Monday, July 29, 2019
A viewing of horror films featuring mothers with distressed children, The Exorcist, Babadook, and Hereditary, offers the opportunity to examine ways in which uncanny situations and Lacan’s conflicting imaginary and symbolic order create the frightening impossibility of absolute comprehension.
The Exorcist, released in the end of 1973, is one of the early horror films featuring a mother whose child is being terrorized. While it’s true that the mother character, Chris MacNeil, is a career-minded single mother, she is not a ‘guilty’ mom. She doesn’t feel conflicted about her own behavior as a mother. Additionally, she is not being punished by society nor is she resentful of her child’s, distress and apparent need for help. Her child needs help and, with the support of her community and society, she does everything she can to get it. Her situation is not uncanny; it is understandable and customary, and, as a result, the mother character is not a source of tension. Instead, she reacts to the story tension.
Furthermore, the mother has access to the symbolic order and all its resources. She demands and receives assistance. When initial medical treatments are not successful, she becomes insistent and continues to access resources, seeking additional help for her child. While she does take steps to hide her identity after traditional medicine fails, she is not fearful of judgment or rejection. She doesn’t smother or silence her daughter. Her daughter’s torment continues, but not as a result of her own mother becoming a threat. The mother is not forced to battle evil in the unknowable Real. The daughter arguably does do battle in the Real but not due to the mother’s actions or attitude. It is for these reasons that the plotline of The Exorcist does not fall into the ‘guilty’ mom subgenre.
By comparison, last year’s Hereditarydoes fall into the ‘guilty’ mom subgenre. Annie, the mother, experiences maternal guilt due to her inability to fulfill the emotional needs of her two children. It appears, due to the repression by her own mother, she never really became part of a community or society. The entire story, peopled by characters who have no surnames, takes place outside of ordinary, knowable society. The mother’s immaturity, resulting from her thwarted ascension into the symbolic order, causes her to be resentful and incapable of meeting her children’s emotional needs. Her situation is uncanny.
Because she herself never moved into the symbolic, she is unable to guide her children into the symbolic. Charlie, the younger of the two children, expresses herself through pictures and semi-human looking creatures she builds with odds and ends. After her sudden death, caused by her brother Peter, the mother begins to stifle and control him. He is eventually silenced completely, forced into the Real, and given to the evil force.
The ‘guilty’ mom horror film Babadook, out in 2014, features all aspects of the subgenre and quickly became a widely studied classic. Amelia, the mother character, is at the center of three tensions: society’s expectation that she provide for her child’s emotional and physical safety, the child’s needs, and her own needs. Her desire to be accepted by society is seriously hampered by her son’s odd and destructive behavior. She resents her child for behaving in such an unacceptable way and feels guilty as a result. Both her character and situation are uncanny.
When the mother character’s husband was alive, she had access to community and society. As the story opens, she no longer does and the prospect of regaining it is becoming increasingly unlikely. As her son’s distress escalates, her own need for assistance becomes increasingly apparent; however, instead of helping, the community which she is part of—a group of moms and the administrators at school, shame and punish her. This, in turn, causes her resentment to rise, and her treatment of her son diminishes, all resulting in an increase of her guilt. This pattern continues until she is no longer guilty; she is completely emotionally estranged from her son, leaving him with neither the emotional safety of the imaginary or the rational thought of the symbolic. The child battles the evil force in the Real.
In this subgenre of horror, the guilty mother and the tormented child face both the uncanny and the Real. The idea that a mother would be ambivalent to her responsibilities as a parent or antagonistic to the safety of her own child is frightening and uncanny. The guilty mom knows this, and it is her self-awareness that fuels her guilt. She and the child are fighting parallel yet competing battles. Her ascension into the symbolic would enable her to gain access to the resources of the larger group, and the child’s ascension would enable them to express the need for help. However, they are both trapped in the Real. The pivotal point in the film will be when the mother finally chooses, either consciously, as in Hereditary, or subconsciously, as inBabadook, between her own needs and desires or her child’s need for physical and emotional safety. Dark ending or light, this subgenre of film is likely to be one writers will continue to explore.
Monday, July 22, 2019
Guilty Mom Horror Part 3: “the Real” issue in the guilty mom horror film? Keep looking, you won’t locate it.
Within the context of a horror film, this three-pronged tensional dynamic highlights the unique vulnerabilities and conflicts of the ‘guilty’ mom and creates an avenue through which viewers experience Jacques Lacan’s Real. Lacan’s Real is the uncanny location between the conflicting imaginary order and symbolic order. The Real creates the impossibility of absolute comprehension. Not being able to understand something when one’s life is at stake is frightening.
The imaginary order is the part of human consciousness that exists without language and expression. In the imaginary order, the self is connected to others, objects, and the world. This order is without boundary or definition; it is the fantasy image of self. It is narcissistic, fueled by unsatisfiable demands. It is the order of the maternal. The mother, in her traditional role, exists in the imaginary order with the child. She protects the emotions of the child and creates emotional safety. For these reasons, the traditional maternal role is associated with the imaginary order.
The imaginary order is separate from the symbolic order. The symbolic order is the place of self that is expressed through language, the place ruled by societal demands, norms, rules and expectations. It is composed of a narrative, concrete and defined by the absence or presence of objects and ideas. It is this aspect of self that affords the ability to deal with others and to be part of a community. It is characterized by desire, by want. The father, in his traditional role, protects the worldly safety of the child and guides the child into that place where norms dictate behavior and rational thoughts are expressed through language. Thus, the traditional paternal role is associated with the symbolic order.
The Real is the place between the imaginary and symbolic orders. It is the incomprehensible, undefinable space beyond rational thought, although it does contain knowledge. It cannot be expressed in spoken or written language and so is not fully comprehensible or communicable. That is not to say it is inherently irrational or inherently anxiety producing. There are pleasant ways to experience the Real. Being curious or intrigued, for example. Wondering about something while still feeling in control of one’s thoughts, while knowing there are no harsh consequences to not know—these are safe, if not productive and pleasant ways to experience the Real. However, the Real is undefinable and thus uncanny by its very nature. Additionally, it is unique to each person and so not uniformly shared. It is undefinable, yet familiar. It exists, and must exist, but is not explainable nor controllable. The ‘guilty’ mom situation drives the mother, the child, and the viewer into the Real. It is in this incomprehensible abyss that the battle against evil takes place.
The mother figure is vulnerable because of her inability to become fully incorporated within the paternal symbolic order. Without this empowerment, she does not have access to the resources necessary to negotiate the story terror. She may be denied access altogether or she may be forced to back channel her way in, managing a delicate balancing act of pretending the situation isn’t present while also attempting to get help. As a result, she silences the child and forces the child back into the imaginary order, although not intentionally, insofar as this limitation happens via her own inability to gain access into the symbolic order. She has a sense or knowledge that she shouldn’t cling to or smother her child, yet her guilt may cause her to over-nurture the child, keeping the child ‘trapped’ in the imaginary order and without access to the language and rational thought of the symbolic. She, herself, is disoriented, drifting in the Real, a place with no understanding or solutions.
Children are by their nature vulnerable; however, the horror film child faces challenges that amplify that vulnerability. In the situation of a guilty mom horror film, the child is dealing with two threats. One, the evil force that terrorizes, and two, the mother who either suppresses and smothers or silences and rejects. The threat created by the guilty mom is uniquely terrifying. Barbara Creed, in The Monstrous-Feminine, notes that “monsters frighten, in large part, because they recall our previous stage of development when we were not separated from the body of the mother.” A child who is forced into that place of development where they are part of the mother, especially when the mother herself is a threat, is struggling within the incomprehensible Real. The child’s location within the Real is complicated by this cyclical conflict. Intuitively, the child knows there is a problem. Using language, they seek help from their mother and in the lack of assistance or rejection are forced back into the imaginary, emotionally-based, pre-Oedipal stage. This regression is uncanny, distressing, and denies the child agency. The mother, wanting to control the situation of the child and keep the child’s needs from usurping her own, continues to smother or silence the child. Without the ability to express the need for help or the ability to understand their situation and thus protect themself from the terror, the child is even more exposed and vulnerable. This vulnerability is reinforced by the mother’s response to her guilt, the silencing or over nurturing. Due to the distress that the child experiences and causes, both mother and child are rejected by the community or society. The child experiences that rejection and begins to fear or reject society in turn. They are shut out of the symbolic order by both the larger group and by the actions of the mother and now must fight the terror on their own.
Stefan Gullatz, in his work analyzing contemporary horror through Lacanian theory, discusses the impact of films like Hellraiser, in which the lines of reality are blurred. He asserts that the true terror stems from the viewers inability to determine the location of the action.
The ‘enjoyment’ at stake…appears to be the horrific, excess enjoyment of a desire that has come too close to its object. The fact that such films, despite their traumatic impact, may nonetheless be mesmerizing may be in part linked to their existential dimension, their ‘revelation’ of the real of our desire underlying the fiction of symbolic reality. One is reminded of the unbearable but nonetheless revelatory encounter with the real at the ‘navel’ of a dream or nightmare, which causes the subject to wake up in order to enable him to ‘continue dreaming’... to preserve the comforting illusion of a stable social self. Such films can therefore only enjoyed retroactively, from the perspective of a more distanced reflection that facilitates a symbolic re-inscription of the traumatic experience.
Adding this additional layer of mental and emotional confusion to the uncanny situation of a guilty mom is an effective strategy for horror writers.
Monday, July 15, 2019
Guilty Mom Horror Part 2: Uncanny? Yes, of course. The mom’s tension and the situation. Two overlapping tensional circles. But how, why, and why does it matter?
For one reason, this triangle of tension is uncanny. Obviously, horror film writers are working intentionally to craft situations and circumstances that are eerie, disturbing and frightening, so making things uncanny is good craft. Ernst Jentsch, in his essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” defines the state as a person’s “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” He was quick to note that awareness and understanding of such a state is important to the writer. He says:
In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.
Uncanniness is created when the distinction between real and unreal, human and inhuman, vanishes. This blurry boundary makes a person intellectually and emotionally vulnerable. In horror some, but not all, of the inhuman creatures are readily apparent. The creature that rises from the sea, a demon that lives in the woods, or a spirit that pulls you to the underworld while you are sleeping—these are obviously not human. Those beings which are ambiguous add tension in ways the former do not. A ‘monster’ who lives in the home, serves breakfast and drives the car, is more uncannily disturbing than the monster that dwells in the swamp. A mother who is teetering on ambivalence or who has transitioned to hostility is uncanny to both the viewer and the child. The viewer is alarmed because such a mother is unimaginable; they can relate to the child who is frightened because such a mother represents a threat as well as the inability to access safety.
Sigmund Freud, in his essay, “The Uncanny” expanded Jentsch’s theory. Freud examined concepts of human development to include maturation as having a significant impact on a person’s perception of what is uncanny. He stated that a person experiences something as uncanny insofar as it reminds the individual of their repressed desires, desires which the individual presumably struggles to control, and feared punishment for deviating from societal norms. The ‘guilty mom’ is at the center of these three tensions: First, her own repressed desires, including that she be accepted by society or community and consequently fully actualized in the form of an entire human rather than only as ‘a mom.’ Second, desires which she presumably struggles to control, in this instance the behavior and interactions of the child. Third, feared punishment for deviating from societal norms, which in this instance would occur as a result of the child acting out in ways that threaten the group or are non-conforming. The punishment can come in a variety of forms: rejection, mocking, or taking away objects or resources are possibilities. The ‘guilty’ mom realizes her struggle with these three conflicting issues, and it is the combination of that recognition and her own desires which create her guilt. She may or may not be aware of her guilt, but it is present and activates her behaviors and emotions. Thus, the guilty mom’s situation is in itself uncanny.
Ready for more? Guilty Mom Horror Part 3: “the Real” issue in the guilty mom horror film? Keep looking, you won’t locate it.
Ready for more? Guilty Mom Horror Part 3: “the Real” issue in the guilty mom horror film? Keep looking, you won’t locate it.
Friday, July 12, 2019
Every year @Romance Writers of America hosts the “Readers for Life” Literacy Autographing, all proceeds of which are donated to adult literacy organizations. This year they are supporting ProLiteracy, Literacy Partners, and The Literacy Assistance Center. Come see me and hundreds of other authors on July 27 from 3-5 p.m. at the New York Marriott Marquis to help support this important cause. Admission is free! Find a full list of signing authors at www.rwa.org/literacy.
Here's what I'll be signing:
Workaholic accountant Elizabeth Sewell needs a man. According to her well-laid-out life plan, it’s time to find Mr. Right and move on to the next phase of her life. The problem is, she’s been so busy working her way up the career ladder, she wouldn’t spot Mr. Right even if he were carrying a neon sign. So, being an organized businesswoman, she comes up with a strategy. She’ll hire a man to provide her with a variety of experiences. That way, she’ll know what she wants. It’s just that easy, right?
Disillusioned attorney Jack Harley needs an opportunity. He’s just left a high-status firm and is determined to get his life back on track by opening a private practice. His first client, a woman being sexually harassed at work, gives him the chance to take on a case that matters. When a sexy brunette mistakes his new office for a recently relocated escort service and challenges him to help her uncover what turns her on, he thinks he can have it all. But soon he discovers telling Elizabeth the truth of who he is will compromise his case. Protect and seek justice for his client—that’s the promise he’d made himself. Now it’s time to win the case, even if, for him, it means losing what he really wants.
Anxious for adventure and the chance to prove she’s not the spoiled socialite her friends and family believe her to be, Victoria Moore buys The Circle Cat ranch, rolls up her sleeves, and begins the repairs that will turn the ramshackle place into the best dude ranch in Arizona. One thing she didn’t plan on was a dark, down-on-his-luck cowboy smashing into her barn. But when he does, she turns the problem into an opportunity. Armed with limited experience, but a lot of determination, Victoria sets out to get what she wants from the wandering cowboy.
The last thing Lang Thompson wants is to get tangled up with a woman. Especially one who’s used to getting what she wants when she wants it. He knows what rich girls like her expect and he isn’t interested in playing games. But he’s no match for Victoria’s hardworking determination and sexy brand of innocence.