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Mommy Issues: ‘Bird Box,’ ‘Hereditary,’ ‘A Quiet Place,’ and the Year of Horror Movie Mothers

Sandra Bullock’s new dystopian horror-drama for Netflix is the latest in a trend about the essential and often horrifying nature of motherhood

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Bird Box begins loudly and in media res, with a close-up of Sandra Bullock’s face in stern admonishment: “Under no circumstance are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If I find that you have, I will hurt you. … If you look, you will die.” Only after this dire warning do we see that it’s being delivered to two young children, wide-eyed and silent, clutching stuffed animals. In juxtaposing the intense severity of Bullock’s words against the visible innocence of her audience, Danish director Susanne Bier’s new movie opens by throwing viewers into a world where motherhood isn’t characterized by softness and safety, but by violence and fear.

How is it that some of our scariest thoughts fixate on the smallest things? Consider, to start, the canon of horror films about the demented potential of babies, whether that baby is nascent (Prevenge, Baby Blood), nonhuman (Alien, The Fly), or simply an allegory for Satan (Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Within Her). These anxieties persist, of course, past babyhood, and are developed in subgenres ranging from films about creepy children (The Omen, The Ring, The Shining) to those about the more treacherous side of babysitting (Halloween, When a Stranger Calls). Children bring out some of our most primal fears—about survival, futurity, and our fundamental capacity to endure what might otherwise feel like an increasingly senseless world. So it’s perhaps no surprise that films frequently mobilize the darker genres of horror, sci-fi, and thriller to explore these fears. Indeed, some of the best horror films this year have continued to rehearse our trepidations about child-rearing, from the nightmare of losing a child in Ari Aster’s Hereditary to the sacrifices we make for our children in John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.

These more recent films not only examine our collective anxieties about children, however, but, more specifically, the anguishes surrounding motherhood. Aster has explained Hereditaryas a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare,” but the nightmare can be better understood in terms of the tragic paradoxes of being a mother. Hereditary traces the perversions of a maternal genealogy, in which daughters inherit their mothers’ baggage, even as mothers resent the beings they’ve willingly brought into this world. And while Krasinski describes A Quiet Place as a “metaphor for parenthood,” his film channels this metaphor primarily through the figure of the mother, played by Krasinski’s actual wife and baby-mama, Emily Blunt. One of the film’s most terrifying scenes features Blunt giving birth alone in a bathtub, as a sound-sensitive monster creeps up the stairs, ready to devour the slightest squeal or cry; its most triumphant comes at the end, when Blunt cocks a gun and looks over at her daughter right before the creatures hit again. Whereas the father becomes increasingly redundant in Hereditary, Krasinski’s father sacrifices himself in order to divert a monster away from his children. But it is telling that in both films, dad has to die for the family to survive.

Horror films have historically focused on the literal terrors of motherhood (think Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby from the ’60s) or pregnancy (see Carrie or Alien from the ’70s), but these contemporary iterations understand motherhood as the necessary premise for survival. In doing so, they also take more seriously the double-edged sword that is the death drive: not only the part that desires death (horror has that covered, duh), but the other part that strives for life. We need both impulses, explains Freud, to exist. And beyond the horror genre, some of the best movies this year in general have simply taken the very difficulties of contemporary survival as its primary concern (Annihilation, First Reformed, Minding the Gap).

Bird Box similarly examines the dual instincts of survival and death—love and destruction—through the central theme of motherhood. Based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel of the same name, Bird Box follows the trials of a pregnant woman, Malorie, as the world rapidly succumbs to an epidemic of suicides prompted by the appearance of supernatural entities that hover menacingly outdoors. While everyone around her keeps dying (the film begins with Malorie’s sister literally driving to her death), Malorie—already a reluctant single-mother-to-be—nonetheless does everything she can not only to deliver her child to term, but to keep that child alive.

Bird Box is the last Netflix Original film to air on the platform before the end of 2018 as part of its growing movie strategy. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Malorie, along with a studded cast that includes John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, and Sarah Paulson. Yet Bier’s movie ultimately seems less serious than Netflix’s more obvious prestige ventures such as Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping Roma or the Coen brothers’ Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Bier is herself a celebrated director (her In a Better World [2010] won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), but Bird Box frequently feels like a strange cousin to an M. Night Shyamalan project, rather than a serious push for distinction. It is in the ways in which the film’s pedigree comes up against its messy middlebrowness, however, that makes its meditation on motherhood all the more compelling and strange.

A postapocalyptic film about the supernatural, Bird Box sits generically somewhere between horror and sci-fi, though Bier herself has notably described it as “a thriller about motherhood.” It’s already been repeatedly compared to Krasinski’s film—A Quiet Place, but about the dangers of sight instead of sound. And though both films portray postapocalyptic landscapes under distinct sensory threats, the more useful comparison between the two might be how motherhood’s reproductive drive compels characters to continue living in what seems an otherwise untenable world. Whereas A Quiet Place protects from the dangerous outside by creating a cozy and prettified domestic space, however, Bird Box’s set design presents homes that are eerie and decrepit. This is partly called upon by Malerman’s plot, since the indoors need to be literally dark in order to shield from the horrors of the outdoors. But these spaces are also metaphysically dark, as its inhabitants face what the end of the world might look like with more pessimistic ambivalence.

The scariest moments in Bier’s film contrast the reproductive act of pregnancy against the impulse toward suicide. Bird Box’s catastrophic epidemic begins in Russia (Cuarón’s Children of Men similarly frames the origins of postapocalyptic sterility as originating from “abroad”), but when it suddenly hits the U.S., Malorie is just leaving the hospital from a scheduled OB-GYN appointment. She soon saves herself by bordering up in a dark house with a group of surviving misfits (in what feels like a callback to Night of the Living Dead), where she and another woman simultaneously give birth beside each other. The sound and fury of two pregnancies is already stressful enough in this scene, but is further heightened by the fact that an interloper is killing off the rest of the household during it. Supernatural entities not only compel people to kill themselves, but there is also a subset of murderous individuals who are both immune to the entities and eerily obsessed with children. The film never really explicates why or how they come to be, though the allegory is perhaps not hard to understand: What could be more unnecessarily fearful for a mother in a suicide-driven world than a leftover set of people intent on taking your child away?

When the other mother fails to survive the pregnancy, Malorie takes on both babies, and, with Rhodes playing her postapocalyptic partner, raises them—though, crucially, without sentiment. The two children are never given names, and are instead only referred to as “Boy” and “Girl.” When Bullock’s character criticizes Rhodes’s for telling Boy and Girl stories about playing in a grassy outdoors that can only be wishful fantasy under present conditions, he counters that children need to be able to have dreams, even if they won’t come true. Malorie, however, sees these stories not as dreams, but as lies: “They’re going to die if they listen to you.” While the family in A Quiet Place seeks to thrive, the one in Bird Box simply wants to survive.

In that opening scene, Malorie is preparing the children for a long and rocky canoe trip to what she hopes is a safe sanctuary—a trip that she undertakes for the children, but which might also be undermined by their inexperience. Bird Box alternates between the trip along the river and the “start” of the epidemic five years ago, until the latter narrative ultimately catches up with the former and completes it.

As such, the looping structure of Bird Box reproduces the cyclical nature of both motherhood and the horror genre, suggesting why the two are so often in dialogue. If motherhood’s anxieties are about the precariousness of reproduction, then the genre’s iterative nature—its love for sequels and remakes—capitalizes on this. If the horror of the psychopathic villain is that he might always return, then motherhood responds as the seemingly hopeless, oftentimes tragic attempt to continue living and caring against these odds. Bird Box is by no means a coherent film, yet its loose threads and jarring narrative logic seem fitting for the potential traumas of maternal responsibility. These are fascinating grounds from which to explore motherhood’s painful investment in reproductive futurity. Bird Box is about sheer and reluctant survival in the face of no future.

Jane Hu is a writer and PhD candidate living in Oakland.