‘Mama,’ Creepy Kids, and Six Degrees of ‘Humanae Vitae’

I'm too sexy for my encyclical.

I’m too sexy for my encyclical.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued what has become one of the more controversial encyclicals in recent memory. In contrast to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions, which had both been gradually inching closer toward a full embrace of contraception, Humanae Vitae reaffirmed tradition in condemning any and all use of aritificial contraception as sinful. It was a teaching so out-of-step with contemporary culture that it inspired open dissent from both clergy and laity, and even now — more than 40 years later — the encyclical’s teachings are far from popular among self-identified Catholics.

It’s a position that has come to light yet again recently, as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act — an act which I’ve by and large been supportive of — has come under scrutiny, in part for a provision that requires all employers but the most religion-y to provide their employees with healthcare that will pay for contraception. It’s a reality that has forced me to think long and hard, not only about what religious freedom means but also why one branch of my faith can be so opposed to certain substances that they’ll risk millions in fines just to avoid dirtying their hands with them.

Being raised decidedly Protestant, I spent many years completely unable to fathom how a church could take a position so legalistic and obsessive about externals. The more I think about the teaching, though, the more I understand it. I still regard the Catholic position on birth control to be a tad on the Pharisaical side, in that it adds unnecessarily to the law of Scripture, but in many ways I’ve come around to understanding and appreciating the position. If humankind is made in the image of God, then its natural and appropriate end is the creation of life. If we treat this reality as something to be avoided, our values are confused at best.

Oh, the Humanae-ty.

Oh, the Humanae-ty.

There’s a practical side to this too, though, which is that creation of offspring is necessary for the survival and progress of humankind. While there is probably something to be said for worries about overpopulation, plenty of countries are currently facing underpopulation scares as their citizenry grows lopsided, with a huge retired sector that cannot possibly be supported by the dwindling workforce. (Japan, for instance, is already there, and its economy has all but ground to a halt; China, due to strictly enforced reproduction limits, is on the cusp of this situation.) In other words — while there are certainly some who are not called to childbearing — there is no denying that failing to at least replace ourselves is in some way shirking our duty to current and future generations.

That is to say, the society that fails to bear children creates no future.

That doesn’t (necessarily) mean that contraception is the problem in and of itself — as Pope Paul seemed to imply with his encyclical — but he was no doubt remarkably insightful in his regarding of it as symptomatic of a culture that somehow held the sacred call to create new life in contempt. There are certainly those who will disagree, but evidence suggests that ours is, in general, a culture that both hates and fears its own children.

I could spend weeks discussing all the evidence for this, but there are few better indicators of a culture’s attitudes than its popular culture, and there are few better indicators of its fears than the horror films it produces. The slasher genre reflects anxiety over teenage sexuality; the torture porn genre reflects rampant guilt over our own abuses of human rights. And I think it speaks volumes that we have an entire subgenre of horror flicks devoted to creepy kids.

The Creepy Child, in fact, is such a cliché that it has its own TV Tropes page. It’s an archetype that goes back at least to films like The Bad Seed (1956) and Village of the Damned (1960), but it’s hardly a surprise that Hollywood began piling them on in earnest right around the time that the Sexual Revolution was getting off the ground. Rosemary’s Baby was released the same year as Humanae Vitae, and was quickly followed by other high-profile Creepy Kid films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).

Those are only the best-known of the set, and the overuse of creepy kids as a trope has hardly slowed in recent years. The Ring, Dark Water, and The Orphanage are some of the better recent examples. (Even Scott Derrickson’s recent picture Sinister — which was both simultaneously very scary and kinda stupid — traded far too heavily on the creepy kid cliché. This was particularly frustrating, since Derrickson is both a committed Christian and a much better screenwriter than Sinister would suggest. Sigh. That guy needs to make another movie with Laura Linney. Amirite, folks? Anyway.)

Mama_15All this, though, is what makes Guillermo del Toro’s Mama such a surprising and refreshing film.

If you’ve only seen the trailer for Mama, that assessment may surprise you. Whoever cut the thing together knows what modern horror audiences want: creepy kids, and lots of ’em. And the film itself does make use of that particular cliché for the first twenty minutes or so, until turning it on its head and making its two young, creepy girls into its enigmatic protagonists rather than its villains. The true evils in the film are selfish parents, of which there are several — some alive and some dead, but all of whom put their own aspirations above the needs of the children placed in their charge.

The film opens with a long sequence about a father who, distraught over the ’08 stock market disaster, murders his wife and attempts to do the same to his two daughters before being killed himself by a mysterious entity (eventually revealed to be the title character). It then jumps forward to the present day, when the two girls, now living ferally, are rediscovered. The film gets a bit of mileage out of showing them both slinking through shadows in weird contortions, covered in mud and growling at perceived threats, but it trades in most of the cheap, easy scares after the girls become adopted by their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).

From this point on, its angle remains thoroughly sympathetic to the girls, who like many of the children our culture produces, are without any “real” parents, and are pulled every which way by the bumbling adults who think they know what’s best for them. There’s a psychologist who treats them as his latest project; an aunt willing to go to court over their custody; and the ghostly entity who raised them in the woods but is unable to let go.

Creepy kids, bein' creepy

Creepy kids, bein’ creepy

Into that mix is thrown Luke’s live-in girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, currently up for an Oscar for her performance in Zero Dark Thirty), who is stuck raising the girls herself when a ghost attack leaves Luke in a coma. Like our culture at large — always in pursuit of sexual gratification but terrified of sexuality’s consequences — Annabel seems trapped in perpetual adolescence. Her clothing is all thoroughly Hot Topic-approved, and she has no higher aspirations than to play bass in a mediocre rock band. If that’s not on-the-nose enough for you, her very first scene is a shot of her sitting in the bathroom, celebrating over a negative home pregnancy test.

So it’s not exactly what most people call “subtle” — and certainly, if it weren’t buried within a horror movie about a screaming ghost corpse who never wastes an opportunity for a cheesy jump scare, it would come off as cloying and sentimental. However, as always, the fact that Mama is a work of speculative fiction allows it to poke and prod at sensitive cultural realities in a way that would be unacceptable for a more serious dramatic work. And Chastain pours herself into the role, making the character wholly sympathetic from beginning to end. It is hard not to empathize with Annabel’s resistance to change — and yet it is a soul-lifting experience when she does.

Hands-down the best moment in the film. No lie.

Hands-down the best moment in the film. No lie.

And yes, she does change. Annabel turns out to be the film’s true main character (which I guess is no surprise, since Chastain’s is the name on the poster), and she slowly warms up to her newfound role of surrogate motherhood. In early scenes, she’s nothing but awkward with the girls, telling other characters “They hate me”; but as she and they are forced to share life and are forced to confront a common enemy, they begin to bond.

It’s fitting, I think, that no real reason is given for her eventual embrace of the two girls (an embrace that compels her to nearly give her life for them in the film’s climax). After all, can any of us give reasons for loving the people we do? Perhaps being human together and facing the same challenges is enough. Perhaps we seek to protect and nurture one another because that is simply what we were created to do. Perhaps we love because He first loved us.

There’s a scene toward the beginning of Mama, and it turns out to be perhaps the most insightful bit of the film. Annabel is talking to a friend — one who only has a couple of lines in the film — and muses on the fact that she’s been suddenly thrust into adoptive motherhood. Her friend encourages her to leave Luke rather than accept the daunting, new responsibilities. “You didn’t sign up for this,” she tells her.

And, of course, it’s true. Annabel didn’t sign up for adulthood, but neither did any of the rest of us. We were all thrust, quite unwillingly, into the joy and the burdens of physical and mental maturity — but that fact does nothing to diminish its reality. In truth, all people come into this world “feral,” and if we do nothing to raise them out of that condition, we have no future. The burden to create that future is everyone’s to bear, and fighting against it — as the title character in Mama does — leads to nothing but ruin.

Clearly, this film is the epitome of subtlety.

Clearly, this film is the epitome of subtlety.

The ending of Mama is both logical and frustrating, because neither good nor evil really “wins.” Annabel’s selfless love manages to save one girl’s life, but the profoundly egoistic love of the ghostly Mama finally destroys the other. It’s especially heartbreaking, since the younger of the two girls willingly follows Mama quite literally over the edge of a cliff, on the mistaken belief that Mama has her best interests in mind. It’s an image all too familiar to those of us who live in a world where the interests of the weak are routinely sacrificed to the god of the strong’s personal fulfillment, and it’s a warning we would all do well to heed.

We didn’t sign up for any of this. But what we do with it is of infinite importance.

8 thoughts on “‘Mama,’ Creepy Kids, and Six Degrees of ‘Humanae Vitae’

  1. Pingback: Kermit Gosnell’s House of Horrors: Instead of Giving Up on Life, I Thought I’d Try Writing About It | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  2. Pingback: I am an Ass, part II: The Sign of the Cross | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  3. Pingback: Modesty: Go Ahead and Get Naked, or Better Yet, Don’t | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  4. Pingback: Toward a Progressive Pro-Life Ethic | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  5. Pingback: A Brief and Somewhat Unfocused Rant About the Hobby Lobby Case | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  6. I’ve been surfing on-line more than three hours nowadays, yet I
    never found any fascinating article like yours.
    It’s lovely worth enough for me. Personally, if all webmasters
    and bloggers made excellent content material as you did, the internet
    will likely be much more useful than ever before.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s