The Horrifying Face of the Domestic: How Horror Films Reflect the Concept of Domestic Bliss

(Warning: potentially triggering material of sexual assault and domestic violence ahead, also contains spoilers.)

Growing up in (yet another?) generation of failed marriages and deadbeat dads, millennials often reject traditional notions of domesticity. Even if we could afford to raise families—which many of us believe we can’t—we’re not entirely sure what the “point” is to this antiquated system or if the promises of such a life will truly be actualized. I always thought this was due to high divorce rates of recent decades but have been considering lately how domestic anxieties have been with us for a bit longer, manifesting, in particular, in the form of movies. Many classic films (think The Oman, Children of the Corn, The Exorcist) directly associate children with forces of evil, perhaps because their innocence leaves them vulnerable to such influences or, more directly, because children themselves are a destabilizing force in adult lives. I recently rewatched several of my favorites to analyze the domestic tensions found in each. They are as follows: 


1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Filmed during the disintegration of star Mia Farrow’s own marriage, Rosemary’s Baby highlights anxieties surrounding bodily agency and sexual assault within the context of matrimony. Rosemary, a young wife who has recently moved to a new neighborhood in New York City with her husband, doesn’t feel she can trust those around her. Her suspicions slowly mount until her husband conspires to have her raped by the devil, proving her intuition correct. This imagery is particularly pertinent due to the history of marital rape in American society, which wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states until 1993. However, director Roman Polanski himself has proposed a troubling theory: “For credibility's sake, I decided that there would have to be a loophole: the possibility that Rosemary's supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination.” This suggests a potentially dangerous explanation. Either Rosemary is misremembering the events of her assault in a way that afford embellishment (i.e., she was really raped but not by the devil) or she envisioned the entire encounter due to her overactive “imagination” and was never raped at all. This is particularly unsettling interpretation when we consider how frequently women aren’t believed when they are victims of such attacks. The film itself, however, remains open to interpretation beyond the director’s intent. In viewing the scene, it becomes apparent that the assault against Rosemary’s body represents the ways in which the men women marry often turn violent once the wedding is over and how this can, essentially, coerce women into the role of breeding machines rather than human beings with anatomical agency.


2. The Shining (1980): A little over a decade later would follow Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Not only does it share with Rosemary’s Baby its role as a film adaptation of an original novel but it similarly demonstrates the betrayal of family values that often presents itself as a relationship in decay. Specifically, The Shining deals with the isolation and domestic violence that false promises of marital and familial bliss fails to shield people from. The film follows a nuclear family consisting of mother Wendy Torrance, father Jack Torrance, and their child, Danny. Over the course of their time living in an abandoned hotel as Jack looks after the estate, he becomes increasingly mentally unstable and, eventually, violent. This can be seen as a statement on the ways in which marriage isolates people, particularly wives. While the Torrances are physically trapped far away from civilization, the couple is also socially isolated due to the their family arrangement. Neither seems to have a healthy support system outside of the family unit or even a particularly strong sense of self without the members of the family serving as reference points for their identities (i.e., mother/wife, father/husband). This proves particularly dangerous for Wendy when her relationship with her husband turns violent, as she has nowhere to go, no one to turn to, and she must tap into a previously unrealized source of inner fortitude to save herself and her son. In this way The Shining has a rather bleak interpretation of heterosexual matrimony, as peace is only achieved with death of the abuser. 


3. Possession (1981): My favorite movie on the list, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession serves as an account of the ways in which marriage can lead to a loss of identity, specifically in its use of doppelgangers. After the protagonist Anna reveals to her husband, Mark, that she is having an affair, she subsequently leaves him along with the greater family unit. Mark begins to investigate in order to exact his revenge on the man she has slept with and finds a number of strange phenomena associated with his once love. Eventually, the pair is replaced with uncanny doubles, at which point their originals are shot and killed, representing the way in which our identities are sacrificed for a new, coupled self within the context of marriage. The ending is particularly chilling, with the doppelganger Anna’s face placid and calm as the world descends into chaos around her. Our married selves, the film seems to claim, requires we completely and violently reject who we once were in exchange for a newer self that is indifferent to dysfunction and pain. The only character who doesn’t seem immune the unfolding mayhem is their child, who, during this final sequence, lays face down in the bathtub after chanting, “Don’t open [the door!] Don’t open! Don’t open!” His distress suggests that children are particularly perceptive to the unhealthy dynamics that can accompany marriage. 

It’s important to note that these movies express possibilities rather than inevitabilities. Not every hetereosexual marriage will include physical and/or sexual assault or a loss of identity (just as not every relationship will be heterosexual or married to begin with). Still, these worries are present for many individuals as they have been for decades. As we navigate the lived experiences of romantic relationships, it’s important to remain mindful of these anxieties in hopes that we cultivate mutually beneficial connections in which all parties involved are happy, healthy, and gratified. 

By: Alison McPherson

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