William Brent Bell’s 2016 The Boy plays a neat trick on us. The film poses as one genre of horror and then reveals itself to be another. It begins with Greta (Lauren Cohan), an American who, after escaping an abusive relationship that resulted in a miscarriage, travels to Britain to work as a live-in nanny for Brahms, the son of an old English couple, the Heelshires, who live in a mansion in the middle of nowhere. When Greta arrives, she discovers something strange about Brahms: he is a doll, the spitting image of the real Brahms, the Heelshires’ dead son, who died in a housefire years back but is “still with us,” the father explains.
At the start, we assume that we are in for a ghost-child or possessed-doll film, or some blend of the two. And The Boy plays on this assumption. The Heelshires act like grief-stricken parents who channel their pain into displaced affection. They treat the Brahms doll like a living child. He even has rules: never leave him alone, read to him, play music for him, kiss him goodnight, etc. Greta needs to follow these rules, the parents warn, or something will happen. Of course, when they leave, she dismisses all of it as the lunacy of parents who have lost a child, throwing aside Brahms and his ridiculous rules.
But then creepy things start to happen. Greta’s clothes and jewelry go missing when she takes a shower; she gets locked in the attic; she receives phone calls in which she hears a child’s voice underneath static. Most terrifying of all, the doll appears to be alive: it seems to leer at her with soulful eyes; she finds it in inexplicable positions, and she hears it moving behind her back. At one point, she even proves to the grocery delivery boy, Malcolm (Rupert Evans), that the doll moves when no one’s looking. Greta concludes that Brahms is “alive,” possessed by the ghost of the original Brahms. The haunting is not a coincidence. As a victim of domestic abuse who miscarried after her ex-boyfriend, Cole, hit her, Greta sees Brahms, the ghost-child who has possessed a doll, as her own dead child. She is destined to take care of Brahms, to reclaim the lost child and her motherhood.
But as it turns out, it is not the dead child, the loss of the umbilical mother-child bond, that haunts the house. It is the undead “child,” one who refuses to cut the cord. At the end of The Boy, in one of the most genuinely surprising plot twists I’ve seen in a horror movie, the real Brahms comes crawling out of his hiding spot. Cole shows up to bring back Greta, and when she refuses to leave with him, he shatters the doll. The house erupts, a wall explodes, and out from behind the shattered plasterboard emerges Brahms, a full-grown bearded man wearing a doll-face mask. Brahms has been living in the house the whole time. To preserve the perception of his innocence, he has been hiding, manipulating the doll behind Greta’s back, and, like a creepy ventriloquist, projecting his own child-like voice. After a brief psychopath-stalks-victim chase scene, the film ends with Greta, who, playing on his desire to be seen as a little boy, tucks Brahms into bed one last time and kisses him goodnight before twisting a screwdriver into his gut and escaping with Malcolm.
By revealing Brahms as a living, full-grown man who wears a doll mask, The Boy ultimately places itself in the genre of slasher horror. Images of taxidermy around the Heelshires’ mansion evoke Psycho (1960), and Brahms’s mask, hiding place, supernatural strength, and propensity for chasing his victims remind us of the slasher sons that Norman Bates inspired: Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, and Michael Myers.
But rather than simply echoing slasher tropes, The Boy tries something new. In Mama’s Boy: Momism and Homophobia in Postwar American Culture, Roel Van Den Oever shows us that the original slasher flick, Psycho, perpetuates the Cold War discourse of “momism,” which blamed mothers as the cause of arrested social and psychosexual development in men, seeing overbearing or distant mothers as the psychological root of various pathologies, including effeminacy, homosexuality, and anti-social and violent tendencies.
In Psycho, Norman Bates embodies cultural anxieties about the mama’s boy, the man-child who, taking after his mother (and in this case, dressing up as her), becomes a serial killer. But Brahms seems to be a new kind of man-child. He is a psychopath born not of an overbearing—or distant—mother who is responsible for arresting his development, but, instead, of his own desire to arrest that development. Like a dark and twisted version of Peter Pan, he embodies the horror of delayed adulthood in men who refuse to grow up and whose desires to be perceived and treated perpetually as boys ensnare women and hold them captive. Wendy is never allowed to leave. Just as The Boy’s Greta was never supposed to leave.
In this way, The Boy channels new cultural anxieties about men, specifically those most recently accused of refusing to grow up: millennials. Brahms angrily bursting out of the wall after the illusion of boyhood dramatizes what is, to some of us, an all-too familiar scenario. The image calls to mind our own temperamental grown-up brother, cousin, or uncle who never flew away from the proverbial nest, and who, after a daylong videogame or internet session, emerges pissed off from his basement or attic room only when his mom reminds him, once again, that he needs to find a job and move out. Brahms represents our fear that millennials are simply a generation of man-children who—rather than facing the economic uncertainty, limited job opportunities, and a collapsed housing market that, as Michael Kimmel suggest in Guyland, make traditional manhood seem unviable—retreat into perpetual boyhood and refuse to work toward financial independence or start families of their own.
While comedies like Failure to Launch, Step Brothers, and any number of Will Ferrell films make light of the perpetually dependent son, The Boy, perhaps the first horror film to focus on this issue, depicts the freeloader as one whose reliance on his parents is unyielding and violent. The Heelshires drown themselves, the last resort of a husband and wife exhausted by a son who demands all their love and attention. Their departing words might have been: “It’s not all for you, Brahms.”
Such dependency, the film also suggests, is particularly damaging for women. Rather than “momism,” Brahms embodies what I call “boyism”: the fear of the clingy son. His desire to be perceived as a boy arrests Greta in the role of nurturing mother. If Greta initially mourns the loss of her unborn child at the hands of Cole (a parallel man-child who refuses to let her go), by the end of the film she flees from a still more horrifying prospect: the loss of her freedom to a child who refuses to get lost and who refuses to shatter the illusion of his boyhood. Enough to terrify any woman! And in the final image, Brahms stiches the doll back together.
Peter Nagy teaches American literature and culture at Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania; he has a piece on Supergirl coming out in the next issue of Bitch Magazine, and can be found at Facebook.