September 2009 Archives

Terror in a Snowsuit

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In his book The Artist as Monster: The Films of David Cronenberg, William Beard discusses how The Brood delves into family dynamics and the ambiguity of childhood memories.  Was Nola really abused by her mother, or did she abuse herself and then manufacture her mother's participation?  He also discusses the fear of the female body, particularly, the fear of the female body's ability to create life.  He also brings up interesting ideas about the shift of power from men to women, something that was relatively new (maybe) in 1979.  Nola's father, Barton, is ineffectual and weak, blustering about kicking some ass while at the same time incapacitating himself with alcohol to the point where a tiny creature in a onesie can bash his head in.  Frank, Nola's husband, tries to be proactive but is hampered by the legal system and his own inability to face the seriousness of his wife's condition and the trauma she's suffered.

 

One thing that stood out to me about this film was the shift of power to the helpless victim.  Nola births tiny children of rage, who exact vengeance for real (or imagined) slights against those she is incapable of defending herself against.

 

First on the list is her mother, a heavy drinker (at least, when we see her) who may or may not have beaten her daughter.  The film also highlights issues with childhood memories.  How reliable are our memories of that time?  Have you ever visited a place you remember from when you were a kid, and found it tinier, dustier, and much more mundane than it had been in your mind?  What if we also manufactured the memories of hurts and slights from adults in the same way?  In The Brood, Cronenberg manages to capture that feeling of helplessness a child feels in an adult world.  Her "rage children" exact the revenge that Nola herself couldn't.

 

From her father to the teacher who has invaded her home, Nola's personified rage does what Nola can't.  Civilized Nola would not be able to bludgeon her daughter's teacher to death, but the "bad kids" she births have no compunctions about performing their pastel snow-suited destruction.

 

By comparison, Candice (Frank and Nola's daughter) represents the helplessness of a child in jeopardy.  It's interesting that Cronenberg wrote this movie in part as a reflection of his own divorce and custody issues, since we see how traumatic the events are on Candice.  At the end of the movie, the blisters on Candice's arms hint that perhaps she is discovering her own power, and point toward a future where her own repressed rage may boil over.  As Beard points out, though, Candice is virtually indistinguishable from Nola's brood, showing how sometimes those we perceive as powerless actually are not.

 

While some of the action in The Brood is a bit dated ("Let him go--can't you see he's drunk?"), the underlying themes are very thought-provoking and have a lot of power, even today.

In my post about Edgar Allan Poe, I discussed how psychological horror serves to reassure the reader that she is normal.  Dr. Arnzen pointed out in his response that we also "identify with the insane and 'go a little crazy' when we read".  In Psycho, Robert Bloch is highlighting that very point.

 

Norman Bates (who in the novel is much less creepy than Anthony Perkins--the description reads more like George Castanza) tells Mary Crane that "perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times" (Bloch 44).  It's particularly chilling for Mary to hear this, as she herself has just gone a little crazy and stolen $40,000 from her boss.

 

In one scene, Sam Loomis answers the door and "for a moment, the shock of recognition held him immobile; then he stepped forward and his arms closed around her...his mouth found hers, gratefully, greedily; and then she was stiffening, she was pulling away" (Bloch 83).  He can't even tell that it's not his own fiancĂ©e standing outside his store.  Norman Bates is not the only character in the novel dealing with self-denial and illusions.  Almost every character in the novel is forced to confront some aspect of themselves that they don't like, or do something they never imagined they were capable of doing.

 

Later, Sam is considering the fact that he doesn't really know the woman he thought he loved.  He starts to think about all the people in Fairvale he knows, "like old Tomkins, superintendent of schools...running away from his wife and family with a sixteen-year-old girl" (Bloch 102).  He goes on to list other examples, including a quiet man who worked as a clerk in his hardware store--a man whom he discovered had been discharged from the army for beating a chaplain.

 

Perhaps the most frightening thing of all is how any person is capable of almost any act, even those we would never consider.  Imagine the horror you might feel discovering your parents making out in the row behind you at the theater.  Whenever a person denies our perception of her, it's terrifying--and the most terrifying thing is discovering we, ourselves, are capable of something we never imagined.

 

In a party conversation once, I heard a woman talking about how angry she'd become when another driver cut her off on the road.  She stated that if she would have had a gun, she would have shot the person.  I'm not sure what was more chilling--the fact that she was willing to admit this (and no alcohol was involved at that point), or how several others admitted that they had felt the same way at some point.  Psychological horror may attempt to explain those impulses, but it also points out that abnormal though they may be, they are more common than we want to admit.

 

Works Cited

 

Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

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