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.

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