In a lot of horror films, the woman gets possessed or victimised because she is vulnerable – but could that be simply because she is exhausted from the labour?

Amelia from The Babadook sitting in bed Screenshot/The Babadook
Flix Commentary Friday, October 23, 2020 - 17:39

A woman who is chirpy, kind and nurturing suddenly starts becoming broody, aggressive and withdrawn after a supernatural entity takes hold of her: this trajectory is a common one in many horror films that have been released over the years, such as The Conjuring. In other films like The Omen and Paranormal Activity, and horror series The Haunting of Hill House, the woman is shown to become disoriented and paranoid, and is often disbelieved when she says that strange things are happening with her.

Some research and commentary on the gender in horror films suggests that this female vulnerability is owing to traits that are traditionally considered feminine – such as openness, passivity, and the need for protection that is often provided by male characters. One of the conclusions that we could draw from these representations is that women, in these films, are just more vulnerable to being targeted by supernatural entities because they are ‘weaker’, much like Sigmund Freud’s early theory that women are exclusively susceptible to hysteria compared to men. The word itself is derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning womb. Freud believed that women are prone to experience hysteria more because they suffered psychological damage as a result of an irreconcilable loss of their metaphorical penis – basically, because they aren’t men.

However, considering the premise of most of these films, the 'hysteria' seems inevitable. If you were taking care of five young children, or one troubled six-year-old as a single parent struggling to catch one night’s uninterrupted sleep, wouldn’t you be exhausted, and hence, vulnerable?

Women’s exhaustion, to a large extent, is a result of the gendered division of labour. In both The Conjuring and The Haunting of Hill House, the women are the primary caregivers for five children each. While Carolyn Perron (played by Lili Taylor) is a homemaker who loves her family very much in The Conjuring, she is often seen picking up after and caring for the five young daughters, which is, no doubt, tiresome and thankless work, especially along with moving to a new place and new house. In Hill House, Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) is not only redesigning the massive manor that the family moves into, she is also the mother of five young children and is, more often than not, extremely patient with them.

We know that women anyway do a disproportionately greater amount of unpaid and often unacknowledged emotional and household labour compared to men. While there is much to be critiqued about how women are represented on the big screen, horror films interestingly fare better in this respect when it comes to showing women’s – especially mothers’ – exhaustion.

In some other horror films, one could even interpret that a woman’s experiences are a result, or a manifestation of her exhaustion and a representation of a resulting mental illness. The Babadook is a compelling example – Amelia (Essie Davis), who works in an old age home (also a caregiving role), finds herself struggling to be a single parent to a distressed, whimsical and cranky six-year-old son named Samuel (Noah Wiseman), and grappling with the loss of her husband in a car crash that happened when he was taking her to the hospital after she went into labour. We see days pass by without Amelia getting even a good night’s sleep, and eventually, she starts to get "haunted" by a monster named the Babadook, which she and Samuel read about in a children’s book.

Initially believing that it is a figment of her son’s imagination, we see Amelia become increasingly anxious, restless, and aggressive towards her son, as the "monster" also takes more and more concrete shape. Director Jennifer Kant has talked extensively about how she wanted to portray motherhood close to reality. “I was more interested in exploring how a woman loses herself and how to lose yourself is not always the best option. […] It's the big lie that we're told—that motherhood is just great and fulfilling and rewarding,” she told Vice. There are interpretations that suggest that the Babadook represents Amelia’s depression – as she gets more and more exhausted and seemingly in the grips of the monster, it too takes a more concrete shape. Kent said in another interview that she thought The Babadook is marketed as a horror film, she was drawn to the idea of grief, and its suppression. At the end, we see that the Babadook – which is arguably a personification of Amelia’s depression – has been confined to the basement of the house. Amelia even goes to tend to it, while repairing her relationship with Samuel and deals with the loss of her husband, perhaps showing that you cannot just shut out a mental illness, but it can be managed.

Representing motherhood as The Babadook did is a lot closer to real life than the ideal, forever patient tropes of mothers idealised otherwise. In The Omen (2006), at one point, Katherine (Julia Stiles) starts experiencing vivid and disturbing dreams about her son, Damien, who is apparently the antichrist – something she doesn’t know yet. Her dreams begin after Damien attacks her at a chapel. This would be traumatic for any parent. Combined with the fact that she has to deal with feeling scared of her own young son, and fearing for her second pregnancy, one could argue that her paranoia about Damien is a manifestation of her own anxiety as a caregiver, an expecting mother, and as a woman who is left to deal with a creepy son and an equally spooky nanny alone while her husband works a demanding job.

Another film that explores ‘demonic pregnancies’ and a women’s postpartum mental health struggles is the 2018 film Still/Born. Mary (Christie Burke) is not only dealing with being a young mother, but also the loss of one child – she was supposed to deliver twins. The stay-at-home mom becomes convinced that something evil wants to take away her child, however, the viewer is left wondering if she’s imagining the horror – which is yet another manifestation of the pressures of being a young mother dealing with the loss of one child while required to be caring for another, along with possible postpartum depression, in this case.  

In Indian horror films too, abortion and pregnancies are treated with a sense of ominousness. In Sai Pallavi’s Karu and Rituparna Sengupta and Atul Kulkarni-starrer Gauri: The Unborn, for example, an aborted foetus comes back to haunt the families, reinforcing a moralistic and problematic stance against abortion over a woman’s right to choose. More recently, In Anushka Sharma’s Pari, her Rukhsana is an ‘ifrit’ – a creature with demon blood – who gets pregnant after she and the Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) – a human – have sex. And though Rukhsana’s “love” ensures that the baby is finally human, we see her struggle against people (men mostly) who take her violent actions to be a manifestation of inherent evil instead of her protecting herself. Her effort and exhaustion from doing so, and ultimately sacrificing herself is almost glorified, reinforcing that this labour is expected of and inherent to women.

Overall, Indian films also follow a similar line of representation where the woman is often the one who gets possessed simply because she is, by Freudian definitions so to say, weaker, and susceptible to hysteria. Films like the Malayalam flick Manichitrathazhu, which was remade in several languages, show that though the woman’s ‘possession’ could be rooted in prior trauma and an underlying mental illness. But they also perpetuate dangerous ideas that to dealing with this trauma or illness’s manifestation need not be scientific. Newer films like horror-comedy Stree offer some hope – we see a woman ghost express her disappointment, anger and spite from being disrespected in her lifetime, and this is shown without a moral or sacrificial lens.

Another brilliant exploration of women’s labour and the society’s lack of acknowledgement for it is also seen in Mother!. The Darren Aronofsky film is in the home invasion horror genre, and while nothing truly supernatural happens in it, there are arguably several metaphors in the film, such as when Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless character feels the beating heart of the house, one that she is renovating with her literal labour, as well as the labour of her love. However, her partner, a poet and writer, as well as his visitors disrespect it completely, we see Jennifer’s own heartbreak as well as the heart of her home, which she helplessly strives to protect, despite her evident terror and exhaustion.

Ultimately, the question to be asked is – are women in these films vulnerable because they’re generally the ‘weaker gender’, or simply because they are exhausted under the amount of intangible and tangible work that disproportionately falls on their shoulders? As a genre, horror begs for more explorations, especially by women directors, so we see more films like The Babadook, which accurately represent a woman’s labour instead of reducing her being haunted by her demons to an experience rooted in religion or mythology.

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