‘Orphan’ and the generational aspects of horror

If you’ve been reading my online writings for any length of time, you may already be aware that I’m a fan of the works of William Strauss and Neil Howe, who’ve proposed a generational theory of history and culture that involves a regular, pendulumlike shift in attitudes every 25 years or so — that is, about once per generation. I’m not gonna go into a lot of detail here: read The Fourth Turning [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] or particularly Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] for more info, or see FourthTurning.com.

Briefly, though, as it relates to pop culture, a very illustrative example concerns how small children are treated on TV and in the movies. In the 1950s and early 1960s, for instance, kids were Opie and the Beaver: they were cute and coddled and treasured and protected. In the later 1960s and through the 1970s, kids were quite literally demons — Rosemary’s baby and Damien — or tough, cynical adults in miniature, like Jodie Foster’s 12-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver. Move ahead to the 1980s and early 1990s, and it’s all “baby on board” signs and precocious young’uns who are wiser than the grownups around them. Things are just starting to shift again… to the point at which depictions of small children are almost absent from pop culture.
The general attitude sticks with a generation: Gen Xers were the spawn of Satan, and now we’re, oh, cynical, lonely, 40something Adam Sandler in Funny People (while, notably, the 16-years-younger Seth Rogen is smarter and wiser than his elder). Or we’re the Bad Mother of Orphan.


Back when Lee Remick was the adoptive mother of the son of Satan in 1976’s The Omen, she didn’t do anything wrong to deserve the cruel treatment she received at the hands of Damien: she was just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the hellishly wrong time. But Vera Farmiga’s Xer mom in Orphan: oh, man, she’s practically Satan herself, and clearly needs punishing. She’s an alcoholic, and her alcoholism, we’re meant to infer, was the contributing factor in the accident that, we’re meant to infer, is the cause of her youngest child’s deafness. She lost a job to her boozing, and though it’s not directly implied, it’s not so much a stretch to think that perhaps the stillbirth that ended her most recent pregnancy was the result of her drinking, too. Or perhaps she turned to drink in her grief: either way, she has neglected her two living children as well as her husband (Peter Sarsgaard), which is probably why he cheated on her.

Farmiga’s punishment may not be out of generational character, but her oppressor seems to be: We simply should not be seeing murderous small children in pop culture at the moment. It just doesn’t jibe.

Except, it turns out that it does…

See, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the demon child Farmiga and Sarsgaard adopt, the rotten little monster who torments her new mom and turns vile and homicidal, isn’t actually nine years old. She’s 33, an adult woman with a hormonal condition that keeps her perpetually childlike. (Fuhrman is actually only about 12.) She was born in 1976… which makes her a member of Generation X. She’s not just Damien-esque, she’s almost Damien himself, generationally speaking.

Would you believe me if I told you that this lack of adhering to the generational theory was bothering me all through the first hour or so of the film, and that it was my refusal to believe that anyone really thought they’d get away with a movie about a demonic actual child today led me to guess Esther’s secret?

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