Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2009 film Orphan tells the story of a couple who adopts a nine-year-old girl who may not be exactly what she appears, and it was shockingly based on real-life events. Despite the Orphan movie’s mixed reviews, the performance of Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, the mysterious orphan, was haunting and exceptional. Audiences will be disturbed to learn of the Orphan’s real story as the movie is inspired by Barbora Skrlová, a woman who was discovered posing as a 13-year-old boy in Norway.


Strangely, ten years after Orphan‘s release in 2009, a similar incident occurred in which an Indiana couple adopted a six-year-old Ukrainian girl named Natalia Grace, who also had a form of dwarfism and a murderous streak like Skrlová. This made the August 2022 theatrical release date of the Orphan movie’s sequel, Orphan: First Kill, quite timely but the true stories behind the Orphan movie – as well as those seemingly inspired by its plot – are far more disturbing than the events of the films.

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The True Stories Behind Orphan

Isabelle Fuhrman with makeup running down her face in Orphan.

The case of Barbora Skrlová and the orphan’s real story went national when 13-year-old “Adam,” an adopted boy in Norway, went missing, and it was discovered that he was actually a 33-year-old Czech woman. Skrlová committed her first crimes in the Czech Republic where she came to live with two sisters, Klara and Katerina Mauerova, and Klara’s two children. Klara had significant mental illness, so much so that it was the cause of her separation from her children’s father – allowing Skrlová to more easily manipulate her. These details were loosely adapted to create Orphan and Orphan: First Kill‘s Esther/Leena and her relationship with her fictional adoptive family.

The real Leena — Barbora Skrlová — began controlling and manipulating Klara’s family, pretending that Klara’s two sons, Ondrej and Yakub, were breaking things and misbehaving. Skrlová then convinced the sisters to administer increasingly violent punishments for the boys’ imagined mistakes. Eventually, Skrlová convinced the sisters to lock the boys in the basement and deprive them of food.

When a neighbor alerted the police to potential abuse in the household, the two sisters were arrested, but Skrlová escaped, pretending to be a child. When a 13-year-old boy of Czech parents went missing, Skrlová stepped in to pose as him. It is believed that the parents helped Skrlová pose as their son until she eventually ran away, and their ruse was discovered. Although the movie Orphan is more typically referred to as a Vera Farmiga horror movie, it was undoubtedly Isabelle Fuhrman channeling Barbora Skrlová as Leena that makes the 2009 scarefest truly iconic.

Orphan May Have Inspired A Copycat Crime

Ester stares into the camera from Orphan First Kill

After the original film’s 2009 release, nearly 10 years later, a unique case came to light which may have been inspired by the Orphan‘s real story. Indiana couple Kristine and Michael Barnett were well-versed in raising children with special needs. In 2010, they adopted six-year-old Natalia Grace from Ukraine; she had a form of dwarfism that made it difficult for her to walk. Natalia had been in the US for about two years when she came to live with the Barnetts, after her last adopted family had given her up for undisclosed reasons.

Related: Somehow, First Kill Makes Orphan’s Most Disturbing Trait Even Worse

After a while, Kristine reported that the girl was threatening the family, standing over them at night, and she even saw her once trying to pour bleach in Kristine’s morning coffee. Strangely resembling the twist in Orphan: First Kill, the Barnetts eventually legally changed Natalia’s age on her birth certificate to twenty-two years old in 2012. Later in 2013, they rented her an apartment and moved to Canada – based on Kristine’s belief that Natalia was dangerous and running a scam.

This was after Kristine began to suspect that Natalia was not actually a child and backs up this suspicion with Natalia’s sophisticated vocabulary, lack of interest in toys, and medical tests which supposedly show Natalia as having the bone density and teeth of a teen or young adult – though later tests dispute these conclusions. Legal charges were waged against the Barnetts in 2014 when Natalia reported to the police that she had been abandoned by her family. When asked about the case, Kristine specifically referenced the 2009 film saying, “The movie Orphan is exactly what happened.”

Maybe it really was a bad idea turning Orphan into a franchise. The Barnetts were charged with two counts of felony neglect of a minor. Kristine still maintains that Natalia is a dangerous adult running a scam and that it wasn’t child abuse. Michael, now divorced from Kristine, claims that the couple knew all along that Natalia was a child, but that Kristine convinced everyone to lie about her age. Natalia’s age remains up for debate, and legal action is ongoing to reverse the changes to her birthdate that the Barnetts made. ​

The Orphan Prequel Also Shares Parallels With Real Life

Esther with Kate in the background in Orphan

The sequel – Orphan: First Kill – builds on the lore of Esther 13 years after the first movie’s original release. It seems to have drawn a little inspiration from the true-to-life case that the Orphan‘s real story inspired as well, with Esther pretending to have ties to the United States similar to how Kristine and Michael Barnett adopted Ukrainian Natalia Grace. Moreover, from the beginning to the ending of Orphan: First Kill, Isabelle Fuhrman convincingly plays a younger version of the same deadly character, despite being over a decade older since she first embodied the role of Esther/Leena.

Related: Does Orphan: First Kill Have An After Credits Scene?

Orphan: First Kill’s Practical Effects Show How Easy It Is To Be Fooled

Orphan First Kill Isabelle Fuhrman

How Isabelle Fuhrman’s de-aging in Orphan: First Kill was cleverly achieved through practical effects not only signals a refreshing return to the fundamentals of horror – it also makes it clear that the premise can all too easily occur in real life. This is part of what makes Orphan and Orphan: First Kill truly frightening movies. Disturbingly, the Orphan‘s real story may not be entirely over.

If the team behind Orphan: First Kill can successfully turn a 24-year-old actor into an 8-year-old girl – then it’s entirely possible that people like Natalia Grace and Barbora Skrlová are still victimizing real families out there. Although Fuhrman’s de-aging in Orphan: First Kill was achieved through a professional effects team, minimal CGI, and clever camera angles, it still shouldn’t be that easy, and it really puts into perspective how adults can pass off as children through various techniques. Indeed, Fuhrman’s successful de-aging even calls to mind the criticism against Orphan putting parents off adoption, which, although true, only further serves the premise of the Orphan films.

How Actress Isabelle Fuhrman Became Esther In Orphan: First Kill

isabelle fuhrman smirks in orphan first kill

Tasked with starring in both adaptations of the Orphan’s real story, Isabelle Fuhrman reveals how playing Esther was a unique acting exercise. “For me, a lot of the preparation for the new thing was kind of discovering a childlike quality to Esther, because I think the first time around when I did this, as a kid, I was so concerned with pretending to be an adult,” said Fuhrman (via MovieWeb), “and this time, I actually had to put myself in Leena’s shoes and pretend to be a kid. To find that again, I would say, is slightly therapeutic.”

The Orphan and Orphan: First Kill star also credits her body doubles, Sadie Lee and Kennedy Irwin, for informing her own performance as Esther. “I got to do a lot of play with the girls who were my body doubles… and really got to discover new qualities about Esther through them.” Undoubtedly, the performances of Fuhrman and her doubles not only made Orphan: First Kill‘s big twist all the more compelling but also now also serve as a blueprint for similar roles in the psychological horror sub-genre.

Next: Orphan: First Kill 2 News & Updates – Everything We Know

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