She is instantly recognizable as a camp icon. With her flouncing gingham dress, blond pigtails, obnoxious bangs, and disingenuously angelic voice, eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark — “the bad seed” — exhibits the thin veneer that can mask criminal insanity. Over the past decade, Mervyn Leroy’s 1956 film The Bad Seed has been endlessly parodied by drag queens, screened at teenage parties, and plumbed by David Letterman for laughs. But despite the mirth it elicits today, The Bad Seed — as well as the 1954 novel by William March (whose real name was William Edward Campbell) on which it is based — is deadly serious. We may laugh at it now but when March wrote The Bad Seed, he intended to engage fully the most important question on everyone’s mind in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Hiroshima: what are the causes of evil and how do we eradicate it — or at least keep it in abeyance?
It is probably no coincidence that, as naughty little Rhoda got camped to the max, the word “evil” found a secure place in our political vocabulary. Ronald Reagan first popularized its use as a political concept in a 1982 speech condemning the Soviet Union before the British House of Commons. Clearly a reference to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, which was released a scant year and a half earlier, Reagan’s rhetoric was pure Hollywood PR schmaltz. Among the emergent Christian right, however, the word had serious theological resonance. And that was George W. Bush’s intent when in his 2002 State of the Union address he charged Iraq, Iran, and North Korea with being an “axis of evil.” With that sop to his fundamentalist base — speechwriter David Frum originally suggested the term “axis of hatred” — Bush set the stage for the US invasion of Iraq and the next three-plus years of carnage. Just four months later, in May 2002, John Bolton, in his new role as unconfirmed US ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” to which he added Libya, Syria, and Cuba to the list of Satan’s army. The Bush administration so normalized the idea that an enemy like Hugo Chavez turned it against them, referring to Bush himself as “the devil” who left behind the smell of sulfur when he stepped out of the room.
What’s interesting here is that by politicizing evil, by applying it to entire peoples perceived as threats to the United States and Europe — the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, the fundamentalist megalomania of Osama bin Laden, the shadowy network of terrorist cells — Bush inverted the biblical concept of evil as something that makes its home in the individual human heart. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to be averse to the idea altogether, even as they rail against genocide in Darfur, massive networks of child prostitution in Thailand, and, yes, nuclear proliferation and organized terrorism, as horrific and ethically appalling. The difference is that liberalism and its pop-culture handmaidens, unwilling to reduce entire cultures to the status of “evil,” offer a broader and more complex range of analytical tools for understanding humanity’s darker turns.
So as we say goodbye to bloody 2006, it’s worth pausing to take a closer look at The Bad Seed, a work that not only allows us to distance ourselves, through camp, from the demonic forces running roughshod through the world, but offers a chance to revive a broader debate about the nature of “evil.”
Born to be wild
The film version of The Bad Seed, released half a century ago — with it’s startling performances by Nancy Kelly as Rhoda’s mother, Christine; Eileen Heckett as the mother of one of her victims; and, of course, Patty McCormick’s as the film’s unnerving anti-heroine — has all but eclipsed the novel on which it was based. Although unread and out of print today, William March’s The Bad Seed was an instant bestseller when it was published in April 1954, selling more than a million copies within a year. The New York Times called it “a true artistic achievement,” and it struck such a cord with the public that Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Maxwell Anderson penned a stage version that opened to rave reviews just 22 weeks later.
Aside from the film’s cop-out Hollywood ending, which kills off Rhoda and allows her mother to survive, its plot and narrative structure is nearly identical to March’s original work. In a near parody of post-war family life, lovely, educated Christine Penmark is married to a traveling businessman, a former army officer, and their daughter, Rhoda, is the perfect child. Suddenly their idyllic life in an unnamed Southern city (based on March’s hometown, Mobile, Alabama) is shattered by the death of a boy in Rhoda’s day school. It quickly becomes evident that Rhoda knows more about the death than she will admit, and that she murdered him. As Christine agonizes over what to do, Rhoda, covering up her crime, strikes again. Christine, the hapless heroine, is trapped in a bright, sunny all-American home with the knowledge that her perfectly behaved, obedient child is the source of malevolence and horror. This was the birth of the suburban gothic at its finest — and earliest: it was neither the older British gothic, which featured solitary young women trapped in a dark, decrepit medieval castles fighting off unknown horrors, nor the Southern gothic that had gained currency at mid century with the work of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner.