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.


Andrew Leon said...

I'll have to think about it. I don't think I have any.

However, my wife and I were just talking recently about how much Sixth Sense influenced pop culture with that whole ghost thing.

mooderino said...

I've always wondered about the small girl ghost (often with hair in eyes). I'm no ghostbuster, but I'm pretty sure I could take someone under 3 foot.

Moody Writing

Spanj said...

That's definitely some food for thought. I have written a non-resolved ghost story - 'The Vincent Orphanage' in The Mirador Fantasmagoria anthology.

But I agree, a lot of horror works best when it's left unresolved.

Folly Blaine said...

My problem with Mama was that there was no subtlety--the scenes unfolded too "on the nose," like someone had made a checklist of scenes they thought should be included in a horror movie, without actually liking the genre. (Well, the flashback's done. Wouldn't want the audience to have to figure out anything by themselves. Wait, we need to put something scary in. Let's have a dark shape jump out at the viewer all-of-a-sudden. Oh, but let's add some moral ambiguity around the youngest child disappearing, so it'll give the appearance of depth.) After the first few scenes I was rooting for the ghost.

I had really wanted to like this movie, too.

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Andrew: I think the whole soft, squishy, feel-good ghost thing started, arguably, with the Sixth Sense. Great film, but a bit of a death knell for ghosts (har har har). J-Horror somewhat revived them (har) for a while.

@Mood: It's said that a ten pound monkey is a match for a two hundred pound man. I would watch out for issues of proportional strength when it comes to dealing with any hairy ghosts.

@Angeline: Woot for non-resolved ghosts! That anthology is getting some great reviews. Good times!

@Folly: Yes indeed. I found the plotting pretty mushy, too, scene after scene set in the house after nightfall. Some wonderful visuals, great moments, but yikes. I was really thrown off by the tone of the ending: the whole disappearing feral child transforming into beautiful butterflies / moths / whatever? I felt as though they were trying to pull off a last minute Pan's Labyrinth or something. It didn't work, but figuring out the reasons why provided some good fodder for conversation for me and Dave, so there's that.

Agreed, totally, there was some stealth and not-so-stealth genre sabotage going on here. The original short was most definitely horror. The film was something else.

Folly Blaine said...

Elizabeth: I love that term, genre sabotage. Sums it up perfectly.

Catherine Stine said...

Love ghost stories that blend with science-y stuff, so I'm all for blends.

Briane said...

So I popped in over here after you checked out my poem and I loved this post.

I write a lot of horror stories. I've never thought of it the way you set it out here but your point makes a lot of sense. A whole lot of sense.

I haven't seen Mama but a lot of movies are structured like the point you make. The ones that I liked don't seem to be. "The Ring' springs to mind: solving the reason why Samara (I think that was her name?) Does those things didn't help them escaoe the curse. And "The Woman In Black" with Harry Potter was the same way.

So I think you're on to something. Looking forward to reading those A to Z posts!