The Bad Seed: Depicting the ‘Child Killer’ through costume

‘I thought I’d seen some mean little gals in my time, but you’re the meanest.’ The Bad Seed (1956) was the first of its kind – a psychological thriller that explores one of the deepest and darkest taboos, the child killer. The film was adapted from a successful play which in turn was based on the 1954 novel by William March. Rhoda Penmark, expertly played by Patty McCormack, is arguably one of cinema’s first child killers. The film paved the way for films such as The Omen (1976) and Children of the Corn (1984). The story follows Christine Penman’s (played by Nancy Kelly) descent into madness as she discovers her butter wouldn’t melt daughter is in fact a cold-hearted murderer.

Rhoda’s wardrobe, designed by American costume designer Moss Mabry can now be viewed as the archetype for the sociopathic killer. Mabry was a highly successfully designer who was nominated for an Academy Award four times and worked on classic films such as Dial M For Murder (1954), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and one of my personal favourite examples of fashion in film, What a Way To Go (1964). So how does one dress an 8-year-old sociopath?

Rhoda wears several outfits during the film, all similar in style with repeat design details such as peter pan collars, full petticoats and button backs mostly in pastel shades. She wears clothing that was popular amongst children during the 1950s but she wore the prim and proper garments in an unnerving manner. With Rhoda there never seems to be an off day with every outfit she wears appearing to be her best.

We are first introduced to Rhoda as she sweet talks her father who is going off to Washington to work. She says her goodbyes in a pristine short babydoll dress with immaculate blonde plaited pigtails. The dress is made even shorter with volumes of frothy petticoats underneath and throughout the film there is an unsettling series of ‘upskirt’ shots of the young girl. The dress is red & white dotted swiss tulle, matching white-collar and cuffs and a thin black patent belt. Her parents neighbour and landlady, Monica Breedlove played by Evelyn Varden, a prissy know it all from
upstairs joins in with the families farewells and she gifts Rhoda a pair of bejewelled cat eye sunglasses to ‘keep the sun out of those pretty blue eyes and rhinestones to frame them’. The  glasses are incredibly glamorous and sophisticated – a seemingly inappropriate gift for an 8-yearold child. Of course Rhoda, older than her years, loves the gift and we see her admiring herself in the mirror.

Each outfit worn by Rhoda appears freshly laundered with fastenings flush and hems straight. Throughout the film Rhoda’s obsessive cleanliness is commented on by those around her. Her mother responds, “Oh Rhoda never gets anything dirty – how does she manage it?”. The level of tidiness in Rhoda is incredibly unusual for an 8 year old – almost unsettling in the control over her appearance. Rhoda doesn’t want to be like the other children and when asked by Mrs Breedlove why she doesn’t wear blue jeans like the other children she appears affronted at the very thought of wearing jeans. Her mother begins to worry about Rhoda – there’s something about her daughter that she just can’t quite put her finger on.

Things begin to fall into place for Christine when the young Claude Daigle, the winner of the Penmanship Award in Rhoda’s school suspiciously drowns at a class picnic. Rhoda desperately wanted to win the medal and she was the last person to see Claude over at the unsupervised pier. As news of the little boys death circulates the neighbourhood Rhoda returns from the outing seemingly unscathed by the traumatic scenes. She appears more interested in having her mother fix her lunch – a peanut butter sandwich and milk. When asked if she’s okay Rhoda replies, ‘I don’t feel anyway at all’. Rhoda then merrily skips through to her bedroom, changing out of her beloved cleated shoes which raises alarm bells with her mother.

Shortly after this we are introduced to Leroy Jessup played by Henry Jones, a depraved apartment janitor who slinks around the Penman’s home with a suspicious interest in both Christine and Rhoda. Rhoda and Leroy have a tumultuous relationship – incredibly unsettling for that of an adult man and child. Leroy leers over Rhoda, insisting they are very much the same – smart & mean whilst Rhoda treats Leroy as the help, shouting and scalding him to her delight.

Another outfit change, same silhouette this time with a puffed sleeves, bows across the chest and peter pan collar. People begin to talk and things fall into place – why was Rhoda out at the lake with Claude and didn’t someone see her chase around him for the Penmanship medal? Her mother begins to question Rhoda but Rhoda remains cool, calm and collected, manipulating and changing the conversation with every question.

The picnic scene is telling of Rhoda’s place amongst her fellow classmates. Rhoda singles herself out from her peers at the picnic wearing her starched Sunday best. Children are running around, laughing in jeans, ponytails and casual stripes whilst Rhoda broods in a party frock. Rhoda wears patent dolly shoes that she has modified with cleats as ‘they last longer’. What 8-year-old cares about the wear and tear of footwear? I know I definitely didn’t! Also telling is Rhoda’s neat freak of a wardrobe, with dresses lined up uniformly in a row with matching shoes beneath. We can tell it wasn’t her mother who did this.

Rhoda’s hairstyle plays a large part in indicating her psyche. Each day her plaited pigtails appear perfect without a hair out-of-place. Rhoda’s relationship with her mother is strained, we see this especially when, as her mother leans in for a hug, Rhoda jerks away and her mother apologies, ‘I’m sorry I know you don’t like people pawing over you.’ Perhaps this explains how Rhoda’s appearance is never out of place.

Eventually the story unravels and Rhoda confides in her mother that she killed Claude but insisted it was his fault, ‘if he gave me the medal like I told him too i wouldn’t have hit him.’ Rhoda hit Claude repeatedly with her cleated shoes and it now all makes sense as to why Christine caught her daughter trying to dispose of the shoes down the incinerator earlier that day. Rhoda and her mother have an unusual relationship – one where Rhoda seems to be in the lead. Rhoda dresses well, has a maintained controlled images and her mother in contrast wears simple, practical outfits in muted tones. Her hair is cut short and she appears to not wear a lot of makeup or outlandish jewellery. Compared to her head strong, defiant daughter Christine is reduced into a breathless daze for the majority of the film. She is on the brink of tears and when she finally realises her daughter has killed she asks Rhoda, ‘what are we going to do?’

Throughout the film there is the craze of psychoanalysis and the ‘nature versus nurture theory’. Christine herself finds herself coming to terms with some of her own childhood repressed memories and she finds out that her high society upbringing was one facilitated through a chance adoption. The Bad Seed focuses a lot of societal classes. We can see this in the relationship between Christine and Claude’s mother Hortense Daigle. Hortense is a self-proclaimed lush and she barges into the Penman apartment unannounced on several occasions demanding to speak to Rhoda. Mrs Daigle works in a beauty parlour and feels looked down upon by Christine and her friends. Christine being from ‘a higher level of society’. She remarks on Christine’s simple outfit – a circle skirt and Raglan sleeved blouses slurring ‘you can wear such simple things’. The Penman upper class privileges is apparent throughout the film with Rhoda herself treating Leroy in a subservient manner.

In another frilled pinafore and petticoat Leroy confronts Rhoda – this time telling her he has her cleated shoes. He’s onto her and knows what she did to little Claude. Rhoda defiantly says, ‘they don’t put little girls in the electric chair’, Leroy replies, ‘they’ve got a little blue chair for a boy and a little pink chair for little gals’. Rhoda seems, for once, shaken by this comment. After an argument with Leroy Rhoda sweet talks her mother into allowing her to visit the ice-cream man for a popsicle and she sneaks out some matches. Her mother sees this. The next scene we hear the cries of Leroy as he is being burned alive in the basement below. Christine knows at once that his fate was
at the hands of Rhoda.

Christine takes charge and plans to kill both Rhoda and herself. She loves her daughter and doesn’t want her to be a victim of her doomed genetics. She gives Rhoda sleeping pills and shots herself.  Surprisingly both survive and we see Rhoda tapping through the hospital days later awaiting news of her gravely ill mother’s recovery. This is the first time we see Rhoda wearing a dark outfit of plaid pinafore, cardigan and bobby socks. Prior to this Rhoda has worn pastels which is in line with the classic film noir trope of the femme fatale wearing lighter colours prior to their character’s demise.

In the last scene Rhoda sneaks out of the apartment wearing Wellington’s, a rain coat and hat to retrieve the Penmanship Medal (that her mother had dumped in the lake). This outfit is eerily similar to that of the supposed child killer in 1976’s horror Alice, Sweet Alice. For those that have yet to watch The Bad Seed I will not spoil the ending for you but promise there’s some serendipitous satisfaction with Rhoda’s character. And a very odd out-take.

The cookie cutter image of Rhoda was one of the first representations of its kind onscreen. Nowadays as viewers we are familiar with the perfection displayed onscreen by sociopaths and know to expect a seedier story to unfold. Back in the 1950s the audience expected young girls to courtesy, wear bows and frills and have an ‘enchanting smile’. Throughout effective storytelling and unsettling use of wardrobe and mannerisms the unsavoury story of Rhoda became clear. The Bad Seed allowed characters such as Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman to become staples within the horror genre. Today we know that textbook ‘normal’ appearances are often used to mask a depravity beneath. Rhoda Penman used the 1950s ideal of what a little girl should be and subverted social class, appearances and morals to introduce the world to a horror character – the child murderer.

 

by Casci Ritchie

Casci Ritchie is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Beetlejuice, Double Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter at @CasciTRitchie & her blog www.casciritchie.com.

2 replies »

  1. Great analysis of fashion revealing the character of sociopathic child killer! The Bad Seed is one of my favorite films in this genre. I remember being very disturbed by my first viewing, but I couldn’t stop thinking about and couldn’t wait to see it again. The fact that the outwardly cherub-like Rhoda spends her time buried in perfectly turned out lacy confections makes her true nature all the more horrifying. Thanks for a great read and a well written blog. You can catch my blog: Queen of the Lot at maxmcmanus.com.

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  2. Just a follow up to my previous comment. I had to watch Bad Seed again after reading your blog, God help me. I love the opening shot in which we first see the little Rhoda admiring herself in the mirror wearing her new rhinestone encrusted sunglasses. My first thought–what is she hiding? I get chills. BTW, love Mabry’s crisp, streamlined designs for Christine. Perfect. Thanks again!

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