2018’s Big Horror Film Trend: Inherited Trauma
The following article contains SPOILERS for Hereditary, Sharp Objects, The Haunting of Hill House, and Halloween.
There is a house. Inside is a miniature dollhouse filled with perfect replicas of a life that could be, or might’ve been. Maybe it’s a better version of that life, but it is silent and still — unlike the people around it, who are consumed by trauma. Curiously, four of this year’s most poignant and effective horror stories — Hereditary, The Haunting of Hill House, Sharp Objects, and Halloween — are thematically connected by their exploration of familial mental illness and inherited trauma, and by these miniature dollhouses, which appear in some form in every single one.
Twice is a coincidence, but three times makes a trend. There are the ever-present dueling biopics, or this fall’s numerous addiction dramas, or all the movies with “boy” in the title this year. But where those neat coincidences are usually the only thing connecting each of these movies to the next, this year’s horror genre trend feels far more substantial — perhaps that’s because each of these stories incorporates a physical manifestation of the emotional effects of inherited mental illness and trauma. That these concepts are rooted in real psychology only underscores the visceral terror each of these four titles share.
As implied by the title, Hereditary is preoccupied with inheritance — not the tangible things passed down or left behind, like money or beloved objects, but the intangible attributes, like mental illness. Ari Aster’s directorial debut centers on Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who makes a living transforming her personal experiences into miniature houses and tableaus. The death of her elderly mother Ellen sets off a series of sinister occurrences and tragic events, including the death of Annie’s young daughter, Charlie.
The most basic question at the center of Hereditary is whether the family is being tormented by a demon (summoned by Ellen, who was involved in a coven) or if they’re suffering from the onset of mental illness. If the latter is true, then much of the film is an unfortunate confluence of tragedies — some of which are preventable or treatable. If it’s the former, then these painful experiences are inevitable. However, Aster’s film establishes that it is not one or the other, but both: Annie and her son Peter have begun to exhibit signs of the schizophrenia that plagued Ellen in life. Schizophrenia is not an entirely genetic disorder, but one that is brought on by both genetic and environmental factors (nature and nurture).
Simultaneously, Ellen’s death and the demonic events surrounding it sets off a trauma response in Annie — and in turn, Peter. The antagonistic supernatural forces at work, along with the demonic symbolism throughout the film can be taken to represent “triggers” that are activating this particular response.
At the heart of Hereditary is a painfully relatable existential dilemma: Are Annie and Peter doomed to inherit Ellen’s “demon”? Or do they have a choice in the matter? For many people coping with mental illness, the answer often feels dire, and the final moments of Aster’s film offer a heartbreaking conclusion that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.
In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) appears to be on a similarly ruinous trajectory influenced by an abusive, eccentric mother and a history of sexual trauma — one that she’s tried to cover with self-inflicted wounds and drown in bottles of vodka.
Like Annie in Hereditary, Camille’s half-sister Amma uses miniature versions of her own home to reckon with and control the painful narrative of her life. Dollhouses offer these women a way to shape their experiences in a more ideal manner; Amma’s house is an uncanny reflection of her mother Adora’s home in Wind Gap, Missouri — a place where perfection is little more than a facade.
But by shaping and filling her miniature version of this house, Amma can create a tangible simulation of perfection. In this tiny home, there are no controlling mothers who make their daughters sick just to nurse them back to health; there are no alcoholic sisters covered in scars to remind the perfect little family of its ugly realities; there are no teenage boys who take advantage of girls in the woods; and there are certainly no hideously imperfect dead girls loitering in alleys.
This ugliness is still pervasive — and invasive — and no amount of fidgeting with precious furniture and immaculate floors will negate it. For her part, Camille tries to control this unwieldy narrative through a cathartic act of her own design: Carving words into her skin. As for Adora, the desperate need to control and shape her reality is manifested in Munchausen syndrome by proxy — an abusive mental health disorder in which the caregiver manufactures an illness or injury in the dependent (usually their child) to gain attention or sympathy. Adora poisons her daughters and makes them sick so they will depend on her; she cares for them the only way she knows how.
In Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, the most terrifying specter of all is mental illness — it plagues Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino), who finds her psychological issues exacerbated by and horribly transfigured within the eponymous house. The Crain family’s stay at Hill House was meant to be temporary; while there, architect Olivia draws out plans for their new home, their “dream home.” In these schematics, Olivia can envision an idealized version of life with her family — a life beyond the impermanence of their mortal suffering.
When she kills herself, Olivia doesn’t leave behind a suicide note; instead, each Crain child inherits their own highly-individualized trauma, specific to their experiences. We watch as the horrors of their childhood directly and indirectly affect them. Theo is unable to be completely intimate with another person; she works in Child Services, where she uses her unique empathic abilities to rescue children before they become like her. Shirley can never be totally satisfied with her family and what she has, so she seeks validation (and possibly with it, self-destruction) outside of her home ... which also happens to be a mortuary where she confronts her fears daily by normalizing death. By working as a mortician, Shirley can erase the grotesqueries of death and make the deceased look the way their families want to remember them.
Like certain characters in Sharp Objects and Hereditary, Steven Crain tries to control his tragic narrative by rationalizing the existence of ghosts away, opting to profit off of them through a series of books about hauntings — including one about Hill House (a meta-reference to the Shirley Jackson novel on which Flanagan’s Hill House is loosely based). And then there are the twins, Nell and Luke, who were always exceptionally sensitive to the house’s sinister machinations: The former is troubled by sleep paralysis that seemingly robs her of any agency in her mental illness and fate, while the latter struggles with drug addiction.
The common denominator in all of the pain bestowed upon the Crain children is the walls they’ve put up around themselves. No matter where they go, they are still trapped inside of that house; prisoners of their pain. And all the while, their mother calls them home: Via the mental illness and trauma that is now theirs, via the memories that return unbidden to torment them at night, and — curiously — via the porch light on Shirley’s dollhouse, which resides in her grown-up home.
Particularly heart-wrenching is the fate of Nell, who returns to Hill House in an attempt to confront the ghosts of her past, only to finally succumb the mental illness that claimed her mother. In the series’ most devastating episode, we discover that the “bent-neck lady” ghost that has tormented Nell since childhood is actually Nell herself: Her neck broken and bent from a noose. All her life, Nell was haunted by a terrible possibility that was, tragically, inevitable.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) spends her life preparing for what she perceives as an inevitable fate in Halloween: Another violent showdown with Michael Myers, the masked Boogeyman who tried to murder her on Halloween night 40 years ago. Today, Laurie is a mother to Karen (Judy Greer) and a grandmother to Allyson (Andi Matichak). But instead of living a full life in the comfort of her family, Laurie is defined entirely by her trauma; she lives in seclusion in a heavily-guarded home where she spends her days preparing for Michael’s return.
Karen’s childhood was similarly defined by Laurie’s traumatic past, while Allyson’s coming-of-age suffered a more indirect impact in its aftermath. Before Karen was taken away by Child Services at the age of 12, Laurie prepared her daughter to be ready for the day when Michael came back. Karen spent most of her young life in Laurie’s basement “prison,” learning how to handle and shoot guns. To Laurie, this was survival; to Karen, it was the theft of her entire childhood — a concept echoed in the dollhouse in Karen’s room. Although Karen spends far less time with her dollhouse than Amma in Sharp Objects or Annie in Hereditary, its presence is still thematically important, as it represents her yearning for a better life and taking control over her own circumstances.
Inherited trauma is pervasive throughout David Gordon Green’s surprisingly poignant sequel to John Carpenter’s slasher classic. Green and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley re-contextualize key iconic moments from Carpenter’s film to bring the “final girl” trope to a thoughtful conclusion and explore Laurie’s evolution as a victim. Early on, a pair of investigative journalists interview Laurie for their podcast, where they needle her about her failed marriages and losing Karen, while insisting that Michael Myers isn’t the Boogeyman or some mythical monster — he’s just a human being. To that, Laurie delivers a crucial line of dialogue that defines this Halloween as much as the William Shatner mask and knife came to define Myers himself: Calling out the pair for trying to humanize the masked serial killer who killed her friends, Laurie remarks, “I’m twice divorced, and I’m a basket case.”
It’s not long after that Allyson looks out her classroom window and sees Laurie standing across the street, not unlike the time Laurie saw Michael watching her at school four decades earlier. Later, during Laurie’s confrontation with Michael, she’s wounded and tossed over the balcony, where she lands on the ground below. When Michael looks down a moment later, Laurie is gone. These role-reversals underline Laurie’s new place in the world. There is nothing more dangerous than a woman who has been traumatized. Or, as Hannah Gadsby says in the earth-shattering Nanette, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”
And while it may not seem like it to Karen, Laurie has rebuilt — she’s built a new, safer home, she’s built her physical strength and her resilience, and she’s spent 40 years building herself up for a confrontation that’s unavoidable. Some would say she’s a paranoid victim, but Laurie is a wise survivor who has been forced to accept a violent reality. Some would look at her basement and call it a prison, but as Karen states in the film’s most triumphant moment, it’s actually a trap.
If anything, Halloween acknowledges a dark truth that many trauma survivors are forced to live with every day, and that those privileged enough to have never experienced violent trauma dismiss as paranoid lunacy: It can happen again. Through these painful tragedies we (and specifically women) learn a particular set of skills to avoid living through that hell again. Where Carpenter’s Halloween makes Laurie a victim, Green’s Halloween turns her into a survivor.
The ending of Halloween is perhaps the most satisfying of all the 2018 horror stories about trauma: Three generations of women — Laurie, Karen, Allyson — overcome a lifetime of pain that‘s echoed through each of their lives in different ways. They stand together, holding each other, as the Boogeyman who’s tormented them (and, of interesting note, Karen’s dollhouse) is engulfed in flames. Trauma shapes them, but it is not the end of their story.
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