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The Gothic Literary Roots of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!

Even if you never laid eyes on Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, you could still get lost for days surfing the labyrinthine links of think pieces that have erupted since it hit theaters like an alien landing. In short, critics and viewers have flipped out over the film, with many reacting not only negatively (as evidenced by the movie’s rare F score) but also with full-blown disgust.

Let’s just say that those who were lucky enough to leave theaters without being horror-struck still left with a bad case of hermeneutics. When it comes to what the movie’s actually about, everyone has a theory: it’s biblical, it’s ecological, it’s about fame, it’s about what it’s like to be the female love object of a male egomaniac a-hole, and much more.

Aronofsky has even weighed in himself, insisting that “the structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth. . . . I sort of wanted to tell the story of Mother Nature from her point of view.” Although the question of whether the Jennifer Lawrence character (who’s billed simply as “Mother,” just as Javier Bardem’s character’s billed simply as “Him”) really has a perspective at all has certainly been raised by Alexandra Schwartz in a New Yorker piece.

Schwartz also poses the question, even in the case that the egomaniac-a-hole-love-object theory is true, “why subject [the Mother character] to such abject torment and humiliation?” But that’s just it. In addition to the obvious answer: that the film does so to illustrate the suffering of a woman in just such a position, there’s also the Gothic answer—and really the whole history of how we’ve seen and treated women in art and, well, life. It’s not that the film isn’t disturbing; it’s that this sort of provocation is nothing new when we look to the literary, and particularly the Gothic, roots of mother!.

I should also note that this is far from the film’s only literary terrain; the “Him” character is a poet; film critics were presented with a poem by Rebecca Solnit at press screenings; and Aronofsky claims to have been influenced by Susan Griffin’s 1979 Woman and Nature—a feminist text about the ways in which we take from a female gendered notion of nature and release male anger upon her.

But, more to my point, in true Gothic literary fashion, mother! serves up its virginal damsel in distress who’s isolated and horrifically preyed upon, because, at least according to Edgar Allan Poe, “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” Even the fact that the sounds of the ravaged house are Lawrence’s digitally manipulated voice foreground the Mother character’s suffering. Is this deeply disturbing? Yes. But is it freshly minted by the demented Darren Aronofsky and his polarizing new movie? Nope.

In this sense, the reaction of audiences to this film (the same audiences who watch female characters being raped and tortured daily on HBO, for instance) fascinates me. Audience’s have always paid to see a suffering woman—especially if she’s beautiful and scantily clad. Back in 1975, film theorist Laura Mulvey famously linked the gazed upon woman in film to men’s fear of castration and claimed that these men responded with a sort of sadistic voyeurism through which they could seek comfort and control.

In her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover outlines her theory of the “final girl,” or that one virginal girl who survives the male slasher in the film (not that the Mother character is so lucky). Clover suggests an even more intriguing purpose for this female victim character: the male viewer identifies with her, and she’s therefore a means by which he can comfortably deal with his feelings of fear, vulnerability, and victimization.

Even before Clover and Mulvey, Ann Radcliffe, who wrote the pioneering 1794 Gothic novel the The Mysteries of Udolpho (which Jane Austen’s 1817 Northanger Abbey parodies), was concerned about this voyeuristic pleasure at the horrors rained down upon (often female) characters. As a result, she was careful to distinguish between “terror” and “horror,” or the anticipation and dread of what may come versus witnessing the gruesome occurrence outright. Radcliffe claims that terror can improve us while horror is but a moral quagmire that shuts down the reader’s senses by overwhelming them with the unthinkable. Radcliffe was also a fan of uncanny occurrences that could be explained in the end, or what some may call the safe ending.

Aronofsky, on the other hand, opted not to go with the safe ending, to say the least. Lawrence didn’t need to decompress on set by sitting in what she describes as a “Kardashian tent,” chock full of gum balls and reality TV memorabilia, for nothing. Lawrence (who, it should be added, is dating Aronofsky) had to be taken to the hospital for a torn diaphragm from hyperventilating while shooting what is arguably the most disturbing scene in the movie (or what I like to call the film’s “Virgin Mary-Mary Magdalene” moment). Aronofsky proudly told the Times that her acting in this scene was “unlike any performance I’ve captured before…Her breakdown is on screen.” Yet, oddly enough, Aronofsky doesn’t consider this to be the most haunting bit of the film; instead, he refers to the Kardashian tent as “the most disturbing part of the movie.”