The Loved Ones: Re-victimization in Horror Films
While I was watching The Loved Ones tonight, a question kept nagging at me: why do so many horror movies begin with a hero or heroine who is already broken in some way? Why take a person who has already been traumatized and subject him/her to even more terror? Without a good reason, this trope just seems mean-spirited on the part of the filmmakers.
Brent, the main character in the Australian flick The Loved Ones, is a teenaged boy who accidentally caused his father’s death six months earlier in a car wreck. He struggles with his guilt over the tragedy, isolating himself, practicing self-harm, and only half-heartedly taking solace in trysts with his sympathetic girlfriend. Then, he is kidnapped and tortured by Lola, a quiet and obsessive classmate who he had rejected when she asked him to the school dance, accompanied by her equally deranged father.
Because horror movies often have a moral component, I found myself asking, What did he do to deserve all of this? Brent was polite when he said he couldn’t go to the dance with her. And we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with Lola. There’s no implication that she is crazy because she has been victimized in some way — she appears to be pure evil. I know I probably shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions — not everything has to have a moral — but horror flicks so often do that I’ve learned to seek it out. When bad things happen in real life, they don’t always happen for a reason. Life is chaotic and unpredictable; tragedy is often unexplained. But no matter how much a filmmaker might try to mimic the unexplained nature of reality, a plot point is still a creative choice with an underlying intention. Bad things often happen to characters because they have done something to “deserve” it, whether it’s being unchaste, unkind, or arrogant. We’ve been conditioned to expect this kind of punishment in horror movies.
So what to make of the relatively innocent character who is victimized once (prior to the film’s timeline) and then re-traumatized in the course of events?
In certain contexts, it makes sense. Most protagonists of ghost stories are already haunted by loss and grief, making them more susceptible to communion with the spirit world. In revenge movies, prior trauma can provide the characters with a partial catalyst for their vengeance. In films that deal with the supernatural or conspiracies, survivors have to deal with being discredited, dismissed, and further alienated because of their grief — other people believe that they are simply paranoid as a result of past experiences, and therefore unreliable, the boy who cried wolf.
But then there are the cases where the prior trauma doesn’t appear to have an immediate purpose, either as an origin story, catalyst, or cause for punishment. The tragedy just serves to make the survivor even more of a victim. I’m thinking of Sidney from the Scream series (murdered mother) and Sara from The Descent (husband and child died in a car wreck, best friend was having an affair with her husband) and it seems like the usual moral principle of “punishment” doesn’t apply anymore. Ghost Face starts slashing and cave monsters attack and it seems like the whole universe is ganging up on these poor women for no real reason. These two examples suggest that recovering from prior trauma gives the heroines greater strength to face the current tribulations. When Sara is nearly trapped in a collapsing tunnel, her friend tells her, “The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened,” meaning, rock slides and cannibalistic creatures are a breeze compared to the death of a child. Sara taps into a reserve of hidden strength and escapes certain death. Sidney, too, eventually finds empowerment, refusing to be made a victim once again.
Brent’s situation in The Loved Ones is slightly different. He was the driver in the wreck that killed his father. Although it was an accident, he naturally feels guilty. But neither the accident nor his guilt have anything to do with the nightmarish situation he currently finds himself in: Lola seeks revenge for an unrelated slight; Brent does not use the memory of his father as a talisman for staying alive; his abduction did not happen as the result of poor decision-making.
I worried for awhile that the movie was going to pull a bait-and-switch: that Lola, her father, and their sadistic games were a figment of Brent’s guilty conscience, or a manifestation of his personal demons (I was relieved when things did not go this way). He doesn’t have much dialogue after the torture begins, but I wondered if ever he felt like he deserved what was happening. Maybe he felt that way at first — the film doesn’t indicate — but maybe the pain he suffers helps him rediscover his will to live, despite everything. Fortunately, the movie never answers the question of why, beyond “Lola is a crazy bitch.” That still doesn’t explain why he had to suffer to loss of his father — does it just make him a more sympathetic character? Does it make his suffering more profound in some way?
I don’t know. But I thought The Loved Ones was an interesting, well-crafted movie that managed to shock me and make me squirm. Does anyone have any thoughts on the issue?