The monster in the house

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Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

When I saw this Slate.com article on the recurring theme of evil adopted children in movies, I just about punched my fist in the air and shouted “finally!” Ever since the trailers for “Orphan” began playing, I’ve been muttering “again?” under my breath. Evil children are almost as common as zombies in cinemas, and in many ways more unsettling. Jonah Weiner writes:

The plot device of the adoption-gone-wrong plays on a fear that the family will be infiltrated and torn apart by a malevolent outsider it’s foolishly welcomed in… In these movies, the eruption of evil often comes hand in hand with the disruption of traditional family order…Time and again in the evil-kiddie canon, it’s driven home that Mom and Dad can survive (if not prevent) their child’s attack only by sticking together.

While Weiner focuses exclusively on the kiddies, I see the adopted-child-theme as just a subset of a greater genre: the alien in the family. And this genre is not just limited to movies; it goes back to our earliest stories. There’s the evil step-mother (Cinderella) and the evil step-father (Hamlet). A new member in a close-knit family presents a threat, and we love to embody that threat with all sorts of awful traits, in order to further justify our loathing.

So do these stories help us, or hurt us? Or are they harmless? Why do we continue to tell them over and over?

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