DRC writer Tyler Keeton voices support for the current state of horror cinema, in this never-before-published essay. His argument examines two of the most substantial recent genre offerings — Jennifer Kent‘s The Babadook & The Soska Sisters‘ American Mary — and offers hope for a return to merit and credibility within the realm of horror. Read on below.
☣ Any screen-cap images used within the body of the essay belong to their respective owners and not DRC.
Horror films are undeniably a staple of the American (and arguably universal) cinematic identity. Not only does horror cinema provide entertainment and exciting thrills, but also draws in a massive amount of annual revenue at the box office. This being said, the genre is also greatly discredited. Shelley Stamp Lindsey explains that the genre contains “perverse social relations that breed monstrosity” (280). Conversely, 2014 was a wildly successful year for horror cinema, as it showcased the release of director Jennifer Kent’s independent endeavor, The Babadook. Kent’s film brought attention to a return to the classic era of horror-centered Hollywood, as it contains a deeper commentary on the family structure and maternal identity. The film was made for $2 million and made over $4.9 million in profit. Kent’s name has transcended since the initial release of The Babadook, as she calls attention to the forgotten merit of horror filmmakers in relation to cinematic-societal standing. This examination forces discussion of the efforts of horror filmmakers, especially females (focusing on Kent, as well as Jen and Sylvia Soska), to bring horror cinema to a place of substance and credibility that it so deserves. The academic identity, astounding narrative, and gender roles found in The Babadook (2014) and American Mary (2012) give the genre, in the case of these two films, credibility in relation to film criticism. To begin searching for a regeneration of defining horror cinema, however, one must first address the true identity of what type of individual constitutes a horror fan. Maybe it is the estranged brother or sister that has lost all connection with the family, or perhaps the oddball sitting in the back of an English 200 course, headphones blasting. One might assume a horror fan to be the wacked-out uncle that comes around once or twice a year and hugs everyone for a little too long. Despite popular opinion, the answer is most likely found within the individual diving into this essay. Esteemed writer and professor of literature Carol Clover argues in her critically acclaimed film studies book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, that the horror audience is much broader than one would expect or assume. This audience branches out to both genders – boys, girls, men, and women – of all ages. She explains that horror “theater screenings usually hold a specific division of an audience: male-female couples of various ages, young men, frequently in groups but also solo, solo “rogue males” (older men of ominous appearance and/or reactions); and adolescent girls in groups” (6) that never seem to stop talking. But she also points out that perhaps the largest audience of horror cinema is the average male or female, sitting at home…alone. Horror cinema does not follow suit to implicated limitations placed upon young men and women as to who can or how to watch and understand its works. It is its own entity of celestial misunderstanding. In response to this inability to effectively communicate the power of horror, modern filmmakers, such as Kent and the Soska sisters, are expanding the realm of the cinematic experience for not only horror fans, but also those with little to no interest in the genre. Their works extend beyond the limitations of a “genre film” and cross over into critical analysis territory. No matter what happens to the characters of either film, life must go on, and everyone must face the reality that existence is sometimes grim. One can choose to accept this and tackle the concept of mortality with a toothy grin, or choose to drown in a society of working for an unseen political entity.
Horror cinema (at large) has quite a bit to say about the dynamics of a traditional family structure. While lasting marriage is still commonplace in modern America, divorce rates have been riding the waves of governmental granting and moral understanding for years, and do not seem to be making a departure anytime soon. Single-parenting is also a high-risk concept for all involved; the child suffers the loss of a balanced familial upbringing and understanding, and the single parent suffers the loss of a partner with which to share memories, advice, and emotional (as well as carnal) satisfaction. In his Films in Review article entitled, “Deadly is the Female,” Michael Brashinsky explains that “horror films are to an observer of culture what frogs are to the medical student: dissecting them displays the anatomy of the culture behind them better than with any other genre. Every smart horror film is rooted in the dread of something larger than its screen image” (1). The Babadook, which quite literally brings a grim children’s book to reality, focuses on the relationship of Amelia and Samuel, a mother and son that are both falling apart after the death of their husband and father. The film moves past the initial objective of chilling the audience with its frightening monster, and instead serves as a direct commentary on single parenting and the unhealthy levels of control that mothers might instill within themselves if not careful. Kent was recently quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “I feel like a lot of the people who make horror actually don’t understand its depth and its power. Unbeknownst to themselves, they’re looking down on the genre. I also think a lot of horror is made cynically, and by that I mean that it’s made to make money” (2). While this is true in some cases, Kent set out to do the exact opposite. Her purpose, as also explained by Kent herself, was to “redefine horror” as the extraordinary terror that lies in everyday life – and depict it within an artistic, credible manner.
The Babadook centers on a menacing children’s pop-up storybook that comes to life. Chapter-books and children’s stories are so often associated with childhood innocence, development, and installation of friendships. In her essay for Metro journal, writer Briony Kidd discusses the meaning of such a creature in modern horror: “The Babadook represents the dreaded unknown, the Other. But at the same time, there’s something very familiar about him, evoking the sense of a communal childhood memory or a half-remembered nightmare” (8). While the origin of Amelia’s deeply-rooted resistance to affection is never fully explained one way or the other (within the confines of on-screen visuals), viewers do know that her current state of depression and longing has to do with the death of her husband and her feeling of guilt in relation to not being able to raise Samuel in the same way his classmates are being shaped and molded. A viewer of the film likely assumes that Amelia’s guilt is a resurfacing of childhood trauma, in which her own parents either fought over how to raise and teach her, or even abandoned hope of Amelia herself having a normal, healthy life. Kent’s choice of direct ambiguity in relation to maternal guilt is nearly a direct reflection on the underdeveloped scientific studies on separation anxiety between new mothers and their babies. While some mothers feel guilty for leaving their children unattended for the most insignificant sliver of time, others become irate at the thought of this new being entering their lives and taking over their own daily tasks and responsibilities. One might make the argument that Amelia sees her own childhood within the pages of “Mister Babadook,” the children’s story she reads to Samuel in the film. The sense of community associated with scary texts and familiar ghost stories as rites of passage is quite a strong force on its own. Perhaps Amelia reminisces on the lack of companionship she herself faced as a child, and seeks out the replacement of a childhood friend in her own son, Samuel. Together, the two bring the story to life. While not a clean-cut answer to the occasion of the film’s narrative, Kent was clear in not limiting her story to one single interpretation. Amelia and Samuel could be undergoing a literal haunting, or one conjured up in the recesses of creative imagination.
Continuing its argument on the topic of single-parenting, The Babadook depicts its young protagonist, Samuel, stepping up to serve as the other half of the parental unit. At several points throughout the film, young Samuel attempts to save and stop the degradation of his mother’s sanity by tending to his own needs, as well as the needs of his mother. He keeps reminding Amelia of the importance of her sleep, which, in turn, results in Amelia switching into defense mode (heightened by the film’s dark genre, of course) and lashing out at him. Pat Gill writes for the Journal of Film & Video that “the young people” in horror films “are smart, protect the weak, tend to the wounded, go back into known peril to help their friends, and risk their lives to save the group. In short, they are parental” (5). The issue in The Babadook is more complex than a simple misunderstanding of parental roles, however. Carefully wrapped in the delicacy of a brilliant marketing campaign, Kent’s film encompasses the fears of any single parent (or mother, specifically). The Babadook explores the feelings of inadequacy a single parent may have about his or her child having the necessary elements of an upbringing to be deemed acceptable in the modern world and become a functioning member of society. When Samuel and Amelia experience trauma, it is nothing more than a broad hypothetical situation. Childhood trauma is something that is universal and essentially indefinable. “Trauma,” according to the American Psychological Association, is defined as “a direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity” (463). Perhaps Kent was even going as far as to apply the concept of “trauma” to any negative situation, let alone her specific tale of childhood woe.
The emotional appeal of a film like The Babadook is by and large an essential aspect of narrative storytelling in horror cinema. While serving and functioning as a “horror” film, the film relishes in the traditional tropes of cinematic drama and offers up some refreshing modernist approaches to single-parent life. Scott Woodcock writes that “the appeal of horror may be partially grounded in coping with underlying desires or anxieties for which violent fiction somehow serves as a kind of therapy” (9). The goal of cinema, from its meager beginnings, is to provide an escape to the average spectator or audience. For a brief moment, or an average span of two to three hours, viewers are able to leave their own lives at the theater door and submerge themselves into a completely new world. However, one must not forget the reason why viewers connect to a film in the first place. Storytelling is the most advanced coding system for communication, and adding visuals to a story only provides the listener (or in this case, the spectator) with even more incentive to invest his or her time and concentration. Woodcock also adds that, “viewers find it fascinating how they can become so emotionally affected by horrific imagery” (8). One can argue that viewers are not necessarily affected by the imagery itself, but the idea of placing oneself into the world of the story and calling the shots as to what to do and how to escape or solve the issue at hand. Action/adventure, dramatic, and even comedic cinema have all reigned supreme for years in regards to emotional investment, but filmmakers like Kent are providing horror fans with the hope of redirecting critical attention to the underbelly of horror narrative.
Equally as important, the 2012 film American Mary, directed by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, revolves around a failed med student trying to reclaim her life and rise above her deep pool of student loan debt. She begins performing underground body modification operations on the black market to provide a steady income, and, in turn, establishes a name for herself in the black market medical community. Her clients – arguably the most important anti-heroes in recent horror releases – are the outcasts, the freaks. These “outcasts” are the ones society has labelled as “too different.” The film sets out to show the audience that everyone is different – and though we may not understand why they do what they do, it is important to accept each other as individual human beings. The life force that connects us is not merely defined by a surgical snip here and there, but internally, we all appear the same. The filmmakers, Jen and Sylvia Soska, were interviewed by NPR in October of 2012, and explained: “If someone gets breast implants or gets a face-lift, you can say it’s for themselves, and it’s for their self-esteem, but it’s also building into what society accepts as a form of beauty. They’re not doing it just because it’s something they purely enjoy. They’re doing it because they’re fitting into what everyone wants you to look like.” American Mary had a limited theatrical run. The two sisters argue that it is long past due to redefine horror as a credible source of narrative storytelling. And it appears, from critical acclaim across the board – including praise from literary Filmmaker magazine and individual film critics alike – that the sisters are doing just that: turning horror into an exploration of the depravity of society as a whole. Horror is a genre that anyone and everyone can examine, soak in, and enjoy for themselves.
The protagonist of American Mary serves as a femme fatale figure, or even somewhat of a succubus, in that (after a traumatic sexual assault) she uses her physical appearance and presence as a means of elevating herself to the next level of her financial gain and revenge towards her rapist. Professor Mark Jancovich, writing for the European Journal of American Culture, discusses the possible function of a femme fatale character. He explains that “while the femme fatale is often supposed to speak to male fantasies and fears, this figure operates as a nostalgia for something that never existed,” (145) meaning that the “femme fatale” resulted from a lack of feminine independency on the silver screen. As one might know, during World War II, women were forced to take on the roles that were traditionally associated with the work of their male counterparts (factory jobs, assembling positions, etc.). This ultimately opened doors to modern feminism and raising awareness and appreciation of the female power. When the soldiers returned home to meet their busybody housewives, many were afraid of the newly-claimed voice their spouses were so proud to share. Thus, the femme fatale character was inspired: a female, full of power and prowess, which was capable of killing a man with the slightest of ease. While a femme fatale is often used as an antagonist, the Soska sisters do the exact opposite in American Mary. Mary’s physical embodiment of youth and sexual desire leads to a near cult-like following from her medical clients. Her clients look up to her, and one might even go as far as to say that the clients envy her, as they all want to be accepted and treated with attentive respect. Mary has the look, confidence, and admiration (even fear) from others that anyone might want to acquire as a young man or woman – all, essentially, without much force or work. The Soskas’ depiction of a young woman as a promising (and prominent) medical figure also directs viewers’ attention, unashamedly, to the fact that women are working just as hard as men to take over the medical scene. American Mary highlights the efforts of intelligent young females all over the globe, especially in America, to voice their intelligence and, in turn, prove the legitimacy of their studies.
American Mary directors Jen and Sylvia Soska are, ironically, Canadian born and raised. This makes the title of the film all the more interesting, in determining why such an explicit emphasis is placed on clarifying its setting. One would obviously assume a certain critique of American culture is being made. Andre Loiselle, in a Brno Studies in English article entitled, “Canadian Horror, American Bodies,” discusses comments that the Soska sisters made themselves. In the article, he quotes them as saying, “it’s such a bizarre American thing that you can be rich and powerful and you can have everything but you have the ability to manipulate the way you look. It’s a bizarre value system…it can’t not be American Mary” (133). Any filmmaker knows that he or she must be careful when analyzing and critiquing certain cultural values and habits, but the Soska sisters appear to be opening doors for future filmmakers to rid themselves of fear and hiding behind governmental approval or societal understanding. Loiselle also states that the film “undoubtedly functions as a feminist critique of patriarchy and its relentless distortions of the female body” (133). Setting the film in America and including the nationality of Mary herself in the title of the film directly links the Soska sisters’ push for the value of the powerful female mind with the idea that one does not necessarily need to be from a particular region of the world to raise awareness on its lacking fundamentals of intelligent advancement. The film itself includes several close-ups on American currency, perhaps indicating that the country is too focused on its own financial margin to recognize and acknowledge the disintegration of its national pride. Many individuals, as seen in Mary’s clients, are shifting away from the traditional concept of America being founded upon physical and cultural differences and variety, and rather focusing on the physical transformation one must undergo to be valued as “pretty” or “attractive” in a post-modern melting pot of supermodels and zingy fashion blogs.
Films like American Mary arguably question the sanity and realistic expectations of individuals in a modern world full of pressures from outlets in every facet of entertainment-influenced living standards. Professor Jody Keisner writes in Women’s Studies that “horror movies have become postmodern, in part, because of their questioning of reality; they push viewers to consider their own notions of what is real. Horror films are a simulation of a reality, or fall under simulacra—a creation of a reality that never existed” (416). In the case of Jen and Sylvia Soska, the debate at hand is a simple one: the life of Mary may not even be considered reality. The operations conducted by Mary serve as a means for her clientele to get from point A to point B (point A being the deep trench of self-consciousness and point B being the glory-land of self-gratification and satisfaction). The reality, as one undoubtedly picks up on over the runtime of the film, is that point B is never truly reached. The pressing horror of the film lies within its lurking subtext: Mary is playing God, and by doing so, is assisting dreams of an alternate reality that can never be attained. After all, Mary is simply another human being seeking out acceptance from her peers, and acting out when that acceptance is not realized. The idea of “the Stranger” also comes into play within the narrative world of body modification, in the sense that boundaries are being set between the living world and the living dead (“dead” in the loss of one’s original identity). “The Stranger” is defined by Georg Simmel as “a member which lives and participates and yet remains distant from other ‘native’ members of the group” (4). The Stranger invites a challenging to the concept of the aesthetic or political norm, which directly enters into Soska territory. By Mary crowning herself as queen of the underdog and misrepresented, she directly associates and crowns herself with the title of the Stranger, rather than her clientele.
Sexual encounters in American Mary are few, but pack a major punch. After Mary is raped by her esteemed medical professor and mentor, she turns her rage into action and enacts brutal physical revenge. After dismembering his legs and hanging him from a meat hook, she observes her prey, offering a reverse male-gaze. As the female body is often observed in horror films in a sexual or objectified manner, the Soska sisters show Mary admiring her own aesthetic creation. In doing so, the sisters prove the point that females do indeed have just as much power as their male counterparts.
Conversely, The Babadook also depicts female sexuality in a different light. Amelia is shown masturbating, alone in bed, almost reaching climax, when Samuel comes into the room and breaks her concentration – bringing her back to the suppressed reality of being a mother. Although Samuel is merely a child, he still has the power to deprive her of her sexual power and desire. She then, later in the film, takes back control of her own life in threatening Samuel with a butcher knife. The knife symbolizes Samuel’s own phallic member, thus proving that she has the power to give it right back to him.
The Babadook and American Mary critically and carefully analyze real problems that are typically experienced, at one point or another, by everyday beings in the “real world.” Matt Becker writes that “horror films can be understood as ‘politically ambivalent’” with “an overall sense of hopelessness that can be interpreted in the pioneering elements—conflicted characters, people against people themes, and realistic ultraviolence” (58). The concept of political ambivalence can be explained as a coexistence of conflicting emotions toward a specific person, object, or concept. In the case of the political realm, one must assume that ambivalence means opposing certain standards, but acknowledging (and accepting) that each political law or bill must have a set purpose. In relation to the Soskas’ feminist narrative, it is obvious that the sisters disagree with America’s huge emphasis on aesthetic perfection. However, the medical clinics and plastic surgery centers around the country are here in complete compliance with legal documentation and allowance. As long as something is legal, it is free to build upon itself and spread its wings. Mary’s business brings her a steady and reliable income, thus creating revenue and helping the economy at large. Conversely, Kent’s film offers up a different commentary of sorts: single parents are immediately singled out due to the legal process, involving finances and (sometimes) governmental assistance. While the spotlight being placed on single mothers or fathers that are “in need of help” can be embarrassing or uncomfortable, one must accept that there are legally-approved and placed outlets spanning the country to offer assistance, financial stability, and emotional support to these individuals. Kent’s character of Amelia serves as a direct representation of one in need of all three. Both films, by and large, directly support this idea of “political ambivalence.” The cinematic worlds seen in both narratives are ultimately hopeless.
The business of turning political strife into monetary profit will always be in style. While neither Kent nor the Soska sisters profess to bring their artistic visions to life for financial gain, statistics prove that horror is one of the most profitable, marketable genres in film history. In 2014 alone, mainstream horror cinema grossed well over a collective $254 million (researched by Nash Information Services, LLC [NIS]), making it among the top ten genres to top the box office. Professor and film scholar Brigid Cherry, in her esteemed Routledge film study on Horror, explains the promise of a long, developed existence of the horror genre: there will always be a circulation of the “horror film in response to social anxieties about violence, family breakdown, the war on terror, climate change, and so forth” (19). She ensures that as long as there are social or political issues at large, the horror genre will continue to work its way onto the big screen and into the homes of viewers craving an escape from fears of the changing (and sometimes regressing) world around them. Horror cinema, as its own credible force, is an intricately crafted system of codes. No film, let alone horror, is made simply to be made. Whether or not the filmmaker or critic is conscious of the motivation or occasion through which a film is inspired, any piece of media or entertainment (television, film, or even works of writing) is a direct product of the society in which the creator dwells. A well-made horror film is essentially just as credible as any film that is nominated for an Academy Award or promoted through Criterion as “something you have to see before you die.” Upon deeply analyzing the genre and its cleverly hidden commentaries, a certain formulaic fact is formed: horror is returning from the grave…as the genre that will never die. The Babadook and American Mary have only cracked the door into a Narnia of possibilities.
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