Our parents are the first people to tell us “no”, to make us feel small and inadequate. They loom over us and by their sheer size constantly remind us of the threat of violence – whether or not they intend to carry through on that threat. They are the first people we love, and the first people we hate; they are our first monsters.
The theme of “parents as monsters” is a recurring motif in media going all the way back to Grendel’s nameless mother in Beowulf; a “swamp-thing from hell” with “savage talons” who battled the hero in her underwater lair (105). Contemporary media has exploited this fear to unsettling levels. In the film The Monster (2016), the audience reads in the opening sequence: “They are hiding and watching, just wait and see, oh, there are monsters for you and for me.” Over the course of the film, we are introduced to ten year old Lizzy and her abusive alcoholic mother. While stranded on a road in the middle of the night, the pair must fight off a monster lurking in the woods. Flashbacks reveal Kathy’s many inadequacies and the audience is left to wonder if Lizzy wasn’t an accidental pregnancy. At one point we see Lizzy hiding in the basement with the car keys because Kathy and her abusive boyfriend Roy need to make a beer-run. Roy’s muscular frame rampages downstairs and rips down the makeshift tent Lizzy had constructed. The audience holds its breath until Kathy intervenes trying to placate Roy while getting the keys from her well intentioned, but naive, daughter. Losing patience, Roy finds the keys and runs off with Kathy begging him to wait. Torn between Roy and Lizzy, Kathy takes one more second to look at her distraught daughter before slapping her and running after Roy. The film ends with Lizzy killing the monster, her mother dying in the process, and telling the audience: “Mom tells me there is no such thing as monsters, but she is wrong. They’re out there, waiting for you. Watching, in the dark. Sometimes where you see them, sometimes where you don’t. I know that now. I’m not afraid anymore.” The implication being that Lizzy’s mother was as equally monstrous as the creature that ate her. Other films have likewise explored the wrong turn motherhood can take including Mommy Dearest (1981), Goodnight Mommy (2014), and The Babadook (2014). Noticeably, fathers are absent in these films. If mothers are the monsters under the bed that eat children, then fathers are the ghosts that walk the halls – whose presence can be felt and evoke unsettling discomfort, but remain on the periphery out of sight.
What can we glean from these films? In a Shelleyan manner, we are Frankenstein’s creature let loose upon the world. We have no choice about who brings us into this world and under what circumstances. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 45% of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. The biggest demographic for birthing are women in their 20s, women who have either just graduated high school, are still attending school, or who are in the middle of trying to build a life for themselves. Without a lot of life experience, it’s difficult to be emotionally mature and financially stable enough to give children the best opportunities. Additionally, picking the right partner to be a parent often doesn’t figure into many of the romantic comedies littering the silver screen. Mainly it’s about finding the right “one” for you and that warm, romantic feeling you get when you lock eyes with your soulmate at just the right moment under the stars. There are exceptions of course, such as Bridget Jone’s Baby (2016) and The Back-up Plan (2010), which deal with single motherhood; but these movies seem to imply that parenthood is auxiliary to relationships and that motherhood is the natural culmination of womanhood. Again, fatherhood and the role men play in parenthood seems ancillary. From this perspective, men are waiting on the sidelines waiting to be called in and are transient in the whole process. In the back of our minds it may occur to us that the majority of people accept parenthood as the natural outcome of permanent relationships, but this doesn’t seem to enter into the messages the media inundates us with or the signals we send each other. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that we can’t be sure if the Babadook is a real monster or just the manifestation of Amelia’s resentment towards her son. The sing-song pop-up book that introduces the monster reads “I’ll soon take off my funny disguise, take heed of what you’ve read, and once you see what’s underneath, you’re going to wish you were dead” (The Babadook). As Samuel’s possessive and destructive behavior takes a psychological toll on Amelia, the audience can’t help but sympathize with the widowed mother who feels unable to cope with loss, loneliness, and crushing parental responsibility. Soon her repressed frustrations and suffering surface, posing a monstrous threat to Samuel. The ending is ambiguous, with the Babadook being locked in the basement safely away from Samuel. Once again the monster is relegated to the darkness and out of sight. Maybe our parents are dealing with their own monsters — internal and external. Maybe we should, as parents, children, and partners, discuss what it really means to be those things.
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Bilingual Ed. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
The Babadook. Dir. Jennifer Kent. Causeway Films, 2014. Film.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Pregnancy rates were highest for women in their 20s.” Web. 30 December 2016. <https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db136.htm>
Guttmacher Institute. “Unintended Pregnancy in the United States.” Web. 30 December 2016. <https:// www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/unintended-pregnancy-united-states>
The Monster. Dir. Bryan Bertino. Atlas Independent and Unbroken Pictures, 2016. Film.