Films of all genres are full of bad parents, but perhaps none more so than horror. It’s a form designed to hold up a funhouse mirror to everyday reality, showing us distorted reflections and terrifying visions: murders, plagues, hauntings, possessions. It shows us what we fear in our own lives and asks us what the worst might look like; it’s not the place to go looking for Parents Doing A Good Job.
Many of horror’s most famous bad parents are women. Norma Bates of Psycho is the archetype, driving her son to murderous delusions that persist long after her death. But even beyond the Bates Motel, troubled mother-son relationships abound. Thanks to the meeting of masculine and feminine energy these relationships represent, they offer filmmakers fertile ground to explore themes like gender transgression and the Oedipal complex. A man will always need his mother, the old logic goes. But what if he needs her too much? What could she make him do?
By contrast, fathers and daughters in horror get comparatively little airtime. They might exist in the background or not at all; one or both of them might be dead. And yet these relationships, when they are shown, tell us so much about how gender is staged onscreen, and how it has evolved and may yet be evolving.
A classic example of the father-daughter relationship in horror appears in the 1960 French film Les Yeux sans visage, or Eyes Without A Face. When celebrated surgeon Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) causes an accident that leaves his daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face disfigured, he and his secretary fake her death and begin kidnapping beautiful women to attempt a face transplant. In between the unsuccessful surgeries, Christiane peers out balefully from behind a white mask and wordlessly dials her ex-fiancé’s number.
In this film, father and daughter appear almost as separate species. He is celebrated for his innovation, expertise, and skill, while his daughter’s life effectively ends — complete with a funeral and mourners — when her beauty is destroyed. Indeed, outward beauty is depicted in the film as being the seat of personhood for women: Génessier’s secretary, on whom he has performed successful surgery, is unconditionally loyal to him because, in her words, “I owe you my face.” Likewise, when Christiane wears the faces of her father’s victims, she feels haunted by their previous owners, seeing in her own reflection “someone who looks like me but comes from the Beyond.”
Génessier’s obsession with restoring his daughter to pristine beauty is, of course, his way of avoiding processing his own guilt. He cannot bear to look at Christiane in her ruined state; he is quite literally unable to face the consequences of his actions. His daughter — or rather, her face, which is almost the same thing in this film — represents to him an innocence lost; he cannot conceive of a worthwhile life for either of them without her beauty, and so he uses his surgical skills to attempt a kind of unholy resurrection.
Les Yeux sans visage is ultimately a story of the failures of masculinity. It punctures the societal myth that success — rising to the top of your field, having a beautiful family — can save you from calamity or allow you to protect your loved ones from it. In fact, it shows how dangerous such success can be, particularly when you come to rely on this kind of masculine ideal for your own self-image.
The horrific aspect of Génessier’s character is not the accident that maimed his daughter, but how far he is willing to go to deny his failure as a protector. The film opens with the body of one of his victims being dumped in a river; shortly afterwards, Génessier falsely identifies it to the police. When he leaves the police station, he is stopped by the victim’s real father, who has heard about the discovery and is distraught wondering if it is his own missing daughter. Génessier’s frigid response to this man’s enquiries underscores the selfishness of his mission: his quest is not the universal one of a father but of a selfish man knocked out of touch with reality.
Les Yeux sans visage is unusual among father-daughter horror treatments as Christiane is a grown woman; the majority of films within this trope feature younger daughters, most of whom suffer a literal, rather than figurative, death.
In the eerie 1973 film Don’t Look Now, John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) attempt to escape the grief of their daughter’s drowning by going to Venice, but John keeps seeing a small figure in a red coat like the one his daughter drowned in. His pursuit of this figure ultimately ends in his murder.
Similarly, the Annabelle franchise (part of the extended The Conjuring universe) originates from the loss of a daughter in a road accident. In Annabelle: Creation, we learn that the titular doll is named for Annabelle Mullins, the daughter of respected dollmaker Samuel Mullins. Annabelle died by stepping in front of a car when her father’s back was turned, and her parents, tormented by their grief and guilt, pray to whatever power will allow them to see her again, unwittingly allowing a demon to inhabit one of Samuel’s dolls.
Though these films both feature much younger daughters who appear to come back from the dead, they share Les Yeux sans visage’s equation of the daughter figure with lost innocence and the father with a kind of grief-stricken masculine denial. The mothers may have an equal stake in their daughters’ deaths and perhaps a greater portion of the grief, but it is the fathers to whom these films gravitate, and their grisly deaths that provide key points of confrontation.
Even in recent years, then, the father-daughter relationship has been used as a shorthand to communicate the horror that awaits when the masculine ideal of the successful family man turns sour. Refusal to admit failure and process trauma opens the door for murderous impulses, demons, and violent death; the daughters themselves are either present but no longer themselves, or perfect and dead.
Is this the fate of daughters in horror, then? To be the foil to endless crises of masculinity? And is this the fate of fathers: to suffocate under the consequences of their own denial?
Not necessarily. Three films in the last few years have pushed back against this standard format for fathers and daughters in horror by allowing more nuance to emerge within their relationship.
The first of these is the South Korean zombie film Train to Busan. Workaholic divorced father Seo Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) takes his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) on a train to Busan to see her mother for her birthday. While aboard, a zombie outbreak occurs, and the trip becomes a fight for their lives and to reach safety.
Perhaps by virtue of allowing Seok-woo the opportunity to defend Su-an from danger, Train to Busan gives the father figure a path to redemption and the daughter routes to growth. Su-an’s strong moral character adds depth to the stereotypical innocence displayed by the sacrificial daughters of horror before her, and it is through her example that Seok-woo dismantles his own selfishness throughout the film, ultimately sacrificing himself for his daughter. Likewise, the child learns bravery from her father and ends the film a survivor in her own right.
A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place Part II extend this exploration of father-daughter exchange. As a family fight to survive in a world overrun by deadly aliens who hunt by sound, the couple’s daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, rails against her father Lee’s (John Krasinski) protectiveness. Her independence clashes against his authoritarian will for survival, and their shared stubbornness connects them even as it pushes them apart.
When an alien attacks, Lee sacrifices himself to save Regan and her brother. Regan’s grief over her father’s death is the real protagonist of the second film, as she struggles with her own guilt and her newfound appreciation of Lee’s strength. Her determination to connect with the part of her that shares her father’s bravery drives her out on a quest to help other survivors.
In these films, the same themes of protection, sacrifice, and survival are here still, but they are redistributed in ways that feel more honest to the depth and complexity of parent-child relationships. It is, at last, the daughters’ turn to grieve for their fathers and to reckon with the legacy that they have left them within their own character.
Rather than being totems of a patriarchal idea of feminine purity — or, at least, being primarily this — the daughters in these films stand as a challenge to the destructive impulses of toxic fatherhood, the selfish need for control, for power. They resist their parents’ attempts to flatten their perceptions of themselves — and what safety or morality might look like — into a fixed image.
This is particularly true for A Quiet Place’s Regan, whose relationship with Lee is defined by their shared struggle to navigate survival in a burning world. These films ask not what happens when fathers fail to protect their families, but what fathers can learn from their daughters and vice versa. At the end of A Quiet Place Part II, Regan stands to defend a family friend who has become a kind of surrogate father (Cillian Murphy) from an alien; bravery — distinct from blind passion — is a strength directly linked to her relationship with her father.
I hope that this means we are moving towards films which more honestly portray the complex relationship that every child has with their parents. What might strength and survival look like in this world, where women have more choices than being pristine or dead? What more unexpected options for terror and excitement does it hold?
In the closing scene of Les Yeux sans visage, Christiane releases her father’s newest victim and all the dogs on which he has been experimenting his procedures. As the dogs maul her father to death, maiming his face, Christiane walks into the night, masked face held aloft, a freed dove from her father’s menagerie in her hand.
Symbolic and one-dimensional though her character may be, the possibilities of this final scene are enticing: what future is she walking towards? One which allows for feminine strength and even brutality? A life after pristine innocence?
Is she walking towards us?