Several adoption organizations have expressed concern over "Orphan," an upcoming horror movie featuring a murderous orphan. They called for a boycott of the film and sent a letter of protest, co-signed by leaders of nearly a dozen adoption and child-welfare groups, to the film's distributor, Warner Bros.
The studio issued a statement pointing out that "it is not a depiction of any real-life events or situations and has never been portrayed as anything but an entirely fictional story."
It's not just adoption agencies who are outraged. Concern over the scary movie is so serious that several elected officials weighed in. In a letter to the studio, three senators (Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, both of Oklahoma) and three members of Congress (Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, John Boozman of Arkansas, and Danny Davis of Illinois) also expressed their grave concerns about the film's impact on America.
Yet it's not clear what, exactly, the critics fear will happen. It seems unlikely that people will emerge from the film hating orphans or plotting to bomb orphanages. What possible influence or effect could a scary film have?
There is some truth to the idea that films can provoke behavior. There have been a few rare examples of people who have watched a scene in a film or television show and tried to duplicate it — in effect a copycat incident. In 1993, several high school football players were injured when re-enacting a scene in the film "The Program" in which athletes laid down the middle of a highway. The 1995 action film "Money Train," which included a scene of an assailant squirting lighter fluid into subway token booths, inspired several copycat arsons.
But "Orphan" is completely different. The protestors are not claiming that anyone may or will try to re-enact some specific scene in the film that might hurt orphans. Instead, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute is concerned that the "film will have the unintended effect of skewing public opinion against children awaiting families both in the United States and abroad… [and] may impede recruitment efforts by feeding into the unconscious fears of potential foster and adoptive families that orphaned children are psychotic...."
That's right: They are worried that couples considering adoption who see the film will choose to remain childless out of fear that the child they adopt might someday try to kill them — just like in the movie. It's an interesting idea that has absolutely no scientific or psychological basis.
The "evil child" genre has a rich and very popular tradition in cinema, including "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), "The Bad Seed" (1956), "Village of the Damned" (1960), the "Omen" series (from 1976), "The Good Son" (1993), and many others. If fictional films about evil orphans actually caused the American public to shun adoptions or fear orphans, such an effect would surely have been noticed by now.
Some see this as a case of manufactured outrage or publicity stunt. If it is not, and those protesting the film are serious, they have overestimated the influence of films on audiences' personal beliefs, and underestimated their intelligence by assuming theatergoers cannot distinguish fiction from reality.
"Orphan" will be released Friday despite the protests. If the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's concerns are valid, we will see a significant decrease in adoptions over the next few months, when would-be parents who have seen the film become skittish about going through with the process, lest they unknowingly adopt a serial-killing psychopath.
On the other hand, if they are wrong, and all this sound and fury is instead an opportunistic publicity stunt, the adoption rate will remain unchanged regardless of what is being shown in America's movie theaters.
Perhaps the adoption groups should boycott the "Harry Potter" films, as they may unrealistically raise the hopes of potential parents that they might adopt a wondrous young boy with magical powers.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.