1-Mama-PosterCross posted at Ms.

For horror fans, January is both a blessing and a curse. Christened “Hollywood’s dumping ground,” January is where movies go to die. With everyone’s attention focused on awards season, or so the thinking goes, studios can afford to release films from which they do not expect much profit, many of which are horror movies. Though The Silence of the Lambs opened in January and did quite well, releases more typical of the month include From Dusk till Dawn and BloodRayne. (Remember them? Exactly.)

So while fans of Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) were eagerly anticipating the premiere of his newest film, Mama, last Friday, most of the world won’t notice it. Despite Mama debuting at number one with more than $28 million in the weekend’s box office, Del Toro’s upcoming summer blockbuster Pacific Rim, opening in July, will attract a much wider audience, as did Hellboy, which he wrote and directed, and Rise of the Guardians, the recent animated holiday release on which he was executive producer. Given del Toro’s prominence and power as a contemporary mythmaker, Mama and its representation of motherhood bear some exploration.

In four films (so far)–The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and now Mama–del Toro embodies the very real childhood fear of losing one’s parents in a variety of mythical creatures that terrorize children until they either die or are saved by new and/or redeemed parental figures. Del Toro is known for drawing on fairy tales, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that in all four movies, the children’s birth mothers are dead, dying or absent, and their replacements are not much better.

The two most recent films in this series (Dark and Mama) feature a Hollywood archetype I like to call the Reluctant Mother. Think Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. Just as the Reluctant Hero is forced to go upon a journey when he would rather not but nevertheless manages to prove his heroic nature and learn valuable lessons, the Reluctant Mother does not not choose motherhood but rather has it thrust upon her. After bonding with actual children–and in del Toro’s films, trying to save them from monsters–the Reluctant Mother usually realizes she really did have it in her the whole time. Ah, motherhood: so instinctual all it takes is a demon from an alternate universe to make you want to do it.

In Mama, two young girls are taken by their crazed father–who has just shot their birth mother–to an abandoned cabin in the woods. Just before he can kill his children and himself, he is killed by a poltergeist-like monster who then raises the girls in the wild until, one day, they are rescued by an uncle and his girlfriend, who take the girls to a new home. Mama, as the girls call their monster, tags along. The girlfriend–played by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and identified as Reluctant by the excitement she shows at the beginning of the film upon reading a negative pee-stick pregnancy test–can’t quite hack laundry and meals, but she does prove handy in fighting Mama, who it turns out does not always have the girls’ best interests at heart.

This motherhood triptych–one dead, one Reluctant and one supernaturally evil–tells us a lot about the contemporary anxieties regarding parenting that inform del Toro’s and other contemporary films of the supernatural. Family structures are changing along with women’s social roles: Not all children are raised by their birth mothers, not all women want to be mothers and, as exemplified by Mama (who it turns out was a Victorian mental patient who killed herself and her baby and then hung around as a ghost looking for children to raise in its place), not all women should be.

Mama‘s typical January-film problems–plot threads that are introduced only to be abandoned and supposedly-smart characters who insist on investigating something they know to be dangerous at night and alone–keep the film from saying anything very specific about these fears. If the movie does represent a progression in del Toro’s exploration of motherhood, it is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction. At least when Katie Holmes’ Reluctant Mother in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is killed, one can argue that it shows she shouldn’t have been forced into that position to begin with. Chastain’s decent performance aside, I prefer the independent, Pat Benatar-esque rocker she embodies at the beginning of Mama to the one who ends the film having learned her lesson: Her place is in the home.

Guillermo del Toro (like George Lucas, Peter Jackson, the men of Marvel, et al) runs an empire that combines film, television, comic books and video games to make myths that reflect important anxieties of women, but if not consciously checked they only reinforce patriarchal norms. Women in such male-dominated media fields as gaming are beginning to report their struggles with discrimination and harassment, and media studios would be well-served by adding more women to their teams, both to balance the workplace environment and to provide perspective on products. (Believe it or not, women do watch creature features, read comic books and spend their money on action-packed summer blockbusters.)

Despite the common backlash against women who dare to to criticize representations of women in these fields (shout out to Anita Sarkeesian), we should keep an eye on del Toro–even his January releases. He is a master monster movie maker. As he no doubt continues to use a variety of media to represent the ways we are scared by changes to traditional family structures, I hope he’ll turn from punishing the women who benefit from those changes to questioning why the idea that some women don’t want to be mothers scares people so very, very much.

Cross posted at Ms.

Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. …

John Carpenter

My love of horror movies is a product of both nature and of nurture. My mother loves them. My older brother says I ended up in theaters as a child watching movies that were definitely not rated for my age group because he convinced Mom, who already wanted to go anyway, that we could handle it. We could, too–despite some interesting nightmares, we didn’t turn into serial killers or become permanently scarred psychologically. Unless you consider our desire to have the crap scared out of us by a good horror movie “scarred.”

Horror movies provide direct access to what Aristotle called catharsis: the release or balancing of pity and fear. They work directly on the deepest reptile parts of our brains to evoke and then resolve fear. Good horror movies also use plot and characters to draw the audience in on an empathetic level, so that where there is pity there is more fear. And all horror movies contain tropes that can tell us about the deepest fears of the society out of which they come.

As an adult, I watch horror movies as what Princeton University professor Jill Dolan calls a “feminist spectator,” which means that I look at what they tell us about how our culture thinks and feels. Recent horror movies focused on families and children, adolescent women and single women reveal an unsettling persistence of patriarchal norms. (But, then again, horror is supposed to be unsettling, no?). They also suggest that changing family structures–even when change is for the better–can scare the bejeezus out of us.

If you are looking for a good scare this Halloween season, cast your feminist eye on this recent rash of family-centered horror movies in which inattentive fathers leave their children vulnerable to being taken by aliens, monsters and demons.

The Possession, currently in theaters, centers on the character of Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose job distracts him from attending to the needs of his daughters in the aftermath of his divorce from their mother, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). He’s so distracted, in fact, that his youngest manages to get herself infected with a Dybbuk. This pre-pubescent girl in possession of an “open box,” “ring,” and “thing growing inside her,” speaks to our lingering cultural discomfort with women becoming sexually active before marriage. To do so is to marry a demon. The takeaway message: No matter the presence or skill of the mother, children can never be safe without their biological fathers around.

In Super 8 (2011), it takes an alien invasion to get distracted father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to engage with his son. The mother in this family is out of the picture before the movie even begins: She died in a work-related accident. Literally, the consequence of her working outside of the home was death. Though both father and son are struggling with the loss, Lamb cannot connect with his son until the child’s life is threatened. That the alien has to take the son’s only remaining connection to his mother–a necklace–before it can cease threatening this community speaks to an underlying belief that mothers are expendable and replaceable; fathers are here to stay.

Finally, if you’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, you will recognize his trademark trope of turning real childhood fears into metaphorical monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). The central child of this movie, Sally, has been sent by her mother to live with her disinterested father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new wife Kim (Katie Holmes). Kim is perfectly clear with her husband that she would not have chosen motherhood at this moment in her life and that she expects him to step up as a father. But, busy with his career, he doesn’t, and Sally’s fear that neither her father nor mother loves her, made manifest by the tiny-but-terrifying creatures that live under the house, threatens to overcome her. Ultimately, it’s up to the only potential mother around, Kim, to do what she can to protect the child–although the consequences of her of taking on this role are dire. The ideology is clear, if not feminist: A mother can be a martyr, but only a father can be a hero.

Stay tuned for more recommendations on how to watch horror movies as a feminist spectator. Who knows, I may even uncover one that is actually feminist. Suggestions welcome!

Photo from Flickr user MamboZ under license from Creative Commons 2.0