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Ryan’s Gender Trouble

In House at the End of the Street (2012), directed by Mark Tonderai, the movie audience is, once again, confronted with a psychopath who has been traumatized in early childhood by his parents. Ryan is held responsible for the death of his little sister Carrie Anne, who died in an accident on a swing while their parents were up in the bedroom smoking crack. Projecting their own shortcomings onto their putatively ‘careless’ son, Ryan’s parents, particularly his mother, force him to assume the role of Carrie Anne, which eventually turns him into a psychologically deviant young man. Ryan murders his parents with a hammer and is only able to cope with the loss of his sister by keeping a ‘Carrie Anne substitute’ locked in the basement, a succession of young female hostages. Even though parricide is portrayed here, it is, once again, the mother who is shown to be the abusive parent, having the decisive negative influence on her child. In the concluding scene of the movie, we are supplied with the source of Ryan’s insanity. After having been subdued by the movie’s final girl Elissa, we see Ryan imprisoned in a mental asylum. As the camera zooms in on him, a voice-over of Ryan’s mother becomes audible. She says: ‘Let’s get ready to blow out the candles, baby! Make a wish. Make a wish Carrie Anne.’ The scene has switched from the rather sterile setting in the mental asylum, to a short but crucial episode in Ryan’s childhood. Filmed in the style of a family video, we see the mother approach the garden table carrying a birthday cake. Seated at the table is a ‘little girl’. On the table we see presents and a bag reading ‘Birthday Girl’. The child seated at the table replies: ‘My name’s not Carrie Anne! It’s Ryan.’ In that moment, the mother fiercely smacks little Ryan in the face, insisting: ‘Yes, it is—your name is Carrie Anne.’ The repressed source of Ryan’s serious mental condition has been resolved.

Despite both of his parents ‘cooperating’ in his ruinous upbringing, Ryan’s mother is clearly ‘privileged’ as the ‘bad parent’. She is shown smoking crack while her husband is lying on the bed, probably already intoxicated himself. It is the mother who violently forces her son to assume his sister’s role. The father is granted less attention and he is not portrayed as an abusive parent. Cynthia Freeland’s aforementioned observation that ever since Psycho it is usually the mother who is held responsible for bad parenting, even seems to hold true if both parents are involved in this process. It is first and foremost the mother who is held responsible for psychic individuation gone wrong. She is the first abject posing a threat to identity. She remains present despite her forcefully brought about absence as that ‘pathological effect’ as Arnold rightfully pointed out. But why is this so? One of the many possible answers to this question is given by Carol J. Clover, who observes that characters in horror movies fulfill functions that are frequently determined by their gender. She states that: ‘Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other way around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers’ (Clover 1992, 13). Accordingly, a parent who turns a son into a psychokiller is gendered female and therefore the soon to be movie monster’s mother, and this is also why sons butcher their mothers whilst a daughter’s final stand-off is more melodramatically charged. In any case, the evil mother of the horror film has to be ‘removed’ in order to get what she is shown to ‘deserve’. But she can never be made absent altogether. Like the abjection of the abject is bound to fail, the evil mother of the horror film has always already determined her own and her child’s fate.

Ryan’s enforced gender trouble seems to be a reworking of Hitchcock’s rather likable and shy Norman Bates, who has frequently been interpreted as ‘effeminate’ or coded as being gay (see above). He is forced to assume his sister’s identity which is again a spelling out of what Hitchcock only hinted at. Well-informed horror movie audiences will know that ‘where feminized males are, violent trouble is soon to follow’ (Clover 1992, 162). As was the case with Norman and Billy, Ryan’s mother poses a serious threat to the constitution of his own identity, of abjecting the first abject, of committing proper symbolic matricide, of attaining ‘social membership’ as Gambaudo phrased it (see above). When looking at horror movies, the attainment of social membership seems to be particularly hard for ‘feminine men’—whatever that may be—because this is the ‘losing combination’ (Clover 1992, 162). A mother violently enforcing the feminization of her son suffices to explain the deviant psychological development of that particular offspring. The mother’s absence will ‘accordingly’ have to be violently brought about, but her absence is going to be felt in her omnipresence, either as a ‘psychological effect in the child’, as literally becoming a part of the deviant infant or as an endless struggle that is always bound to fail.

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