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Cute Little Psychokillers

Why "bad seed" films are both deeply unsettling and confoundingly popular.

Hypothetical question: What if a parasitic creature is squatting in one’s womb? What if, once born, the baby is a monster—alien and unlovable? What exactly does one do if the darkest and most unspeakable of parental fears come to terrifying fruition? These questions drive one of the classic tropes of horror: the bad seed film. Lynn Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, a psychological thriller about the relationship between Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her sociopath son, is the most recent addition to a genre that is both deeply unsettling and confoundingly popular.

In order for a film to legitimately be called a bad seed picture, it must have a strong parent-child element, and the "parent" is almost always the mother. Maternal guilt and culpability is the engine that keeps these films running, and generally, the father is at best haplessly naive and at worst complicit in the child’s misdeeds. And, as opposed to a film like Children of the Corn, in which evil children operate horrifically outside of the bounds of adult control, the bad seed movie gives us little monsters who are, at least nominally, under parental supervision. A viewer prone to identifying with characters in films, even bad horror movies, doesn’t feel sorrow over the death of lil’ Isaac, the crazed killer prophet from Children of the Corn, because his death represents the death of an aberration: a psychotic, parent-killing monster. In the evil spawn films, though, there can be no return to normal—one way or another, the order has been upended, and there is no way for these plots to end in a satisfactory manner for either the child or parent.

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