There exists a subgenre that runs through both horror and thriller stories that taps into a fear of unknown dangers being brought into the safety of one’s own private world. It focuses on strangers; not the ones who lurk in dark alleyways and are easily forgotten once you reach the safety of your brightly lit house or apartment. No, these are the strangers that you bring home with you, the ones you invite into your life. They masquerade as one person—seemingly trustworthy, rational, and friendly—but are, in actuality, someone completely different, often with a horrifying agenda. [Spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen Orphan.]We have seen this in films such as The Stepfather, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The Guest (among others), in which a friendly stranger is invited into a family and begins to tear it apart from the inside out. In Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan, we see an interesting spin on the “Invited Stranger” subgenre, in that the stranger in question enters the house under the guise of a child.
Orphan opens as John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) prepare to adopt. The parents of two children, they lost their third due to a miscarriage. They have grieved and are ready to move on, still hoping to bring a new member into their family. When they visit a local girls’ home, they instantly connect with Esther (played to perfection by Isabelle Fuhrman), an articulate, precocious girl who has little interest in interacting with the other children. They bring her home and it seems like Esther finds her place immediately.
Shortly after Esther gets settled in, it becomes clear to Kate that there is something lying beneath Esther’s congenial personality. She notices minor inconsistencies in Esther’s backstory, as well as the fact that her new daughter behaves completely differently around her than she does with any other adult. Before long, she begins having violent outbursts at school and manipulates their other two children, Max (Aryana Engineer) and Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). We might be tempted to think that these behavioral issues could just be the case of Esther going through an adjustment period in her new home. However, when Kate begins to look closely into Esther’s background, she uncovers a startling truth: the girl she has adopted is actually a grown woman with a hormonal imbalance that has stunted her growth. She has made a career out of passing herself off as a child in need of a home, only to destroy the lives of the families who cross her path.
Esther plays into the role of the Invited Stranger perfectly. She puts forward two completely different faces, as the situation requires. She is capable of being charming and innocent one minute, and turning on a dime to become a manipulative monster the next. Her true agenda is only revealed in the final act, so until then, the audience is left to watch her misdeeds and wonder just what is driving her.
As we often see in these stories, one character is able to figure out the horrifying truth of the situation and is left to try to convince those around them of what they have discovered (usually to little avail). Here, that person is Kate. Despite being absolutely correct in her misgivings, she is put in the position of being disbelieved and distrusted by those around her, while simultaneously being the only person who truly understands the gravity of the situation. Though the other children are on to Esther almost immediately, Esther has successfully intimidated and manipulated them into remaining silent. Kate and John, a couple with a strong relationship at the beginning of the film, are turned against one another through Esther’s plotting. She successfully uses Kate’s history of alcoholism to cast doubt on her concerns and, eventually, her accusations. Kate stands alone as her husband, her mother-in-law, and her psychologist all align against her to defend Esther, making her fear that she won’t be able to protect her family from this stranger.
Additionally, Kate also has to face down the fear of being displaced in her own family. Due to Esther’s successful manipulation, she is in danger of having her role as mother essentially revoked, in that John feels capable of taking care of the kids on his own. In one particularly confrontational scene, John, under the erroneous belief that Kate has begun drinking again, demands that she check into rehab. If she refuses, he will leave and take the children with him. By speaking the truth and making her fears about Esther known, Kate alienates herself from the one person she was closest to. Once we learn the truth about Esther’s motivations, we see that this displacement also extends to Kate’s role as John’s wife and partner, as the stranger makes a habit of trying to seduce the men in the families she tears apart.
Orphan plays on the Invited Stranger trope in a unique way, in that the stranger in question comes from a very unexpected form: a child (or at least what appears to be a child). Of course, the evil child trope is also an often-used favorite (The Omen, The Good Son), but this film straddles the line between both subgenres, combining the uncertainty of a stranger invited into our home with the fear that our children aren’t at all innocent. John and Kate bring Esther into their lives, but ultimately know very little about her. Obviously, there is much more to Esther’s story than simply being an “evil kid,” and it is this layering that ultimately makes Orphan so effective. It enhances the Invited Stranger trope by mixing it with the “evil child” to create something totally unexpected and very creepy. An often overlooked gem with a lot going for it, Orphan is a modern-day reminder that we would do well to be wary of anyone we might invite home, even if they are seemingly innocent.