In the trailer for A24’s Men, beyond the sinister, inescapable grin of Rory Kinnear, there is a much darker presence: trauma. Having seen her partner (Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death, the film’s protagonist, Harper (Jessie Buckley), is clearly not coping well as she tries to enjoy her countryside getaway. In this village, is every man actually Rory Kinnear? Of course not. So why does Harper see his face everywhere she turns? Something much stranger is going on here, and it’s pretty clear that the site of this supernatural occurrence is (at least partially) in Harper’s mind. Trauma will do that.
Women dealing with trauma is a common theme in many film genres. But when it’s the focus of horror films, these works often touch on something profound that can only be expressed through extremes: the madness of not being believed, validated, or accepted.
Here are some films that explore this concept.
The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell, 2020)
A pseudo-remake of the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man is deeply interested in the abject horrors of not being believed and of having trauma minimized. The film follows Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) as she deals with the paranoia that comes from leaving an abusive partner–an experience that is devalued by her friends and relatives from the start. And after this partner, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), appears to have died by suicide, Cecilia experieinces a new wave of paranoia as she begins to suspect he’s still alive, bent on revenge, and… invisible.
What makes this movie so affecting is that it lets the viewer in on the secret long before any of her peers: Cecilia’s right. And this isn’t a spoiler, because it’s clear almost immediately. Ambiguity in filmmaking is often a virtue, but here, concreteness is empowerment. Having to question Cecilia’s sanity would make us, as viewers, part of the problem. Seeing the reality of her situations allows us to recognize the inhumanity of everyone else as they minimize her trauma and refuse to believe her story.
Obviously, a person can’t be invisible in real life (yet). But the swiftness with which these characters dismiss her claims feels very realistic and very, very familiar.
The VVitch (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)
The Puritans, famously, were not the most emotionally intelligent. Set in the early 1600s, The VVitch explores the dynamics of one isolated Puritan family, including its black sheep, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). In one of the first scenes, Thomasin opens her eyes during a game of peekaboo to find her baby brother gone. She is not only blamed by her family for this tragedy, but she is also never allowed to grieve. When further tragedy ensues, the blame is repeatedly shifted her way, and suspicions of darker forces within her begin to arise. No matter how much she protests, no matter how distressed she becomes, the family cannot be convinced of her innocence and will no longer accept her.
This familial persecution is motivated largely by religious beliefs, and these dwell so deeply within even Thomasin that she declares in her prayers, “I know I deserve all shame and misery in this life and everlasting hellfire.” Internalized shame and religion-driven misogyny are the true evils in this film, and more than any supernatural element, these are what wreak tragedy upon these characters.
When Thomasin’s mother calls her a slut for the way she looks at her brother (the film makes it obvious that the lust clearly flows in the other direction), it’s clear that reality is secondary to ingrained biases. And Thomasin, as the young, pretty, intelligent woman, is the obvious target for all blame. As tensions mount, Thomasin’s anguish deepens, and her allegiance falters. And where do you turn when your god has betrayed you?
The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014)
The beauty of The Babadook is what’s not said. This film is heavy with implications, and it obviously isn’t actually a movie about a monster–at least not a big, hat-wearing one.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, having lost her husband on the day of her son’s birth as he drove her to the hospital. She’s doing it all alone and, like several other protagonists on this list, has not been given the appropriate time and space to grieve her loss. As her son worries about a boogeyman-style monster–the Babadook–he becomes more rambunctious and erratic. As he sleeps less, so does Amelia. When he breaks his cousin’s nose and his own aunt admits to not liking him, Amelia becomes increasingly distressed. All the while, the monster grows more powerful. But why?
When a warning appears from the Babadook that ignoring it will only make it stronger, the allegory comes into focus. Though its external presence certainly exists in the film, The Babadook’s primary dwelling is within Amelia’s mind. The unprocessed trauma from her past and resulting resentment for her son have manifested as this creature intent on her (self-) destruction. As Amelia struggles to cope with its influence, it threatens to take total control, and she must figure out how to defeat it for both her own safety, as well as her son’s.
Carrie (dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)
What sometimes gets forgotten in the shadow of Carrie’s most famous, gruesome scene is the deeply sympathetic view of the titular character herself. Though this film predates the anti-bullying movement, its illumination of the effects of unkindness resonates still.
To be clear, the opening to this film is a mixed bag: a parade of naked girls in a locker room, a somewhat voyeuristic shower scene, horrific bullying, our protagonist starting her period, a gym teacher slapping her...It’s a lot to take in and doesn’t necessarily feel pure of intention. And with no context, it’s easy to misunderstand Carrie (Sissy Spacek) at this early point in the story. Why did she have such an intense reaction to her period? It’s a sharp reminder of that latent, adolescent impulse to label someone “weird.” And as the film goes on, this impulse is checked as Carrie’s deeply repressive, sheltered background comes to light.
Carrie is rejected by the outside world, as well as her own mother, who repeatedly unloads her personal trauma onto her, shames her body, and abuses her in the name of religious morality. Aside from her gym teacher, Carrie has no one to help her understand the validity of her feelings or the anguish she experiences daily. As the idea that she is fundamentally unacceptable is reinforced, her distance from other people grows, as does her consuming, violent distress. And with no outlet for this trauma, her mind creates one.
Of course, this list would be incomplete without one of A24’s most iconic works: Ari Aster’s Midsommar. A (terrifying) beacon of the daylight horror genre, this film follows its protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh) as she attempts to cope with the trauma of losing her family. Adrift after their nightmarish deaths, she is left with her less-than-compassionate boyfriend as her remaining source of familiarity. As he grows increasingly impatient with their relationship, she clings closer and closer to him, going so far as to accompany him on a boys’ trip to Sweden.
The fundamental issue for our protagonist here isn’t her loss; it’s her sense of being lost. The trauma of her family’s death lurks throughout the film, even visually, as she hallucinates their presence in the midst of the midsommar festivities. But the darker shadow being cast is her increasing feeling of not belonging–of being unacceptable. Her feelings, which are understandably extreme, are not validated by the one person that should be providing that reassurance, and she has lost the people who likely would provide that support.
As her boyfriend becomes visibly more unsympathetic and appears to stray, she sinks deeper and deeper into the rituals of the festival, the only source of communion available to her.
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