Orphan is a new and already controversial horror film scheduled to be released on July 24th by Warner Brothers. One of its producers recently interviewed me on camera here in Los Angeles for the film's forthcoming DVD and bonus documentary (Mama's Little Devils: Bad Seeds, Evil Kids and Orphan) regarding one of the film's central themes: the enigmatic nature of human evil.
First, let me make something very clear: I haven't seen the movie. So this isn't any sort of review, critique or endorsement. Nor was my interview. Rather, we discussed in broad terms the early psychological development and evolution of evil or destructive, cruel, violent behavior. Orphan is in the genre of previous cinematic tales like The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Omen, Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn, Lord of the Flies, The Good Son, Firestarter, The Brood, The Ring, The Innocents and other fictional dramatizations of seemingly innocent children gone haywire, wreaking havoc, mayhem and sometimes even murder in their wake. The common thread in such stories is not so much about being an orphan or adoptee or not, but rather whether children in general are capable of evil desires and deeds. And, if they engage in evil deeds, what possesses them to do so? Are they born evil, or do they become evil because of their experiences? Is it nature or nurture? Some combination of both? Or are supernatural, metaphysical, demonic or satanic forces to blame, as some movies suggest. How can evil be explained?
In this particular film, Esther is a nine-year-old girl who is adopted from an orphanage by a well-to-do couple with two children of their own. The adoption occurs in hopes of healing the gaping hole left in their hearts after a deeply traumatizing miscarriage. Upon first meeting Esther, they are both smitten by this seemingly angelic, intelligent, talented, sweet and extraordinary little girl. As suggested by the trailers, once she becomes ensconced into the bosom of the family, trouble ensues. Serious trouble. Bad behavior. Very bad. Why? In one scene included in the previews, we see Esther being cruelly teased at school by a classmate, followed by what looks like a furtive fit of violent rage in a restroom stall. Little Esther evidently has a nasty temper. She's got serious anger issues. It is often the case that such intense, primitive anger or narcissistic rage underlies various behavioral problems and other prevalent psychiatric symptoms in both children and adults.
Of course, this is a fictional Hollywood horror movie. But what is the likelihood that an adopted nine-year-old child brought into an already existing family might develop behavioral problems of some sort? Fairly significant, it seems. It is a new situation for the child, who might feel insecure and anxious about being in this unfamiliar setting, especially with other children who already have an established relationship with the parents and each other. The child may, understandably, feel like an outsider at first, and perhaps feel threatened and even experience the need to compete with the other children for attention and love. And this could happen no matter what the adopted child's background and history. But, with a child who has suffered traumatic loss of or abandonment by his or her parents, possibly compounded by neglect and/or physical, sexual or emotional abuse prior to or after this devastating loss, the likelihood of such anger-driven maladjustment increases.
According to developmental psychologist and fellow PT blogger Dr. Jean Mercer in her recent post about this film, "There are several factors that are related to developmental outcomes for adopted children. Probably the most important one is age at the time of adoption. Babies adopted within the first few months after birth are very similar to non-adopted babies in their development. Babies who are adopted toward the end of the first year are likely to show some unusual attachment behaviors at the time, but if well cared for do not show long-term effects. Later-adopted children are more likely to show mood or behavioral disorders that require professional help than non-adopted children." Dr. Mercer goes on to say: "Babies adopted at birth have little or no experience other than that with their adoptive parents, but older babies and children may have experienced neglect and abuse. In fact, it is possible that their experiences were so severe that the birth parents' parental rights were legally terminated, the children placed in foster care, and then (whether sooner or later) placed in an adoptive home. Depending on the child's experiences, the number of changes of custody, and the child's own resilience or vulnerability, children adopted under those circumstances may (or may not) be more inclined to develop emotional and behavioral disorders than the average non-adopted child." (See her entire posting, and that of another PT blogger about this movie.)
For whatever reasons, this is apparently (but only apparently) precisely what takes place in Orphan, which provides its own bizarre explanation in a surprise ending. Movies such as these beg the questions: Where does evil come from? Are some people just born evil? Does the tendency toward evil in adults begin during childhood? Are children really capable of deliberate destructiveness, malice and cruelty? Are they subject to the same dark, destructive desires as adults but simply less physically equipped to commit such evil deeds? And, if so, what are the implications regarding human nature in general? If evil is primarily a product of nurture and nature, who or what then is responsible for the disturbed, angry child, who later grows into an evil adult? Parents? Society? Genes? Biochemistry? These are tough questions. And the answers are not necessarily pretty or politically correct.
We like to think of children as innocent, loving, angelic creatures. But how realistic is that common notion? Freud once remarked that the innocence of children is due largely to weakness of limb. Psychoanalytically speaking, we know that infants and children are capable of experiencing anger, rage, and even murderous impulses. Children may look angelic. But like sociopathic or psychopathic adults, there are children who, like little Esther, take full advantage of their charming persona. And of our pseudoinnocence: a refusal to recognize evil lurking behind the likeable mask. (See my previous posts.) Beneath the serene, polite surface seethes a boiling cauldron of passionate emotions, running the gamut from love to jealously to hate. When Freud suggested to the world a century ago that children had sexual impulses, he was initially met with extreme resistance and reviled by both the public and his peers. He was challenging the naive, romanticized view of the innate innocence of children. The same goes for anger today: We tend to reject any suggestion that children can be furiously aggressive, hostile, destructive, vindictive, malicious, sadistic, evil. Yet, they can.
The late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, in his fascinating autobiography The Magic Lantern, recounts actually attempting, at the age of four, to jealously smother his newborn sister in her crib. Upon her birth, he recalls, "I raged, wept, crapped on the floor and messed myself. My older brother and I, usually mortal enemies, made peace and planned various ways of killing this repulsive wretch." Sibling rivalry exists, and, in some settings, can be powerful and potentially dangerous. Freud's still controversial concept of the Oedipus Complex posits the boy's desire to murder his father, whom he perceives as a competitor for his mother's love. Commonly diagnosed childhood psychiatric syndromes such as so-called childhood Bipolar Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder (which, as explained in prior posts, I consider Anger Disorders) are prime examples of such angry, destructive behavior patterns, which can lead, in some cases, to even more serious evil deeds and antisocial tendencies in adulthood.
Mental disorders involving violent, cruel and destructive behaviors in children or adolescents, stem primarily, in my opinion, from deprivation, loss, frustration, rejection, neglect, abuse and trauma. Poor parental role-models can also play a part. Both adopted and biological children of antisocial parents, for example, are at higher risk for developing bad behavior. Sure, children are born with different temperaments, some more aggressive, others more sensitive. (See my prior post on extraversion and introversion.) But there are no truly "bad seeds." We all come into this world with the congenital capacity for both good and evil. That is to say, we each harbor the psychobiological seeds for both badness and goodness. But our environment--especially parenting and fortunate or unfortunate fate, in combination with how we choose to interpret and deal with that fate--is what influences the direction we take, determining which seed takes root and dominates our personality, for better or worse.
The truth is that children-biological or adopted-instinctually react to being neglected, misunderstood, rejected, ignored, criticized, insulted, demeaned or emotionally or physically abused by feeling first hurt, then angry with those they perceive as having injured them. Children have a natural reflex to lash out against those who injure or insult them or stand in the way of satisfying their needs. And herein lies the genesis of evil. What can the child do with his or her aggressive, angry, talionic, sometimes even murderously hateful impulsions? Most repress such horrifying, anxiety-provoking, socially unacceptable impulses, sublimating them, like Bergman, into other less lethal or even constructive or creative outlets. This is a normal psychological coping process in most children. But what of those who, due to the bad luck of being born into situations in which such insults, neglect and trauma, Shakespeare's "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," are not the exception, but rather the tragic rule in their sad and painful daily lives? What happens when their trauma is so beyond the pale in frequency and severity that their bitterness (see my previous post) and rage become more than they can contain? It leaks out, sometimes in a trickle, other times a torrent. Temper tantrums. Oppositional behavior. Passive-aggression. Stealing. Lying. Substance abuse. Psychological or physical cruelty to people or animals. Fighting. Bullying. Vindictiveness. Intimidation. Violence. Fire-setting. Vandalism. Even attempted murder. These are the dark and dangerous manifestations of narcissistic injury and rage in children or adolescents who have no other outlet for the constructive expression of that anger. These are the bitter childhood roots of evil.