I asked myself: why am I so into horror lately?
Well, for one thing, I became a parent.
Don’t laugh. All the clichés hold true. There really is nothing more terrifying than raising a child. Once the Chub-a-lub is yours the world is transformed into a series of pitfalls. Kids, especially young ones, hit their heads on things, fall off tables, get sick, mess with the wrong cat. One tries not to be a helicopter parent, but then, one is simultaneously besieged by impossible scenarios. Your cute glass table is a secret bludgeon. So is anything larger than your child. The floor betrays you. Lipstick is discovered (and eaten from) low lying drawers. You begin to understand Damocles.
Case in point: my husband, seeking five minutes to “get something done” inflated a bike tire that promptly exploded. The cute, diaper-butted kid I’d just sent laughing down the hall turned around shrieking and cowering from the noise. He and his hearing were completely unharmed but my husband fell into a deep blue funk. Visions of exploded toddlers assailed him. If the Chubs had been closer. It there’d been any flying parts.
Given these new feelings of a world transformed, is it any wonder so many horror stories center around families?
There is, of course, a whole “possessed kid” subgenre, but the stuff I’ve craved lately has more to do with atmosphere. That stressed out, foggy netherworld in which parents operate—if you define the word “operate” as “unable to function at all.” I found King’s Pet Sematary downright cathartic with its portrait of a father slowing going insane. Long before his child comes back (evil!) from the dead, modern life has made Louis Creed a basket case. New job, new house, new part of the country and the poor bastard’s got two kids? Of course he’s going to consort with dark powers to bring the family kitty cat back from the dead! Anything to get some sleep, dude. Anything to feel you’re still in control. King’s whole narrative famously arose from his own fears about his ability to protect his children. His obvious experience and sympathy parenting makes Louis Creed’s madness all-too-believable. It’s a madness born of love—and easily exploited by the dark ancient powers that dwell in the wood.
Of course, these days, the woods are everywhere—as Victor Lavalle brilliantly captures in his World Fantasy award winning novel The Changeling. The story of a “New Dad,” Apollo West, whose wife and child disappear under hideous circumstances, the novel is a dark urban fantasy that updates ancient tales for our Trumpian times. Its treatment of internet technology in particular is sure to resonate with today’s parents who are culturally expected to share their child’s images (and other identifying information) online.
“In folktales,” one character explains, “a vampire couldn’t enter your home unless you invited him in. Without your consent the beast could never cross your threshold. Well, what do you think your computer is? Your phone?”
What indeed? It doesn’t spoil anything (believe me) to say that one of Lavalle’s “beasts” is a literal internet troll. Lavalle’s take on this is so fucking clever I can only hope he cackled wildly at his writing desk when he came up with it. His self-congratulation would be in order. His novel manages to be both a keenly observed portrait of modern parenthood—and a fairy tale that taps into our primal fears and ancient stories. He even works in the literal woods. He’s so good it is fucking scary.
And then there’s Bird Box. Poor Bird Box. I reference the notorious Netflix special—though it was (contrary to Richard Brody’s “movie-by-algorithm” theory) a novel first. Lately it has been the unfairly maligned subject of bad reviews—most of which blame it for being free and watched a lot.
The overexposure of Bird Box is really too bad. It’s a movie neither exceptionally awful nor good. What it is a competent and atmospheric pop-candy thriller with ridiculous plot holes and a solid turn from Sandra Bullock. It also has, like a lot of the best horror films this year (Hereditary, A Quiet Place) a nice hook and an exquisite metaphor perfectly suited to parenthood.
Bullock’s Malorie starts the movie pregnant and isolated, resolved to avoid the hell that is other people. That demons suddenly begin stalking the earth (necessitating the wearing of blindfolds as the very sight of them will kill you) bothers her a whole lot less than having to cohabitate with a house full of survivors. Just as confronting the literal demons will kill you, so Malorie fears she will die a metaphoric death: that she will lose her hard-won identity if she is forced to “see” that she feels deeply for other people. The first part of the movie shows her coming to accept herself as part of a larger community. The second focuses on her struggles to accept her role as a parent. In the end, like all parents, she must abandon her old self and to go-all-in emotionally and physically to save the lives of her children.
This is all textbook from a writing perspective: the emotional catharsis arrives right on time with the climax of the action. It’s a bit obvious but Bullock is so appealing and sincere (method acting the shit out of every tear and machete chop) that you forgive the many plot holes that have plagued her journey (how, exactly, do you row a boat blindfolded down a bunch of class-five rapids with two kids and no practice and…oh fuck it). Of course (see above re: internet) Bird Box now has scores of haters who seem to want more realism in their end-of-the-world-with-invisible-demons flick. Dude, realism isn’t the point. At all. But something approximating realism is. These books and movies all capture something true about parenting: it will change you and alter your reality. The demons you face will probably be mental–but you will have to face them machete or no.
Blindfolds don’t work. The internet won’t help you. But the sympathy of a good tale might just help you through the woods.
* And daddies.