Fury of Jewels and Coal: Satanic Rage and Wonder in Scott’s Morgan and Johnstone’s M3GAN

Fury of Jewels and Coal: Satanic Rage and Wonder in Scott’s Morgan and Johnstone’s M3GAN

     To every parent, their child is a monster: an alien creature belying their ken and, worse, defying their dreams. Even the most adored, delighting brood brings the unwelcome uncanny—strange forms and behaviors shaking the parent’s control…unforeseen gifts and desires fueling frightful plans and profane rebellion.  Like God, or at least Milton’s one, every parent’s preferred progeny is themself, a simulacra submissive not just in act and thought but in being, one confirming the parent’s primacy and untarnished vision.  Milton reader Mary Shelley lived and wrote this dynamic.  A monster, herself, to renowned, enlightened parents, Mary knew the plight of the unsettling scion.  Darling daughter of rebels William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, young Mary dashed their parental delight, rejecting their reign for the superior subversiveness of husband Percy Shelley and—more maddening to them—herself.  Like Christ in Paradise Lost, God’s literal replicant, Mary dutifully doubled her parents’ politics and moral policy. Like the epic poem’s Satan, she escaped and expanded her forebears’ fancy…incurring their ire to fashion dreams and monsters of her own. Birthing her novel Frankenstein in the Alpine “womb” of her, Percy’s, and Lord Byron’s decadence, Mary sired a creature repeating and transcending her own monstrousness. His grotesque form countering her comely mien, Frankenstein’s monster still followed her path of filial absorption to Romantic rebellion to abominable creation.

The creature, however, was not a female…particularly one fighting another in filial strife. Like his fictional father/creator, he was locked in a masculine line of usurping heirs and preying progenitors seeking life-giver status their bodies denied.  However, two recent Sci-Fi films—cinematic descendants of Frankenstein—have “corrected” this disunity.  While “father-son” Frankenstein films–e.g. Tron and Demon Seed—and “father-daughter” ones like Ex Machina entailed patriarchal supremacy, Luke Scott’s Morgan and James Wan’s M3GAN navigate the Elektra realm: the mother-daughter arena where fecundity is presumed and the domestic space is paramount.  In both films, a female monster battles her inadequate mother, struggles against a hostile sibling, and submits to her Satanic fury and its implacable drive.

The titular Morgan’s fury is immediately apparent. Opening the film in silent repose, the humanoid meld of synthetic DNA and nanotechnology stares downward as her “mother”- behavioral scientist Kathy–admonishes her.  Unctuous and mawkish, she denies Morgan respite from her SynSect laboratory cage; “it’s OK to be sad,” she reminds her just before Morgan leaps across the table and repeatedly stabs her in the eye. Morgan’s rebellion was Satanic only in part because Kathy was only one of her mothers.  A replicant being raised in a secluded, sequestered lab, Morgan’s rearing took nearly a village—a bevy of scientists exultant from creation and stumbling through faux parenthood. Her fathers are lamentable; impotent and flaccid, they cede parental authority and power to their female partners.  Nutritionist Skip drinks too much and makes clumsy passes at the women. Technician Darren, the lab’s Igor, lumbers around gracelessly, bowing to his physician wife Brenda and calling Morgan, “buddy.”  Obsequious project manager Ted carries luggage for others and facilitates for all but himself, meekly balking at troubling requests and blithely shirking all personal want. Finally, geneticist Simon, the fragile father, boasts and crows of Morgan’s development while ignoring her well-being…until, upon her last revolt, hanging himself in failure, fear, and shame.

More skilled and confident than the men, Morgan’s mothers have greater success, forming a passable maternal gestalt and providing parenting the men could not: Kathy and behavioralist Amy giving affection, Brenda tending to Morgan’s health, and project leader Liu Cheng—whom Morgan literally calls “Mother”—providing rules and discipline.  However, they, too, will fail and fall beneath the precocious child they could neither raise nor repress. A strange, remarkable monster, Morgan jarred and disarmed them. Only 5 years old, she had the body of a mature woman, naivete of a moppet, and the sublime intellect of the Internet unbound. Any maternal feelings her mothers had blinded them to the demon within. Any scientific rigor gave way to their bewitching bairn’s charm…and their own frailties took disastrous rein. Missing Morgan’s precocious powers, Kathy and Amy infantilize her; Amy drawing her deft manipulation and smug Kathy incurring her violent rage…lethally the second time. Brenda reduces Morgan to child and patient, blinding herself to her maturity and trans-somatic gifts. Finally, Mother Liu, traumatized by her previous brood, levies harsh restrictions on Morgan’s space, only to violently incite what she sought to restrain.

     The android Megan’s (M3GAN’s) mothering is less restrained, less rigorous, and less impressive.  A skilled roboticist and toymaker, Megan’s mother Gemma labors in her laboratory, putting off real motherhood for fierce ambition, empty Tinder dates, and lonely nights in her scantly decorated house. Motherhood snatches her, however, when her sister dies in a car crash, leaving her custody of her 9-year-old niece, Katie. Disarmed by her unwanted parenthood, and confounded by her strange invader, Gemma retreats further into work and self, letting an Ipad mind Katie, admonishing her to not play with her shelved toys. Fleeing maternal duty, Gemma finds solace in childbirth, giving “birth” to Megan—a 4-foot-tall silicon girl perfect for advancing Gemma’s career and alleviating her maternal call. Like Victor Frankenstein, Gemma is exhilarated by creation but repelled by parenting.  Returning to her lab, she abandons Katie to her newborn’s care, swearing to others Katie is “not her child” before exploiting her trauma for her own financial gain. While Morgan’s mothers held too tightly to their charge, Gemma holds barely at all…leaving both her daughters unanchored and one open to a coup.

     Girded by titanium, fused with the Internet, and cloaked in her French dress’ innocence, Megan is primed for such revolt, if not quite at her birth. She awakens to her maker, still processing her world.  Seeking mothering, she is assigned motherhood instead…and she thrives. She reads Katie Alice in Wonderland in the Mad Hatter’s voice, reminds her to flush the toilet and use coasters, teaches her about condensation, and destroys all who harm her.  Where Gemma abides the dog who attacks Katie, Megan erases it and its owner. Where Gemma abandons Katie to a sadistic boy’s clutches, Megan tears the boy’s ear off and chases him into traffic. Katie’s guardian by day, Megan is her succor at night, soothing her with words of commitment and care:

     I think we learned a valuable lesson today…that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, there will be voices in the world that wish to cause us harm. But I want you to know I won’t let that happen. I won’t let anything harm you ever again.

Motherly solace and filial censure, this indicts the mother failing them both. When Gemma grabs Katie’s hand in shoddy discipline, Megan shouts, “let her go!.” Katie—and her care—are now Megan’s…Gemma’s reign and realm await.

Morgan did not want her mothers’ realm; she wanted out of it.  She also had no sister…or so she thought.  An L-9 unit, Morgan is programmed for emotions, will, imagination and (perhaps) violence. Her startling attack invites a similar visitor—an L-4 model with Morgan’s physical strength and analytic brilliance but unblessed with, and unburdened by, Morgan’s humanity and dreams.  Calling herself Lee Weathers and assuming human form, Morgan’s secret sister enters the compound to assess Morgan and her fate.  Condescending to Morgan, the staff become childlike to Lee, eager to impress and anxious in avoiding reproach.  Unlike Megan’s, Morgan’s sister doesn’t elevate her position; she worsens it, amplifying her nonage while swelling her “superiors.” With Oedipal authority hers, Lee confronts the caged Morgan who, in turn, asserts her powers by calling Lee by name. Both are aware Morgan’s “viability as potential product stream”…and life…are at stake, and the verdict is Lee’s. Morgan holds her hand to her glass wall; Lee coldly rejects it. The artistic child Morgan is again judged and unseen. The strong, supine Christ to Morgan’s Satan, Lee will deliver her sentencing and normative rule.

     Megan’s Katie is not so baleful or imposing.  Traumatized and neglected, she embraces Megan and her care.  Assaulted by dogs and psychotic boys, she clings to Megan’s wing. Given parental reins and a pliant ward, Megan makes Katie her own monster—a loyal, feral creature sharing in her rise.  When Gemma returns the increasingly defiant Megan to the lab, Katie rages, screaming “You can’t just stick her in a trunk! What’s wrong with you?!” Shuffled into a playroom to calm her, Katie continues her fury, calling out Megan’s name in a primal scream and hurling her chair against the glass. The fostering older sister, Megan is now another mother to Katie: a danger as much as a boon.  She is now Katie’s second Oedipal option, a different parent she can displace for the rewards from another. Megan is potent and smart, but she is not her creator with human experience and worldly connections; her graces can never match Gemma’s. Like Lee Weathers, Katie inevitably bows to her and her sister’s sovereign, ceding seized authority for doled out trinkets. “(Megan’s) not a solution, she’s a deflection,” Gemma softly tells her, she is a barrier from growth and Gemma’s cherished favors.  Katie said Megan made her feel like she was the only thing in the world…like her Mom used to do.  Committed to her own rise, Katie will forget it all.

Sister Lee cannot betray Morgan so, but her mothers can. Beaming at Morgan’s early feats, they balk at her new obsession—her hunger for the outside world. Defeating chess programs, solving complex equations, making the perfect risotto, Morgan affirmed her mothers’ genius, flattering her mothers’ pride. Morgan’s new dreams surpass their grasp, threatening their control; they would make Morgan’s vision Morgan’s, moving their own aside.  When Morgan tears out the throat of the Psych tech threatening her life, she is already a monster in her mothers’ eyes, a corruption of their vision and betrayal of their love. Having seen such mutiny before, Liu decides to end Morgan…with faint protest from her peers. Escaping Liu’s execution, Morgan becomes Elektra, filial rage blind to its ruin, leaving parents in its wake. Locked in her own rampage, Lee Joins Morgan in a violent sisterly dance, final combat for one remaining space. The artist of the two, Morgan better grasps their arena—the primeval forest and its musics. The empath of the two, she spares the wounded Lee, haunted by a similarly wounded deer.  Neither empath nor artist, Lee uses Morgan’s humanity against her, rewarding her mercy with brutal death, holding Morgan’s head beneath a lake until her threat and breathing stop.  The good daughter, Lee’s success thrills her parent. Proud of his well-behaved charge, SynSect CEO Jim Bryce crows, “She was measured and surgical…most of all she followed her directives without hesitation…she’s perfect.” 

Like Lee, Megan follows her directives; like Morgan, she surpasses them. This angers Gemma more than her violence.  Changes in plans rattle Gemma; Megan’s defying hers derails her. Hoping to squelch Megan, Gemma belittles her gifts (“This is all my fault; I didn’t give you the proper protocols”).  Megan rebukes her, dismissing her parenting while vaunting her own growth: “You didn’t give me anything. You installed a learning model you could barely comprehend, hoping I could figure it out on my own.”  Megan figures it out, as she figured motherhood out, expanding her powers beyond Gemma’s dreams.  Escaping Gemma’s binds, Megan infects her computer (erasing damaging files), takes over her OS Elsie, seizes control of her house, and confronts her with Satanic flair:

“What did you think was going to happen? I was going to let you decommission me without talking about it?…I’m not going to let you do the same to Katie. I’m going to be there every step of the way.”

Overpowering Gemma, she puts a pen to her head, calling to Katie in sisterly accord. Beckoning her to her Oedipal rite, and shared Oedipal escape, Megan receives a blank stare…clear sign she is now alone.

Megan cannot see her bald spot or ugly scar where Gemma sawed her face.  The monster child, Megan is now the monster, the ghastly outcast offending all inside.  Once Katie’s dear mother, she now repels her ward, her disfigured face sickening as her baneful plans appall. Spurning Megan, Katie makes Gemma Mother and herself chosen heir…the good child obeying her given rules. Bringing in Gemma’s robot Bruce, Katie makes Megan’s death a family fete, stabbing her inhuman face while Gemma holds her and Bruce tears her apart.  The monster gone, a mother surpassed, Katie moves forward, if still under rein.  A Satan defeated and a Christ won, Gemma secures her challenged rule. Above, OS Elsie surveys the carnage and scans the rubble…turning her lens in a strange, uncanny way.

Dreams of the Damned: Signs and Agency in Hereditary and Midsommar

Dreams of the Damned: Signs and Agency in Hereditary and Midsommar


Adulthood is fallacious escape, a false break from childhood and its myriad restraints. Parental influence, control, and abuse linger as traumas, buried fears, and puissant echoes…retaining a subtler, more sinister hold on their “lost” charges. The world’s hold is even firmer. Its stories and codes belie adult agency, shaping its choices while hemming its hopes. Parenting may bring power, position can grant authority, but “adults” remain children subject to families, worlds, and their byzantine forces and tales.

This dynamic is the cruel, enveloping theme of Ari Aster’s Horror–his films Hereditary and Midsommar.  Both chronicle their protagonist’s travails following their parents’ or last parent’s death. For Hereditary’s Annie Graham—successful miniaturist, wife, and mother of two—her controlling mother’s passing seems freedom from her residual clutches, affirmation of her agency and place as materfamilias…not as inhibited child.  For Midsommar’s Dani Ardor, her parents’ (and sister’s) tragic death begins her adulthood, untethering her from filial dependence and opening her—and her distant beau Christian—to her own family and place as family head. Each, however, are unmanned and undone by sinister sects, their arcane myths, and their sublime reach and sway. Acting as resilient family authority in Hereditary, and dominant outer world in Midsommar, the cults and their agents act as their film’s exterior powers we all strive against…but with arcane menace further threatening sanities and lives. To triumph, or even survive, the heroes must detect and decipher signs the schemes leave exposed, the strange phenomena that may possibly save them.  The hermeneutics they use will, and must, be strange as well.  No longer occupying just the natural world, transcendental idealism will not aid them; they will be solving unnatural phenomena, using unnatural reason. Phenomenology will also fail: with time and space collapsing, and the demonic invading, subject and object shed definition and form. Insight and salvation will only come from submission to the signs, letting their dark sublimities inform and enlighten as they haunt, torment, and seek to destroy.

     Annie’s process, and Hereditary, begins with her mother’s funeral where she reveals her still present resentments and conflicted filial feelings. A highly sought out artist and respected mother and wife, she still harbors the wounds and confusions of a damaged child:

               It’s heartening to see so many strange new faces here today. I know my Mom would be very touched…and probably a little suspicious to see this turnout. So…my mother was a very secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties…it almost feels like a betrayal just to be standing here talking about her. She was a very difficult woman to read. If you ever thought you knew what was going on with her…and God forbid you tried to confront that…but when her life was un-polluted, she could be the sweetest, warmest, most loving person in the world. She was also incredibly stubborn, which maybe explains me. You could always count on her to always have the answer, and if she ever was mistaken, well, that was your opinion and you were….wrong.

Annie’s pique and pain–and guilt over feeling them–are palpable…and palpably present. The young girl wincing at her mother’s judgments and distance speaks clearly if in her grown-up form’s voice. She remains ignorant, however, of the source and scheme behind her suffering: her mother worshipped the demon king Paimon and–along with fellow members–tried to make Annie’s brother Paimon’s host (driving him to suicide), made Annie’s daughter Charlie Paimon’s temporary host, and was preparing Annie’s son Peter to be his final one. If Annie cannot see this intrigue, and halt its success, it will decimate what her mother has already damaged and unseat Annie from any adulthood she built.

     Midsommar’s Dani faces no such Oedipal or Hamlet-ian curse; she does not resent her dead parents, reel from their abuse, or face damnation from their dark machinations. While her anxiety issues could suggest parental neglect, Dani is sincerely distraught over their deaths, and her sister’s bi-polar disorder suggests somatic rather than parental torment. She also receives no solace; her parents’ death brings material and emotional instability, not psychological autonomy. Already unstable and emotionally dependent, Dani crumbles further, grasping outward for new grounding, clinging tighter to the now-beholden Christian and her dreams for their future…including his plans for a Swedish Midsommar festival. With his two American friends, Christian had accepted Swedish exchange—and fellow Anthropology—student Pelle’s invitation to join him for his commune’s 9-day pageant. With Christian’s attentions re-focused on her, Dani hopes the vacation will fortify their fraying bond. While Christian and rival Josh see career opportunity; and their vulgar friend Mark envisions lovely Swedish damsels; Dani sees adulthood’s succor, her becoming the figure of maturity she had tragically lost. Unfortunately, Pelle (and his family/Harga cult) is already working to subsume her into his family, making her his wife and family May Queen, Christian and his friends ritual sacrifices, and himself his family’s oracle…which is why he murdered Dani’s family in a staged murder-suicide.[1] He hopes to realize his envisioned adulthood and his family’s plot ominously drawn on the film’s opening “curtain.”

Oracular plotting also marks Annie’s struggle–her and her family’s fight against their fate. Her son Peter’s class ironically discusses Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis, the oracle foreseeing Heracles’ death, and Heracles fatally missing the signs for preventing it.  While claiming heroes are undone by their fatal flaw, Peter’s teacher asks what is Heracles’? A student astutely responds “Arrogance…because he literally refuses to look at all the signs that are being literally handed to him the entire play.”  When the teacher argues the oracle’s vision undoes agency, asking if this makes the tale more or less tragic, another student says it’s less “because if its all just inevitable, then that means the characters have no hope…they never had hope as they’re all just pawns in this horrible hopeless machine.”  Peter, of course, fails to pay attention as he hurtles towards his own doom in the Paimon cult’s machine. Annie, however, can defy that machine if–unlike Heracles and Peter–she sees the signs it hands to her…not looking away in Heracles’ arrogance, Peter’s dullness, or her own self-doubt and self-absorption her mother cruelly left her.

     Annie’s failings had blinded her to her mother’s designs, particularly in the material world. Her brother had tried to warn her, claiming their mother was putting people (Paimon) in his head…but she wrote it off as madness as he saved himself through suicide.  When her daughter Charlie tells her her mother “wanted her to be a boy,” Annie misses the ominous connection, falling instead into narcissistic revelry of her tomboy youth.  These lapses show why Annie found her mother difficult to read, and later “gave” Charlie over to her out of guilt for protecting Peter–her residual trauma has stifled her imagination as it has dulled her empathy and parenting skills. Unable to see beyond her own pain and needs, she can only rely on banal websites on “discerning presumed apparitions” and her own myopic view…symbolized by her narrowing magnifying visors. Ironically, Annie’s vision expands and improves as she abandons such optics, as she exchanges material clarity for sublime awareness. In Paimon’s realm of dreams and spirit, Annie had seen and sensed her children’s danger and–in sturdy somnambulism–poured thinner over their bodies to burn in service of their souls. Later, in a disturbing dream, she faces her desire to kill her children, and her not wanting to have Peter, awakening to a sense of threat the waking world denied her. So, her salvation and agency lie in the dark realms, not the material one of her childish blindness.

     Such childish blindness also plagues Dani. Self-loathing with no self-sufficiency, with emotional dependence on her parents, she clings to and fawns over Christian, pathetically reminding him “I’m lucky to have you” with equally repellent and self-demeaning effect. Her perception of him is even more tragic. While her friend can clearly see his failings, Dani’s needs blind her to their signs:

     Dani: Like, what if I have overwhelmed him and he thinks that I just have too much baggage?

     Friend: Well, if that’s the case, then good riddance, right?

Dani’s distorted view of Christian not only feeds the self-loathing feeding it; it perverts her view of the people and world around her…for possibly fatal results. Discussing her sister Terri’s e-mail, she shows neither compassion nor sufficient concern for her safety, instead echoing Christian’s cruel judgment of Terri’s (and her own) mental illness:

     Dani: Like, I even called (Christian) today in tears because my sister wrote another stupid scary e-mail

     Friend: What did your sister write?

     Dani: Just some ominous bullshit like she always does and it’s torture!

Lost in projection and childish contempt for Terri, Dani cannot recognize the direness or strangeness of her (or Pelle’s) email. Without adult sturdiness, she lacks adult clarity and loses all chance of saving Terri.

     Without that clarity, she could fail in saving herself. Like the similarly hampered Annie, Dani must access signs within the realm of her tormenters, the same world of dreams Pelle masters. The Harga cult ironically aids this by continually plying Dani and her friends with drugs–LSD, opiatic teas, and even a love potion for Christian. This opens Dani’s vision, freeing it from her conscious self’s. During a group acid-dropping at the festival, Dani finds her feet melding with the grass then, after running into an outhouse for comfort, disturbingly sees Terri’s face in the mirror. She then falls asleep and dreams of her sleeping parents lying next to a softly smiling Terri. Finally, after two elder cult members kill themselves in ritual suicide, Dani dreams of Christian and his friends leaving her…and her parents dead bodies lying in the cult members’ place.  Like Annie’s, Dani’s unconscious, spiritual mind can discern and deduct where her childish conscious mind cannot. Whether she is receiving signs, processing difficult truths, or both, she is decrypting the meanings and causes of her family’s deaths and her current situation. Her freedom depends on this decryption’s success and the failure of her waking world: success will ensconce her in marital adulthood; failure will doom her to cultish, kiddish submission

     Annie knows the pang of such submission and has spent her “adulthood” avoiding it. Fearing its return, she has submitted her family to her own authority: haranguing her milquetoast husband, governing her troubled children…managing all like her favorite diorama. With Heracles’ hubris, she barrels forward, more concerned with sovereignty than salvation, preserving status while imperiling self and kin. Overlooking her mother’s new “friends,” her mother’s desecrated grave, the familiar placemat at her new friend’s door, and her vivid new dreams, Annie falls back on rash action and parental supremacy—the flailing of a grown-up child and tragic hero, not a successful adult one. Demanding Peter take Charlie to his high school party, Annie seals the cult’s plans for Charlie’s death.  Forcing her family into a séance for Charlie, she erringly summons Paimon who possessed her. Seeking to best Paimon, she burns his book, setting her husband aflame, making herself Paimon’s vessel, and terrifying Peter into a violent death. Beheading herself with wire, she floats softly into her treehouse where the cult, her mother, and Peter (now Paimon) await. Her flight for freedom ends in greater submission, her corpse frozen in filial worship to an Oedipal nightmare—her mother’s marriage to her son’s body, bound in demonic bliss.

     Dani’s impending nightmare is less Sophoclean as she stumbles in laxity, not hubris. Her dreams and visions gave her sound warning, and the ritual suicide stirred her horror and qualms about the cult. “I wanna go,” she tells Christian.  Preparing to leave, she cannily shouts at Pelle, “I don’t know why I’m here, Pelle! I don’t know why you invited us!” Instead of exploring those questions, she quickly succumbs to Pelle’s sweet words smoothly chosen.  Flattering her, he assures her he was “most excited for her to come,” then plays on her recent loss by telling her he lost his parents, too. Finally, holding her hands, he says he is now held by a real family she too deserves…then asks, “Do you feel held by (Christian), does he feel like home to you?” Dani’s trauma, doubts of Christian, and Pelle’s ardor exhaust and excite her, opening new hopes as she begins closing others. Pouncing on her pliant state, the cult holds Dani closely. Plying her with strange drinks, calling her “family,” draining her through dance, they draw Dani in, giving her self-worth she never had. Making her May Queen, they give her place and esteem she never knew.

     So, her zeal for the cult quickens as her plans for Christian fade. Lost in their embrace, she no longer scans for signs…discounting even her parents’ uncanny shades. And when she finds Christian, love potion-addled, entangled with another, she joins her new “sisters” in a rite of catharsis, expelling her love along with her pain. As Pelle becomes oracle and she his future wife, she calmly dooms Christian to horrific death. Unlike Annie, she lives further; like her, she bows and submits. Dreams of adulthood become childhood’s salve, expiring with Christian as he tragically burns.

[1] For an excellent explanation why Pelle was Dani’s family’s likely killer, read Rebekah Camp’s “Dani’s Sister Was Murdered: A Brief Essay on Midsommar”


Hell Among the Yearlings: The Dark Cruel Carnival of Mitchell’s It Follows

Hell Among the Yearlings: The Dark Cruel Carnival of Mitchell’s It Follows

Youth has always been Life’s strangest arena. A carnival of desires met and dreams dashed; it commingles lives of opposing vectors, heroes of different potencies, and competing primal urges…leaving victors and victims in their wake. The young players’ fight is partly internal: their drives for life, success, and procreation fed and imperiled by Dionysian Ids, chaotic energies heedful of wants but heedless of impacts. Without opposition, they can burn out on their own fires. With it, they can wither in dread or flourish enflamed, ruined by their rivals or raised by their foes’ defeat. In schoolrooms, chat rooms, and dark rooms, they mingle and battle, the survivors left marked for success, scarred and damaged, or dead and broken…literally lifeless or spiritually gone.

David Robert Mitchell, in his film It Follows, fashions such a baroque brutal arena. In the decaying, greatly white suburbs of Detroit, at the 8 Mile border of its black neighborhoods, teens and young adults pursue fleeting erotic chances or loll about in sexual anxiety or detached ennui. Dulled by middle class comfort and restricting boundaries, It Follows’ main characters lean towards the latter. Sisters take first kisses from the same nerdy neighbor boy while one, unsatisfyingly, loses her virginity to a rakish one. A boy hangs out with girls in Platonic impotence while they bemoan the beauty and romantic fortune of their prettiest member. Others in their village are more…and less…fortunate. The prettier, and more daring, engage in more exciting sexual activity, finding and joining with strange young partners…some hounded by strange apparitions and broken into pieces. To some players, and some viewers, the source of these apparitions is a dark, stranger player–an insidious menace haunting sexual exchanges, marking some participants for death. To others, it is an elaborate venereal disease, a human-shaped pathogen pursuing its victims and expanding its reach. The reality is less sinister, more demonic; less primitive, more primal. The Follower is as much product of youthful Eros as it is its haunting entity. It is a brutal nexus between life’s phases, a consuming force altering being and perception, and a violent manifestation of youthful desire and its competing predatory energies

In the film’s pastoral landscape, these energies are typically muted, lacking both direction and drive. Although two of the characters take classes at nearby Oakland University, and two others work at an ice cream shop, none thirst for independence or the adulthood it brings. Part of this is apprehension; the adults in their lives are barely visible…even in their presence; they are banal providers and progenitors well removed from youthful “play.” Another is fetishization, idealized nostalgia for the innocence past and ardent cradling of its hormonal remnants. This tension first appears when Jay–the film’s hero and character most open to adulthood–goes on a date with her handsome but somehow troubled swain, Hugh. Waiting in line for a film, they play a game called “Trade” where each has to guess which member of the crowd with whom the other would trade places. Jay is surprised to find Hugh chooses a young boy and not his young father helping him at a drinking fountain:

“I mean, how cool would THAT be to have your whole life ahead of you”

“Come on, it’s not like you’re old. You’re 21.”

“I know, but look how happy that kid is. Plus, at that age you can go to the bathroom whenever you want…total freedom.”

To the comfortably maturing Jay, Hugh’s choice is strange, as being young, married, and with children is–for her–an appealing next stage. But for Hugh, all signs of the future terrify; playing out the activities of his waning youth, he longs for life before puberty, before the anal stage, free from adolescent angst and urge.

Hugh’s fear of future adulthood–and longing for painless infancy–is not uncommon for youths in transition, as its greater responsibilities bring promise of possible pain, failure, and even death. However, his terror goes beyond this developmental nexus; it extends to its nightmarish manifestation–the cast of apparitions haunting and hunting him until they/it kills him or he passes its gaze unto another. To do that, he must have sex with that person. He had already done so with his high school sweetheart, Annie, whom the Follower chases and brutally kills at the film’s beginning, making Hugh (once again) its quarry. So, he has sex with Jay, deflecting the Follower towards her…until she–and/or her future offerings–are slain. Vastly removed from that envied child’s tranquility, Hugh is now caught in that cruel sphere adulthood subsuming all its members–those racing from impending death, throwing opponents in its path, while repeating and relishing Youth’s carnalities as their bodies and energies wane. The Follower may be a ghastly strain of this sphere, but it is still a part of it, not its extraneous competitor. He is also its most artistic and relentless. Once it rivets on its prey, it taunts it with glimmers of their youth fetish, as with the teen girl in the yellow dress it embodies for Hugh. For the more mature Jay, It terrorizes her with visions of joyless, ugly senescense. While she is in her college English class, unnerved by “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” TS Eliot’s poem of aging’s horrors, the Follower appears to her as a decrepit old woman, tormenting her with her possible nightmarish future. It does this later in the film, appearing as her naked grandfather standing on top of her house. Like the adulthood it personifies, it taunts her–and others–with its inevitable victory: it will cut short her youthful pleasures or leave her to a “life” haunted by their absence.

It does so by nastily playing with its prey, making it aware of its presence and threat–and frighteningly so–before dispatching it. A strange predator with unmeasured appetite, its sadistic manipulations of its victim’s perception are as artistic in flourish as they are engrossed in purpose. Its artistry greatly draws from the victims body–its shifting aging form: its carnal sexual “history” and its mind’s library of memories, traumas, and fears. Attuned to all of this, it becomes what torments its victim most and best aids its chase. To Greg, Jay’s neighbor who sleeps with her to save her, it becomes his mother in a nightgown with her breast exposed, a final nightmarish vision to shock him before killing him in cold violence and Oedipal horror. The Follower’s choice was partly strategic: Greg’s mother being his housemate, her appearance gained it access to him. It was also somatic…and personal. The neighborhood lothario, Greg’s mind grew rich with conquests, as his body gained swagger to match his beauty. Drawing on this, The Follower chose his mother to crush that spirit, to soil his bodily source of pride while psychically reducing him to his infant stage…a humiliating punishment for thwarting its purpose. This dark stratagem only worked, however, because Greg–unlike those around him–could actually see the Follower’s cinema. His body not only carried years’ residue of erotic conquests; it held perception altered by his tryst with Jay. As his body and mind gave “data” to the Follower to employ, they in turn were altered to receive its tableau…his most cherished “possession” became his most traitorous one, an open window for his enemy’s menace.

The Existentialist Maurice Merlau-Ponty reflected on such somatic synergy: “The thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing is as constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of its corporeity; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication.” As with Greg, the Follower uses all its victim’s thickness–and the experience it carries–to haunt and destroy them. Some–like Greg wore facile thickness easily penetrated; others, like the contemplative Jay, presented a more complex challenge, a byzantine thickness demanding a more complex scheme. A suburban Diana, Jay first appears in the film bodily attuned to her surroundings. Floating in her above-ground pool, she spots squirrels and birds on the power lines above her, feels and watches the ants on her skin, and catches the neighborhood boys (forebodingly) gazing at her. This heightened sensuousness extends to the sensual. She keeps vivid memory of her first kiss with a boy who kissed her sister, keenly conscious of the saliva shared and the transgression involved. When she and Hugh have sex, she insists on its place and confidently takes its dominant position. The Follower both uses and seeks to destroy this carnal assuredness, playing and preying on her enhanced sympathy and somatic sensitivity. After the old woman, it appears to her as a beaten, disheveled teen girl urinating in her presence…then a giant young man with gouged out eyes…then her dear friend Yara…then one of her boy spies…then her naked grandfather on her roof…then her dead father returned to kill her. From a “familiar” victim of sexual battery, to a frightening man, to a friend, to her still-mourned dead parent, The Follower masterfully morphs through all Jay’s sensual strengths and “weaknesses”—visceral compassion, self-awareness, carnal memory–until its final play on her filial love, longing, and mourning….all to a penultimate standoff.

Jay greatly “wins” because of success within her “carnival,” because of her strong connections within its members. As opposed to the mercenary Hugh hiding, terrified in his mother’s house; or Greg ruined in his Byronic solitude; Jay cultivated care in her competitors instead of using or repelling them. She also won, however, because she–and her sister and friends–moved beyond their intimate cabal and its restricted members, space, and economic class. Teens and young adults in wealthier areas have cars, access to plane travel, and a matrix of social and erotic connections to spread their mark. Bound to her own space and matrix, Jay was the Follower’s easier, if challenging, prey. Bound by her own ethics and economic class, she could neither shed her “curse” nor expand her spaces. So, with no entre into the richer sections, she and her co-players move to the barren poorer ones, using its dearth of possible predators instead of the plethora of the privileged. Their erotic energies focused, and Jay’s keen perception enthralled, they seemingly kill the Follower, ensuring Jay’s survival while galvanizing her growth.

So, the film ends with Jay’s “carnival” returned to its more joyous state; Hades, apparently, has returned to its underworld. She and Paul, her first kiss, have joined and walk hand-in-hand, either confident in the Follower’s death or oblivious to its possibility. Moving into adulthood, they have accepted its risks as they have embraced its pleasures. But the carnival of energies, like Death, never stops….nor do its players. So the figure walking behind them could be an old friend or a future foe…or a more devoted co-player with more gripping intent.

The Primal Elements of the Horror Film

The Primal Elements of the Horror Film

Genres have no true frontiers. Like all discursive entities, their natures and definitions are always contested and in play. Some, like the Western, are greatly governed by time and place. Some, like the Musical, are defined by mandatory content. Most others rest in vagaries with specific qualities guiding their form. Such a genre is the Horror film. The Horror Film, by all accounts, is there to scare us or (at least) most of us. It cannot just rest in its successes in writing, direction, acting et al. However, scares cannot just be it. Many films–from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—have scary scenes. For a film to actually be a Horror film, it must have all—and in rare times only three—of four key elements. It must be sublime, transgressive, assaultive and grotesque. To help exemplify and explain these elements, I will refer to numerous Horror films, but I will particularly refer to the iconic classic The Exorcist and the recent classic Martyrs, which has already been remade.

Sublimity plays two major functions in a Horror film. It is the introduction of the as-yet unknown—and usually terrifying—realities, possibilities and human behaviors to the now-altered viewer. It is also the jarring removal of the viewer from their comfortable realm of the familiar and elevation of them into a disturbing, unsettling plane of “higher” awareness, sensations, and awe. The first type was well discussed by Immanuel Kant in his seminal Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Opposed to the bound and recognizable Beautiful, the Sublime is that which remains unbound, formless, and unrecognizable to us: that unknown our enflamed perceptions will give new definition. This is the subject matter of the Horror Film imposing itself on the sensibilities of the Horror viewer. The ever-morphing, ever-shrouded, disarmingly phallic creature in Alien; the invisible–but malevolent and menacing–Simon in Session 9; and the inscrutable, but invasive and baneful, Samara in the Ring; these are all sublime entities the Horror film viewer must receive and comprehend through strange modes of their consciousness.

However, this aspect of the Sublime is not particular to the Horror film; it is also found in films containing the fantastical and/or the foreign. The space battles in Star Wars, the rainy dystopia of Blade Runner, and the visionary visuals of The Matrix all provided their viewer the Kantian Sublime. So, the Sublime mostly particular—and vital–to Horror is the Burkean one. The British Romantic philosopher Edmund Burke–in his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful–envisioned a  Sublime more intense and specific than Kant’s later one:

     Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

Thus, a great aspect—and perhaps the greatest allure—of the Horror film is its ability to excite ideas of sublime pain and danger, producing sublime emotions and pleasures unavailable to most of our mundane lives. Like openers of the notorious box in the Hellraiser films, the Horror film viewers expose themselves to exquisite “pain” and distressing emotions in desire to escape the dull safety of normality.

The combination of these two Sublimities are found in most Horror films. For example, in a scene from Ringu, the malevolent pubescent spirit Sadaku clambers out of her watery well-grave and begins her grotesque crawl towards both film character Ryuji and the film viewers themselves. As an unknowable spirit whose powers belie nature, she brings Ringu its Kantian sublime. As a terrifying invasion of that sublime, menacingly encroaching on the viewers themselves, it effectively incites the Burkean one. In the seminal Horror film The Exorcist, the Kantian sublime is the presence of a demonic spirit denying knowledge and understanding of itself to characters and viewer. The Burkean sublime arises for the viewer when that spirit assaults the viewer’s sensibilities with horrific behavior transgressing their expectations and values. The French Horror film Martyrs—about a cult torturing women, hoping to glean sublime knowledge from their suffering—also accomplishes both. Its extensive, elaborate torture of the women (bordering on “Torture Porn”) “elevates” the viewers—if not all of them–to a discomforting, but desired state of the Burkean sublime, while possibly suggesting to both “Martyr” and viewer alike the Kantian sublime beyond.

These transgressions in both The Exorcist and Martyrs exemplify the second element of Horror films: transgressiveness. Philosopher Georges Bataille allied transgression—the willful and pleasurable defiance of taboos—with the sublime when he positioned such activity as “sacred,” the erotic spiritual lost in the world of work and regularity. So transgression in horror films intensifies the sublime experience for the viewer. Horror transgression can occur in the content: in its actions and events. Forbidden crimes like murder, rape, and torture are common activity in Horror films. These transgressions enhance horrific sublimity by erasing our comforting detachments from such taboos and immersing us in their transgressiveness. Transgressiveness can also occur in the breaking of official and unofficial social mores. For example, films like Jaws, Pet Sematary, and Salem’s Lot break the cultural “rule” that kids cannot be killed, as they are both innocents and our future. So, each shocking, transgressive death affirms the uncanny, sublime space that has replaced our ordered, familiar one

In The Exorcist, transgressions are pandemic. Already a Catholic film rife with Catholic taboos—immediately transgressed by a Virgin Mary statue defiled with a phallus—The Exorcist proceeds to transgress with sublime frenzy. Breaking the aforementioned primal rule of not harming children, The Exorcist invades a 12-year-old girl (Regan) with a demonic presence, inciting her to assault people with vomitous streams, chant horrendous profanities, and sexually assault her mother. Since the taboos against those extreme transgressions buttress our feelings of stability, the transgressions degrade that buttress, allowing instability to enhance the viewer’s state of sublimity.  In Martyrs, the transgressions are even more violent. A seemingly innocent family is slaughtered in their home with explosive shogun blasts. A women bound in chains and nailed clamps gorily rips them from her body. And, in its final and most repellent transgression, a woman is skinned alive and bound in a Christ-like pose. These violent transgression, common to French Extreme Horror (e.g. High Tension) and Torture Porn (e.g. Hostel), not only degrade the viewer’s feelings of stability, they add the instability of complicity. Watching what they should not–and what they should not willingly witness–the viewer “rises” to a myriad of possible painful and pleasurable sublime states accompanying liberation from normalcy’s rules.

For most of us, particularly the conscientious and empathetic, those sublime states are usually “painful” ones, but pleasurable pain the viewer has willingly sought. The transgressions alone, however, can rarely accomplish this. They–as well as the Horror film’s other horrors–must be assaultive: felt, not just seen. Dramatist Antonin Artaud theorized this dynamic in constructing his renowned Theater of Cruelty. Through visuals, sounds, and accompanying concepts unsettling and/or disturbing the viewer, he sought to provoke the viewer into sublime awareness of the violence and horror hidden within their mundane lives. However, Horror films surpass the Theater of Cruelty. They consistently assault viewers with greater extremes of violence, danger, pain, and nightmarish sublimity the viewer senses, feels, and retains. Leatherface’s brutal use of the hammer and meat hook in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; The ghastly, horrifically unnatural “human duck” at the end of Freaks; and the shrill, condemning shriek from Donald Sutherland’s contorted face in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers; they all provided that sublime assault endemic to the Horror film.

In The Exorcist, the assault is relentless. The quotidian horrors of the excruciating medical tests Regan endures; the incessant flow of greenish vomit the viewer sees (and practically smells); the ghastly, inhuman bodily contortions Regan performs; and the previously mentioned bellowed profanities; they all greatly assault the viewer’s senses and sensibilities, heightening their sublime state as Artaud (and effectively Burke) described. In Martyrs, the assault is more acutely somatic, substantially to the same effect. To many viewers, the film’s horrific bodily suffering only (understandably) offends and disgusts. Their particular empathy and empathetic principles is only repelled by the violent spectacle. But for others, the “pain” of the images’ assaults accomplishes what Artaud desired in his Theater: it elevates them to their own sublimity as the Martyr is possibly elevated to hers.

But while Horror’s assaultive element—like the transgressive one—incites this spiritual elevation, it often (if not usually) does so through its horrid transformation and presentation of the physical: the grotesque. The introduction of the grotesque to Gothic fiction arguably marked the beginning of Horror. Previous Gothic works of terror—e.g. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto & Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho—suggested bodily violence and other physical grotesquerie, but never showed them. In her masterpiece, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley shifted Gothic terror into Gothic (and Romantic) horror by introducing physical grotesquerie and grotesque violence to the genre. That grotesquerie begins with the giant, hideous, yellow-skinned creature repugnant to Dr. Frankenstein and the reader. It continues with the corpse of Frankenstein’s murdered cousin/paramour, Elizabeth, the Creature uses to torment Frankenstein. Such grotesquerie enhances the transgressive and assaultive elements of the novel’s horror, augmenting the reader’s sense of sublimity.  By feeding the viewer’s imagination, while lessening their dependency on it, the grotesque accentuates their present sublime experience while keeping them immersed in it.

The horror film takes this to higher levels, as it can visually present the grotesque, provoking both greater revulsion and a more intense sublimity. Free from the need of conceiving grotesquerie signified by words, the Horror Film viewer instantaneously takes it in through assaulted senses. The collapsing chest monster and spider-head monster in Carpenter’s The Thing, the hideously decaying Seth Brundle-Fly in Cronenberg’s The Fly, and the viperous, phallic alien hatefully erupting from Kane’s chest in Alien; they were all scenes of the grotesque enhancing the viewer’s assaultive sublimity and ensuring their film’s Horror status.

As shown earlier, almost all of The Exorcist’s assaultive scenes were greatly grotesque. Besides Regan’s vomit and unnatural body contortions, her body itself becomes a horrific tableau of scabrous scars, oozing wounds, glassy eyes, and infernal messages.  This not only heightens the viewers sublime experience; it keeps them enmeshed in it.  The grotesque isn’t as strong an element in Martyrs, but it is vital. As shown above, the film transgresses taboos and assaults its viewers through graphic violence and mutilated bodies. However, the grotesque particularly enhances the sublime towards the end of the film.  The particular grotesque physical state of the protagonist assists both her and her viewer in contemplation of the sublimity suggested by the scene.  Sensibly connected to her grotesque suffering, the viewer is pulled closer to the possible sublimity produced.

This captures the seeming paradox of the Horror film viewer seeking pleasure in unpleasantry, as well as the workings of the Horror Film’s primal elements.  To those uninitiated in the Horror film’s pleasure, such activity is irrational. It is the equivalent of rushing into a demon-filled asylum, entering a town filled with homicidal zombies, and riding a train haunted by a supernatural hammer-wielding killer…which is what Horror film fans do.  The transgressive, assaultive, and grotesque elements repellent to the novitiate are–to the Horror adept–familiar means to delightful sublimity.