In the 2002 Japanese horror Dark Water, Yoshimi, a single parent, moves with her daughter into a small apartment block whilst undergoing a particularly nasty custody battle. They are haunted by the spirit of a missing girl who used to live in the upstairs apartment, manifesting itself as titular dark water, leaking, then gushing into her flat.
The men she is surrounded by do their best to undermine her, fuelling her paranoia, and accusing her of going mad. When she complains about water leaking into her apartment, the nonchalant super in her building does nothing to help her, and it takes the intervention of her (male) lawyer for them to do anything about it. All the while, her ex-husband fuels her paranoia, bringing past visits to psychologists to the attention of her custody hearing.
Throughout the course of the film, Yoshimi is beset on all sides by men who want to hurt her emotionally, or show little to no care for her. In the end (explored in more detail in the inevitable US remake), it emerges that the carelessness of a man in the building caused the death of the girl who now haunts her.
One cannot imagine how this film would play out if the family had been together. Certainly the events depicted would be different, characters less oblivious to the sinister goings-on.
This is, of course, right in director Hideo Nakata’s wheelhouse. In classic Japanese horror, Ring, he changed the protagonists gender to female, and wrote her as divorced (the male protagonist is married in the original novel). Both Ring and Dark Water have a horrible sense of loneliness about them, with empty homes and corridors providing a rich visual representation of their character’s emotional state. In Dark Water, the emotional battle that Yoshimi is going through, with custody hearings, her child at a new school, and a horrible leak in her new flat, manifests itself as the ghost of a dead child (drowning at a time when adults should have been watching her suddenly seems so apt).
From Carrie to The Sixth Sense, via Let the Right One In and The Others, single mothers have been the focus of modern horror for decades. Why?
In her article for Slate on mothers in modern horror, Tammy Oler states that, “while we live in an age of parental scrutiny, mothers are still the ones who shoulder nearly all the parenting pressure. These films tap into just how terrifying and confusing it is to be a mother right now.”
That parental pressure comes to a brilliantly frightening head in The Babadook, in which a grieving mother, Amelia, becomes possessed by the titular Babadook, an embodiment of the confusing grief fuelled emotion she feels for the death of her husband (inextricably tied in to the birth of her son Sam), and the blame she places on her son for his father’s demise.
In the final act of the film, Amelia, possessed by the Babadook, tries to kill her child and it is only when she realises the hurt she is causing Sam that she is able to separate herself from the creature. She can’t destroy the monster, choosing instead to keep it locked in their cellar, feeding it every now and again; but her relationship with her son has found an emotional balance.
The Babadook’s exploration of mental illness, and coping with depression whilst raising a child is brutally honest, and all the better for it.
Goodnight Mommy on the other hand, does not appear to be all that interested in anything but the brutal part. The 2014 Austrian film concerns twin boys who become convinced that their mother, who returns home with a bandaged face after plastic surgery, is not really their mother. This belief drives them to enact a series of awful, horrific tortures on her, in the hopes that she’ll admit the truth.
In one particularly gruelling sequence, the mother wakes to find herself glued to the floor by the boys. She is at their mercy for almost the entire duration of the film, the twins intense relationship taking things increasingly to the next level until it reaches a horrible, inevitable conclusion.
There is the suggestion that, because the mother is a minor celebrity, she has allowed her career to take precedence over her parenting, allowing her children to retreat into a fantasy world, which causes them to attack her the way they do. “We were interested in the idea of lost trust, what it means to have to prove your identity as a mother, and that became a gruesome horror story,” directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala explained.
In Dark Water, to rid the apartment block of the ghost, Yoshimi takes on the identity of the ghost’s mother, asserting her identity as a mother. Likewise, in The Babadook, Amelia has to regain that same identity in order to separate herself from the creature that has possessed her.
The idea of intertwining motherhood and horror goes back a long way, The Grimm Brother’s antagonists are frequently wicked stepmothers, and in Great Expectations, Ms Havisham haunts the house in her wedding dress.
We do this so rarely with fathers.
But then, fathers are never portrayed as having the same limitations as mothers. In 2016’s excellent Under the Shadow, the plot requires Iraj, father to Dorsa and husband to Shideh, to be drafted to the front lines of war-torn Tehran. His abandonment allows the film to brilliantly subvert horror tropes in the name of critiquing the regime’s treatment of women. In one particularly smart scene, Shideh and Dorsa do exactly what we’re always yelling at people in horror films to do, they leave the haunted flat and run away, only to be arrested for being outside without her chador (a veil) on. The film opens with Shideh trying to continue her medical studies, only to be told that due to her political affiliations, she cannot.
As in The Babadook, the entity that haunts the mother and daughter in Under the Shadow, could well be a product of the emotional trauma that the pair are undergoing. That it appears so often to Shideh as a chador, a symbol of women’s oppression in the country, is not just a neat visual effect, it is a clear statement by Babak Anvari that the film is dealing in a horror that explicitly concerns women.
Lights Out, a padded out feature version of a much better short film, bumps off one father figure in the opening scene (step-dad to main character Rebecca), and reveals that another (her biological father) was murdered years ago. Rebecca has grown up believing her father ran away, and that film strains to ensure us that no, he was killed by an evil embodiment of depression that lives in the darkness. It fits the film’s themes of depression, centred on Maria Bello’s Sophie, Rebecca’s estranged mother, who is haunted by the ghost of a childhood friend, Diana. Diana thrives in the darkness, wanting Sophie for herself. She kills (the aforementioned fathers of Sophie’s children), and keeps Sophie in her bedroom. But the father in the film? He doesn’t need to be a complex character. Instead of abandoning his family when he couldn’t cope with his wife’s depression (as his daughter spends most of the film believing), he was killed by Diana. On the surface, this is a good thing, a complex and interesting female character at the centre of the story, but in killing the father it excuses him from leaving the family.
Once again, the mother is required to do the emotional heavy lifting in the family.
These are just the tip of the iceberg too. In Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie, the relationship between the titular telekinetic teen and her mother is front and centre. The Others is shot from the perspective of the mother, played by Nicole Kidman, constantly shutting doors to keep harmful light away from her children; her husband away at war, returning only for a brief, dreamlike scene. Oskar, the boy at the centre of Let the Right One In struggles with his relationship with his mother (though he seems almost happy when he escapes to the countryside with his father), a relationship exacerbated in the Matt Reeves remake, Let Me In, in which Owen’s (renamed here) mother remains out of the focus in every scene she appears.
Most horror takes our everyday fears and gives them a voice and a presence. Whether that’s The Babadook, stepping out of the children’s book to possess and give voice to Amelia’s trauma, or the chador shaped djinn in Under the Shadow. These films have an innate ability to take very real, complex emotional issues, and filter them through a genre lens without diluting the complexity; not just tapping into what it is to be a mother, but trying to put us, the viewer in those shoes, experiencing every single terrifying, uncertain minute.
Article by Daniel Carpenter
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