“Oh yes, children often commit murders. And quite clever ones too.”
I love a killer. Her golden hair is plaited in two long pigtails, her eyes are bright and curious, and her smile is the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. She’s eight years old. Her name is Rhoda, of Mervyn LeRoy’s campy horror classic, The Bad Seed (1956).
Rhoda Penmark was the first of her kind, a serial killer child. And she is the most menacing child villain committed to film. I hear you protesting. There are more wicked movie children, ones who make Rhoda look harmless. No. They do not compare.
She seems like a typical suck-up, the kind of prissy child who conceals her mischief well.
“What will give you me for a basket of kisses?”
“I’ll give you a basket of hugs!”
This is a common exchange between Rhoda and her parents. Sickly sweet. Perfectly emblematic of the wholesome, untarnished, nuclear family of 1950s America.
Kenneth (William Hopper) is an air force colonel who goes away on military leave. Christine (Nancy Kelly) is an attractive housewife. They both obviously love Rhoda, but Christine senses that her daughter has a maturity that’s disturbing for a child.
When discussing a penmanship medal that was awarded to one of Rhoda’s classmates, Claude Daigle, her face crumbles with fury. She believes the medal belonged to her, that she deserved it much more than Claude. Christine explains that disappointments are part of life, but Rhoda’s abrupt anger clues us into something that most of the adults around Rhoda don’t see.
During a school picnic, one of Rhoda’s classmates, Claude Daigle actually, drowns in the lake. Christine is so anxious, after her initial terror that Rhoda was the drowning victim subsides, because she doesn’t know how to discuss poor Claude’s death. But Rhoda is strangely unaffected when she arrives home. She asks her mother for a peanut butter sandwich, then goes roller skating. Leroy, the sleazy caretaker in the building, is the only one who sees right through Rhoda.
“If you ask me, you ain’t even sorry about what happened to that poor little boy!”
“Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigle got drowned, not me.”
I love this little monster against all my better judgement. But it’s hard for me not to, even when she says something as cruel and heartless as that.
Although Rhoda never interacts with other children in the film, it’s hinted that she doesn’t have many friends her own age. One of her teachers is evasive when Christine asks if she’s well liked among the other children. The novel by William March is much more clear regarding other children. They avoid Rhoda because they sense that there’s something sinister about her, as if she were a rosebush with a body rotting underneath.
Rhoda is too perfect. Too polite, too unruffled, too calculating. She’s effortlessly manipulative, knowing just how to sweeten her words and appear guileless before adults. And that’s the unique danger she represents, how easily she’s able to fool those clueless grownups. All they see is the perfect child who never misbehaves or disrupts anything. “I wish she were mine,” says the landlady, Monica Breedlove, who absolutely dotes on Rhoda.
The fact that she’s remorseless and lacks empathy is bad enough, but these are frightening traits for a little girl to possess. Normally, a child like Rhoda, with her pigtails, frilly dresses, and prim demeanor, evokes innocence and pleasantness. The fact that she is anything but, that she’s actually a mini sociopath, is all the more unnerving. Rhoda truly thinks and behaves like an eight year old. She covets trinkets and school awards like any child would, but actually kills to get them. And then she hides her crimes, expresses no guilt whatsoever, attempts to fool her mother so she can avoid punishment and of course, kill again.
The Bad Seed is equal parts fascinating and disturbing. Are people just born evil? Can it really not be prevented in childhood with a nurturing environment and loving, attentive parents? Can sociopathy be inherited? The answer is yes. The answer is Rhoda Penmark.
I wrote this post for the Reel Infatuation blogathon. Click the banner below to read about more character crushes!