13 February 2013

A Non-Review of Mama, and Some Further Thoughts on Horror

Spoilers ahoy in this post!

So Dave and I went to see Mama the weekend it came out. We had a great conversation about it afterward in which Dave elucidated a theory about ghost stories the main point of which I'm going to relate here.  He's an engineer, so structural concepts come pretty easily to him.

I'm not going to exactly review it here, except to say that it was visually great, and if visually great stuff amuses you, then you should see it. Jessica Chastain looked amazing, as did Handsome McCutiepants, the male lead (I know I should just Google it but to do that would freak out my ancient laptop and I'd never get back here to finish this post). I often find kid actors noxious, but the little girls were really terrific. The ghost looked great, as did her retro run down cabin in the woods. So yeah: Mama is very pretty.

Structurally it is flawed, albeit in interesting ways. So after we watched it we came to the conclusion that there's a problem with ghost stories, and that problem has in part to do with the lore of ghosts and in part with the narrative imperative to wrap things up in a tidy package at the end.

The lore of ghosts has to do with understanding them. There's this idea that you can solve a haunting if you can just get the ghost to go into the light, or figure out why they keep moving great grandma's brooch, or whatever. I'm not talking about actual hauntings here, of which there are many different kinds and different ways of dealing with them. I'm talking about predominant cultural notions.

Here's the thing though: if your ghost story falls under the purview of horror, and you at some point in the story reveal, for example, through elaborate and awesome looking dream sequences, why the ghost is so upset that it needs your babies (hint: you took away her baby, or someone did (or some nun did)), you drain all of the energy out of your plot. Then you no longer have a horror story: you've got a science problem. Give the ghost the brooch / the corpse of her baby / the more feral of your wolf children, and you'll solve the problem. (Child protective services might have a few questions about what happened to the more feral of your wolf children on that cliff that night, but that's a problem for a different story.)

In essentials, if you allow your horror story to devolve into a science problem, you're joining the ranks of Ghostbusters and Scooby Doo. Nothing wrong with that - horror comedy is built on a foundation of ghost-stories-as-science-problems. It's just if you want the story to remain a horror piece, maybe best to leave your characters haunted.

What haunts us? The missed connections, the unresolved puzzles, the things we said we'd do that we never did, the promises we broke, the lies we told, the secrets we hid? Or: the cruel things we said and did, the hurts we inflicted and never apologized for, the confrontations we failed to stage, the ways we rolled over and gave in? I can think of many things. Some of the better haunting stories I've read recently never resolve the haunting, and indeed, revolve around the utter failure of the main characters to engage with their ghosts in anything like an effective manner.

Discuss, preferably with examples. Or: write your own unresolved haunting story this week and let me know how it goes.