The Bad Seed is a 1954 novel by William March, the last of his major works published before his death.
Nominated for the 1955 National Book Award for Fiction, The Bad Seed tells the story of a mother's realization that her young daughter has committed a murder. Its enormous critical and commercial success was largely realized after March's death only one month after publication.
Eight-year-old Rhoda is the only child of Kenneth and Christine Penmark. Kenneth goes away on business, leaving Christine and Rhoda at home. Christine begins to notice that Rhoda is acting strangely toward one of her classmates, Claude Daigle, who mysteriously drowns at a school picnic. The boy's death is presumed accidental, except for one unexplained detail: his face was dappled with strange crescent shaped marks. Christine learns that Rhoda quarreled with Claude over a perfect penmanship medal that the boy won but which Rhoda believed she deserved, and has lied about the last time she saw her classmate.
Faced with Rhoda's deception, Christine begins to reevaluate a few troubling incidents from the past. After Rhoda had begged her parents for a dog, she quickly became bored with it, and the animal died in what Rhoda described as an accidental fall from the apartment window. An elderly neighbor had promised Rhoda a necklace upon her death, and soon after died from a fall down the stairs while babysitting Rhoda. Additionally, Rhoda was expelled from her school for repeatedly lying. Disturbed by the idea that her daughter might be a murderer, Christine begins investigating true crime stories and indirectly asks friends for advice under the guise of writing a novel. Christine discovers that she was adopted as a young child and that her birth mother is Bessie Denker, a notorious serial killer about whom she has fragmented memories. Christine feels guilty and blames herself for passing on the murderous "bad seed" to her daughter, yet hopes that Rhoda might have unintentionally killed Claude during a squabble over the medal. Christine writes a series of lengthy, tortured letters to her husband expressing her worries, but never mails them.
In the meantime, Leroy Jessup, the crude-minded maintenance man at the Penmark's apartment, is the only adult who sees through Rhoda's charming facade. He relentlessly teases the child, believing her responsible for Claude's death. He tells Rhoda that police can discover traces of blood on the cleated shoes she used to beat Claude, the cleats that left crescent-moon marks on his face, and the cleats she hasn't worn since Claude's death. Afraid Leroy will expose her, Rhoda waits until he's asleep in his shed and lights his mattress on fire, killing him. A shocked Christine witnesses the murder, but others attribute Leroy's death to falling asleep while smoking.
Christine confronts Rhoda, who initially attempts to lie and manipulate her mother before confessing to killing Claude, Leroy and their neighbor in Baltimore, all the while shifting blame to the victims and expressing no remorse. Christine is now unable to deny Rhoda's crimes and fears that Rhoda will end up like Bessie Denker. She gives Rhoda an entire bottle of sleeping pills and then shoots herself. The child survives but Christine dies. It is implied that Rhoda will follow her grandmother's path and commit more acts of murder.
Rhoda Penmark: Rhoda is portrayed as a sociopath, although the term was not widely used at the time. She has no conscience and will kill if necessary to get whatever she wants. By the time Christine, her mother, puts the truth together, Rhoda has already killed two people (a neighbor in Baltimore, and her classmate Claude Daigle). In time, she also kills Leroy, the apartment building's gardener and the only adult who sees through her. An adept manipulator, she can easily charm adults while eliciting fear and revulsion from other children, who can sense something wrong with her.
Christine Penmark: The mother of Rhoda Penmark. As the novel unfolds, Christine slowly pieces together that Rhoda had killed Claude Daigle, and will undoubtedly kill again. She writes letters to her husband about her worries and discovery of Rhoda's true nature, but in the end disposes of them. Christine is described as beautiful. She has Nordic feminine features that are traced to her biological father. Richard Bravo adopted Christine. She has suspected being adopted since her late teenage years, but did not pursue the idea in fear of upsetting her adoptive parents. Christine’s biological mother is Bessie Denker, an infamous serial killer who was executed when Christine was a child. In the end, Christine attempts to kill Rhoda by giving her sleeping pills and then shoots herself with a revolver.
Leroy Jessup: The maintenance man who works for Monica Breedlove. He is a depraved individual and sees Rhoda as a kindred spirit. Due to his sick mind, he is the only adult character, other than Christine, who notices that Rhoda is unlike other children and constantly taunts her. Leroy tells Rhoda that blood cannot wash off with water. Rhoda only reacts to Leroy’s taunting when he claims to have the shoes with which she killed Claude Daigle. Leroy refuses to return the shoes to Rhoda, and when the realization sets in that she actually did kill Claude, he denies ever having them. Shortly after, Leroy is burned to death on his makeshift bed in the garage by a fire started by Rhoda.
Monica Breedlove: The Penmarks’ landlady and Christine's best friend. She considers herself to be somewhat of a psychotherapist and claims she had been examined by Sigmund Freud. She is very social and holds many parties. Monica adores Rhoda and believes her to be a very extraordinary child. She gives Rhoda a locket she received when she was eight and a pair of sunglasses with a case. Monica knows that Christine is upset and suspects she is either sick, or that her marriage with Kenneth is under strain. She never discovers the truth about Rhoda and is ultimately upset and befuddled as to why Christine would commit suicide.
Reginald Tasker: A writer and friend of Monica Breedlove. He provides Christine with information about Bessie Denker. He is friends with and fairly attracted to Christine. He informs Christine that her supposed father, Richard Bravo, worked diligently on the Bessie Denker case. Reginald Tasker also makes mention that Bessie Denker's youngest daughter was the only one who survived from the family.
Claude Daigle: The little boy whom Rhoda drowned the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic. He won the Penmanship medal that Rhoda declared to be hers. He is described as a timid and shy boy who rarely stood up to others. He was the only child of Hortense and Dwight Daigle. Rhoda murdered Claude because he would not give her the penmanship medal.
March based Bessie Denker on real-life serial killer Belle Gunness.
A well-known (fictional) serial killer. She is the biological mother of Christine Penmark and the grandmother of Rhoda Penmark. Christine faintly remembers living with her biological family and escaping from her mother. Bessie Denker never makes a physical appearance in the novel. The character's life and murderous history is thoroughly described in the notes of Reginald Tasker. Bessie Denker's career is based very roughly on the real-life careers of Belle Gunness and Jane Toppan. The description of her execution in the electric chair is based on that of Ruth Snyder.
Kenneth Penmark: The father of Rhoda and husband of Christine. Kenneth is already away on business when the novel begins and he does not return until the very end, after his wife's suicide. Kenneth never discovers the truth about Rhoda or the reasoning behind Christine's attempted suicide and attempted murder of Rhoda.
Emory Wages: Monica Breedlove's brother, who lives with his sister. He flirts with Christine at different social gatherings.
Claudia Fern: The Fern sister that reprimands Rhoda for harassing Claude the day of the picnic. She describes the events the day of the picnic to Christine along with her two other sisters, and she informs Christine that her sisters and she do not wish to have Rhoda attend their school the following year.
Octavia Fern: Fern sister who explains to Christine why the sisters did not ask the Penmarks to donate money for a flower arrangement to be presented at Claude’s funeral.
Burgess Fern: Fern sister in charge of enrollment at the Fern School. She would not hold the penmanship medal for Claude Daigle the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic.
Richard Bravo: Christine's adopted father, who was killed in an airplane crash during World War II. He was a well-known columnist and war correspondent, performing great research in the "Bessie Denker" case. He never told Christine she was adopted or that Bessie Denker was her biological mother.
Hortense Daigle: Mother of Claude Daigle. She is a plain, large woman who believes that the Fern sisters look down on her for being a hairdresser and marrying late. She is devastated by her son’s death and turns to alcohol as a source of comfort. She knows that Rhoda had something to do with Claude’s death and seeks her out to find answers.
Dwight Daigle: Father of Claude Daigle. He tries to help his wife, Hortense Daigle, and keep her under control as she suffers from the death of their son.
Mrs. Forsythe: She is an elderly woman who, towards the end of the novel, baby-sits Rhoda. Rhoda never harms Mrs. Forsythe because she does not have anything Rhoda wants.
Belle Blackwell: Teacher of the Sunday school Rhoda attends who gives Rhoda a copy of Elsie Dinsmore.
Clara Post: The old woman who lived with the Penmarks and her daughter, Edna, in the same apartment house in Witchita, Kansas. She befriended Rhoda and believed her to be truly delightful. She promised Rhoda that when she died Rhoda could have an item.
Edna: She is the widowed daughter of Mrs. Clara Post. She lives with her mother in the same apartment house in Witchita, Kansas as the Penmarks. Her mother died the day she left to go to the supermarket. Edna was skeptical of Rhoda's story of her mother's accidental death. She did not invite the Penmarks to the funeral or speak to them after the incident.
Nature versus nurture
In the decade the novel was published, juvenile delinquency began to be far more common, or at least more extensively reported and documented. Compared to earlier history, the idea of child crimes was a new phenomenon. A controversy about nature and nurture arose as psychiatric explanations were proposed for juvenile delinquency, with the debate being whether inborn tendencies ("nature") are more or less important than environmental factors ("nurture") in explaining deviant behavior.
Supporters of the “nature” side suggested that some people are born evil or with malicious tendencies. The idea that nature prevails over nurture is implied in The Bad Seed. March incorporates the notion that a murderous genetic trait is being passed down through the generations. Within the plot of the story, Rhoda is a serial murderer just like her grandmother, having inherited the murderous gene. Rhoda had been brought up as a privileged child; she was nurtured emotionally and physically and thus a broken homelife was not to blame for her actions. Reginald Tasker hints and suggests at the idea of nature taking effect when he quotes that "some people are just born evil", when discussing Bessie Denker with Christine.
Psychologist Robert D. Hare, who argues that the evidence suggests psychopathy is an inborn trait, discusses The Bad Seed in his 1993 non-fiction book Without Conscience. A lengthy quote from the novel opens Hare's book, describing in March's words how most decent individuals are not by nature suspicious and thus unable to understand or anticipate the acts of evil and depravity that some people are capable of committing. Later in his book, Hare argues that March's novel is a "remarkably true to life" portrayal of the development of psychopathy in childhood, illustrating both Rhoda's callous use of others to serve her own ends as well as Christine's growing helplessness and desperation as she realizes the extent of her daughter's behavior.
"Let it be said quickly: William March knows where human fears and secrets are buried. He announced it in Company K, a novel published twenty years ago and equaled only by Dos Passos' Three Soldiers as a sampling of men at war. He has proved it again and again in the other novels and short stories, all of them floored and walled in what Clifton Fadiman decided to call "Psychological acumen". But nowhere is this gift better displayed than in The Bad Seed — the portrayal of a coldly evil, murderous child and what she does to both victims and family. In the author's hands this is adequate material for an absolutely first class novel of moral bewilderments and responsibilities nearest the heart of our decade."
"Dark, original, ultimately appalling, William March's extraordinary new novel is, on the obvious level, a straightforward, technically accomplished story of suspense. The manner of its telling — the dispassionate, exact, almost starched prose, with its occasional glints of sardonic humor — is an impressive achievement in itself. It lends some credibility to a narrative against which the imagination rebels; and towards the end, as horror is piled upon horror, it saves the book from falling headlong into absurdity... This is a novel bound to arouse strong responses, to generate vehement discussion, and so not easily to be forgotten."
"The Bad Seed would have been a stronger novel without this false premise — the granddaughter of a murderess is no more likely to be a murderess than the granddaughter of a seamstress, or anyone else. Apart from this flaw, however, The Bad Seed is a novel of suspense and mounting horror, which the reader who can close his eyes to March's unnecessary premise will enjoy as the work of one of the most satisfying of American novelists."
"The Bad Seed is terrifyingly good, not only because its theme is worked out so powerfully, but because every character is convincing. One has to believe that these appalling things took place exactly as the author says they did."
On April 25, 1955, the play transferred to the Coronet Theatre (now the Eugene O'Neill Theatre), where it completed its successful run of 334 performances on September 27, 1955. Nancy Kelly, the actress who played Christine, won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The audience made claims that Patty McCormack, the child actress who played Rhoda, was the most memorable character.
Mervyn LeRoy was the director of the 1956 movie. In LeRoy's Hollywood career, he produced and or directed over 70 films including Little Caesar and Little Women. Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack and the majority of the original cast acted in the 1956 movie. The ending of the 1956 film was changed from the novel in order to comply with the Hays Code. Rhoda is struck and killed abruptly by lightning when she goes back to the scene of her crime to retrieve the medal, while Christine survives her suicide attempt. During the closing credits, LeRoy added a light-hearted sequence of Nancy Kelly, Christine, holding Patty McCormack, Rhoda, over her leg and spanking her — possibly to remind audiences that this is just a play.
The Bad Seed was remade as a television movie in 1985, adapted by George Eckstein and directed by Paul Wendkos and kept the novel's original ending. It starred Blair Brown as Christine, Lynn Redgrave as Monica, David Carradine as Leroy, Richard Kiley as Richard Bravo, and Chad Allen as Claude Daigle. Carrie Wells played the title character, whose name was modernized as "Rachel." The TV-movie version was considered inferior to both the play and original film.
Eli Roth was set to direct a new remake of the film, as stated by MovieWeb.com. Roth promised a new take with a modern horror sensibility. "The original was a great psychologicalthriller, and we are going to bastardize and exploit it, ramping up the body counts and killings," said Roth. "This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we're going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She's this cute, cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves 'N Sync."
^Hare, Robert D. (, 1999)Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, The Guildford Press, pp. 155-156