Camping it Up with The Bad Seed


he 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, a staple of gay bar jokes, a stock image in the
gay press, screened at teenage parties, and plumbed by David Letterman
for laughs. But despite the mirth it elicits today,

The Bad Seed

well as the 1954 novel by William March (whose real name was William
Edward Campbell) on which it is based—is deadly serious. When
March wrote

The Bad Seed

, he intended to engage 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 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

Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

, which was released a year and
a half earlier, Reagan’s rhetoric was pure Hollywood public
relations. Among the emergent Christian right, however, the word
had serious theological resonance. 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 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the next four years
of carnage. Four months later, in May 2002, John Bolton, before
his role as unconfirmed U.S. 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. The Bush administration
so normalized the idea that Hugo Chavez later turned it against
them, referring to Bush 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 nations perceived as threats to the United States—the
regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, the fundamentalist megalomania
of Osama bin Laden, a 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. 

It’s worth taking a closer look at

The Bad Seed

, a work
that offers us a chance to revive a broader debate about the nature
of “evil.” 

The film version of

The Bad Seed

—with startling performances
by Nancy Kelly as Rhoda’s mother, Christine; Eileen Heckett
as the mother of one of her victims; and Patty McCormick as the
film’s unnerving anti-heroine—has eclipsed the novel on
which it was based. Although out of print, March’s

The Bad

was an instant bestseller when it was published in April
1954, selling more than one million copies within a year. The

York Times

called it “a true artistic achievement”
and Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Maxwell Anderson penned a
stage version that opened to rave reviews. 

Aside from the film’s cop-out Hollywood ending, which kills
Rhoda off and allows her mother to survive, its plot and narrative
structure is identical to March’s original work. In a near
parody of post-war family life, lovely, educated Christine Penmark
is married to a traveling businessperson (a former army officer)
and their daughter, Rhoda, seems the perfect child. Suddenly their
idyllic life in an unnamed Southern city 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 strikes
again. Christine, the hapless heroine, is trapped in a 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 suburban
gothic at its finest—and earliest.  

After it becomes clear that Rhoda is a sociopathic killer, March
goes to great lengths to explain why. Rather methodically, he delineates,
through conversations among the novel’s adults, three theories
that account for the cause of human “evil.” Monica Breedlove,
Christine’s landlady and a strict Freudian, treats every aspect
of human behavior as a clash between id and superego. Reginald Tasker,
a crime writer, believes human behavior is shaped by a confluence
of factors, including developmental issues and mental illness. Richard
Bravo, Christine’s war-journalist father (who is deceased in
the novel, but a character in the film) believes violence is caused
by environment, especially poverty. Christine believes—especially
after discovering that she is the daughter of a famous female serial
killer—that her daughter’s behavior is genetic, and that
mind and environment are of far less consequence than an inborn
tendency to violence. The novel and film present these theories
with equal weight and to the literate reader of the 1950s, who was
well versed in popularized Freud, as well as the cultural critiques
of Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Franz Boas, and Ruth Benedict,

Bad Seed

set off a vibrant debate about the genesis of human

March seems to come down on the side of genetics, but the way he
characterizes the individual presentation of evil informs the other
accounts. He is, after all, concerned with how to identify evil
before it strikes and describes this trait in Rhoda as “being
so cool, so impersonal about things that bother others.” Throughout
the novel he makes clear that the trait of the “bad seed”
consigns humans to lack warmth, empathy, curiosity. As Christine
and her husband reckon with just how bad their little girl is, they
take to calling it “the Rhoda reaction.” 

Under cover of a frightening gothic tale exposing the horror lurking
beneath the facade of post-war suburban tranquility, March also
explored the realm of international politics. No reader in the 1950s
could entertain a discussion of how human beings can inflict horrific
suffering on others without being constantly mindful of the Holocaust
and the bombing of Hiroshima. 

March’s biography testifies to his near-obsession with evil
and why it assumed such world-historical form. As a soldier during
World War I he was enmeshed in the horrors of war and suffered several
nervous breakdowns, as well as continued bouts of hysteria throughout
his life. He was also withdrawn and guarded in relationships—being
a deeply closeted homosexual didn’t help—and wary of all
human interaction. 

In the early 1930s, as an employee of the Waterman Steamship Corporation,
March lived in Germany and saw the rise of Nazism firsthand. In
his letters home he compared Hitler’s thugs to the KKK and
noted the rise of virulent anti-Semitism, book burning, and the
formation of the first concentration camps. He even detailed how
the German political situation was pitting family members against
one another. Certainly, as the author of

Company K

, a noted
pacifist novel published in 1933 that is considered a classic of
U.S. war fiction, March understood intimately the dangers posed
by Nazism. The genius of

The Bad Seed

is that March transferred
his observations about the Third Reich to a horror story of the
idealized American family—replete with the perfect, obedient
child who, in both novel and film, bears an uncanny resemblance
to the members of Hitler Youth. In

The Bad Seed,

March emphasizes
the parallel by describing Rhoda’s hair in Teutonic fashion
as “plaited precisely in two narrow braids which were looped
back into two hangsman-nooses.” 

While some critics in 1954 saw

The Bad Seed

as a good psychological
thriller, many took it seriously as veiled social criticism. The
critic for the

New York Herald Tribune

noted that, “It
is possible to read

The Bad Seed

as an allegory of our violent
times, as a commentary on the bewilderment and helplessness of all
men and women of average good will who find themselves face to face
with pure evil, which is incomprehensible.” In light of World
War II and all it uncovered, how else was

The Bad Seed

be interpreted?  

So what has happened since 1954? How did William March’s somber,
frightening, historically informed meditation on evil become a joke?
In part it is due to the fact that, in an era when the longstanding
mockery of suburban culture has culminated in

American Beauty

and “Desperate Housewives,” the film’s seriousness
now reads as melodrama. But it is also because the immediacy of
the Holocaust and Hiroshima has faded and been replaced by new horrors:
the carnage of Vietnam; the murderous regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador,
and Chile; the genocide in Rwanda; and the current war in Iraq have
become commonplace. Meliorated by passive television coverage and
an increasingly knee-jerk nationalism, the U.S. public has become
increasingly inured to horrors around the world. 

a nation, we have, in short, succumbed to “the Rhoda reaction,”
a lack of basic empathy for the pain of others in spite of—or
more likely because of—our government’s complicity in
horror. It took the attacks of September 11 to remind many that
really horrible things can happen in the world. But it hasn’t
helped at all that, thanks to George Bush, our national rhetoric
sees it as a result of “evil” and not geopolitics. 

“Evil” has been and still is a bipartisan word. You won’t
catch Bush describing Henry Kissinger’s decision to carpet
bomb Cambodia as “evil,” likewise the Reagan administration’s
appalling support of Pinochet’s large-scale, state-sponsored
murders. While there was some outcry over these events, by and large
“the Rhoda reaction” was and continues to be the operational
mode for too many Americans. Bush’s invocation of “evil”
heralded a sea change in our political discourse. 

Yet the worst aspect of the “Rhoda reaction” is not the
lack of empathy for human suffering—we can all understand how
humans deaden themselves to avoid dealing with pain—but rather
the lack of curiosity that goes along with it. We, as a nation,
have become appallingly incurious. 

But there is still the question of why Rhoda and

The Bad Seed

have become such staples of camp. Writers such as Susan Sontag
in her famous “Notes on Camp” argued that camp is a homosexual
sensibility that grapples with political realities by making them
ironic, in a sense, de-fanging them. Sontag did not subscribe to
the idea that camp itself was political; she assigned it an almost
completely aesthetic quality. The British artist Philip Core perhaps
had a more comprehensive explanation of camp, calling it “the
lie that tells the truth.” Indeed, this is the essence of the
political and social critique of gay male camp—to expose the
absurd formalities, the idiocies, and injustices of mainstream culture.
Perhaps, this is how the journey of little Rhoda from serious cultural
signifier to camp heroine makes the most sense. It’s possible
to say that we’ve all become Rhoda, but it’s also possible
to see the embrace of

The Bad Seed

as a commentary on how
dismal and disenfranchised much of the mainstream political culture
in the U.S. has become. 

So let’s continue to camp up dear little Rhoda—the pain
really is almost too hard to bear. Until humans of all nations can
discuss, without relying on religious abstractions, the harsh reality
of what we are doing and why, we will live in a world that eludes
comprehension. But that doesn’t absolve us from continuing
to try.

Bronski teaches gender studies and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.
His latest book is

Pulp Friction: Uncovering
the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps

(St. Martin’s Press, 2003).