Stranger Danger is a total crock. We all know that we are statistically more likely to be maimed or murdered by someone we know (and love). In honor of the looming Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, these films offer depictions of terrible parents who help us appreciate the moms and dads in our own lives. Some of the most memorable performances in horror come from ghastly guardians who remind us that being a parent ain’t that easy. What follows is a chronological list of horror films whose parents make us think twice about “Home Sweet Home.” Thanks mom and dad for everything! (Especially, for not being skin-suit wearing psychopaths….or at least for hiding that side of things from us.)
By Ashley Pfeiffer
This is the year of final girls dissected. Final Girls by Mira Grant (pen name of Seanan McGuire) and Final Girls by Riley Sager share a name and a fascination with the trauma that shapes the figure of the final girl. The approaches taken by each novel, though, are drastically different, highlighting just how elastic the horror genre can be. Both are definitely worth reading.
In Sager’s Final Girls (due out in July, 2017 from Dutton Books), Quincy is a well-adjusted host of a popular baking blog, living in a lovely New York City apartment with a darling fiancé. Years earlier, however, she was the only survivor of the Pine Cottage Massacre. She shares the distinction of final girl with Lisa, a sorority sister whose sisters were taken out by a college dropout wielding a knife, and Sam, a former maid, who survived the Sac Man while working at the Nightlight Inn. The media dubbed them “The Final Girls” and worked its magic to facilitate a meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting never happened, and Quincy overcame her trauma and moved on with her life with the help of Xanax and Coop (the cop who saved her). Quincy built her perfect life by simply forgetting everything about Pine Cottage. Her “Final Girl” legacy comes knocking at her door again, though, when Lisa is found dead with her wrists slit in her bathtub and Sam shows up at Quincy’s door with dire warnings.
While Sager’s novel is rooted in realism, Mira Grant’s Final Girls (Subterranean Press, 2017) is a blend of science fiction and horror—a hybrid genre that Grant has perfected. The science fiction is explained just enough to make you question whether it could be possible (as in her NewsFlesh trilogy). In Grant’s Final Girls, a skeptical science reporter, Esther Hoffman, is our entry into the world of virtual reality as a newly-developed means of curing trauma. While Ester ends up at Dr. Jennifer Webb’s facility in order to debunk these new methods, she agrees to Dr. Webb’s proposal that she enter the virtual reality simulator (using the cocktail of drugs and VR pod) in order to address some of her own past traumatic experiences. If Webb’s methods indeed work on Esther, then she’ll endorse her technology; if not, Esther has the perfect weapon to discredit Webb’s work. The rub is that Webb’s technology works best using fear to rewrite impulses in the brain—and what better way to cause fear than those pop culture darlings, slashers and zombies? When Webb also joins the simulation with Esther (back in their high school days), things begin to go wrong, leaving the two women trapped in a simulation gone awry as the undead gather.
Aside from their shared title, Sager’s and Grant’s works appear to have little in common. They both, though, are fascinated with trauma and with the role that fear plays in motivating characters to address and rework (past) trauma* into and through (present) action. Only by confronting her past—and, yes, I mean physically confronting it—can Sager’s Quincy begin to reconstruct herself as something beyond a final girl. The same holds true for Grant’s Esther and Webb, along with all the other clients of Dr. Webb mentioned in Final Girls. The fear caused by Dr. Webb’s VR program causes an emotional response that changes the emotional feeling left by the trauma, and other feelings are left behind.
Both novels raise ethical questions about confronting trauma, especially Grant’s Final Girls, in which the confrontation is, thanks to virtual reality, quite literal. Even if the benefits outweigh the severe costs, should someone be made to confront their past, to change the way they view the past?
In Sager’s Final Girls, Sam wants Quincy to remember the Pine Cottage Massacre. She wants details, but her willful forgetting is all that is holding Quincy’s life together. Is Quincy’s life without these memories less real than her life with them—and, more importantly, who gets to decide? Ultimately, a physical confrontation takes the dilemma out Quincy’s control, but that lack of control only highlights these questions about memory and choice. The same holds true for Grant’s Final Girls, albeit with an added layer of unreality. If a third party (Dr. Webb) is creating scenarios for patients to address their trauma, she is in control of much of their experiences and emotions. Is this control ethical? Grant doesn’t answer these questions, but she does raise them in the novel, leaving the reader to ponder as they read.
I can’t pretend to answer the questions about trauma and memory that these two novels raise. I’m not an ethicist. But thinking about trauma and the autonomy of the final girl’s choice to address her own trauma added to the richness of this iconic horror figure. Plus, both novels delve into the slasher genre and include horror trivia sprinkled in for the attentive fan.
* I hesitate to say that any character in these novels cure or overcome trauma because I see their journeys more as a process. They may have reworked trauma in to a different emotion or action, but no past experience could disappear.
For a discussion of the film, Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015), which similarly dissects the trope of the Final Girl, check out our post by Elizabeth here.
And for a fascinating account of how the Final Girls of horror helped her overcome the trauma of sexual assault, see Lauren Milici’s article, “Saved by the Final Girl” on Birth, Movies, Death.
Ashley Pfeiffer is an editorial assistant for the AACR and is involved in advocacy and fundraising for Channel Initiative. Check us out (http://www.channelinitiative.org/). She is a huge horror fan and keeps a Herbert West poster above her bed.
NR 92 mins. Geoffrey Orthwein & Andrew Sullivan USA 2017
Bokeh is a beautiful film, shot on location in a deserted Iceland. It’s worth watching solely for the landscape and the cinematography (by Joe Lindsay), yet there is more than that to Bokeh. Not least, it stars the talented Maika Monroe (The Guest , It Follows ) as well as Matt O’Leary, playing characters who respond in entirely different ways to the cataclysm that strikes them and without whose undeniable abilities the film would have fallen flat, left to depend only on its landscapes.
The film follows a young couple, Jenai and Riley, who are on a dream vacation (Riley’s dream) in Iceland. They wake up one day to find that everyone in the town, indeed seemingly everyone on the planet, is gone. The film is not about the event itself—there’s a flash in the sky and that’s it: the event is not dramatized and it’s not explained. Instead, the film is about what Jenai and Riley do once they’ve discovered that they are utterly alone and far from their home. The power is still on, the Internet is working, they have cell phone service. There are just no humans left besides themselves.
The vampire tradition in fiction and film has served as a vehicle to explore various anxieties of western culture during the last century. Few texts, however, have explored the possibilities of representing a child as the night-dwelling and blood-sucking terror that so effectively haunts audiences. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) fills that gap, portraying the villainous vampire not as a charismatic adult male with colonizing intentions, but instead as a quiet, twelve-year-old girl whose protection of a bullied young boy leads to their friendship. While the children in the film may appear weak and insecure, their horrific brutality towards adults proves that the young vampire is anything but innocent. Let the Right One In contributes to the vampire cultural mythology, specifically, by showing childhood monstrosity to be a result of a failed family structure.
While Let the Right One In borrows from the vampire tradition, it contributes to vampire culture by using the child vampire to suggest adult anxieties about the violent potential of children. The young vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) serves as a “repository of adult fears about children, who are like us yet in crucial ways so different, who are both vulnerable and demanding, and in touch with the id in ways that that can elicit great anxiety…”[i] As seen in Let the Right One In, the neglect of children demonstrates the failed family structure that allows the violent impulses of Eli and Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) to surface.[ii] The adults in Eli and Oskar’s life fail to serve as a moral and ideological force capable of suppressing the violent tendencies that adults fear. Let the Right One In shows that, without these governing forces, “the power of children to inspire…terror…because of their vulnerability and uncontrollability has moved to the cultural front.”[iii] Eli’s relationship with Håkan (Per Ragnar), as well as Oskar’s distance from his parents, demonstrate how the absence of adults allows the child monster to surface.
Young girls in middle-of-nowhere European villages used to be told that if they were beautiful enough a Prince would find them, take them back to his castle, and they would live happily ever after. Change Europe for America, the stories for magazines, the Prince for an agent, the castle for Los Angeles. You now have the quintessentially American fairytale that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). (Even the “Neon” in the title could be an update of the colour typically used in the titles of fairytales.) Indeed, The Neon Demon is nothing less than a slick, sick modern fable laced through with the imagery of fairytales and myths. But these fantastic reference points have gone under the knife; disguised in Americana they are made fresh again.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a small town sixteen-year-old who has “It.” Whatever “It” is the audience can’t see, but when she moves to LA she’s the fairest in the land. She walks into the room and jaded agents turn their heads, everybody wants her; it’s almost preternatural. Naiveté and isolation put her at risk, she has no family, something strange is going on at her skeevy motel, and her closest friend wants more from her. When she falls in with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), and her model friends she begins to embrace her beauty. But the beauty industry proves to be still more sinister.