Orphan 2009 Movie: The Horror of the Unknown

Esther in Orphan 2009
Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in Orphan 2009

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Orphan was released on 24th July 2009. One of the best American psychological horror movies made in recent times. Inspired by real-life events, Orphan is R-rated, and 2 hours 3 minutes long. Written by David Leslie Johnson. Alex Mace penned the story. Despite getting mixed opinions from viewers and critics upon release, Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance as Esther received high praise for channeling something extraordinary and terrifying. This film has some very interesting twists with suspense. Accompanied by a screenplay that keeps you hooked and overall stellar performance from the whole cast.

Orphan has developed a cult legacy because of how it pushes the limits of a horror/thriller. The mystery of identity has always fascinated (and terrified) viewers. Orphan explores this concept of the uncanny, this ‘horror of the unknown,’ through the story of a family adopting a nine-year-old girl carrying a vague, shadowy, largely unknown background.

Plot of Orphan (2009)

Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) are a couple who lose their unborn child. So they decide to adopt a mysterious nine-year-old Russian girl named Esther from a local orphanage. Soon after, however, Esther starts behaving rather oddly with Kate and her step-siblings. Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) is alarmed by Esther’s arrival, but Max (Aryana Engineer) loves her new sister. John feels that Esther is sweet and well-behaved. However, Kate senses something unusual about her.

Soon Esther goes on a hurting and killing spree after realizing the ‘truth’ about her identity might get exposed. Esther begins threatening Daniel and Max when they witness her evil actions. Slowly she starts causing several misunderstandings between John and Kate, portraying the latter as an unwelcoming, alcoholic mother. Kate already doubts her behavior as sinister. John becomes convinced that his wife needs medical attention and forces her to go to rehab. In the meantime, Kate discovers that Esther is actually from a mental hospital. Esther tries to kill Daniel after he discovers Sister Abigail’s truth, but Max saves him in time. Kate slaps Esther at the hospital when she gets convinced about Esther being evil. However, the doctors sedate her. Esther takes this chance and tries to seduce John who finally realizes that his wife was right.

Esther reveals her true self in Orphan 2009
Leena in Orphan 2009

Back in the hospital, Kate discovers that Esther is actually a 33-year-old woman named Leena Klammer from Estonia, suffering from a condition called hypopituitarism. Leena is very dangerous and criminally violent. Before Kate can save her husband, Leena reveals her true self and ends up murdering John. After several gunshots and physical struggle, the police finally arrive. Kate ultimately manages to save Max and kill Esther.

Several Aspects of Orphan (2009)

The movie deals with an unusual circumstance regarding Esther and her persona. A sadistic personality is hidden under the cover of innocence – that is the main theme of this film. Esther has something uncanny about her. She is different from other kids, too mature somehow. She seems to know it all, too observant. The biggest twist in this movie is the transition in Esther’s character, from an innocent girl to a psychotic murderer. Only Kate is able to see through her decency, but no one believes her. The art of unspooling Esther’s problematic character is what hooks the audience till the end.

Real-life events inspired Orphan (2009). One of the true stories was of Barbora Skrlová, a 33-year-old woman from the Czech Republic. She pretended to be a teenage boy of 13 named ‘Adam’, in Norway where she lived with a family. She arrived there after escaping from a different family in the Czech Republic, where she used to live with two sisters. Skrlová manipulated them and made the sisters torture the kids in that family. However, when police discovered this, she escaped pretending to be a child.

Esther arrives at John and Kate's in Orphan 2009
A Still from Orphan 2009

Furthermore, around 10 years later after Orphan‘s release, another similar incident occurred. In 2010, Kristine and Michael Barnett, a couple from Indiana adopted 6-year-old Natalia Grace from Ukraine. She had dwarfism, was three feet in height, and had trouble with mobility. She lived with the Barnetts for two years in the US after her previous family had given her away for mysterious reasons. But after living there for some weeks, because of her strange, violent behavior, her mother finally realized that she was an adult.


Orphan is an interesting watch with an unpredictable and creepy ending. The cold, somber appeal of the movie works well in setting up the mood. Everything about Esther, right from her clothes, the ribbons on her neck and wrists, her paintings, all hide a sinister truth about her. Her closeness with John and her arrogant behavior with Kate, everything is part of Esther’s tactics towards a larger, more insidious motive.

The “devil child” as a horror movie trope is not exactly new. Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), for example. Or the 1960 British indie Village of the Damned. And of course, there’s always Mario Bava’s enduring classic Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) – although that one’s more of a ghost story. Orphan still manages to get under your skin by heightening the vulnerability and manipulation inside a family unit. In this way, it’s closer to The Omen template. However, Orphan withholds its big reveal until the very end, which keeps the motivation unclear. This in turn sustains the feeling of the ‘uncanny’ in a persistent manner. That’s a reason why so long after its release, this movie still enjoys a considerable following. And a prequel is now in development owing to that. Its chilling themes can still make any parents think twice before adopting someone without a proper background check!

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