The unexpected critical love for A Quiet Place, the new horror movie directed by John Krasinski, is less a product of the film’s successful twist on the monster genre than it is of the film’s deft approach to depicting a family under strain . Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt play parents in a world patrolled by blind monsters that brutally slaughter anyone guilty of making a sound. The pair must protect their children from the terrifying creatures and from themselves – children are not predisposed to being quiet – in order to survive.
While it might be shocking that Jim from The Office knocked his horror movie directing debut out of the park, it should not be surprising that there is a tender movie about parents and family hiding within the horror. The genre has long taken real anxieties and amplified them tenfold for the big screen; think of how last year’s Get Out turned racial tension into a thriller, or how It Follows turned sex panic into a disturbing chase movie.
Parenting horror has a special place in the “Some Things Are Worse Than Death” wing of the Horror Movie Hall of Fame. However, just featuring a parent doesn’t make a film a Parenting Horror movie. For example, The Hills Have Eyes, which does involve multiple sets of parent-child relationships, is not Parenting Horror. It’s a cannibal movie or maybe a zombie movie if you want to stretch the idea. Parenting Horror movies are inevitably about children and the possibility of losing them to violence or evil. Parenting Horror movies play off real parental anxieties.
Possibly the most famous horror movie of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, works as a perfect example of the tense dynamics of parenthood. While Norma Bates is (spoiler alert for a nearly 60-year-old movie) just Norman Bates’ deranged alter ego, the movie explores overbearing parenting, the jealousy that comes with a child feeling unloved, and matricide. Sure, the film didn’t actually feature a family as such, but it took a pseudo-Freudian approach to scaring the beejeezus out of a generation of children (“What are my parents turning me into?”) and parents (“What am I turning my child into?”). No wonder so many horror classics followed that lead.
The original Amityville Horror turns a patriarch’s fears over not providing a good home for his family into a thrill ride for the ages, while The Shining also sees the devolution of a father’s mind when presented with his own failures. The earlier horror movies that took a crack at parenting seemed to have similar themes of creeping insanity, particularly in men. Dad goes nuts is basically a subgenre. (One could argue that this emerges from the anxieties of the Vietnam Era, during which the cracks in the patriarchy started to show.)
However, when horror movies turn the fears towards the children, a more realistic and unsettling trend begins to surface. Rosemary’s Baby is likely the most famous of these. Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse fears that her baby will be taken from her to be used in cultish rituals. That motherly instinct to protect is taken to the extreme at the film’s conclusion, wherein Rosemary agrees to take care of her baby, who turns out to be the literal son of Satan.
Continuing on the demon child train, 1976’s The Omen (and its 2006 remake) features the Antichrist standing in for the tension that comes with adoption. 2009’s Orphan touches on the same ground but adds in creepy incestuous overtones. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin forces Tilda Swinton’s Eva to confront the horrors that her son Kevin – played with creeping disaffect by Ezra Miller – has wrought upon the family and his school. While he is not presented as a supernatural evil presence, his soulless demeanor around his mother is a hyper-exaggerated version of a parental fear.
Perhaps the most iconic parenting movie of the 21st century, however, is 2014’s The Babadook. In it, a mother is tormented by her son’s insistence that the titular monster is haunting his nightmares. She chalks it up to his behavioral problems stemming from the lack of a father — her husband was killed in a car crash on the way to the hospital while she was going into labor. The child, Sam, brings weapons to school to fight off the seemingly-imaginary monsters that he claims are tormenting him, which pushes Amelia toward the brink. The Babadook turns out to be a physical manifestation of her grief and struggles as a single mother, and only by coming to terms with her own efforts to raise Sam alone does she “defeat” the monster. It’s a beautifully haunting portrayal of isolation, further strengthened by the escalating terror felt by Amelia, whose love threatens to eat itself.
What all of these movies have in common, good or bad, is that they target very specific anxieties. What anxiety does A Quiet Place exploit? A few perhaps. There is the notion that children are inheriting a horrifically dangerous world, but, even more than that, there is the notion that childhood is both something to protect and something to fear. Deaf monsters eat happy children. Absolute control is necessary, but it is also a trap. Think of it as Black Hawk Down Parenting.
Whether that manipulation is entertaining or not is subjective, but what is clear is that there is a lot of tension and terror to be pulled out of parenthood. Parents might leave the theater paranoid about their own experiences, or they might come out of it with a renewed love for their thoroughly non-demonic kids. Whatever the case, when a parenting movie treats the subject with respect and proper reverence, there are few horror movies more terrifying out there.