Every Creepy Family Is Creepy in It's Own Way: How Modern Cinema Teaches to Fear Relationships

Meeting the parents has become one of the most common situations in comedies. For what it's worth, the iconic dinner scene from Shrek 2 (2004) made everyone laugh and feel the joy of recognition. But there's more! All the movies from the middle of the 20th century - from Father of the Bride (1950) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) to neo-classical movies of 90-s and 00-s like Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, The Family Stone, The House of Yes — are trying to "play" with the plot while exploiting our expectations and real-life experience. In The Birdcage (1996) the angle is different: we feel this hilarious discomfort from the position of parents; gayparents, one of which is played by Robin Williams, actually. Quite odd, isn't it?

by Erik Ilmuratov


Family (re)union could be dramatic. For example, in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) starring Constance Wu, whose heroine is depressed because of other families' wealth. Her boyfriend's arrogant relatives despise her and treat her like a creature of another kind. Here meeting the parents becomes an obstacle in the way of love. And it's not just a simple obstacle — there's a real confrontation between different life attitudes: rational and emotional. In Junebug (2005) sense of confusion and uneasiness flows out of the screen. Misunderstanding between generations and families exacerbates the inner conflicts of the characters. Their problems only need a little push like a family dinner to start spoiling everyone's lives. Such films could be devastating and hard to watch, but they're only halfway to real horror.
On this imaginary scale drama is followed by an uncomfortable thriller. We could find many such examples in the latest cinema. I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) by Charlie Kaufman, where strange episodes shift from awkward to dreadful and back, is not a real story of meeting the parents, but more of a grim fantasy of what it could be like. No one tries to kill the abstract girlfriend we follow (we'll get back to this later)because it's a movie built on an extremely complicated existential framework. Parents are not what they seem, reality is an illusion, life is sad. And you can't get out of all that.
Now let's move to Get Out (2017) - the Holy Grail of «meet-the-parents» trope in horrors. The idea of freaking-malicious-and-crazy-racist-parents is hyperbolized to absurdity. Perfectly directed by Jordan Peele, the movie revolves around every single fear about relationships. The Armitage family not only kidnaps black people trying to possess their bodies, but also represents every bizarre stripe in cinema. They literally try to incorporate the main character to their white community which is traumatic in any case. The way we discover their plans and evil nature is brilliant, and there's no doubt that this work is based on a true story.

In another modern horror Ready or Not (2019) the conception of family itself is criticized and deconstructed in a grotesque and preposterous way. When Grace marries Alex it turns out that his whole family must kill the bride as part of an ancient tradition. This is a living proof of Sartre's adage «Hell is the other people». In addition, all the mainstream horrors like Midsommar (2019), Hereditary (2018) and The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015) are unique stories of meeting the parents, and it's significant that they were all made in the last five years. Family becomes something - pardon me - unfamiliar and dangerous, and the threat comes from the ones closest to you.

All these films have an ancestor. Surprisingly, it's Eraserhead (1977) with the strangest family dinner scene ever made. We saw weird mothers before in Hitchkock's movies (The Birds (1963), Psycho (1960) but this representation hadn't been formed yet and blossomed only in the 70-s. Surrealistic masterpiece by David Lynch is about raising a child, but before that — about dealing with grandparents. When Jack Nance visits his fiance's house, things get weird. Mother screams and aspires the guest, father pretends not to exist, grandma simply doesn't leave her room. What is happening and what does this mean? In our case it doesn't matter: Eraserhead is the perfect example of unwillingness to have a family. Alien baby is the embodiment of this fear, and so are parents.
Dinner at the family table (with all the relatives) is an essential part of the plot. We can also find some house tours, basements, haunted houses, odd animals, scary night events and other attributes of the genre. It's remarkable that in every case the partner of the protagonist becomes an agent of evil too or at least doesn't help escape the house / fight with enemies. This causes dissatisfaction with characters (or even autor)'s own relationships. Subconsciously he or she feels that the partner can turn into a betrayer.
So, why is it a scary and uncomfortable situation? The guest is always in a vulnerable position — he or she doesn't know anything about the place and people living there. Relatives don't share music tastes and political views with an outsider or even try to kill him — in any case they are different, they are 'The Other.' The easiest way to interpret «meet-the-parents» trope is to apply psychoanalysis, especially if we're talking about Eraserhead and Hitchcock - incestual motives, sublimated desires and triplicity of the psyche (id, ego, super-ego). At the same time we can use anthropological point of view: meeting the parents is a significant rite of passage, the next step in a relationship. In traditional societies transition to your spouse's family means death in yours. Then you are reborn. This must be the case, this is what begets the fear in us.

The situation is well-known and understandable, no matter where you are from, how old you are or what skin color you have. There's no difference in whether a male or female becomes a victim, but for obvious reasons it's usually a woman. Universality makes «meet-the-parents» a perfect setup for any genre. We have many such examples in Russia, these are low-brow horror The Bride (2017) and tarantinesque action-movie Why Don't You Just Die! ("Папа, сдохни", 2019).
As you can see, the "meet-the-parents" plot tends to bring out and accentuate the differences in race, gender, well-being, culture, religion and age — depending on the author's intentions and optics used. Themes of the films mentioned above are rather social, not existential, though we can interpret them in many ways. On the one hand, we can find a moralizing message like «try to know your partner better before marrying him/her». On the other hand, there's a warning, - «Take a closer look at your relatives! They might be frenetic!» If you try to look at it from a culturological point of view, you'll see a sign of decay of the family institute. It is not a safe space anymore, and traditional values are unable to change it in our minds.

But it's not just about society: it's about our fear of not being accepted by our loved one's family. Other parents are scary, but still we do our best to gain their trust. «It's good when people you like like each other», — says the character of I'm Thinking of Ending Things. And he's goddamn right.
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