Monday 9 February 2015

Horror Starts at Home

“I'll kill the monster when it comes. I'll smash its head in.” 
"For the first time in my life, I saw the place for what it was: lethal, shaped and honed for destruction as expertly as the trap lurking in the Spains' attic. The menace of it left me blinded, sang like hornets in the bones of my skull. We need straight lines to keep us safe, we need walls; we build solid concrete boxes, signposts, packed skylines, because we need them. Without any of that to hold them down, Pat's mind and Jenny's had flown wild, zigzagging in unmapped space, tied to nothing."
Both Jennifer Kent, in her 2014 film The Babadook, and Tana French, in her 2012 novel Broken Harbour tackle the idea of possession. The Babadook is a psychological horror film from the start, Broken Harbour starts as a crime novel, like Tana French’s previous efforts, but swiftly turns into a horror tale towards its end. Possession is a multi-faceted theme to think about: it’s about that old horror trope, a place being possessed, a person being possessed, but also about the complicated relationship between parent and child, when the parent decides where the child goes and what the child does, and the horrors of property ownership when prices are falling and assets become traps, impossible to escape from because they are no longer sellable without a considerable loss. Both Kent and French connect classical horror themes with modern interpretations, finding their salience in applying them to both topical and general stories. Amelia, the single mother in The Babadook, is struggling to raise a very imaginative son and has literally locked up her grief over the loss of her husband – who died in a car crash on the way to the hospital before she gave birth to Samuel – in the basement. The Spains, in Broken Harbour, invested their savings in a newly built house in a Dublin suburb, far away from everything and unfinished because the financial crisis hit before any meaningful infrastructure could be established. Amelia is trapped with her grief and her overburdening responsibility for a son she cannot control and has difficulty expressing affection for – his boundless energy overwhelms her every day – The Spains are trapped in a house they can no longer afford after the husband loses his job, incapable of selling because their property is now worthless and falling apart around them. 
Both stories subtly capture the moment when horror starts to move in. In The Babadook, the story is told from two perspectives – Amelia, struggling to get through every day, struggling to get sleep, Samuel, whose complete belief in the existence of monsters manifests itself after he stumbles across a truly terrifying bed-time story that apparently sneaked its way unto the family’s bookshelf. Broken Harbour unravels the horror backwards – the tragedy has already happened in the beginning of the book, when Frank, an investigative detective with the Dublin Murder squad, enters the house, both children and the husband are dead and the wife is on her way to the hospital. In the course of the investigation, Frank reveals the inner workings of the family that lead up to the catastrophe, and the deeper he delves, the further his optimism in the dream that property developers like the ones the Spains fell for were selling is put into question. The horror in Broken Harbour lies in that dream itself, in the idea of selling a life at the periphery of the city that has become so brutally unsustainable in such a short period of time (and the house, shoddily built, crumbles, as contractors fail to act responsibly). French carefully connects the story of the Spains with Frank’s own childhood trauma, rooted in the same place, years before any houses were built there or anybody lived there permanently. It is almost as if those memories of losing his mother to suicide are haunting the place itself and are breaking through, dooming the idea of a bright future from the start. 
Recently, articles on unfinished suburban developments have started to refer to these projects as “zombie subdivisions”, and French surveys that territory with an incredibly observant precision. The broken promises of the development – a complete lack of local infrastructure, day care centres, culture – leads directly to the possible horror, to the idea of nature claiming its territory back, and that very idea starts to possess and doom the Spains. The story is uncovered through increasingly frantic message board entries which Pat, the husband, made – believing that a large animal has moved into the attic right over his children’s heads, he becomes obsessed with the idea of catching the animal and keeping his family safe, especially since he is failing to find a new job or provide financially. French deconstructs the precarious idea of masculinity, of the male breadwinner, of what happens to an individual who grew up internalizing these values and now finds himself failing them due to the economic downturn. The elusive animal that Pat attempts to capture starts to move through the walls, and the longer it takes Pat to identify it or find solid proof for its existence that he could show his wife, the more he loses his sense of reality and proportion. In his mind, it increases in size, in danger, in intelligence, until he starts to construe it to have a personal agenda against him. 
The Babadook, on the other hand, is a deconstruction of femininity and motherhood: and the horror unravels when Amelia, either incapable of carrying both the grief and the responsibility at the same time, or literally possessed by a monster (the distinction between the two does not really matter), becomes a danger to Samuel. Samuel insists that they mutually promise to take care of each other in the face of the perceived outer threat, and Amelia breaks that promise, but she also transgresses the idea of protective motherhood. In the beginning of the film, Kent portrays a mother incapable dealing with the seeming irrationality of a child with an overbearing imagination, but she turns this around in the second part of the film, when Amelia’s irrationality becomes a threat to Samuel and his strategies to defeat monsters suddenly appear essential and rational and the only way out. It doesn't matter if Amelia is actually possessed or suffering a severe psychological breakdown: Samuel makes sense of the situation by applying the metaphors at his disposal, and the only explanation that provides him with meaning is that his mother has invited a monster to live in the house and then in her body. 
In both cases, the horror – the animal living in the attic, in the walls, the monster in the basement that escaped the pages of a book – starts from a place, but only becomes truly terrifying and develops its destructive potential when it possesses a person. Kent’s place meets traditional horror tropes, a Victorian house, a basement, old wallpaper, creaking floorboards (obligated to film the movie in South Australia, she chose to build a house that seems more universal than place-specific, and only someone familiar with the Adelaidean Parklands would be able to place the film in one particular city). French’s approach is more complex: she takes existing horror tropes and applies their logic to modernity, to the horror of a place entirely lacking all those characteristics of a classic haunted house, a place that is horrible precisely because of its complete lack of history. This lack of history almost becomes the very reason why the Spains’ house is ultimately doomed: it isn’t anchored in any kind of meaningful community, has no connection to time or place. Once they can no longer afford the trappings of upper middle class life, the Spains are trapped in their house. They can no longer see friends or dine out – everything is too far away and too costly – and with no outer world to put things into relations, the monster that starts small, in Pat’s head, can grow without limits. Amelia is trapped by grief over the loss of her husband, and her way out is not “getting over” her grief, but finding a pragmatic way of living with it (feeding it when it is hungry, allowing it to co-exist with other emotions, but never being able to completely banish it from her house), the Spains are trapped by overwhelming shame (the shame of being economic losers in a time that doesn’t allow losing and always makes economic misfortune an individual failing rather than a communal one), and their struggle is already lost when Broken Harbour begins. 
Both horror stories are brilliant at evoking primal fears, and grinding away at the idea of a safe home and protective parenthood. They succeed because they intricately map the horrors of irrationality moving into minds and wreaking havoc.

The Babadook (2014), directed by Jennifer Kent, starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman. 

Broken Harbour (2012), written by Tana French. 

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