The Bad Seed

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The Bad Seed
First edition
AuthorWilliam March
CountryUnited States
GenrePsychological horror
PublisherRinehart & Company
Publication date
April 8, 1954
Media typePrint (Hardcover & paperback)
Pages247 pp (reprint edition)
ISBN978-0-06-079548-1 (reprint edition)
Preceded byOctober Island (1952) 
Followed byA William March Omnibus (1956) 

The Bad Seed is a 1954 novel by American writer 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 is a murderer. Its enormous critical and commercial success was largely realized after March's death only one month after publication.

In 1954, the novel was adapted into a successful and long-running Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, and in 1956 into an Academy Award-nominated film directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Plot summary[edit]

Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark appears to be what every little girl brought up in a loving home should be. Outwardly, she is charming, polite and intelligent beyond her years. To most adults, she's every parent's dream: obedient, well-groomed, and compliant. She reads books, does her homework, and practices her piano scales, all without being asked by her parents. However, most children keep their distance from her, sensing there is something not quite right about her. This is especially true for the students at Fern Grammar School, her new school in a small town named Benedict.

Rhoda is the only child of Christine Penmark and her husband, Kenneth, who goes away on business. Christine begins to notice that Rhoda acts strangely toward one of her classmates, Claude Daigle, who mysteriously drowns at a school picnic later. She then notices that Rhoda is indifferent to the boy's death, which is presumed accidental, albeit with one unexplained detail: his face was imprinted with crescent-shaped marks. Christine learns that Rhoda quarreled with Claude over a medal award for perfect penmanship that the boy won, but which Rhoda believed she deserved. She also lied about the last time she saw Claude.

Faced with Rhoda's deception, Christine begins to reevaluate troubling incidents from the past. After Rhoda had begged her parents for a pet dog, she quickly became bored with it, and the animal died in what she described as an "accidental fall" from the window. An elderly neighbor, Clara Post, had promised her a special snow globe upon her death, and, soon after, suffered a fatal fall while babysitting Rhoda, who now proudly owns the trinket. Additionally, Rhoda was once expelled from a school for repeatedly being caught lying to teachers and staff who described her as a "cold, self-sufficient child".

Disturbed by the idea that her daughter might indeed be the one behind all these tragedies, Christine begins investigating and discovers that she was actually adopted by her parents, including investigative journalist Richard Bravo, when she was found as the sole survivor of a murdering spree. Her birth mother was Bessie Denker, a notorious serial killer who died in the electric chair, and of whom Christine has vague memories. Christine blames herself for passing on the murderous "bad seed" gene to her child, yet clings to the hope that Rhoda might have killed Claude by accident. She writes a series of tortured letters to her husband about Rhoda but never mails them in fear of what may happen if someone reads the letters and goes to the authorities. In all this investigation, Christine slowly begins to deteriorate and become a shell of her former self, which is immediately noticed by Christine's friend and neighbor Monica Breedlove.

Leroy Jessup, the maintenance man who lives and works at the Penmarks' apartment complex, is the only other adult besides Christine who sees through Rhoda's phony charming facade. Believing she simply has a mean streak, Leroy relentlessly teases her, pretending to believe that she is responsible for Claude's death. Leroy's wife Thelma warns him about harassing the girl, but he refuses to listen. Rhoda is unfazed by his teasing until Leroy teases that she must've used her cleated shoes to beat Claude, explaining the crescent-shaped marks left on the boy's face. Immediately after, he realizes he stumbled onto the truth by the way Rhoda reacts to his accusations. Afraid he will expose her, she waits until Leroy is asleep and lights his mattress ablaze before locking him inside. A horrified Christine witnesses the murder from a distance; it occurs so quickly she has no time to get help. Others believe his death to be accidental, from falling asleep while smoking, thus starting the fire.

Christine confronts Rhoda, who initially attempts to lie and manipulate her mother before finally confessing to killing Claude, Leroy, and Clara Post, all the while expressing no remorse. Christine fears her daughter will eventually end up like Bessie Denker in the electric chair. In a desperate attempt to prevent Rhoda from killing anyone else, Christine secretly gives her sleeping pills so she will die painlessly in an overdose. She then shoots herself in the head with a pistol that was in her nightstand.

Christine later dies in the hospital. However, a neighbor hears the gunshot and saves Rhoda. A heartbroken Kenneth returns home, believing Christine had suffered a nervous breakdown. And no one the wiser as to what she has done, as Christine had destroyed her unsent letters and other evidence, Rhoda is free to kill again.

Character list[edit]

Major characters[edit]

  • Rhoda Penmark: Rhoda is portrayed as a high-functioning sociopath, although the term was not widely used at the time the book was written. She has no conscience, and will not hesitate to harm or kill whoever stands in her way at achieving her goal. She sees murder as something that is necessary if she believes her target to be a potential threat. An adept manipulator, Rhoda can easily charm and mislead adults, while eliciting fear and revulsion from other children, who can sense that something is wrong with her. It is implied that she inherited these traits from her maternal grandmother Bessie Denker, who was a famous convicted serial killer. By the time her mother Christine puts the facts together, Rhoda has already killed at least two people. She also kills Leroy Jessup, the apartment building's live-in gardener. When Christine uncovers Rhoda's dark secret, she attempts to murder her by giving her an overdose, but is unsuccessful when their landlady saves Rhoda's life. Rhoda is indifferent to her mother's suicide and it is implied she will follow in the footsteps of her infamous grandmother.
  • Christine Penmark: The young and empathetic mother of Rhoda Penmark. Christine is described as very beautiful. She has Nordic feminine features that are traced to her biological father. She is well-groomed, intelligent, and despite being a submissive 1950s homemaker, she is very independent. She slowly pieces together that Rhoda is a killer. Christine doesn't know whether she should love or hate her daughter, but knows that Rhoda will kill again if something is not done. She discovers that her own biological mother was Bessie Denker, an infamous serial killer who was executed. In the end, Christine finally attempts to kill Rhoda to stop her, then shoots herself in the head.
  • Leroy Jessup: The crude maintenance man who works for the elderly landlady, Monica Breedlove. He is a depraved individual and sees Rhoda as a kindred spirit. Due to his crude mind and dark sense of humor, he is the only adult character, other than Christine, who notices that Rhoda is unlike other children and enjoys teasing her. Rhoda only reacts to his teasing when he claims to have the shoes with which she killed Claude. When the realization sets in that she actually did kill Claude, he denies ever having them. Shortly thereafter, he is locked inside his makeshift shed by Rhoda, who sets the shed on fire, leaving him inside to die.
  • Monica Breedlove: The Penmarks' landlady and Christine's confidante, she is an older pretentious woman who considers herself to be somewhat of a psychotherapist and claims she was once examined by Sigmund Freud. Monica adores Rhoda, whom she believes to be extraordinary, even wishing the child were hers. Monica knows that Christine is upset but suspects she is either ill, or that her marriage with Kenneth is under strain. She never discovers the truth about Rhoda and is upset as to why Christine would kill herself. At the end of the novel, she saves Rhoda's life but it is implied that Rhoda is plotting to kill her next.
  • Reginald Tasker: A writer and friend of Monica, he provides Christine with information about an infamous serial killer, Bessie Denker. He is friends with and fairly attracted to Christine. He informs Christine that her supposed biological father, Richard Bravo, worked diligently on the Denker case. Tasker mentions that Bessie Denker's youngest daughter was her only surviving family.
  • Claude Daigle: The only child of Hortense and Dwight Daigle, he is described as a timid and shy boy who rarely stood up to others. He is never seen but it is discerned that he was last seen running away from Rhoda at a school picnic. He refused to give her the penmanship medal award he had won but which she declared to be hers. Rhoda repeatedly hit Claude so hard with her shoe that she knocked him unconscious and he fell into the lake and quickly drowned.
  • Bessie Denker: 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. Denker never makes a physical appearance in the novel, having long ago been executed. The character's life and murderous history is thoroughly described in the notes of Reginald Tasker. Denker's career is based very roughly on the real-life careers of Belle Gunness and Jane Toppan.[citation needed] The description of her execution in the electric chair is based on that of Ruth Snyder.[citation needed]

Minor characters[edit]

  • Kenneth Penmark: The father of Rhoda and husband of Christine. Kenneth is 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 suicide and attempted murder of Rhoda as his wife neglected to leave him any information, even confidentially, and had destroyed her earlier unsent letters.
  • Emory Wages: Monica Breedlove's brother, who lives with his sister. He flirts with Christine at different social gatherings.
  • Claudia Fern: The Fern sister who 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. She informs Christine that Rhoda will not be welcome to attend their school the following term.
  • 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[clarification needed] the penmanship medal for Claude Daigle on the fateful day of the 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. A plain, large woman who believes that the Fern sisters look down on her for being a hairdresser and marrying late in life, she is devastated by her son's death and turns to alcohol as a source of comfort. She senses that Rhoda knows something about or had something to do with her son's death and seeks her out twice to cajole answers.
  • Dwight Daigle: Father of Claude Daigle. He tries to help his anguished wife and keep her under control as she suffers from the death of their son. The character's forename was changed from Dwight in the novel to Henry for the 1956 play and film, and to Fred for the 1985 television adaptation.
  • Mrs. Forsythe: 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 elderly woman who lived with the Penmarks and her daughter, Edna, in the same apartment house in Wichita, Kansas. She befriended Rhoda and believed her to be truly delightful. She promised Rhoda that when she died Rhoda could have an item. Her widowed daughter, Edna, lived with her mother in the same apartment house in Wichita, Kansas as the Penmarks. Her mother died the day Edna left to go to the supermarket. Edna was skeptical of Rhoda's story about her mother's death and did not invite the Penmarks to the funeral or speak to them after the incident.

Primary theme[edit]

Nature versus nurture[edit]

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 home life was not to blame for her actions. Tasker hints and suggests at the idea of nature taking effect when he quotes that "some people are just born evil", when discussing 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.[1]


"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."[2]
"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."[3]
"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."[4]
"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."[5]


Broadway play[edit]

Maxwell Anderson adapted the book for the stage almost immediately after its publication. Anderson had previously won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1935 and 1936 for his plays Winterset and High Tor, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1933 for his play Both Your Houses. Reginald Denham directed the play using Anderson's script. The play opened on Broadway on December 8, 1954 at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre), less than a year after the publication of the novel.

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.[6]

1956 film[edit]

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 most of the original cast acted in the 1956 movie. The ending of the 1956 film was changed from that of the novel and the play to comply with the Hollywood Production Code. Rhoda is suddenly struck and killed by lightning when she goes back to the scene of her crime to retrieve the medal (allowing an interpretation of Divine intervention), 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.[7]

1985 film[edit]

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 but changed other details, including some forenames (i.e. Claude Daigle → Mark Daigle, Hortense Daigle → Rita Daigle, Claudia Fern → Alice Fern) and added a scene in which young Christine escapes into a cornfield from her own sociopathic mother, Bessie Denker.

This version starred Blair Brown as Christine, Lynn Redgrave as Monica, David Ogden Stiers as Emory (whose character is hinted to be a closeted homosexual), David Carradine as Leroy, and Chad Allen as Mark Daigle (whose character was never seen before, only referenced). Carrie Wells played the title character, whose name was changed from Rhoda to Rachel. The TV-movie version was considered inferior to both the play and original film by critics.[7]

2018 film[edit]

In December 2017, Deadline Hollywood reported that Rob Lowe would direct and star in a television remake for the Lifetime network.[8] This version of The Bad Seed first ran on Lifetime on September 9, 2018, and was watched by 1.87 million viewers, placing it in the top ten most-watched cable programs on that date.[9] However, the production received mixed reviews."[10][11]

Potential remake[edit]

Eli Roth was set to direct a new remake of the film, as stated by Roth promised a new take with a modern horror sensibility. "The original was a great psychological thriller, 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."[12]


  1. ^ Hare, Robert D. ([1993], 1999) Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, The Guildford Press, pp. 155-56
  2. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 5.
  3. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 4.
  4. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 6.
  5. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 7.
  6. ^ Showalter 1997, p. 8.
  7. ^ a b Showalter 1997, p. 9.
  8. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (2017-12-15). "Rob Lowe Stars In 'The Bad Seed' Remake With A Gender Switch Eyed By Lifetime". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 2017-12-16.
  9. ^ Metcalf, Mitch (September 11, 2018). "Updated: ShowBuzzDaily's Top 150 Sunday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 9.9.2018". Showbuzz Daily. Retrieved September 11, 2018.
  10. ^ Feinberg, David (September 7, 2018). "'The Bad Seed': TV Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 9, 2018.
  11. ^ Reiher, Andrea (September 7, 2018). "'The Bad Seed' Review: Lifetime's Adaptation Is a Missed Opportunity for Campy, Dark Fun". Collider. Retrieved September 9, 2018.
  12. ^ Murray.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]