We have all watched at least one “evil child” film, most likely several. Our latest one was Case 39 (2009) featuring Renee Zellweger. It was pretty derivative as evil-child films go, but the actress (Jodelle Ferland) who played the evil foster-child did an admirable job of getting viewers to hate her from the get-go. Unfortunately, this meant that our viewing experience amounted to 1 hour 45 minutes of waiting for the evil child’s comeuppance.
Even so, in accordance with post-modern conventions, the evil child’s comeuppance would remain in doubt in the end.
Perhaps the first-and-foremost evil-child film was The Bad Seed (1956), based on a novel of the same name. The story of the biological daughter of a serial killer (and her victims), it garnered four Academy Award nominations and would pretty much write the rules for how all future evil children in film would behave and the dilemmas that they would pose. Namely:
☩ How can a child be evil? Children don’t know sin! They haven’t had enough experience to learn adult-quality guile and calculation. The evil child’s motives are presumed to be beyond question for the simple fact of her age. This means that Act One of every evil-child film deals primarily with the adults coming to grips with the possibility of child sin.
The evil child’s bad intentions are usually brought to light by showing her doing something really annoying, like making a whiny demand over and over (like a normal child might do) until the adult can’t stand it anymore and yells at her. Subtext: if it makes an adult angry, of course it is sinful!
☩ How dare adults question the morality of a child when every adult has his own secret sins! The adult-as-hypocrite angle is usually explored in the middle of Act Two, though often presaged by wanton behavior revealed in Act One. We often discover that the reason evil children become evil is to make their parents pay for the sins they never owned up to. (That’s what children — and priests — are for!)
Of course, the adults in the film turn this idea on its head and say, my child can’t be evil! The child is like me — it sprang from me — and we all know I’m not evil! (OK, Hypocrite.)
☩ Then there’s the dilemma of how to deal with the evil child on a “level playing field.” Even after it becomes obvious that the evil child has special mental/physical abilities and can manipulate others to do her will, the adults invariably cling to the notion of children as helpless beings. So they purposely hamstring themselves from taking physical measures to stop the evil child. Subtext: Adults hate to take responsibility! What if they’re wrong? If they harmed a child without a really good reason, they would never hear the end of it.
The result of all these constraints is that the only acceptable way for the adults to deal with the evil child is to outwit him, her or it. So most of the tension in Act Two derives from the protagonist adult trying various schemes to distract/derail/disempower the evil child, but with each attempt failing — and each failure portending the dreaded (and taboo) physical measures that will ultimately be needed to neutralize his/her/its evil threat.
☩ Eventually, the protagonist finally realizes, it’s the evil child or me (or humanity), and all stops must be pulled, all taboos set aside. And all past sins must/will be acknowledged, whatever it takes to defeat the child. This brings us to Act Three, where the battle begins.
No matter how it ends, the adult who takes on the evil child always winds up (a) exhausted or (b) cynical and demoralized or (c) sullied by the endeavor. Often all of the above.
• • 👿 • •
A BRIEF COMPENDIUM OF EVIL CHILD STORIES (AND THE CHILDREN)
The Bad Seed (Rhoda Penmark)
Village of the Damned (David Zellaby)
Pet Semetary (Gage Creed)
It’s A Good Life (Anthony Fremont)
The Adventures of Lassie (Timmy)
The Exorcist (Regan MacNeil)
The Omen (Damien Thorn)
Case 39 (Lilith Sullivan)
Godfather Part II (Michael Corleone)
The Wizard of Oz (Dorothy)
If I may remind you, Dorothy was responsible for killing two older women. As for Timmy, well, no one can be that wholesome. Lassie was onto him, but adults wouldn’t listen.*
• • 👿 • •
We will see how these well-worn themes play out in the real-life horror story in which the “evil child” happens to be a once-President of the United States. As you recall, his actions could not be questioned because… well, because he was President! How could any act of our President be sinful?
In this suspense-thriller, the Evil President (like all Presidents) began his term by reciting an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. This oath is the American version of white smoke pouring from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney — a sign of new leadership blessed by destiny. And sort of like how cardinals becomes popes, the recitation of the oath transforms the oath-taker, for one brief moment, into a person pure of heart and a worthy vessel for the nation’s hopes. Americans expect their new President to be the quasi-religious guarantor of their liberty, opportunity and well-being — at least when it comes to themselves.
But in our story, soon after the curtain lifted in Act One, this President’s words and deeds were seen to be callous and calculated. His constant lying, whining and pandering forced (most of) Americans to recalibrate their notions of normal. Still, since he caused nothing terribly tragic to happen, at least not right away, this slow-boil of the frog served to freeze his opponents in place and embolden his supporters. The Evil Child President grew in strength even as the media tallied his innumerable threats, lies and schemes.
So, Act One concluded with the forces who wanted to “do something” about the President lining up against those content to “wait him out” (as long as he advantaged them), while a third contingent formed, agreeing among themselves to add fuel to any fire that the Evil Child President might ignite. Which he would.
Every horror movie since The Bad Seed has taught us, don’t give the evil child a free pass. The evil child takes advantage and preys on the weaknesses of others. Then the evil child appeals to the adults and pleads for immunity from punishment, because he is a child and because the adults are just as bad.
Act Two. The Evil Child President took advantage of his free pass, given to him by half of Congress and a third of Americans. He demanded loyalty without being loyal to anyone or anything. He made enemies for the sake of having enemies to disparage. His opponents were vocal but their curses did not harm him. With Shakespearean flair, he set fires and caused storms, setting himself up for a grand Shakespearean fall.
Act Three. The Evil Child President was sort-of held to account for his acts by a tribunal of self-interested politicians. But these nominally powerful adults could not summon the will to banish the Evil Child President or deny him future power. Instead, they condemned but ultimately excused his wanton behavior, because they could not come up with a really good reason to punish the evil child. Technicalities, they said. Cowardice, they showed.
So the evil child won. His weak vindication (reminder: a majority of the Senate did vote to convict him) showed that the essence of the evil child’s reign was to sow doubt about who are the victims and who are the victimizers and thus render moral judgment impossible.
And suitably, in accordance with post-modern conventions, the evil child’s comeuppance remained in doubt in the end. We may now have to endure a sequel.
For further reading, you might consider “The ‘Evil Child’ in Literature, Film and Popular Culture”, edited by K. J. Renner (2013). I didn’t consider it because accessing it would have cost me about $50.
* “What’s that, Lassie? You say, Timmy is from hell? You must mean, Timmy is in the well! Let’s go!”