The Changeling Folklore Explained: Why Did Emma Do It?

Apple TV+'s horror fantasy series The Changeling asks us to imagine the unimaginable.

Clark Backo in The Changeling
Photo: Apple

This article contains spoilers for The Changeling

In 1999, Irish director Neil Jordan released a movie called In Dreams. Having already found success with The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, people were curious about this new Robert Downey Jr.-led psychological thriller based on the book Doll’s Eyes by Bari Wood (stay with me). The film, which tells the story of what happens after a little girl is suddenly murdered, ended up being critically panned and a massive flop at the box office. Later, Jordan would say that one of the main issues with his film was that audiences really struggle to get over the death of a young child in the first act.

Apple TV+‘s The Changeling is just the latest project to challenge audiences with a similar kind of horror, except it asks even more of viewers by spinning a folklore mystery around the reason for a child’s death, hoping that we are curious enough about the person who committed the act to follow the love of her life down a disturbing rabbit hole.

In the first three episodes of the streamer’s horror fantasy series, used book seller Apollo Kagwa and librarian Emma Valentine meet, flirt, and finally go on a date, only to have their romance put on hold when Emma travels to Brazil, where she meets a strange witch by a waterfall and makes three wishes. These wishes will come true, she is told, as long as she doesn’t cut a red string off her wrist and allows it to fall off naturally. Apollo, thinking this tale is ludicrous upon Emma’s return, cuts off the string himself, and the couple go on to get married and have a beautiful baby son called Brian.

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Fall Into Darkness

But the happiness that the couple experience when little Brian comes into the world aboard a New York subway train is short-lived. Brian never seems to sleep for very long, and Emma starts experiencing notable symptoms of sleep deprivation and depression. She also receives distressing images sent to her phone that delete themselves before she can show Apollo, which leads him to believe she has started imagining things and needs to be medicated.

Eventually, Emma is almost unrecognizable and becomes convinced that Brian isn’t even a baby, seeking out advice from other mysterious mothers on the internet. One of them gives Emma a big bag full of heavy chains when Brian’s odd behavior, like biting her and screaming in an unnatural way, seems to increase. But this behavior is only apparent to Emma and no one else. She tries to convince Apollo that the church should get involved and baptise Brian, but he resists and becomes angry with her.

When it becomes clear that Apollo doesn’t see the same insidious things about Brian that she does, Emma decides to take matters into her own hands, with upsetting consequences. She chains up Apollo, assaults him with a hammer, and kills Brian. The details of the baby’s death aren’t fully revealed, thankfully, but it appears that Emma used boiling water to commit the act before going missing.

Apollo is left devastated and confused. He tries to track Emma down and attends grief counseling, where he recites from a fairy tale he was obsessed with as a child: “A baby is a dream made real, but a dream is a fairy’s favorite meal”. This prompts a woman at his group session to share a similar story to Emma’s about receiving disappearing images and becoming convinced that her own daughter had been replaced. She has also talked to “The Wise Ones”, the same group of witches that Emma had been in contact with, and seems to be preparing to kill her daughter, too.

Why Did Emma Do It?

But why did Emma really kill Brian? Well, we can note that her baby is indeed the changeling of the show’s title, and that “changeling” refers to a human-looking creature that has been discussed regularly in folklore throughout Europe over many hundreds of years.

More often than not, a changeling is believed to be a fairy that is left behind when a child is stolen by other fairies, but the novel The Changeling by Victor LaVelle, on which the series is based, follows the myths and legends of Scandinavian folklore and tales, specifically Norwegian, and these are different.

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Traditionally, the Nordic beliefs were that trolls would steal children and replace them with their own offspring. Some believed that trolls wanted their children to be raised by humans so that they would be more respected. Others thought that baptized children were protected from being snatched by trolls, but the idea was that if your child was unfortunately taken and replaced with a troll infant despite your best efforts, you could perhaps make the trolls bring them back if you abused the troll child or put them in a hot oven.

We can see these legends reflected in the events of The Changeling. Emma has come to believe that the real Brian has been taken away and replaced by an evil little creature. After speaking with the coven of online witches, she tries to convince Apollo that a baptism can possibly help, but when he won’t entertain the idea Emma feels she has no other choice but to kill the changeling with implements from her hot kitchen. Perhaps she hopes that by doing so, she will be able to find the kidnapped Brian.

We do not know where Brian has been taken or what it would take to get him back, but Apollo will have to finally believe his wife and try to track her down if he wants to help her in her quest.