(Written by Martha S.)
Last week, we discuss in detail some of the broad ways that media handles grief and characters who are grieving, as well as how creators grieve through their work. The media we chose to assign for the episode all falls broadly under the umbrella of realistic fiction (Spontaneous perhaps has a touch of science fiction about it? Maybe if you stretch), and I want to address another genre that is saturated with grief and loss and the way people deal (or don’t deal) with those things: horror.
The easiest and most disingenuous way to describe horror, whether it’s in film or book form, is “something that causes fear.” I say this knowing that I myself have used that as shorthand, or as a way to distill the genre down to something classifiable (one of my job duties is purchasing and categorizing DVDs at the library that I work at, and when you only have seven genres on the shelf, you have to make some generalizations somewhere), but the reality is that while this is true, horror is much more multifaceted than that. What I want to talk about specifically is horror media driven by grief, and frequently also driven by guilt.
Frequently, in supernatural horror where the main character is haunted by a specter of some sort, that specter (whether it’s a ghost, monster, or other) is anchored to the protagonist by some kind of strong feeling or catastrophic event. Guilt is a powerful emotion, particularly when coupled with grief – say, over a loved one dying, or causing death either accidentally or purposefully (see: Dr. Cox’s breakdown in Scrubs). The protagonist is haunted, both literally and metaphorically, by the specter of their grief, until they confront their guilt and lay it to rest. Then, if the story has a happy ending, they can move on with their lives; if it does not, it may mean the protagonist is consumed (again, both literally and metaphorically) by their grief.
Horror stories can be cathartic to consume. I recommend this article by Aaron Orbey from the New Yorker on the subject, who speaks much more eloquently on using horror film as a way to exorcise one’s own feelings of loss than I ever could. Suffice to say, horror stories can provide us the same tools that all media dealing with grief can, with the added layer of being able to watch someone plagued by demonic horrors and say “at least I have it better than they do.”
The Babadook (2014 film directed by Jennifer Kent and starring Essie Davis)
Not just a gay icon, The Babadook is also a portrait of a woman suffering the extreme grief over the death of her husband, guilt at her survival, and guilt over the way this death has come between her and her son. The titular monster is the tremendous and insatiable embodiment of her grief, guilt, and rage at herself, and **spoilers** doesn’t totally go away at the end of the film. Rather than exorcising this demon completely, Amanda learns to live with it, which is the reality most of us face with our own feelings of grief – they never truly go away, they just become easier to deal with.
Hahaha OH HANNIBAL. There are a couple of different incarnations of the character I could talk about, but I’m going to focus on the tv series, since the way they play with expectations on dealing with grief is just absolutely fascinating. We learn early on that Hannibal Lecter had a sister, who died – he mentions her to Abigail in episode 1.04, Oeuf, when he is talking about wanting to rewind time and “put the teacup back together,” as it were. Lecter’s whole deal (cannibalism included) can be taken as him dealing with the death of his sister – except that he himself refuses to be distilled down to a childhood trauma, which is more closely examined in season 3.
Aside from being the main general destructive force in the show, Hannibal also causes a number of very personalized losses, which he then orchestrates the recovery of in some breathtaking feats of gaslighting and brainwashing (note: Hannibal is not a show about recovering from grief in a healthy manner). I desperately want to assign episodes of this show as homework, so I’m gonna stop there, but suffice to say, Will Graham’s eternal grief over his job, the loss of Abigail, and all the second-hand grief he takes upon himself is about 75% of the show (the rest is beautiful, cannibalistic food portraiture).
iZombie 3.10: Return of the Dead Guy (currently airing CW tv show created by Diane Ruggiero and Rob Thomas, and starring Rose McIver)
In case you’re unfamiliar with the premise of this delightful show, Rose McIver stars as Liv Moore, a former medical student-turned-medical examiner for the Seattle P.D. after a disastrous party ends with her being turned into a zombie. Now, she helps solve crimes by eating the brains of murder victims and seeing visions of their past. This particular episode is of note because the brain she eats causes her to hallucinate her dead ex-boyfriend, who she was forced to kill after he went into full-on zombie monster mode (which there’s no coming back from). Liv gets the chance to face the guilt she feels over pulling the trigger, while acknowledging that it was the only, and the right, thing to do.
On a macro level, the show deals with Liv coming to terms with the loss of her human life, and finding a way to move forward without the emotional touchstones she has relied on for that life (including her family and ex-fiance).
The Orphanage (2007 film directed by J.A. Bayona and starring Belen Rueda)
We’ve already talked about The Orphanage on our very first episode, but it’s worth bringing up again because of how strongly Laura is motivated by the grief of losing her son – and also how the specter of another woman’s grief sets the wheels turning on the story in the first place.
The Others (2001 film directed by Alejandro Amenabar and starring Nicole Kidman)
**THIS WHOLE PARAGRAPH IS SPOILERS** This film is a pretty delightful inversion of the “haunted by guilt” idea, in that Nicole Kidman is actually haunting herself – the reveal at the end that she and her children are dead because of her (she killed them in a maddened haze and then shot herself) throws the rest of the movie, where she believes they’re being haunted by an invasive presence, into much sharper relief. This is another story where coming to terms with one’s grief doesn’t make the specter go away, but simply allows the grieving individual to accommodate the grief in an (arguably?) healthier fashion. Kidman may not be able to lay herself to rest, but she can at least stop denying the tragedy happened, and move forward in her ghostly way.
Pet Sematary (1983 novel written by Stephen King)
This Stephen King novel was made into a film, but since I’ve never seen it I’m going to be talking about the original novel. While Pet Sematary is not my favorite of King’s work by an order of magnitude, it fits our conversation here to a tee: Louis Creed learns of a cemetery where the things buried in it come back to life. He buries his cat there, to find that the beings that come back are monstrous versions of themselves – this does not prevent him from trying the same thing with his two-year-old son, who spends the last third of the book terrorizing the Creed family and ultimately killing his mother, Rachel. This book provides a solid example of what happens when the protagonist is unable to overcome their grief, as Louis, despite all evidence pointing to the terrible outcome, tries the resurrection AGAIN with his wife – who, the ending implies, also comes back as a monstrous shadow of herself.
Supernatural, the early seasons
The core of this show is Dean and Sam running away from their feelings under the guise of enacting vengeance on the forces that have been taking away their loved ones. It’s hard to anchor an infinitely long-running show on this, so it does wander from time to time, but the truth of Supernatural is of two men that are terrible at accepting and moving on from their grief. For more specific examples, I recommend episodes 1.01 (Pilot), 2.01 (In My Time of Dying), 2.02 (Everybody Loves a Clown), and 2.20 (What Is and What Should Never Be).