Note: This article contains spoilers for The Girl Next Door (2007), The Woman (2011), Martyrs (2008), Eden Lake (2008) and Funny Games (1997) and (2007).
The recent fallout from the reveals of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse and further uncovering of unacceptable behaviour in the #metoo and #timesup movements has brought the concept of complicity into every day conversation. Some critics of those speaking out now have maintained that the silence of those abused or with a knowledge of abuse have become complicit within those crimes, allowing the cycle to repeat and leave more young men and women open to the advances of those who choose to leverage their power in the most despicable ways. This discussion is not helpful and certainly, those who further it place more blame with those who were silent than those who carried out the abuse. So, what does this have to do with a small-time horror blog? Well, the fact is that horror is likely the best genre for exploring these themes.
I’d first like to start with two films which are the combined works of director Lucky McKee and recently-departed writer, Jack Ketchum. The Girl Next Door and The Woman, both explore the relationships between the victims of abuse, the perpetrators of it and additionally, those who fall into both categories. Explanation and spoilers to follow.
The Girl Next Door is based, primarily, on the systemic torture and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens in the 1960s. Likens was subjected to the most horrific abuse when taken in by a family friend. The details of the case are too horrific to list here, but there are many confounding elements of the case. First, that Likens arrived with a sister who, while did not have an easy time was certainly not victimised in the same manner as Sylvia, and second, that children from the surrounding area were seemingly invited to enact their own methods of torture on the girl. The film is bookended by the now-adult male who was originally aware of the abuse recalling that his last action was to put a stop to it. In his words: “It’s what you do last that really counts”. Ketchum said that his decision to follow the story through David, rather than Meg, the victim, is because the original case it was based on contained acts he would rather avoid writing or representing.
The Woman first offers a family who are ruled through fear by the father. He is a tyrant who is regularly assaulting both his wife and older daughter. His appetite for abuse increases when he finds and captures a feral woman and seeks to ‘civilise’ her. In keeping her chained up he creates the opportunity for his son to also become an abuser. The mother and daughter are suddenly no longer the focus of his abuse. The daughter becomes increasingly uncomfortable with their situation and frees the Woman, resulting in her taking revenge against the family. There is an uncomfortable moment in which the Woman sees the mother and attacks her as violently as she has the men who have directly victimised her. It is easy to see the mother as another victim, but crucially, she has allowed the abuse to be enacted not only on herself, but two young daughters and contributed to her son becoming a monster too. The fact that the Woman takes the young girls away marks them as the victims. The death of Belle is a gory gut-punch, but one which is used to display the Woman’s attitude to what has happened to her.
Another film which deals with complicity is Martyrs. At first, the scenes in which Lucie hunts down members of the family she believes are responsible for her imprisonment and torture are shocking, particularly her violence against the younger figures. However, as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that the domestic kitchen space in which the family’s final fatal breakfast is cooked in has also been a space in which a crude paste has been made in order to keep the cult’s victims alive for the ongoing experiments. This contrast of domestic space and prison conditions is stark and operates as an observation of the dark secrets in seemingly normal spaces.
Similarly, the end of Eden Lake escalates the unpleasantness of the actions of the youths involved in the attacks by revealing that their parents are complicit with their crimes and will go to any lengths to protect their children. Snowtown – a film I personally found too grim to watch to the end also deals with the impact that an adult can have on urging youth to commit crimes. In these films, it is easy to see the children as products of an abusive environment, rather than being evil themselves.
Only in some of these are the complicit figures outright villains. More commonly, they go along with or stay silent out of fear, or a lack of power. Within these films they are punished – often with violence, but also through being haunted by their lack of action. Guilt stemming from a lack of intervention is something which permeates a great deal of ghost-based horror, thanks to an ability of the subgenre to represent guilt as something tangible and more importantly, dangerous.
There’s also a note on the complicity of voyeurism which horror fans in particular are accused of. Horror films rely on close-up depictions of torture and death but through the repetition of tropes which turn some elements of horror into comedy and poorly-written characters which have audiences hungry for their gruesome screen deaths horror can be a jovial experience. Haneke’s Funny Games points the finger directly at the audience for the family’s ordeal, positing that the violence has to take place for them to be interested.
There is a notable difference in tone from these films and those slashers which delight in gory set-pieces with no real consequences. They do away with overt horror villains, quipping their way through the bloodshed and focus on the far more human horror at the heart of it. The fact that The Girl Next Door is based on a horrific crime in which people knew about what a young girl was going through and did nothing, or even joined in is horrific because it is not a one-off. Numerous cases have been discovered where people knew that someone was being tortured and did nothing.
The Kitty Genovese murder is perhaps more well-known for the actions of bystanders than that of the murderer. Their inaction appeared to show a disconnect between people and spawned numerous psychological theories about how and why people could hear someone being murdered and not intervene. We now know that the reporting of that night was not accurate and in fact, there were numerous attempts to get help, but the myth of complicity through silence is a powerful and enduring one.
There is a quote which has always stuck with me: no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. I’ve heard it attributed to a few philosophers and writers, but mainly to poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec. The quote appears very relevant to his experience in which he was imprisoned in a German work camp. The crimes committed during Nazi occupations and the ability of ‘normal’ citizens to at best, ignore and at worst, join in the abuses has long been of interest and horror to those who study it. Horror films reflect these tensions and fear of humans better than any other genre, even if they are often made allegorical. Horror, through its ability to turn feelings into monsters offers a way of working through these complicated conditions. Horror also allows us to offer heroes who are able to break free of the ‘avalanche’ and offer genuine change.
As an extension of this, consumers and producers of horror media are some of the most politically outspoken and charitable groups. Jen and Sylvia Soska’s annual blood drive for Women in Horror Month emphasises the importance of giving blood to assist those in need and recently, they have spoken out about abuses taking place within stage schools. Adam Green actively supports dog rescue projects, enlisting more famous names and faces from the genre for marathon podcast sessions to raise money. Activism and social awareness is also present on-screen, perhaps most recently seen in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which combines a hefty social and political message with a hugely entertaining film.
Far from reducing empathy and passivity, it would appear that the messages within horror galvanise and make people think about their position in the world. While some media sources are keen to bring up that horror trivialises and makes entertainment out of violence, it fails to realise the films which focus on the consequences of violence. This is not to say, however, that I’m being critical of the more slapstick, no-consequences violence of lighter horror fair, as it clearly has its place. What is essential, is that even while the wider media refuses to, the impassioned and informed responses of horror viewers clearly mark the difference. Horror consumers and producers are anything but complicit.