Playing to win, playing to lose; child’s play, play fighting, and the parental middle ground

Given that my practice revolves around horror, it’s not unusual that I find myself asked for recommendations or reflections on recent horror films. More recently when this has happened, I’ve found myself sheepishly trying to explain that I haven’t had the stomach for much, instead gravitating towards what I term fluffy horror; the tried and true favourites, whose narratives pathways are well worn and whose tales end in triumph. During this time of emotional unwillingness to engage with my beloved genre other than in this seemingly shallow way, I lapsed back into an old habit, in which I skip entire parts of films, treating them like a choose-your-own-adventure novel wherein everything works out for the protagonist (read: the viewer).

The film to receive this treatment the most was 2017’s IT: Chapter 1, in part because it’s a fun film, and in part because in a prolonged bout of aimlessness I couldn’t be bothered to replace the DVD.  My positive feelings towards IT stem from multiple sources; the narrative structure is kinetic, fast paced, the visuals glorious, a roller-coaster ride in which jump scares balanced rather than dominated narrative. The audience in the cramped theatre in which I saw it jumped and squealed (no one more than the girl whose leg I accidentally grabbed while reaching for my phone during a particularly tense moment). My first taste of it was fun and it has yet to lose its flavour.

But further than fun, I found it to be a touching examination of children’s grief, both Bill’s as he remains steadfast in his search for Georgie, never quite believing that he’s gone, and the rest of the loser’s club as the navigate their friend’s grief, at times on the periphery, at times sucked into it. The scene where Pennywise-Georgie tells Bill he wants to go home was painful to watch, his uttering words Bill has no doubt hungered to hear, and Bill both breaks and doesn’t, admitting that he wants that “more than anything”, and yet firing a bolt through the head of Georgie’s doppelganger and not succumbing to fear in those terrible, too-long  moments when it seems he has killed him. As someone who experienced loss months into my teens, the way that IT dealt with death and grief resonated, and yet when I watched IT ad infinitum, these were the scenes that were removed. Georgie’s death. The scene where Bill’s dad finds the model of the sewer system and yells at him that Georgie is dead. False-Georgie pleading for Bill to take him home.

Pennywise-Georgie lies on the ground Bill puts a bolt through his head

Pennywise-Georgie lies on the ground Bill puts a bolt through his head

It seemed of course that my own recent motherhood was to blame for this reluctance to deal with child-death, and it would be simple to look at the inclusion of children in Stephen King’s narratives as a shock tactic. However, King’s treatment of children as true protagonists, existing in their own world as opposed to being features of an adult world throws this into question. In a reversal, adults become the background noise, the emotional or plot-driven collateral (such as the death of officer Bowers). The decision to centre his dark narratives on children was confusing, made more so that this decision seemed to trigger a desire to identify with the children that was nonetheless inhibited by my adultness.

My confusion at this aspect of King’s work in far from unique, and upon looking is something that author has addressed at length. The crux of it is this; that King’s stories are children’s stories. As adults we look at Kings stories and see children in peril, and believing that our job is to protect our children from peril, we experience fear. But children know they are in peril; they are implicitly aware of their vulnerability, of the monsters that would do them harm. Rather than introducing terrors and shattering childlike innocence, Kings narratives give children the chance to see themselves as victors. The type of child’s play on which King’s philosophy is based, which is often macabre or violent, is the mechanism by which children conquer fear, cocooned safely from reality. And seemingly, when we reach adulthood, it is a mechanism which we’ve outgrown, whose uses we’ve forgotten but whose tie to fear lingers. The point, however, remains; as adults, we are not at the centre of these stories.

As I was trying to reconcile my new appreciation for the function of King’s narratives with my unfamiliar position as someone other than the narrative’s primary demographic and my continued unwillingness to watch Georgie be dragged screaming and armless into the gutter, I came across Rikke Schubart’s text Mastering Fear and the theory of playfighting. Paraphrasing (and probably poorly given I’ve only read her ripper of a foreword having been unable to access the full text) she asserts that the function of horror’s narratives, particularly for women, is akin to playfighting. While she’s far from the first author to link horror and play, playfighting is a thing with sharper edges, edges upon which we risk catching ourselves upon through our engagement with the genre. There are of course rules of engagement, the ability to stop, to return to reality, to remind oneself that what one experienced was a fiction, a simulation, an emotional or perceptual shadow of what the real experience would entail. But there is also the competitive edge, the desire to win, so see a thing through, for endurance, muscle and grit to be rewarded. Most importantly, when we playfight, there are winners and there are losers, and we cannot find ourselves on the upside every time.

Child’s play is the mechanism by which children are allowed to see themselves as victors and conquerors; playfighting is the mechanism by which adults must come to terms with seeing themselves as losers. Child’s play emboldens children to march into the big scary world; playfighting forces us to consider our eventual departure. For women, playfighting is especially important. Through playfighting, we develop the capabilities to face a world against us, practicing again and again, rehearsing the actions which might liberate us from danger. More importantly, playfighting offers the vital chance to accept that we may do everything right and still fail. These are the sharp edges to which I refer; inherent in Schubart’s theory of horror consumption as playfighting is the understanding that it is not without risks.

For the viewer this risk manifests not in fleeting fear, but lasting emotional trauma. Even with all of the love I hold for the genre, I have seen or read things that have left me feeling sullied and avoided certain films for the fear that watching them would damage my psyche beyond what I am willing to endure.

The risk with horror is that this trauma is often unanticipated. Like a sharp edge, one might not see it before they’ve caught themselves on it, as was the case when I first saw The Witch (2015), a film that follows a devout Christian family beset by witchcraft. Early in the film the protagonist, Thomason, has her baby brother stolen from under her watch; the viewer is shown that the baby is killed by a witch, its body turned to mush to be used in a ritual. A new parent to one at this stage, this scene bathed me in a dread that didn’t quite disappear for the duration of the film, mirroring the irrational fears that plagued me each time I put my baby down to sleep. In my most absurd moment, I considered leaving the cinema to protect my baby, to assure myself of his wholeness. In a less absurd moment, I took my phone out to message his father to enquire about his wellbeing. In a sensible moment, I put the phone away.

The family at the centre of  The Witch

The family at the centre of The Witch

The Witch so beautifully fleshes out the fears and motivations of the beset family members, and yet at its centre is a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, constrained by her family’s ultra-piousness and the societal norms which she seems to have little option but to follow. So constrained is Thomason that we the viewer are treated to few moments in which we might surmise that she is unhappy with her lot in life There are fleeting moments, like her playing at being the witch that her younger sister accuses her of being in order to frighten the younger girl into line, or when she lashes out at her father’s deceit that has alienated her from her mother, but nothing that a contemporary audience would take to suggest Thomason would willingly pledge herself to the devil after the complete destruction of her family. It is only in the final few scenes that we see Thomason’s desire in full; when Black Phillip asks her if she would like to live deliciously –that Thomason had a concept of deliciousness, the constraints of her life obscuring how much she must have hungered for such a thing – and the final scene, in which she ventures nude into the forest, ascending into the night’s sky surrounded by the witches that beset her family, the camera focused close on her ecstatic face.

Thomason at the film’s conclusion

Thomason at the film’s conclusion

The Witch is foremost a tale of a young woman given agency in a world which would have otherwise afforded her none. From this perspective, it is a heady thing for the viewer to imagine themselves as Thomason, to have nothing and to be given everything, and she is easy to empathise with, having been falsely accused of being a witch as her family is picked off one by one. And it is not that her parents are entirely unsympathetic – if anything, her mother’s resentment of her situation and grief over her children is entirely understandable, as is her father’s steadfast yet futile attempts to protect and provide for his family and his awareness that it is he that has lead them into this hostile environment. Rather, it is that we are given more of Thomason, including the impression that she is faultless in the family’s misfortunes.

From this perspective, The Witch is a tale of a victor. Yet my own viewing experience was overshadowed by the death of that lovely baby, and an instinctual, visceral understanding of the parents’ grief. I flip between being Thomason, vindicated, imagining the first taste of pleasure I’ve had in my life and surveying the vast road ahead which offers more, more, more, and being that mother, who in a fit of sorrow attempts to murder her firstborn, thinking that in such an instance I might be glad to die than to live on in such a terrible circumstance. In IT, I am Bill, vanquisher of demons, avenging my brother, yet I am also that peripheral, sad mother or the grieving father for whom his remaining child’s hope is a special kind of pain.

To watch stories of children in horror as a parent is to occupy dual states of viewership. The affective potency of such narratives is it is the ability of the subgenre to inspire in its audiences an uneasy contradiction in identification. The dread inspired by such narratives is two-fold; it is the dread of losing, and the dread of losing something precious. As children, we wish to slay the beast; as parents, we hope that our children won’t need to take that risk, that we might shoulder it for them or engineer a world without danger. When we watch children march into battle, as parents we brace to lose, knowing that it is not merely about our own life or death, that there are circumstances under which survival becomes a failing.

And yet it is not just that such narratives serve a new and different function to adult audiences, it is that the ghost of their initial, oft intended function lingers. It is all too easy to look at horror’s narratives as primarily serving an adult audience, and simpler still to confine oneself to narratives built around and derived from the adult experience. However, there is richness to be explored in alien terrain, particularly when that terrain is one we once knew intimately, but have forgotten, uncanny rather than alien. Flickering between adult understanding and the ghostly memories of learning to win ourselves creates an unease as fear, necessity, reluctance, and bravery battle, as one fears for one’s life and the quality of it if it were to continue. Parents were all children. It can be confusing to know which one we’re supposed to be when both roles are available.

We Suffer From Inward Growth 3 , photograph by Rosina Possingham

We Suffer From Inward Growth 3, photograph by Rosina Possingham

As my work addresses my own experience of motherhood more and more, and as I grapple with the fact that I am a mother, but I am so many other things, the power and potential of offering multiple states of viewership is especially relevant. Perhaps this is what I was working through when I made ‘We Suffer From Inward Growth’, a series that cast me as the gargantuan mother, the children that bind her and the children she’s bound to herself. Parenthood has made these states contradictory; I don’t know how to reconcile me as child with me as mother, any more than I can reconcile my role as nurturer with my selfishness or the overwhelming love I feel with my rage or my melancholy. Perhaps it is more important not to reconcile these states, and to rather let them fight it out through my viewers, the unstable ground more compelling than a singular, cohesive point of view. Perhaps there are times when we need to learn to win, and other times when we need to learn to lose, just as we need space to be nurturing and loving and space to rage and howl and be self-interested. More and more I believe that as humans we need that uneven terrain to teach us to balance ourselves, that we must not lose the shadows of what we were before, and I am glad for the narratives that allow parents to be children, especially when the stakes are so high.