This past Halloween, I watched the film Monster House with my children. It is one of the unnecessary DVDs that we own but one that I had not actively watched before. It is a children’s film about a haunted house. I expected puerile jokes and unnecessary references to films that no one cares about anymore. I was wrong.
The basic plot of Monster House is that a house is possessed by the spirit of a dead woman, Constance, who steals children’s toys, which land on the grass around it. Before being “rescued” by the man she marries, Constance had spent her life as an unwilling freak show act in a circus where children paid money to laugh, belittle and humiliate her. Constance dies falling into the foundations of the house she was building with her rescuer-husband, after, once again, being belittled by a group of small children, and the house thus becomes both Constance’s grave and her avenger.
Possessed by the spirit of the abused Constance, the house is portrayed as insane, evil and violent. There is no discussion of whether or not she was justified in her paranoia following years of intense bullying. The house is angry and frightened because Constance was angry and frightened. But, no one listened when Constance was alive and no one listened when she died. Instead, the climax of the film is the complete destruction of Constance.
It is easy to dismiss Monster House as just another poorly executed children’s movie but this film is simply a reflection of our culture. We may no longer have circus freak shows designed to bully and humiliate those who do not fit our gendered dichotomy of human bodies, but our bullying culture still exists in the form of reality television, shock-jock radio programs, the ubiquity of “lifestyle” and celebrity magazines, and mass media coverage of “news”. Much of our “entertainment”now rests on the same constructions as the circus freak show, we are simply unwilling to acknowledge our own personal responsibility in consuming these forms of “entertainment” and the harm that they cause.
Just as we now blame Mel Greig and Michael Christian for the death of Jacintha Saldanha, we blame Constance for her actions without looking at the context. I do not want to minimize what Greig and Christian did, since anyone who is no longer 15 should know the potential consequences of ‘pranks’, but they are not the only ones who are guilty in the death of Saldanha. Focusing our blame on Greig and Christian is a convenient way to minimize our collective guilt as a society that actively encourages the same bullying experienced by Constance.
Greig and Christian would not have made the prank call if there was not an audience for it. We cannot simply blame the two, although their culpability is without doubt, we also need to examine our own behaviour. We need to take personal responsibility for perpetuating and perpetrating bullying culture. Without an audience of consumers buying magazines like Heat and Grazia or newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail or watching/listening to shock jocks like Howard Stern and Matthew Wright, there would be no financial incentive for these people to behave in a crass and offensive manner. Before we start blaming others, we need to check our own behaviour, examine our own privilege, and stop financially supporting an industry based on the abject humiliation of others. The harm caused to vulnerable people who participate in reality television is obvious, yet millions of people watch shows like Big Brother and X-Factor and laugh at the judges’ vile comments. Millions of people take to Twitter to insult the physical appearance of contestants.
We shouldn’t need the Leveson Inquiry to regulate the media. We should be holding the media accountable through our financial power. We can change print media simply by refusing to consume misogynistic, racist, disablist and homophobic stories. We can change talk radio by switching off Greig, Christian and Stern. We can change the culture of bullying traumatised families by refusing to purchase newspapers or watch television newscasts that show images of traumatised parents mourning the loss of their children. We can stop buying newspapers that doorstop grieving parents. We can stop consuming media that suggest that women and children are somehow responsible for their own deaths at the hands of violent men for just exisiting.
Monster House is a film, which uses the emotional and physical abuse experienced by a vulnerable woman and then blames the woman for her behavior, whilst excusing the children, and their parents, who bullied her during her life. In fact, the film never makes the direct correlation between the long-term abuse experienced by Constance and her quite justified paranoia. The blame is entirely Constance’s despite the fact that society had conspired against her for cheap entertainment.
Contemporary mass media from reality television to celebrity culture, from talk shows to shock jocks, together form a 21st century freak show, only now the phenomenon is 24/7 and shows no respect for private boundaries or personal space. We are invited to laugh and jeer at vulnerable people, like Constance, and we pay to financially support their exploitation. We continue to exploit the most vulnerable members of our communities for our entertainment: in reality television, in “traditional” and online media, in the music industry and in pornography.
Life isn’t a circus freak show. Lets just stop acting like it is.
My kids have watched this film a few times while I’ve pottered about around them listening but not really listening. It is incredibly dire with the over-protective mother and emotionally distant father routine. Honestly, it’s like Feminine Mystique: The Animation. This Halloween, though, I actually sat down and watched it. And, whimpered. Followed, swiftly by rage. Lots and lots of rage. I haven’t actually binned the film as I don’t want other children to watch it so it’s joined Scooby-Doo meets the Harlem Globetrotters in my box of Evil Films.
The film starts with a young boy spying on his neighbours with binoculars. Now, technically, the boy is spying on his evil toy-stealing male neighbour but his father seems to be under the impression that the boy is looking at women with his binoculars. Apparently, it is totally normal for young boys to spy on women and then wank. It’s not at all creepy or, you know, sexual violence. I may have shrieked in rage at this point. After I said, WTF is that doing in a children’s movie. They don’t actually say wank but the implication is there.
Mom and Dad then piss off leaving the boy in the charge of a baby-sitter who hates him. Baby-sitters boyfriend, who is a pillock, rocks up and sexually assaults the baby-sitter. Yep, it’s a kids movie where the boyfriend pins his girlfriend on the couch to force her into having sex with him. Now, she does kick his ass out of the house telling the boyfriend that he lacks respect for women which would be good if the next morning the she doesn’t go looking for the abusive boyfriend because she loves him. We couldn’t possibly have a film where a sexually abusive boyfriend gets the boot. Permanently.
Then, along comes a new girl who is the same age as the young boy: about 12. There’s a lovely line where she responds to the boys confusion by asking if they are mentally challenged because if they are, she’s certified to teach them baseball. I may have been whimpering at this point in sheer rage.
Oh, and the basic plot of the film: house is possessed by the spirit of a dead woman who steals children’s toys which land on the grass around it. The old man is her husband and he is only “evil” because he’s trying to protect the neighbourhood children from his dead, morbidly obese circus freakshow of a wife. Because, you see, that is why is she is angry and frightened. This woman spent her life in as a freakshow act in a circus where people paid money to come and laugh and humiliate her. She dies by falling into the foundations of the house as its being built because she is paranoid about being humiliated; a fairly justified paranoia.
FFS, the entire point of the movie is that the evil house is possessed by the frightened and angry spirit of an emotionally abused and tortured woman. The children destroy the house and the old man thanks them from saving him from his evil dead wife.
I actually can’t believe that anyone could think this was a good film. But, then, I don’t understand why people watch reality TV. To me, that is nothing more than the 21st century version of a 19th century freakshow. We are invited to laugh and jeer at vulnerable people and we pay to financially support their exploitation. It doesn’t feel like much has really changed in 200 years; just how we exploit the most vulnerable members of our communities for our entertainment: in reality television, the music industry and pornography.
And, I can not stress how guilty i feel having allowed my kids to watch this without knowing just how awful it really is.