Sunday, October 11, 2015

it's all for you

In case you haven't noticed the trend this month, we're on horror films again because it's October. Last year it was a different slasher film every day. I was going to try something like that with non-slasher films this month but I'm getting stuck on trying to go a little deeper... but also failing a little at that. Don't get me wrong; my two days (794 795) arguing about Poltergeist as a feminist film was amazing stuff. But, I feel like I'm sidestepping the point of the horror of it--why we need such a film to give women the power (and why the remake had to take that away), why we fear the unknown voices of technology calling first our kids and then us, why ghosts are inherently frightening even when they're doing nothing to disturb us but to exist. Why does the more visceral (even at its coldest) version of The Shining (Kubrick's) work so much better than the more direct translation from the book in the miniseries version? Why do we enjoy our horror to have a faster pace, less downtime? Hell, why do we enjoy our horror at all?

The thesis for last October was simple, especially with Clover (1992) on my side. And, she will come up now and then this month--already has a couple times--but I want to explore the broader concept of horror a bit, interrogate our fears and boil them down, probably, to a small group of innate, highly evolved fears. Take today's film--The Omen--for instance. The basic setup deals in two elements that draw on our inner worlds. The surface element is the religious one--specifically dealing in Biblical terms, in Catholic terms--latching onto beliefs about the devil and the end of the world but focusing those energies on a very small, intimate family story. But there is a more primitive element at work as well, dealing in the idea of a changeling child, a child you, as a parent, cannot control and thus maybe wish (if not fear) that the child isn't even yours.

But, maybe those two things are actually tied together in one issue--control. Religion as parent--that sort of thing. I found it interesting--but neglected to mention it in yesterday's entry--that the miniseries version of The Shining invoked God and religion numerous times while Kubrick's version is practically atheist. Poltergeist, dealing primarily in a sort of pagan occult angel on the supernatural, doesn't offer much on God or religion either. Diane and Steve Freeling are, implicitly, ex-hippies who have turned into yuppies; there's no religion to them. Just now in this film, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) opened up his exchange with Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) by demanding he accept Jesus as his savior, a basic religious appeal before he even gave him reason to need it. And, my phrasing there is deliberate. In the context of the story, Robert Thorn has no apparent religion to him anymore than the Freelings did to them. He's a politician, an ambassador.

Now Robert and his wife, Kathy (Lee Remick) are off to church. But, only for a wedding. The new, and suspect, nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) points out, quite accurately that 5-year-old Damien (Harvey Stephens) won't understand the workings of an episcopal wedding. Worse than that, though, as soon as they get near the church, Damien freaks out an attacks his mother physically. I recall the times I was in no mood to go to church as a kid, and can imagine many a child feeling the same way, some throwing some serious tantrums like Damien. That doesn't make them evil, of course. But, there's an echo of all those children in Damien, and an echo of Damien in all of them. An instilled fear that we cannot bring our children to order, because children are capable of, well, tantrums the defy order. We bring them to our churches, or we offer up some less organized form of advice for life, rules even if we are as seemingly unstructured in our parenting as the Freelings seemed to be. We send them to school. We try to fit them into the order of our world (regardless of how much we might support that order, mind you).

That Damien is not the Thorns' biological child adds an extra dimension to this. (And, there's an entire other level added on in that Kathy doesn't even know he's not hers.) How can you ever expect a child that is not yours to fit securely into your family or your world? Sure, plenty of people adopt and even do so quite successfully, but there's a more fundamental notion--whether it's purely biological or also sociological--of... ownership isn't the right word, but there is a patriarchal and matriarchal pride in the accomplishments of one's offspring, one's biological offspring that you just don't expect to see in relation to children that are not, well, yours.

Two of my own children, by that standard, are not mine at all. I adopted them after my wife and I were married and they live with me now that we are apart, but, yeah, by some strictly biological principle I should not have the investment in them that I do. And, that's the sociological aspect of it, why adoption can work well enough when the situation calls for it. Choosing to take a child as your own demands investment just as, for the man, "planting your seed" or, for the woman, carrying that child to term, does. We have these very primitive notions about what makes a person into a parent--as if biology alone is enough. Personally, I find the choice side of things to be far more substantial in a way.

And, right after I write that, Kathy suggest that she get an abortion because she doesn't want to have another child. She sees in Damien, though it isn't clear yet, a child nor her own. She does not actually know that he is not her biological son, but something about him is off. It amuses me that the simple act of Damien making a lot of noise while playing works as a stand-in for Kathy's annoyance with him--and he injures her to the point of miscarriage in a scenario that very well could have been accidental in another context--because that noise is so common with small children... and older children, as well, as I can attest--mine are 12, 15 and 20. Your baby cries all night and, yeah, there are moments when you wish that were not your kid, you want to get rid of it, and the idea of ever having another one--that is the absolute worst thing imaginable. Your toddler makes an incessant, and ridiculously pointless, racket while playing and, yep, it would make perfect sense in that moment to imagine this child is the devil's child, snuck into your house by accident or by nefarious machinations, and it better be gone before your headache is...

For most of us, fortunately, we don't end that thought with violence or some religious ritual to exorcise the evil that is toddler-ness. We just let the kid be, let life go on, and welcome the less noisy moments. Those moments that many of us then probably thank God for. Surely, if the devil is responsible for the tantrum or the noisy play, then some lighter being must be responsible for the good times. It's a simplistic way of understanding the world, but it's orderly and we tend to like it.

Robert Thorn's and Jennings' (David Warner) search after some evidence of Damien's mother takes them to a hospital run by priests and nuns, then to a monastery. Effectively, this seems a stand-in for taking Damien to church. These men are seeking the order of religion to right the world that has been upended. I wonder, why the supernatural, especially the Christian supernatural, was such a prevalent source for horror through the 70s into the 80s. But, that will tie into an angle I want to take tomorrow.

For now, I will end with this:

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