Supernatural horror is a massive subgenre, and many excellent works have been made simply using ghosts and demons as scary monsters. They let us all indulge the little parts of our mind that, in the middle of the night, goes back to our ancestors in caves and wonders “what if there really is something out there?” Then there are those that try using the supernatural as symbols of a real world terror. Not all of those work as well as simple chillers, but when the writers have a good understanding of the issue they are talking about, and a good grasp of the art of subtlety, the results can be wonderful. In fact, they can be used to talk about issues that are hard to portray directly.
Because nobody is more vulnerable than a child, and a few billion years of evolution compel us to protect them, horror loves to involve children. This is the case with two of my favorite films, The Babadook and Dark Water (the Japanese version, not the American remake, yes I’m a snob). Both have single mothers as protagonists, struggling to maintain a normal life for their child while supernatural forces stalk them. Spoilers ahead.
The two children are very different. In The Babadook, Amelia’s six year old Sam has behavioral troubles. He’s obsessed with monsters and weaponry, cycling between begging to play with weapons and read scary stories, and screaming fits of terror. Also, he has tantrums and at least one seizure. His behaviors get him in trouble at school and alienate him from all his peers. For the record, he’s a very accurate portrayal. I’ve worked with more than a couple Sams. Many similar stories would have him as the unsettling demonic child; this movie actually gives him a lot of sympathetic motivations. His father died in a crash the day he was born, and Sam’s fear seems to come from concern for his mother. He fantasizes that he is the protector of the house and concocts elaborate scenarios where he protects Amelia. Combine that with a kid who is often oblivious to how he comes across, and you get a kid who is actually quite likable, yet you don’t envy anyone who has to deal with him. Amelia, unfortunately, has a shortage of help. In addition to the loss of her husband, Sam’s school is not very good, and her sister’s half-hearted attempts to help only make Amelia feel more isolated.
In Dark Water, Yoshimi’s daughter Ikuko is sweet and responsible, especially for a five year old. Yoshimi was extremely neglected as a child, and in fact she is divorcing her husband because she sees him neglecting both her and her child in the same way. He is now doing everything in his power to gain custody of Ikuko, seemingly just to spite Yoshimi. Yoshimi has had a history of anxiety attacks and nervous breakdowns. Her in-story excuse is that she was disturbed by a job proofreading horror novels, but flashbacks make us suspect the underlying cause is lingering wounds from the subtle, toxic abuse of neglect. This makes her connection to Ikuko all the more important. It is both a chance to redeem herself, and the one relationship where she feels the unconditional love that she has always needed.
In both these stories, as in most great horror, the threats start slow and subtle. A creepy book appears in Sam’s bedroom and Amelia can’t remember where it came from. A little red bag keeps returning to Yoshimi and Ikuko’s new apartment, no matter how Yoshimi throws it away. These things serve the usual purpose of slowly raising the tension, but they also serve the particular purpose of illustrating the vulnerability of both women’s situations. In many horror stories, the victims are reluctant to face the eerie events in front of them, but in these, there is a reason for that. The women’s natural reactions of fear are interpreted by those around them as feminine hysteria, possibly indicating that they aren’t suitable caretakers. Rather than losing sympathy by not taking the obvious option, they gain it by showing us how all their options are bad; embrace what’s happening and be seen as crazy, or try to ignore it as the threat encroaches closer and closer.
As the threat grows, the audience starts to realize that the child isn’t the target. It’s the parent. In Yoshimi’s case, she and her daughter are being stalked by a the ghost of another little girl whose parents neglected her. In this case, the neglect was fatal, and now she’s desperate to find the mother she always needed. The ghost is determined to supplant Ikuko. Amelia is even closer to the monster. After she gets rid of the book, a new version appears, just for her. The Babadook says, “the more you ignore me, the stronger I’ll get.” Amelia is disturbed, but we begin putting pieces together as we watch her behavior. She is a loving mother, but the cracks are beginning to show. We are all familiar with the way we can snap and say something we don’t want to say in a stressful situation, and how unpleasant we can be when that stress becomes chronic.
The Babadook and the ghost are both manifestations of a truth we all know unconsciously. When we feel abandoned by those we love, by those who are supposed to look after us, that pain has the potential to turn us into something horrible.
One of the great things we love to tell ourselves is how wonderful families are, how much a source of unconditional love and blood is thicker than water and we will always be connected and so on and so forth. But in truth, there is always a choice. Some families are horrible, not in the quirky dysfunctional sitcom sense, but in the real, pathological, destructive sense. It’s easy to think of those families as people who are half real, who exist in news stories and not in our own neighborhoods. Dark Water and The Babadook, through supernatural symbolism, show us the other side; the destructive power of abandonment, isolation and neglect in families that might look very ordinary. They both do this in a way that is sensitive to their characters, honest about the pain and, at the last minute, oddly hopeful.