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The Dueling Cavalier: The Horror of Maternal Sexuality in ‘The Boy’ and ‘The Babadook’

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The Dueling Cavalier is a column by Vague Visages staff writer Max Bledstein.

In the landmark 1985 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Robin Wood lays out the possibilities of the genre as a medium for social critique. Consciously or not, Wood’s ideas guide much critical and popular thinking on horror: rather than simply being B-movie garbage, the monsters and demons of horror can represent the repressed forces society cannot accept, and their acts of violence constitute understandable actions against that repression. Figures made “the Other” by society (such as the working class, women, or ethnic minorities) have their chance in horror films to get revenge on the forces that “other” them. A textbook example, and one Wood cites, is Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic Cat People, in which protagonist Irena (Simone Simon) responds to the repression of her sexuality by turning into a vicious cat and terrorizing those around her.

But not all horror movies have these sorts of socio-political implications, and Wood balances his identification of “progressive or radical” horror movies with what he calls the genre’s “reactionary wing”: films that reify society’s virtues rather than attack them. While acknowledging that horror movies often exhibit traits of both of these categories, Wood identifies the classic trait of punishing teenagers for having sex as being exemplary of reactionary horror.

Two recent horror films, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and William Brent Bell’s The Boy (released this past Friday) tackle the same repressed taboo: maternal sexuality. But the manner in which they treat this topic, and the attitude they take towards it, differs wildly between the two films. The contrast between the two reveals Kent’s film to embody Wood’s ideal of a progressive approach to the genre, while Bell’s film embodies the reactionary.

The Australian The Babadook, Kent’s debut, was greeted with a wealth of praise at Sundance two years ago, and rightfully so: the film is terrifying to a level few modern horror films can match. But beyond the scares, Kent creates a powerful portrayal of a single mother, Emilia (Essie Davis), and her attempt to cope with the grief of her dead husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear). Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) complicates her grief, keeping her busy with antics such as bringing darts to school and waking her up in the middle of the night.

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The film’s ostensible force of evil is the titular monster, a shadowy figure (brought to life with creepy stop-motion effects) who haunts Emilia and Samuel after she reads him a mysterious picture book featuring the character. Yet the underlying threat to Emilia is far less supernatural: the horror of maternity. The film begins seven years after Oskar’s death, and yet Emilia appears not to have had the chance to romantically move on. How could she, when Samuel foils all of her attempts at sexual satisfaction, from a late-night attempt to masturbate to a well-intentioned visit by the charming Robbie (Daniel Henshall)? Instead of finding pleasure, Emilia has to deal with Samuel beating up other children and taking him out of school, and she’s left to watch longingly as a couple makes out in a car or stay up late watching black-and-white romantic movies. 

Emilia loves her son, of course, but that doesn’t lessen maternity’s difficulty. She’s a mother, but still a grown woman, and one whose desire to take care of her son doesn’t cancel out her other emotions. The Babadook treats Emilia’s sexuality in classic progressive horror movie fashion, emphasizing her repression and framing the terror as springing from it. Kent highlights the societal taboo of maternal sexuality and fights against it with violent, wrenching, and unforgettable horror.

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By contrast, Bell takes a much different stance on mothers having sexual desires in The Boy. Unlike Emilia, Greta (Lauren Cohan) is not a biological mother. But as nanny to the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), even if their “son,” Brahms (the titular monster), appears to be a porcelain doll, Greta takes on a maternal role. As put off as she is by the thought of taking care of a toy as if it were a real child in the couple’s absence, strange occurrences throughout the house lead her to follow the ignored directions more closely.

Like Emilia, Greta has concerns and emotions beyond her childcare responsibilities. She takes the job with the Heelshires to escape an abusive ex, Cole (Ben Robson), and she’s soon enchanted by the dashing Malcolm (Rupert Evans), a grocery boy who also works for the couple. But where The Babadook acknowledges and encourages empathy with Emilia’s sexual desires, The Boy punishes Greta for her feelings without confronting with Kent’s frankness. The Boy first places itself within the reactionary camp by quickly terminating Greta’s attempt at a sexual encounter with Malcolm with a vicious disturbance by Brahms. Greta’s punishment continues at the beginning of the third act, where Cole shows up to threaten her with physical and emotional violence. The retribution gets more and more vicious as the movie comes to a close, with an animate Brahms revealing himself and attempting to sexually assault Greta under the guise of a goodnight kiss. Her desires beyond her maternal duties are greeted with a violent refusal of her right to be anything other than a chaste, motherly figure.

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As a result, The Boy epitomizes the conservative approach to horror identified by Wood, highlighting the progressive gender politics of The Babadook all the more by comparison. Both films deal with maternal sexuality: The Boy punishes it and rebukes mothers for caring about anything other than their children, and The Babadook acknowledges it as difficult to balance with childcare, but an inescapable part of motherhood nonetheless.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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