying but not just because there is a creepy kid in it. It is terrifying because it is a blazingly accurate indictment of the kind of well-heeled, status-conscious (but also self-conscious) urban parents portrayed by Rockwell and Farmiga. They make fun of their neighbors to each other, trying to reassure themselves that they aren't like "those people." They still have their souls. But it's a soulless world portrayed in Joshua, and throughout the film, even with all of his horrible actions, you can't help but think that Joshua may have a point.

In The Exorcist, a good child goes bad when Satan possesses her spirit and makes her vomit her pea soup and shout expletives. Linda Blair was 13 years old when she played Regan in The Exorcist, and while much of the horror came from the makeup she wore, her performance was so searing she was nominated for an Academy Award. The tragedy of The Exorcist is that Regan had memories of being "good," and was no longer able to find her way back to innocence, to herself. Unlike little Rhoda in The Bad Seed, who was born that way and so saw nothing wrong with her behavior, Regan is aware she is paying a price. Regan has respites when the Devil recedes, and she remembers who she used to be. It is a harrowing performance and still a nearly unwatchably scary film.

The British horror film Village of the Damned from 1960 features an entire tribe of glowing-eyed children, all born in the same year, all with blonde hair and unnatural maturity. Because children are, well, children, they are given the benefit of the doubt, even when the horror-movie tropes scream at all of the other characters that something isn't right here. Children are cute, they are small, they are presumed to be innocent and guileless. The wonderful George Sanders plays father to one of the children, and although he immediately realizes that something is up with this brood of children, he counsels caution and patience to the other nervous villagers. Like Joshua, and like so many other horror movies, Village of the Damned also reveals the anxieties of the culture from which it emerges. The children reveal the dark underbelly of middle-class aspirations and domestic bliss. They point a finger toward things no one wants to admit.

2009's Orphan, starring one of the creepiest children in recent memory (Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, the adopted orphan), seems to posit that when you adopt, you honestly don't know what you are getting. So explosive is that issue that the DVD of the film starts with a disclaimer stating that in no way is the film meant to criticize adoption, and also a P.S.A. about how wonderful it is to adopt a needy child. Esther is from Russia, and speaks with a slight accent. She is an accomplished artist, although her drawings are disturbing. She is perfectly behaved, and dresses in colorful frocks and patent leather shoes, completely out of sync with her more casually dressed American schoolmates. She has serious black eyes and knows how to win over adults, although you can see the uneasy look on the nun's face at the orphanage when Esther first interacts with her new parents (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, in her second Parent of Creepy Kid role in two years). It's a quick glance from the nun, but it is eloquent.

Once ensconced in her new family, Esther befriends the youngest daughter (who is deaf), quickly dominating her and making her into a fearful ally. Esther stays far away from the older brother, who seems to know that something is not quite right with his new sister. Esther pits the parents against one another, and her machinations are subtle and cloaked with plausible deniability. The mother thinks something is wrong. The father says she is overreacting. Rifts begin to open up. Esther comes from a mysterious background, similar to Rhoda in The Bad Seed, and the film is truly disturbing in its presentation of adoption as a crap-shoot. Esther brings destruction to her new home; once her true nature is revealed it is too late to stop her.

I haven't even mentioned the horrifying Toshio in The Grudge, or Samara in The Ring, or little Drew Barrymore starting fires with her mind in Firestarter. There are many more.

In Hollywood, teenagers are expected to go on murderous killing sprees. It is a rite of passage. And adults, well, we all know adults are capable of just about anything. But evil children push the envelope.

It's not hard to understand why the theme is so attractive, even though it's also so repulsive. Children are supposed to be innocent. Adults deserve what they get, if they are bad, but children should always be exempt. Our entire moral understanding depends on everybody agreeing upon this. Audiences project onto children their own feelings of protectiveness, and depicting a child in distress is one of the most effective ways of engaging an audience in any story.

But what about children who are not innocent or good?  What about children who don't seem like children at all?  Such strange creatures act as deeply destabilizing influences. A calm and chilly-eyed child is scarier than a monster in the forest. Those dead-eyed twins in blue dresses still call to us from down that long hallway.