We have talked about the MacDonald Triad, and how it is inaccurately presented as psychopathy in children, despite it being debunked for decades, and we went through the Reddit story about the man who claimed his son was the proverbial ”bad seed”, that people in the comments section loudly proclaimed was a psychopath. You can look in a thousand places and find children that are supposed to have just been “born bad”, and what that looks like in a child. What’s so interesting to me about these children is that they tend to follow a certain pattern.
The child seems very likable to everyone around them
They have a secret personality that slowly gets revealed to one character in the movie or book.
They are habitual liars.
They are secretly violent, such as killing animals, or having actual bodies under their belt.
No one suspects them because they are children.
The person that suspects that they are a “bad seed” is looked at as crazy.
It all comes down to the end where the true nature of the child is revealed, but either too late, or nearly too late to save everyone that turned a blind eye.
This narrative has been recycled so many times that it is old news.
Let’s look at a couple of these “Bad Seed” characters, and in doing so we are going to be dealing with spoilers for both films. They are not new films, but if you wanted to watch Orphan, and Case 39, without spoilers, stop reading now, because I am going to spoil both. Starting with Orphan.
Truly a fun movie that went for the whole “Bad Seed” element, only to subvert expectations with the plot. In the movie, the girl above Esther is adopted from a catholic orphanage. She is quiet, well-mannered, and always wears ribbons around her wrists and neck. She comes from an Estonian orphanage, and has had a very hard time finding a forever home to call her own.
A family who recently dealt with a stillbirth decides that she is the child that they want to give a better shot at life to, so they adopt her. This family already has a young son, who is cold to the new arrival, and a five-year-old deaf child that embraces Esther wholeheartedly.
Of course, this turns out to be to their peril. Daniel, the son, he never warms to Esther. He resents her being there, and thinks of her as strange. Kate, the mother, notices that Esther seems off, and voices her concerns to her husband. As I mentioned above, she will be summarily dismissed by him, and nothing will be done for a good while.
Some of the things that they have Esther do that are in line with the “bad seed” notions are:
Sister Abigal who heads the orphanage that Esther was from visits to warn Kate that bad things always seem to follow Esther around. To prevent Sister Abigal from interfering with her new life, Esther kills Sister Abigal and enlists the deaf five-year-old, Max, to help get rid of the body.
Ripping the flowers out of Jessica's (the stillborn child) grave, and giving them to Kate as a present. This is an intentional act, as Kate told Esther what the white roses were for soon after she arrived. When Kate reacts angrily, she grabs Esther’s arm, which Esther sees as an opportunity to split John (the husband) and Kate. She uses a vice to intentionally break her own arm and blames Kate for it.
Releases the parking brake of a car that Max is sitting in, allowing it to roll into traffic. Blame is again pointed at Kate. Esther then further implies that it was Kate possibly drinking that caused this to happen. She points to wine she found in the kitchen, and the fact that Kate has had a problem with alcohol in the past. John insists that Kate return to rehab, or he will take all three children and leave.
She attempts to kill Daniel when he discovers Sister Abigail’s murder. She attempts to burn him to death in the treehouse that they have on the property, and when that fails, to smother him in the hospital. He is revived by doctors, but Kate is clearly convinced that Esther is the cause of his near-death, she accuses her, slaps her, and is restrained and sedated.
She sounds like a classic version of the Bad Seed narrative. Esther appears to be born evil, and all of her actions support this. What else could it be after all? She is a nine-year-old girl, and the things that she does are unconscionable.
Except, she isn’t a nine-year-old girl. She is an adult woman that has a genetic condition that makes her appear to be much younger than she actually is. She in reality is a thirty-three-year-old woman, and she was not in an Estonian orphanage, but rather a mental institution for being a murderer that has escaped. Those ribbons around her neck and wrists? They keep people from seeing the restraint scars from being locked away for so long and being so terribly violent.
So, Kate was right, but by the time it becomes clear that Kate was right, Esther will have killed her husband, hospitalized her son, and ruined Kate, and the children’s lives, completely.
Let’s talk about Case 39:
I very much like the work of the actress, Jodelle Ferland, in this film. She plays evil children better than pretty much anyone I have ever seen. In this particular case, a social worker named Emily, is overworked with cases that are bringing her to the brink of her sanity. She is shocked at the inhumanity some people have for their own children. She is then given the case of Lilith Sullivan. She is ten years old, and her grades have been steadily falling. It is suspected that she is being abused.
Emily’s boss visits the Sullivans', but finds Lilith unwilling to speak while her parents are present. Emily then visits her at school, giving Lilith her card to call should she ever need anything. With little time elapsing she is called in earnest by Lilith who has clearly been drugged, and says that her parents are coming to kill her. When Emily and a detective friend of hers (Mike Barron) arrive at the house, they find Lilith has been trapped in the oven, and her parents have every intention of incinerating her alive.
They are arrested, and Lilith is to be placed in a children’s home, but she successfully begs Emily to take her instead. Emily finds her to be sweet, caring, and impossible not to love, and of course, this is where things start to shift. Another of Emily’s clients, Diego, suddenly and brutally murderers his parents. It is a shocking crime, but more shocking is that just before the murderers Diego had received a phone call, and that call came from Emily’s house.
Lilith is suspected of making the call, and has to undergo psychiatric evaluation by one of Emily’s friends, a children’s psychologist named Douglas. During this evaluation, Lilith easily turns the questioning around on him, and in doing so learns what Douglas fears the most, which happens to be hornets. That night Douglas receives a phone call, and then is overcome by hornets flying out of his body, subsequently causing his death.
Now Emily is convinced that Lilith is the cause of these things, and decides to visit her parents who have been incarcerated in a mental health facility for their attempted murder of Lilith, and learns the truth. She is not a human child, but rather something from somewhere else. Somewhere dark and evil. She never sleeps, and feeds on human emotion. She can make people see whatever she wants them to, and will use people’s darkest fears to destroy her prey. The only way to kill her is for her to sleep first, which is why they drugged her before putting her in the oven. All they wanted to do was rid the world of this demon, but now she will drink every last drop of Emily’s essence before finding a new victim.
This movie has the standard “bad seed” narrative points.
She is a very sweet child that exudes innocence.
Her secret personality is a slow-rolling reveal, but once seen is horrifying.
She has a wake of violence and death in her past.
No one suspects her until it is nearly too late.
Emily is thought to be overreacting and crazy for suspecting Lilith.
It is almost too late to save anyone in the story from the evil that is Lilith.
In fiction, bad seed stories are the stand-in for child psychopaths. It is assumed that the things that these books and movies portray would be an accurate representation of what psychopathy in children actually look like. There is a reason I selected the two movies that I did. I enjoyed both, but that wasn’t the reason.
Both of these stories follow the plot outline of most bad seed-type stories. however, there is a significant difference in the plot twists of both stories. They go in slightly different directions, but the end result is quite similar. Both of the characters end up not being children at all. There is an explanation offered outside of just being born evil. They kept the general plotlines that these stories do, but they then gave a plausible reason for why they are like they are.
The problem with many of these stories is that they are giving adult tendencies to children while offering no explanation as to where they came from. Much like I said about the Reddit post about the supposedly evil son, there has to be an origin for the behaviors that are shown. Bad Seed narratives don’t offer one. Instead, the whole thing that makes them uncomfortable for people is the lack of explanation. Born evil is something you can’t do anything about.
This type of story is common because it messes with people. It takes something that is almost sacrosanct, the innocence of a child, and violating it. I get it, it’s immersive and disturbing, but it isn’t accurate in the slightest. Children are not born evil, and psychopathic children do not resemble bad seeds.
What are they like? They are reflections of their environment. In my case, I was not raised with anything remotely untoward. There wasn’t so much as a poker game in my vicinity when I was a child. I certainly wasn’t exposed to violence or criminality, and had no place that I would have learned about it either.
A child isn’t going to murder someone if they have no concept of what that is. Can children accidentally kill someone? Sure, it has certainly happened. Can they intentionally kill someone? Yes, this has happened as well. There is the case of Mary Bell:
She killed two children, one with a friend, and the other on her own before the age of twelve. Was Mary a psychopath? No, she was an abused and neglected child that had learned how to act out her pain because no one listened to her, or helped her. It is the unfortunate result that many children face. They end up in prison because they had a terrible start in life. I have no interest in digging into Mary’s current life past telling you this. Intervention with her in prison worked, and she has lived a totally normal life since her release under a new name. Outside of that, I will respect her privacy.
When children are violent you might find the reasoning in their upbringing, or you may find that reason in their mental wellbeing. Oftentimes it will be a combination of both that creates the final outcome. This will take the form of severe emotional dysregulation and disturbance in the children that deal with it. What makes bad seed stories unnerving is the absolute control of behavior when it suits them, and the seemingly cold violence that comes about in secret. Dysregulated behavior doesn’t look like this. It is unpredictable and difficult to manage for everyone, including the child dealing with it.
Because the children in these stories tend to be very calculating, and psychopaths are said to be the same, it stands to reason that people thought that psychopathic children must be the same caricature in miniature form as they represent psychopathy in adults. If you think about what is assumed about psychopathic adults and shrink it down, you get people applying psychopathy to these characters.
In reality, psychopathic children are not little murderers waiting to happen. If they were, psychopathy in children would be better studied. It would be one of the most fascinating topics in psychology, and there would be plenty of murderers claiming psychopathy lobbying to be in mental hospitals instead of prisons, because if it is something that they were born with, they wouldn’t be responsible for their actions.
None of that exists. Why? Because that’s not how it works. When I was a child I didn’t steal because I wanted to take things maliciously. I stole things because I wanted them, and had no impulse control. I didn’t lie because I was plotting the deaths of my parents, I lied because it was the most expedient way of getting what I wanted. I didn’t hurt people because I was wickedly minded and knew that words hurt, I hurt people because I lacked empathy and words didn’t hurt me, so why would I extrapolate that they hurt other people.
A child’s world is very narrow. What they understand is limited to what they encounter. This is true of psychopathic children as well. They don’t have some vast library of information that they can draw upon in order to be secret serial killers before the age of five. If you notice the list of things that I did as a child, and the motivation I had for all of them, you will notice a theme. Every single one is about getting me what I want. There isn’t even the thought or consideration of other people’s thinking on the matter. There also wasn’t the notion of punishment aversion. For instance, I didn’t say, I lied because I didn’t want to get in trouble. I lied because I wanted X, and lying got me there faster. It is all in consideration of me. No one else.
Most children have the motivating factor of “me” as well, but in psychopaths, it’s turned up to ten. Psychopathic wiring is extremely self-focused, therefore all reasoning for action is going to be about benefitting self. This is where a lot of bad seed stories get it wrong. They are applying behavior to children without establishing a reason behind that behavior. Children are not mini-adults, and they aren’t interacting with the world with an adult framework. This is a major failing on the part of those that write these kinds of stories. The child’s behavior is constructed within an adult’s worldview, not that of a child.
There are children that are violent, and there are children that kill, but they do not tend to reflect the stories that people love to scare themselves with. Instead, these are often children that are struggling with real mental illnesses and are being failed by a system that does not adequately understand them, and fails to treat them appropriately. Of course, this is a problem with the mental health system in general. Many patients are failed by it, are undertreated, misdiagnosed, given inappropriate medication, or a thousand other ways that the system demonstrates itself to be a continuous cascade of failures. When the patients are children, however, it brings to bear more complicated problems.
There is a documentary called, “A Dangerous Son”, that follows three young men who all have behavioral problems and are violent. None of them are psychopathic, and none of them are “bad seeds”. In this documentary, you will find parents doing all that they can to make sure their children get the help that they need, but they find again and again that the help is simply not adequate to address what they are dealing with.
How, as a parent, are you going to protect all of your children when one of them can’t be trusted around the others? Not because he or she is secretly plotting to murder their siblings, but because one of your children has an explosive uncontrollable temper, and will lash out at anyone around them, regardless of their age or ability to defend themselves. What do you do when your son grows taller and stronger? What do you do then?
These are the problems faced by families with children struggling with severe emotional dysregulation. When you have the opportunity to observe situations like this you will see that these children aren’t mini-adults either. They see the world through the limited eyes of a child, and that worldview may be tainted by anger that they can’t control, but don’t know why.
Bad seed storylines can be interesting, and they can be well done. However, they aren’t accurate. They don’t represent children that are emotionally disturbed and possibly dangerous, and they don’t represent children that will end up being psychopathic later in life. Enjoy the fictional characters, but don’t assume that they are remotely representative of reality.