I’ll let you in on a little secret: I love monsters. If you’ve never read my blog, that may indeed be a secret to you. If you’ve read a few articles already, I’m stating that which is laughably obvious. I’m a huge monster fan, in their varied manifestations, and I’m especially fond of figures like the mad monster, or, the entity under examination today, the monster mom. Yesterday, I wrote a brief analysis of Insidious, and before delving into an examination of what the film says about things like the existence of other worlds and the specter, I simply defended the film’s merit. Many detractors of contemporary horror films slander them for being “formulaic,” but if I’m looking really closely, I find much modern horror incredibly creative and interesting, and fueled by a powerful amalgam of writing, acting, directing, and producing talent. I would like to, by and large, stand by that defense today, but I’m going to focus on discussing one thing a bit more specifically, I think, instead of writing a defense of the second film’s merit and then analyzing a sampling of elements. So, if you’ve not guessed it, today I’ll be focusing on the ghostly villains in Chapter 2 of Insidious – on Parker Crane, and more importantly, on his Monster mom (and what said Monster Mom indicates about gender anxieties in contemporary culture). Woo-hoo! Let’s get started.
I’ll start by contrasting the original Insidious with its second counterpart. In the original Insidious, we encounter a massive garden variety of spirits and specters all vying for a space in the young, astral-projecting Dalton’s body. We’re not given in-depth information on any of the film’s villains; instead, the writers excavate the story details of the general situation they’ve established for the film: young boy travels out of body, gets stuck in other world, meets with a variety of spirits who want to be him. In excavating said details (In On Writing, Stephen King says digging up the details of a story situation you’ve created is like uncovering a fossil) they create a really intriguing, scary film that may face criticism, but that as far as I know did well in the box office and has spawned what is now a relatively respected horror franchise (although frequently criticized, too, as I discuss in my previous post).
Well, lucky us, the audience: In the second chapter of Insidious, we get to meet two malevolent specters who are following the Lambert family around and exacting their viciousness and insidiousness. One is a man dressed, in death, like an old woman in a black wedding dress, because in life he used to dress like that to kill his victims. The other is the old man’s mother, who both wants him to be a girl and forces him to be a girl –to call himself a female name, to play with a dollhouse, to wear blonde hair and pig tails. This turn of events is fortuitous, in part because we’ve met the old woman in black before (in the first film of the series) so we undoubtedly want to know more about her. We are, of course, surprised, when she turns out to be a man dressed as a woman. I would argue that she actually becomes a little less scary, to me, at this point; horror movies love a good old lady, and old lady killers are the damn scariest. When we learn that Parker Crane is just another man, dressed as a woman, who kills his victims, he becomes less scary.
And I think it’s important to acknowledge that Parker Crane is a man dressed as a woman, and not a woman. This is because Parker Crane is not transgendered. If Parker Crane wanted to be a woman, I would call him “her” and regard him as such. But, he’s always been forced to “be a girl” by his mom, and the film emphasizes that the old lady costume is only a disguise. He’s not like Buffalo Bill, in Silence of the Lambs, who thinks he wants to be a woman (though Hannibal Lecter tells us that even Buffalo Bill doesn’t really want to be transgendered, he only thinks he is). This could be, potentially, a confusing part of the film if you don’t watch closely enough, especially in the wake of a lot of contemporary debate. This film is making no negative statement about transgendered individuals, I would argue; it’s not an unfavorable depiction of a transgender person, because it doesn’t depict a transgender person. But I think it is doing something important with gender, and that’s what I’d like to talk about more.
First, let’s be clear that Parker’s mom is the mad monster in this film. To emphasize her mad monstrosity, the film shows her frequently engaged in the sort of violence that might be typical of the mad monster: in flashbacks, she slaps her son during childhood, she’s always shouting loudly, her mouth frozen in a sort of giant “O,” and her booming, angry voice inspires terror in the audience, and in Parker, who’s always warning people to be quiet and go away so she doesn’t make him kill them. On that note, what this film highlights with a sort of blatant certainty is that the monster mom is even more dangerous than most mad monsters. Her act of violence is not just the killing of vulnerable human bodies (I use theorist Judith Butler’s points about bodily vulnerability to form this definition of the typical mad monster); she commits violence by making her son, a child, kill vulnerable human bodies. This makes her both a murderer, and someone who’s created a murderer, who provokes a murderer’s actions. It also makes her someone who’s forcing a child, not just a person, but a child, to commit a variety of killings. Finally, in forcing Parker to dress and act like a girl, she’s committing another sort of violence against her son. To that end, Parker Crane’s mom – the mad monster – is capable of a variety of types of violence, both literal and metaphorical. While the mad monster is sometimes a near-psychotic killer, the monster mom encompasses a wider range of violence done against different individuals – and these different individuals almost always include her children. The monster mom’s violence makes her like a metaphorical octopus, whose violent tentacles spread everywhere and in almost every direction. She is Ursula, the sea witch, without the literal body of a squid, but as ruthless, nevertheless, and perhaps in some ways more far-reaching.
And the fact that the monster mom forces her child into a certain gender, against his choosing, may say a lot about the film’s stance on gender roles. I don’t think this is a film that’s uncomfortable with individuals who change genders –not at all. What the monster mom in this film shows us –at least in part—is that this film is uncomfortable with the individuals who force people into certain gender roles against their will. And this most often happens with transgendered persons who want to switch genders, but aren’t acknowledged by other individuals as obtaining a new gender identity. This is a film, then, that—to the extent it talks about gender—subtly condemns the violence done to another individual when he or she is forced into any gender role that isn’t the gender of that individual’s choosing. Making a person “be” the gender you want him or her to be, perform the gender you want him or her to perform, instead of letting an individual choose their own gender, is an act of monstrosity, in this film. This statement may be problematized by the fact that Parker was, presumably, born a boy, and Parker wants to stay a boy. Certainly, some of the mom’s monstrous heft comes from wanting to change the gender of her child against his or her will. Still, I think the film’s primary anxiety is about an unrealistically strong amount of parental control in issues of gender, as opposed to individuals willingly changing gender in the story –the latter of which never really happens, if one looks closely at the narrative.
Finally, I think this film, and the monster mom in it, shows some signs of anxiety about our culture’s obsession with gender binaries, to begin with. When a group of protagonists enter the now-dead Parker’s house and go into his bedroom, they see an ornate, overly large dollhouse in the room and the ghost of Parker, the child, dressed as a little girl from his elaborate dress to his blonde pigtails, sitting on the bed, warning the protagonists: “If she sees you, she’ll make me kill you.” Parker’s mom – the monster –is thus obsessed not just with having a little girl, but with highly stereotyped, antiquated notions of femininity, and it is that very obsession that contributes, in large part, to her monstrosity. Couple the dollhouse and young Parker’s attire with the mother’s action when Parker draws a picture for his mom and write’s the name “Parker” underneath it; she slaps him violently and shouts at him, true to her usual monstrous behavior. But the interesting element of this scene is that Parker is a name that works for both boys and girls in our culture, so her desire to re-name Parker, to give her son a strictly feminine name, shows her own discomfort with gender ambiguity. It isn’t enough for Parker to have a name that could pass for a female’s name; he has to adopt a name that is quintessentially female, something almost hyperbolically feminine (I think it’s Melena, or something like that, in the film – and the monster mom says emphatically, in a really creepy voice, after slapping her son, “You’re name is Melena). As such, part of the monster mom’s monstrosity is not just her violence, or her decision to force her kid into a gender role against his choosing; part of her monstrosity is her obsession with traditional femininity, and how that obsession ultimately manifests –into Parker’s killing outfit, the old-woman makeup and wig and the black wedding dress that makes him look like a sort of bride of Satan.
If Parker is the ghost, and Derrida says the ghost always signals injustice, then Parker may well signal the injustice of both parent-child and gender-based violence, along with a society that is problematically obsessed (as Judith Butler would also point out) with dividing people into only two genders: male and female. The violence done to him arises, in part, from an obsession with concepts of “what is feminine,” and what is not. Parker’s mom is the monster who perpetuates this violence, who signals not disruption, per se, but intensive reification, a solidifying of the boundaries between two genders and an obsession with a strictly binary gender model. She becomes, thus, an antiquated figure, a monster who –appropriate to her old-fashioned gown, hairstyle, and makeup—becomes associated with an old way of thinking.
I argued that in the first Insidious, there wasn’t much about social justice going on in the film. I think the situation is very different in Insidious, Chapter Two. In this film, we have a complex dynamic underlining the film’s antagonism and provoking chaos: a terrifying, always-shouting monster mother, and the ghost son who used to (and in death, still does) dress as a woman to disguise himself when committing murders for his mother. Why Parker Crane dresses as a woman in death, if his purpose was simply to disguise himself during his life when committing murders, is another interesting question in the film –a partial ellipses worth exploring. It suffices to say here that Insidious: Chapter Two, is a film concerned with genders and monsters, and both Parker’s ghost and his mother’s convey that fact.