1956 saw the release of The Bad Seed, a movie about a clean-cut eight-year-old named Rhoda Penmark. She seems innocent enough, tap dancing around the house and asking her parents for baskets of hugs and kisses. But after losing a penmanship contest to another classmate, Rhoda beats the boy with her tap shoes, drowns his body, and steals his medal for herself.
With blonde hair in pigtails and a pretty dress, the juxtaposition between the perfect child Penmark pretended to be, and the killer she actually was, helped make The Bad Seed one of Warner Brothers' biggest hits of the year. It took a top 20 spot at the box office and enjoyed four Academy Awards nominations.
Arguably, it also marked the beginning of a popular trope in horror that continues in films today: the creepy young girl.
"In a film, the point of entry tends to be from a female perspective as far as empathy is concerned, but in a horror film that's subverted," says Chris Alexander, former editor-in-chief of Fangoria, the longest-running horror and cult magazine in the world,and a horror film director. "When we see a young girl that comes from innocence and turned into something lethal, it's frightening on a base primordial level."
protagonist Rachel does not initially believe that Samara, the movie's young ghost, is evil. As she investigates Samara's past, she believes Samara is attempting to find justice for the abuses she suffered at the hands of her parents. It is only after the death of a friend that Rachel realizes Samara is simply evil.Horror movies personify fears that are hard for us to define—and young girls, perceived to be the most sweet and vulnerable in our society, take advantage of these perceptions to terrorize the protagonists and end up subverting our ideas of victimization, innocence, exploitation and revenge.
"When you make a movie, it's about a character's journey. So the person at the beginning of a story has to be a different person by the end," says Brett Sullivan, a director and movie editor who worked on Ginger Snaps, a movie about a girl who turns into a werewolf after getting her period. "When you think about a young girl going from innocent to evil, that's the biggest journey you can ever take. Historic images of women are damsels in distress, and women aren't supposed to be dangerous or deadly. When someone metamorphoses that role into a killing machine, it's unexpected."
It probably doesn't hurt that the trope is a money maker;
five of the top 10 highest grossing horror movies of all time
feature creepy young girls.
Aalya Ahmad, a Carleton University women's studies professor, lectures on the ways that feminist theories can be applied to horror, and she uses The Exorcist as an example of why young girls can be so effective. "This little girl speaking in a deep masculine voice, talking about extremely sexual things that wouldn't come out of a little girl's mouth is frightening. That incongruity of heavily masculine characteristics to the angelic little girl creates a monster that disturbs boundaries, and monsters exist to break down boundaries between normal and abnormal," she says. "The idea that the young girl is fighting back against being sexualized, by becoming a monster it lends a kind of power that draws attention to the angelic identity of the young girl that can actually be oppressive."
Young girls can't help but mature faster than their male counterparts—and horror movies often play with the self-awareness this maturity brings. In The Exorcist, for example, a possessed Regan MacNeil yells at a doctor to get his hands off her "goddamn cunt." It's a phrase that, as a young girl, we expect her not to know—and in the context of her possession, mimics maturity in a twisted way.
"Our society seems to believe that with young boys, you get what you see, whereas with little girls, there's something
what we see," says John Kenneth Muir, an American literary critic specializing in horror.
When Esther in Orphan terrified audiences in 2009, she bore resemblance to her predecessor Rhoda Penmark. With hair in pigtails and a sharp dress, she was affectionate with her adoptive parents at home. Yet, she bludgeons a nun to death with a hammer, breaks a classmate's leg, and in the end, when the audience finds out she is actually a 33-year-old with a hypopituitarism, attempts to seduce her adoptive father.
"There's a young girl who knows how to manipulate and play the game that adults want her to be, but is actually a sociopath is frightening in that it suggests she's birthed from perversion," says Alexander. "The young girl brings out the impulse in you to protect and protect—and yet the whole time, she's sizing you up and wanting to destroy you. It's a fear of not really knowing our children."
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.