When the monster sleeps in the same room
“It was just one of those things, you know,” says a nervous-looking Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, describing to her doctor (Anne Jackson) the night her husband pulled their son’s shoulder from its socket. “Purely an accident.”
It’s a paradox with which we all live, that the things closest to us are often the hardest to confront with honesty. The greater the number of rings of societal safety surrounding a home, a family, a person, the more taboo it becomes to acknowledge that the domestic sphere is home to perils as horrifying as those found in the most lawless hell-hole, to predators as vicious and rapacious as any frenzied shark or startled grizzly bear.
Domestic horror violates these concentric circles, tearing through them one by one until we can see in cross-section the vulnerable anatomy of the parts of our lives we’re taught to believe are safest. In a society where intimate partner violence, child abuse, and rape remain surrounded by shame and secrecy, domestic horror performs the crucial function of exposing both the lifelong and ever-changing emotional pain of those experiences and the psychology of victims and abusers. It maps in violent colors the harsh wilderness of trauma.
To understand how each boundary is transgressed and what that transgression means and feels like, we’ll follow this map from the outer fringes of the domestic sphere—the yawning halls of the Overlook Hotel, the shrine-like elevation of Charlie Graham’s (Milly Shapiro) room over the rest of her family in Ari Aster’s Hereditary—to the most sensitive inner workings of familial emotion—Little Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) in his fraying, violent father Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) arms, Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) fragile young body splitting at the seams around the demon coiled inside her.
The vampire, long a symbol of sexualized violence and seductive evil, cannot enter a home uninvited. It has crossed the threshold of death and now exists cut off from living people. But if war tears the fabric of the home—as it does when a dud missile crashes through the roof of Shideh’s apartment building in the post-revolutionary Iran of Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow—or a loved one extends an invitation to the bloodsucker—as Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) does when he sells his wife’s womb to a Satanic cult in exchange for fame in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby—then the threshold’s power is rendered moot.
The threat, in other words, is not just that the Other will gain entry to the home and wreak havoc, but that it sleeps in a bed not far from our own, that it moves unseen under cover of war or sits smugly atop the shoulders of those laboring under the the weight of oppression. There is no keeping the vampire out, something Stoker himself knew and artists since have paved over with neat sets of supernatural rules. The home, so rigorously defined not just by the people and joint lives it contains but by the things forbidden from entry, possesses great symbolic power, but that power can isolate and strangle as easily as it can protect.
Consider The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, a massive pile of brick, wood, and stone, a grossly outsize home for the three-person Torrance family. In its vast emptiness Jack’s alcoholic dysfunction grows like a goldfish to match its new tank. While the cracks in the Torrance family are apparent from the film’s opening moments, their isolation prys at those fault lines like eager claws. It’s a familiar narrative to any survivor of domestic violence, that even as an abuser becomes more domineering, more hateful toward their victims, they work harder than ever to keep them close. Jack’s violent breakdown isn’t an expression of loathing, but of frustrated, emotionally crippled love.
The family’s group identity gives the home its symbolic power. The scenes in Alan Resnick and Ben O’Brien’s short film Unedited Footage of a Bear in which an overwhelmed suburban mother (Jacqueline Donelli) is replaced by a vicious, manic doppelganger (her real-life twin Kerry Donelli) sketch a confrontational portrait of just how powerful that shared identity can be. The double hides herself in a closet in a kitschy princess dress, her face hidden behind hanging clothes. She tugs her victim’s daughter’s hair, terrorizes both children by defacing their family portraits. But by the end of the sequence, the overriding emotion in the household is not raw terror, but boredom. The kids lie in their beds. Life goes on in the hostile blast radius of their mother’s fractured and dangerous identity.
One of the family’s most powerful functions is the normalization of behaviors, the creation of a small and insular culture shaped from the top down. One person’s mental state can enfold and define an entire group, given enough time and emotion. This is not to say that the mentally ill—a category to which I belong—are maliciously abusive, or that caring for a suffering family member is an inherently dangerous thing. Consider, though, the simple power of a loved one supporting a single aberrant behavior. In a tooth-grinding scene in Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision, after a fight with her disturbed daughter Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), abusive mother Phyllis (Traci Lords) seeks reassurance from her husband Bob (Roger Bart) that she’s not “becoming her mother.” Bob offers it up readily, though from outside their dynamic it’s easy enough to see it’s likely that Phyllis’s guilty fears are right on the money.
Just like Wendy Torrance’s anxious excuses to her doctor and Hereditary’s Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) narcissistic frustration at her children’s inability to forget she nearly burned them both alive while sleepwalking, Phyllis is semi-consciously working to make her family a place where her dysfunction is normal, where resistance to it is grounds for punishment. The natural endpoint of this behavior is Jack Torrance’s infamous writing room rant to his wife near the end of The Shining’s second act, a brutal browbeating delivered over next to nothing from the point of view that she’s out of line. Later, even as Jack threatens to bash Wendy’s brains in, she hesitates to really swing at him with the bat she’s using to defend herself. Their gravitational pull of their family’s culture is so strong that she’s fighting visibly not to think that all of this is her fault, somehow.
Individual bodies reflect in idiosyncratic ways the context of their family lives. Think of Rosemary’s increasingly infantile haircuts and fashion choices in Rosemary’s Baby as one by one her husband, friends, and caretakers join the conspiracy to strip her of her adult agency. Think of the brutal beating and maiming of the mother’s body by her duplicate in Unedited Footage of a Bear, a clear visual metaphor for self-loathing and the ravages of chronic stress. The Duplicate is not a replacement, but an incarnation of a broken human psyche’s final meltdown. Transgressions against our bodies are incorporated into our behaviors, our personas. We become walking records of the harm that we’ve sustained.
In The Shining, the dislocation of Danny’s arm several years before the events of the film is a major point of contention between Wendy and Jack. Jack, at the end of a bender, caught Danny playing with his papers in his study and hauled him up by the arm, popping his son’s shoulder from its socket. Hardly surprising, then, that Danny’s more cynical and adult imaginary friend, Tony, resides in his arm—perhaps the same arm—personified as a talking finger. Danny’s trauma and Tony’s existence are never explicitly connected in the film, but it’s Tony who first warns Wendy of Jack’s murderous impulses. Even if Danny was too young to recall the incident, his body remembers.
Children begin life as extensions of their parents’ lives and bodies. The separation which must inevitably occur as the child matures can be traumatic for both parties. What is Regan’s possession in Friedkin’s The Exorcist but a thinly-concealed metaphor for puberty? Her raunchy provocations, the foreign liquids she spews and dribbles; the film is rank with her uncomfortable sexuality. Neither her mother (Ellyn Burstyn) nor her clerical would-be saviors (Max von Sydow and Jason Miller) are prepared to cope with the emergence of an adult, one capable of cruelty and defiance, from a pliant child.
In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, widowed Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) struggles with her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) difficult behavior and her own fraying sanity. The monstrous titular children’s book—which Amelia, it’s implied, made herself—Samuel finds on his shelf is a sublimation of her repressed knowledge that she’s beginning to abuse her son, her deep grief over the loss of her husband, and her resentment toward a child she can’t help but view as his needy, abrasive replacement. His emotional demands are more than she can cope with, a fact as undeniable as the results are horrifying. To her, he’s like a cowbird chick, an interloper hollowing her out, consuming the rest of her life. Parents live that reality every day.
No inch of human existence is outside the reach of pain. Bodies can be broken. Children aren’t safe just because they’re innocent. Families aren’t possessed of some sort of innate moral goodness. It’s easy to find misery and paranoia in these realizations, but through them we can also see our own suffering reflected and affirmed, or learn to better grasp the white-hot truth that love is not just an emotion, but a choice proved by consistent action. Horror about domestic life—our lives, the lives of our children, of our parents—reminds us that those things in ourselves which are hardest to look at are the things from which we must not turn away.