The Orphan, Or Lessons on How Films Code Our Fears

Recently, I sat down to watch “The Orphan” and while in many ways it is a movie that is all together forgettable; it did stick in my mind for the next day or two.  Initially, I didn’t know why.  I wasn’t giving it a close viewing and wanted to watch it, if only to have in hovering somewhere in my mental library should I ever need it.  But by the next day, I found myself returning to think about the film and what it seemed to offer up.

Keep in mind, there are lots of spoilers from here on in.

The basic plot of the film is that a family adopts a young sweet-appearing girl from an orphanage who eventually turns out to be evil adult in disguise and attempts to kill everyone that may not bend to her will.  Basic horror fare, no doubt.  But there were particulars that spoke to our cultural anxieties and battlegrounds.  In particular, this film is loaded with meanings that suggest and reinforce the fear, anxiety, and disgust with the place of young girls in our culture.   

The most evident is the orphan herself, Esther.   Esther is an orphan, supposedly from an orphanage in Eastern Europe.  However, when the mother searches for this orphanage; they have no record of Esther.  

Lesson 1:  By the fact that Esther has no actual origin, she becomes an “every-girl”; no origin, but just existing out of place and time.

Eventually, the mother discovers that Esther actually belonged to a mental institute because she had some strange and rare illness that caused her to not age.  

Lesson 2:  Girls are just deranged women trapped in young girls’ bodies.

Poster for the film, Orphan
As Esther’s truer nature reveals itself to the mother, she tries to do everything she can to stop the child but it becomes completely evident, she has no control over Esther.  

Lesson 3:  Parents let their children run wild and are essentially powerless to stop them

 While her mother is powerless, Esther plays the innocent and sweet child to her adopted father. 

Lesson 4:  These girls wrap men around their fingers from the time they embody “Daddy’s little girl” up through “adulthood.”  

And eventually, Esther dawns her mother’s dress, puts on make-up, and attempts to seduce her adopted father. 

Lesson 5:  Girls have a “Daddy complex” and are hypersexualized beings who seduce of older men.   

When she can’t get what she wants, she targets the person and either kills them outright or threatens them into silence; through fear and intimidation.  

Lesson 6:  Girls have a mean streak about them that is sociopathic.

Beyond Esther, we see other elements that also explain or hint at what’s wrong with our culture.  Both the mother and father are presented as having significant faults.  The mother had a stillborn baby and is a recovering alcoholic and the father had an extramarital affair (elements of both are blamed on each other).  

Lesson 7:  The reason girls are bad is bad parents.  Reinforcing this point is that the parents are impotent; unable to produce a “healthy” baby.

They are not capable of producing a good child (this also taps into Lesson 3 since their impotence translates into lacking the power to control Esther).  By contrast, the good daughter in this film is Max, the deaf child is friendly yet passive who tries to befriend and please everyone.  

Lesson  8:  Girls are meant to be pleasant and seen; not heard.

Even the brother, Daniel plays his cultural role; interested in video games and fitting in with his friends, he resists accepting Esther into the family out of jealousy and publicly humiliates her at school.  He starts to piece things together about Esther, but is too late and undone by Esther.  

Lesson 9:  The boys of today (men of tomorrow) are slackers and can’t even handle girls.

When taken to the “professional,” a therapist, Esther is considered to be absolutely normal with nothing wrong with her.  

Lesson 10:  Therapeutic approaches to children is clearly part of the problem.

In the climax of the battle, Esther and the mother battle on the ice pond, the same site that we learn she previously failed at performing her maternal duties in protecting Max when she was drunk.  The battle ends by the mother declaring to Esther that, “I am not your fucking mother!” and kicking her hard enough in the face that her neck snaps and she sinks into the hole in the ice.  

Lesson 11:  Some kids really do deserve to be beaten/killed.

And that’s just a preliminary reading; there’s a lot more I could connect and develop if I looked at it further (but given the vitriolic content; I’d rather not).  Granted the above is not a perfect or completely developed analysis, but the elements are there to piece together something that could be further developed.  These ideas that lie under these particular moments are cultural cues that come up directly and indirectly, not only in other horror films but often in our cultural discourse on the news, and from our politicians. 


What other themes or elements of The Orphan did you pick up on if you saw it?

What other films attempt to demonize youth in such manners?  How do they go about doing it?

Where else in culture do we see the coding of children as bad/evil/monstrous?

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  1. I had watched the Orphan last year and I thought it was a very disturbing movie. Not only was Esther psychotic, she was also very violent. The first sign of her evilness was when she was abusing the little boy Daniel. She played off innocent to the parents while she continued to hurt and torture the children. Children usually grow bad/evil/monstrous all depending on either how they were raised, or if they have been affected by a mental illness. I believe there was no possible way to control Esther. She was a lunatic stuck in a young girls body which was very deceiving.

  2. To add on to my previous comment, I feel that the family should have looked into the records of Esther for the safety of them and their children. To let any child with no history come live in your house was a dangerous move. It basically made their life miserable. I don't exactly remember all the events in the Orphan, but just like any exorcism movie, the youths are demonized causing them to inflict pain on others. Even though demons are taking over the bodies in exorcisms, everyone is still affected. The lessons bolded in this article are clearly evident in the Orphan. Esther had no origin. She was trying to play innocent and suck up to her adopted father, just to cover the fact she had a mental illness and was not wanted.

  3. I watched the movie ‘The Orphan’, about a year ago, with one of my friends while it was still in theaters. I thought it was an incredibly dull movie, with themes that made me laugh, not scream. However, my friend was truly frightened by the deranged main character, Ester. I could not figure out why she was so scared by a little girl who had a strange fetish with killing and older men. Maybe it was because I absolutely adore horror films, and can not stand when one does not frighten the wits out of me, but I could not understand my friend’s screams and cringes all throughout the movie. With further investigation, I found out just what had frightened her so deeply: “It is the thought that this could be any little kid walking on the street, or some kid that I babysit for. Ester is obviously a sociopath, who will do anything in her power to get what she wants: the dad. It also does not help that she is creepy as hell, and is extremely mysterious in the beginning, with the ribbons on her wrists and her having no beginning or origin.”

    I now fully understand where my friend was coming from. It is not the fact that Ester is a monster by the way she looks or by the way she speaks. She is a monster in the sense that she has no beginning. There were no records of her origin. She keeps a book of pictures of the men that she has killed before. What or who is to say that she will not seduce and kill again? Little girls are meant to be sugar, spice, and everything nice. This movie has different take on the little girl personification. It twists and manipulates the idea of little girls being sweet and nice, and turns into something completely different: children put up the ‘innocence’ facade in order to get what they want...No matter the costs.

    Kimberly Frost
    Making Monsters MW

  4. I did not see the movie “The Orphan”, but children have been the subject of horror in films and other entertaintment sources for some time now, dating back to how children have been turned into monsters in history and fiction.

    This film is not the first time children have come across as monsters. Everyone is familiar with some of their favorite childhood games or stories being twisted into hideously horrifying situations. I am not a fan of horror, therefore have not seen many horror movies, but I am familiar with some elements in horror movies that have been used. For example, the commercial that came out for the film “Boogeyman”. The commercial includes many vague dark images, tension building up… while the combined voices of a few small children sing a classic childhood rhyme: “One two, buckle my shoe, Three four, shut the door” with twisted lyrics and obviously meant to sound threatening and demonic. The effect would not be the same if adults had been singing it, but something about the eerie way those young voices echo around with no music to accompany them creates a terrifying sensation. They are not depicted as the victims; they ARE the scary monster lurking in the dark.

    Mostly, children were coded as demons in the past in culture. In many societies it was an accepted belief that children misbehaved because of original sin, and they had the devil inside of them and they had to have it beaten out of them. This belief is no longer as accepted, but a fear of children has still stayed through the generations. It’s a complex that humans have. Children are the thing they love most and need to protect, and yet we fear children at the same time. Even through our love nowadays, we still show a fear for the monstrous force inside children. Imagine a playground situation, where one child pushes another one into the ground. Many people in American culture look at this situation, and instantly feel the need to save the other child and but the bully in time out, springing into action as if they are fearful of the harm that this child could cause.

    Children are outhouses of power, just waiting to be raised into criminals and murderers, deliquents with different ideals than their previous generation.

  5. I have seen the movie, Orphan, and I myself being a bit of a horror movie nut, was actually, a bit scared of her. It wasn't the movies' plot, which was your typical "meh" for a horror movie, not enough blood and gore for me personally, but I digress. It was, as Kimberly said in her post, that Esther could be any child. Despite the obvious "evil spawn of the devil" character design to Esther, with her raven black hair and creepy old fashion clothing. The fact she could just be some average run-of-the-mill child that you see running around, terrifies the hell out of me. Thank goodness, however Esther turns out to be a woman in her forties with a terrible genetic disease that makes her never go through puberty, and thus she looks like a child.
    Children can be whatever they want, but I never thought a killer would be one thing a child could be. Sure we hear the stories on the news of children killing, but I have always thought they were accidents, wrong place at the wrong time cases of bad luck. But, isn't that what this movie wants us to believe? To demonize the youth?
    Another "demon" child in the media that comes to my mind is Danny from "The Shining". Danny is different sort of demon child than Esther, rather than a suck up who is a planned cold killer, he is actually a good kid but possessed by this demonic hotel. Danny, to me, represents the child with an uncontrollable anger that screams and has a temper tantrum in the marketplace for thirty minutes because his mother doesn’t buy him a sugar-infused treat. These two images are comment in horror movie represents of children, the killer or the possessed.

  6. I have watched the trailer to the movie called Orphan a while ago and thought it was like another Chucky movie. I thought the movie Orphan was very interesting but not as scary and saw it as a history/horror movie. The movie the Orphan was about a little adult woman who is clever yet dark who turned a family's life upside down. She used her step mother's past as an alcoholic against her to be able to
    seduce her step dad. Both refer to a defenseless hummanity way which reverses itself to evil due to a desire that is hard to reach. For example; in the movie Chuck, the dolls desire is to become human once again but in order to gain that he kills any on whos trys too stop him, also finding pleasure in doing so. In the movie the Orphan, the girl trapped in a child body and is adopted to a family who dose not know nothing about her past but she falls in love with her step dad,
    finding no other way, she dose what ever she needs too even if it means killings for no one can see her motives and also showing a hit of her finding pleasure in doing so. Although not real, some may believe in pocession as shown in Chuck while others may believe in what happened in Orphan, either way there will always be two sides to opninions or more.

  7. I did not actually see The Orphan, but have stated in previous blog entries that I do not typically watch horror films- and it sounds as though I didn't really miss out on anything with this one. However, I am generally intrigued with the horror genre of film, even if I am a huge baby when it comes to watching them.
    The use of children as villain, or sociopath in this case, or demon- child, etc. is getting really old. I don't often watch the slew of cheesy, crappy horror movies advertised these days because it seems as though the plots are all painfully similar. The child is evil, and theres an attractive woman fighting the child, or trying to solve the mystery. The films The Ring and The Messengers also use children as the main source of terror. In my opinion, after The Ring, those films stopped being scary and became somewhat laughable. The outcome is so predictable- give me one example where the child is victorious. The reasons you listed as to why the girl child is the monster seem valid enough, but you could do nearly the same psychoanalytic analysis of most of the other "child monsters" in today's cinema. Honestly, I'm just kind of ready for some originality.

  8. Though I have not seen "The Orphan" I think the trailers and this in depth description is enough to give me insight on the movie and not waste 90 minutes of my precious time. This appears to be another in a string of movies about bad children. It is probably no coincidence that children depicted in film endowed with an adult like intelligence beyond their years also embody the evil pitfalls grown-ups face. Children in society are meant to appear as the wholesome reflections we wish we could be. Though there are plenty of dramatic films with evil adults, the ones containing children are the most unsettling. One such film that contains evil children is "Children of the Corn." This film is especially frightening because it is not just one troublesome child, but a whole town full that cannot be contained. Mob mentality ensues, creating the sense that, while individuals are in control of their mental faculties, groups of people do not.

    One aspect of today's society that depicts children as harmful is in the birth control market. Every ad for contraception always shows the free-spirited modern woman having the time of her life. These ads make it abundantly clear that if you have a baby, your life will suck. This is especially worrisome to the modern woman, the same woman who is finally getting paid the same salary as men and currently consists of the whole "Mad Men" writing staff.

  9. On the question of children/america's youth being coded as monstrous, I made an immediate connection to an article I read for a different class this semester. It was for my intro to college writing class. The article described a strange phenomenon going on over seas in Europe that raised considerable controversy. Over in Europe, shop owners grew tired of teenagers mingling outside of their shops, because they said that their presence deterred full-adult shoppers. The shop owners then turned to audio of all kinds to repel the teenagers. The more humane owners played classical music loudly outside the shops in an attempt to repel the teens using "lame music." This in itself raises questions, but what the more radical owners utilized it what is really being talked about.
    As some may know, there are certain frequencies that can only be heard by heard by young adults. As we grow older, our ears become deaf to those high pitched frequencies. And so, the owners decided to utilize this. They played those certain frequencies at ear-piercing levels outside their shops. The teens heard them. The 40-somethings did not.
    This is a perfect example of demonized teens. It is easy to see that this is demonizing youths: is is discrimination against an entire age group of human beings. They are seen as repulsive to these shop owners. I don't doubt that a similar event in my hometown would have me up in arms. No, the shop owners don't think I'm a killer orphen bent on murder but, being a real life example, it's even more scary to be sure.

  10. I think a lot of these points are interesting, and some of them may be true, but personally, I am against trying to code fiction stories for real-life cultural metaphors. Fiction stories are fiction for a reason: they're stories that an author or screenwriter made up; they're for entertaining, not to be taken to be true in all cases. For example, in Lesson 1, I feel that the filmmakers gave Esther no background simply because it made her more creepy. In fact, I think that having no background doesn't make her an "every-girl", she becomes something unique, or different than all of the other children the parents could have picked up. In Lesson 2, I wouldn't categorize all girls as mentally-deranged women trapped in young girls' bodies simply based off of a fictional character. Instead, I'd replace "Girls are" with "Esther is". And again, in Lesson 5, it's hard to say that girls seduce older men and back it up using Orphan. I do agree that girls seem interested in man who are older than them, but that has nothing to do with them wanting to seduce their father. Proving that girls have a daddy complex with Orphan is like proving boys' Oedipus complex with Oedipus the King. They're just fictional stories; they're not meant to taken as psychological reports.

  11. The movie was excellent and realistic. I seen story in the news about adults passing themselves off and children. The latest was a basketball player who was posing as a teen in order to live out his dream of playing basketball. He was very good and scored high for his teen but was exposed by some one who reconized him and turned him in.
    This movie also is warning because who knows what kind of person you get if you adopt and be careful of who you let into your life.

  12. I have not seen ‘The Orphan’ but from reading this article and watching the trailer, this movie really would play to peoples fears. It is not just this movie, but it is the news, other movies, books and television that plays to peoples fears as well. In our culture everything that we watch, listen to, or read affect us in some way. In the news you hear about foster children killing their foster parents, which makes people not want to adopted or foster children over the age of thirteen because they are scared that it will happen to them. They believe that these children are monstrous. In the movie/book ‘The Pet Sematary’ you have this distraught parent that brings his dead child back to life, but all that comes of it is the child starts killing those who were close to him. This plays into peoples fears because you have this sweet, innocent child who becomes this demon and parents fear that their child could become bad. You also experience this in the movie ‘The Exorcist’. Again you see this sweet, innocent child who over night becomes a demon. You see first hand the fear that takes place with in the mother. This plays to the audience’s fears because they can relate to the mothers fears and because it in based on true events, which is a scary thought that something like this could actually happen. It is not just fiction. It is interesting to see how media plays with peoples emotions, like you see in ‘The Orphan’.

  13. "The Orphan" is a movie that seems to hit people in different ways. Whenever that movie is mentioned to someone who has seen it, they automatically have something to say, whether good or bad. Even if people didn't like it, it was still a good movie because it did what it was supposed to, grab attention. Even if it is negative attention, it is still attention.
    Until I read this post, I never really noticed how many unlying messages were in this movie. I thought it was just a movie about a creepy little girl who likes to kill people. It shows how people, expecailly American families are viewed. The little girl is always the little princess that follows Daddy around and the brother is always yelled at if he messes with his sister. It also shows that constant battle between the daughter and mother. I know that once I hit a certain age, my mother and I fought non-stop. It makes me want to watch this movie again just so I can pick up on these many interesting points through out the film.


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