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Abe Beame ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
My son was born nearly four years ago and a common question I encounter is, “How did this experience change you?” The easiest response I have is, “I cry.” Crying isn’t a physical response that ever came naturally to me. As a Jew I pride myself on being a creature of logic and reason, fair and principled to the point where it occasionally clashes with self interest. And yet, since my son, and subsequently my daughter, who was born two years later, I find myself crying at random shit like car insurance commercials, cloying Pixar movies, Top 40 treacly pop, and all the manipulative shit I would’ve considered beneath my critical functions as a jaded, discerning 20-something.
As a somewhat more vulnerable aging millennial I’d say having kids lowers your defenses and opens you up to the emotional bullshit you’d laugh at as a kid. It’s some combination of an acknowledgment of mortality and the requisite dread of a fact you didn’t realize was lying dormant in you your entire life. Children introduce stakes and a real terror that was difficult for me to truly reconcile with as tangible before my kids existed.
Genre and horror in particular is a quest to find our soft spots as people in the context of a society or culture. We look for those fleshy pressure points where wonder or surprise is still capable. The lurid and salacious nature of pulp, the shock and disgust of horror. Movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Poltergeist have tapped this vein. They cause people to throw up in the aisles and go to sleep with the lights on, they prey on our terror as Americans and tribal superstitions as a people. Horror generally has moved inward. Movies like Scream began to deconstruct the tropes of slasher films, followed by body horror, the torture porn snuff film appeal that floated horror through the early aughts.
While the grist mill of horror has never churned faster, providing us with heady, self aware satire like Get Out or The Purge franchise and pulpy garbage like Truth or Dare, the affecting, appointment horror of the last few years has revolved around a constant theme: Parenthood. Movies like the Austrian Mommy Dearest, Australian The Babadook, and now the nightmarish Hereditary find their effect by hitting one of the very few aspects of life that are still considered taboo, the sanctity of the relationship between parent and child.
Like The Descent, The Babadook shocks you as it uses the devices of horror to tell a story that may or may not contain components of the supernatural but definitely sets out to draw a picture of its protagonists and their monstrous natures. “The monsters are us” is not a new conceit, but there is something new in the terror of watching the behavior of an unstable parent through the eyes of the child; to fear for the safety of that child and both the physical and emotional danger presented by their supposed caretaker, theoretically bound to the child and his or her best interests by a powerful parental love. There is a second layer I would imagine as a parent watching these films, the fear of the damage we wrought both large and small on our children. To watch these movies as therapy and process. We imagine ourselves acting out these dramas and making the same mistakes.
Writer/Director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is about Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Both mother and child struggle with the death of the family patriarch, killed in a car accident as he drove Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Samuel is a difficult child, he fixates on the death of his father and indulges in strange, compulsive behavior. He’s afraid and constantly on guard to perceived mortal terrors that threaten him and his mother. This ends up causing him to be expelled from school and alienated from other children.
The film presents us with Amelia’s ordeal raising her son, responsible for Samuel and his challenges but also resentful of the ways he’s impacted her life. She has trouble moving on from the grief of losing her husband because of her son, just in his physical presence, if not his constant anxiety surrounding death and specifically referencing the father he never knew. But Samuel’s needs supplant her own: physical pleasure, romantic attention and even friendship. It’s a claustrophobic film and this feels accurate. The child has taken all the oxygen from his single mother’s life. We see how society holds the parent responsible for their child’s issues, how a child with issues becomes an indictment of the parent and the complex mix of defensiveness, guilt, and frustration this can provoke.
The Babadook begins with its sympathies aimed towards Amelia as we watch her battle with Samuel, the boy at times seemingly under the spell of demonic possession as he wrestles with a trauma he doesn’t fully understand, potentially exacerbated by volatile brain chemistry. Midway, the sympathies shift as Amelia loses her grasp on reality and gives in to a demon, taking the supernatural form of the Babadook. She becomes monster and predator, lashing out at Samuel physically and emotionally, using her possession to voice the darkest and most terrifying impulses a parent can say to a child.
We begin to fear for Samuel, swinging abruptly from tormentor to victim, suddenly an impossibly vulnerable six year old as his mother slips into madness. It’s a nightmare of a single, grieving mother with a difficult child’s unchecked rage and resentment. It can be an unbearable first watch, at times I had to look away.
Hereditary (Spoilers below, either go watch the movie now or if you have kids, maybe don’t) appears to be a cultish supernatural horror on its face. There are mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of a family matriarch, a mother trying to cope with her loss, then the shocking death of a child. Writer/Director Ari Aster describes the film as “A family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare” and this is apt. The climax of the film tacks on the requisite Satanic death cult/Demon God shit but it feels like a dreamt mandatory conclusion of sorts to a more grounded film, the chocolate center required to satisfy a sweet tooth for horror. The real squirm and pain in the movie is delivered in the interim, as Toni Collete playing Annie, a mother grieving the death of her own mother and daughter, allows her anguish to consume her and destroy her surviving husband and son.
In some ways, the son, Peter (Alex Wolff, doing his best) played an unwitting role in the death of his sister, Charlie (Milly Shaprio), and the film spends most of its running time grappling with the mixture of guilt and pain that comes with the loss of a child for the survivors. The title of the film has a number of potential meanings. We learn Collette’s relationship with her mother was strained and distant, that she suffered from potential mental illness, then we see her manifesting the same behavior as she struggles with her mother’s death. She’s an artist who spends her time burying herself in her work, cut off from her spouse and children in an attic tinkering rather than making herself present and emotionally available. She has issues with sleep walking and we learn she once drenched her children and herself in paint thinner, and woke up with a lit match in her hand.
Peel back the layer of matricide and occult and what you get is a picture of an unwell woman failing her way through parenthood. More disturbing than a grizzly decapitation, a living person being consumed by flame, and several instances of grave robbing featuring headless corpses, the film’s real emotional weight is reserved for two unbearable verbal undressings Annie delivers to Peter, nearly unbearable in their unsparing brutality.
While The Babadook hinges on the mortal terror we feel for six year old Samuel, Hereditary delivers a more subtle and in some ways more devastating punch. Peter is a teenager wracked with guilt and in need of strong, reassuring parental support. Annie has none to give and in fact begins twisting the knife. She lays blame for Charlie’s death at his feet, tells him she doesn’t love him and wishes she never had him, really, truly awful shit. You watch it with a mouth agape that a person could be capable of that sort of cruelty to any child, let alone their child. We are watching a different kind of danger being presented and damage being done by a parent to her almost adult son. The message is: We are never done being responsible for our children and it’s never too late to hurt them or fuck them up.
Parent Horror forces us to consider our responsibility as parents, the thin veil of mortality we took for granted until an impossibly small and vulnerable living thing became an uncleavable part of us. It forces us to consider our role in our children’s maturation, the potential ramifications in failing in our duties, and the scar that failure would mark us with, as well as our children, for the rest of our lives.
The first time I realized I had become a crier was in the third trimester of my wife’s first pregnancy. We had been walking on eggshells around each other for months because something people love to tell you when you’re pregnant is the mother’s emotional state affects the child’s temperament. As if it isn’t bad enough to be hormonal, in tremendous discomfort and constantly on edge, you also have to be placid and happy or you’re going to end up with a shitty kid.
But one night the dam breaks and we have some blowout fight—for a million dollars I couldn’t tell you what it was actually about. And we’re in the kitchen arguing about some point that I’m sure was about twelve steps divorced from the actual inciting incident and I lose it. I drop to my knees, wrap my arms around my wife’s swollen stomach with my son inside, and I cry, shaking crying. I was as surprised as I imagine she was. When I thought about it afterwards I realized what bothered me is for the first time as a parent I had failed, and it wouldn’t be the last time. I wouldn’t be able to shield my son from our shitty personalities as well as a million other things, that I wasn’t going to be a great Dad or even a good one, and life was coming for him. That all this shit was starting again. And for the first time, I knew what it meant to be really, truly afraid.