My mom used to get terrible cramps in her feet. She’d cry sitting in a darkened room, unable to move, trapped because of her body. Hearing her as a kid, her silent sobs emanating from her shadowy cage, I worried because I didn’t understand. She would stop crying after my dad massaged her feet and massaged her veins into place — my mom, in Urdu, would communicate, and rationalize a cramp by saying that her veins had overlapped. The cramp, its excruciating pain (I’ve experienced several in my adulthood) put my mother in a foul mood, she would hiss irrational and terrifying things at us, blame us inexplicably for not loving her enough, for not taking care of her enough, saying she wasn’t surprised by our lacking love and care. It was an angry if seemingly inexplicable sadness, various psychological wounds being revealed to us by her physical pain.
In Michelle Garza Cervera’s Huesera: The Bone Woman, Natalia Solián’s Valeria wakes from a terrifying dream convinced her foot has been violently bent at the ankle. As Valeria screams and screams, her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) tries to calm her down, explaining to her that it’s just a cramp, that she is obviously fine, her foot is in one piece. But we and Valeria know there’s something wrong — in the dream that shocks her awake, hands as real as Raúl’s before her lurch up from beneath Valeria’s bed and snap her foot, exposing bone and sinew.
Raúl has to get going to work and doesn’t seem to have much time to calm Valeria down, though he does try his best. He shows her her foot, it’s evidently not broken, but Valeria won’t stop crying, she says it hurts so much. He says it’s just a cramp and leaves her with two bowls, one with hot water, the other with cold, he tells her to alternate placing her foot in each bowl at short intervals.
Valeria is pregnant when she has this violent dream whose pain carries over into waking life; this isn’t the first time something phantasmic and painful has happened to her. Since learning she is with child, Valeria has been experiencing a stalking kind of a haunting by a faceless figure that more and more seems to be her doppelganger. Her skulking haunting threatens to push her over the brink of sanity, alarming her husband and family, who increasingly and rightly worry for the soon-to-be mother’s and her baby’s safety.
Huesera takes a no-holds-barred approach in its horror as it depicts a woman not merely conflicted about whether she wants to be a mother, but quite literally torn apart as her potentially verboten thinking and desires — regret about the heteronormativity she’s built up around herself, a desire to leave it behind, to reach back into her past and become the person she abandoned — collide with cultural expectations.
This is a crawling body horror that understands that physical contortions and breaks in bones and faceless doubles in swift pursuit carry the meaningful, not to mention foreboding as a toothache, heft no belaboring dialogue can. And through its visual horror, the film delivers us a monster that is goodness itself, or societal “rightness.” Through a woman’s literally breaking body and others’ indifference to her pain, what is depicted in Huesera is the lesson that so many women are familiar with (the societal mandate that a woman wordlessly and stoically bear the irreparable break and ache of her body), and in shrewdly and horrifyingly painting this dynamic through the tropes of body horror, through the breaking body, the film posits its monster as the mandate of normalcy, leaving us to interrogate it: that long-standing custom in society that requires a woman destroy and sacrifice herself — physically, emotionally, spiritually — for a child, for motherhood.
For Cervera, who writes the film alongside Abia Castillo, both horror and narrative exposition ebb and flow. That is, the film is written and directed in such a deft and commanding and intentional manner as to leave the viewer feeling on edge, exhausted and uncertain, even in every moment of respite from a haunting doppelganger or drumming as a migraine physical pain (the percussive score strains and spikes as Valeria stretches or cracks joints to relieve pain that seems endlessly to build up within her); like in motherhood, such moments of calm never seem to last. Moments of Valeria’s past, almost idyllic and idealist, punctuate and puncture the tension of deeply aggravating moments in her present, as her body and mind threaten to break under the weight of her pregnancy, the stress of her haunting, and the freighted expectations of those around her. But ultimately, these sweet and hopeful moments from Valeria’s past, through their exposition, compound the stress of her present — they’re pregnant themselves with meaning and their revelation puts greater stress on the structure that Valeria has given to her present life, as they have us wonder why she would trade so much hope in for all this pain. Cervera and Castilo, in other words, put Valeria and us through hell, having her reckon with the life she’s built, while we, through the film’s narrative and visual horror, feel Valeria’s dire and tightening straits.
Huesera deals a kind of whiplash as it oscillates between real and dreamy horror, between Valeria’s past and her present, to such a whirling degree it’s almost a kind of gaslighting. We feel gaslit in the way that Valeria is gaslit about what married life, pregnancy, pain, a life well-lived all ought to be: painful but worthwhile. We slowly learn as Valeria’s pregnancy progresses that she is bi. We see that as a teen, Valeria promised her then-girlfriend Octavia (played in adulthood by Mayra Batalla) that she would run away to a better life with her. But Valeria changes her mind and decides to go to college instead. With a shaved head and punk rock leanings and scream-chanting about refusing to be domesticated, young Valeria seems a far cry from present-day Valeria, who makes furniture, and has long soft hair and a husband. Early on in the film and in Valeria’s pregnancy, she and Raúl run into Octavia one day as they leave Valeria’s family’s home. In this moment, we see in Valeria the beginnings of doubt and fear and uncertainty, about Raúl and the baby and the straight-laced, vanilla life she has constructed around her.
The figure that begins haunting Valeria seems a shade of the creepy beings in It Follows — it’s unemotive because it doesn’t have a face, and it stalks Valeria until finally creeping into her home. The being lurks in shadowy corners of rooms, watches her through windows, through the bars of her baby’s crib she’s crafted. As it gets closer and closer to Valeria and eventually to her baby, the creepy doppelganger’s motives seem murkier and murkier. Aside from breaking Valeria’s body in her mind, or hurting itself, the doppelganger doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat to others around her, least of all her baby. Rather, it’s Valeria who causes havoc, hurting her niece and nephew when she babysits them as she drags them away from the perceived threat of the doppelganger, or setting the baby’s crib that she’s constructed ablaze when she sees the entity lurking within the shadows of the nursery.
At one point, after Valeria has given birth, she is very sleepy and overwrought and exhausted. Her baby won’t stop crying and Valeria is on edge. Hapless and not thinking rationally, unable to get the baby to stop crying so she might sleep, Valeria, seemingly at her wits’ end, rushes into her baby’s room. We watch through the baby monitor that is in Valeria’s bedroom as the frantic Valeria reaches down to pick up her baby, and as she does, we also see the double’s hands that are so much like Valeria’s own, reach for the baby as it cries in the replacement crib her mother-in-law gifts her. But before the double can get to the baby, Valeria has already scooped it up. Valeria comes back to her bedroom without the baby and the baby has stopped screaming but it is not with Valeria and Valeria falls asleep. A few moments later Valeria wakes from an obviously restorative sleep, looks over at the baby monitor and leaps from bed in a panic. She can’t recall where she put the baby in her tired haze. In this scene, it is apparently Valeria who endangers the baby, and it seems that the hands of the doppelganger that reached through the crib’s bars earlier belong to a being less at its wits’ end, perhaps to a better version of Valeria, to a figure of what a mother ought to be. It becomes apparent in this scene that it has been the ideal of motherhood and rightness that has been haunting Valeria as she foibles and stumbles her way through being a mother, a role she doesn’t wholeheartedly want to perform.
Culturally, a good mother is self-sacrificing, she does not scream in pain when she is hurt. Instead of succumbing to madness, she confronts and stands up to that which threatens to harm her children, she suppresses her own needs and desires to sleep or to have sex — all these elements of self-sacrifice and protection are seemingly embodied by the doppelganger that haunts Valeria, a figure without a clear identity who feels no pain after jumping out of a window, crawling soundlessly when its leg is broken, a being with no internal life or individual needs, a faceless ghost that doesn’t seem to exist for itself, but only for and in relation to Valeria and her baby.
Valeria, on the other hand, embodies the “bad mother,” a woman who has a roiling interiority and who selfishly tends to her needs, stokes her fears and anxieties, instead of concerning herself myopically with her baby. Valeria likes sex, she feels regret about having to turn her work studio into a nursery, she wails when her body is in pain, wants to sleep, and unsuccessfully suppresses her love and lust for Octavia. She, crucially, doesn’t seem to have maternal instincts or an almost preternatural affection for her baby, caring for her infant instead robotically as though it were a chore, while her husband cradles it, smells its feet and head, talks to it in baby talk. Most importantly, Valeria is in physical pain throughout her pregnancy, feeling and acutely aware of her bones aching as they move about within her as a being grows inside of her, pushing into and taking up space in her body. Valeria is, by all accounts, the bad mother terrified of the good mother doppelganger that hounds her.
Huesera is a masterwork for its turning a revered societal position, that of the Madonna, the self-sacrificing good mother who stoically breaks her body to keep another being alive, into the specter that haunts, while its protagonist is a woman society says nobody should emulate: a person who rejoices in her physicality, and is keenly aware when it is in pain or as it transforms, disappointed as her body goes from once taking deep pleasure in food to being reviled by it. Valeria, furthermore, revels in queer pleasure, and feels deeply dissatisfied by the strictures of normalcy and heteronormativity.
I would often wonder, when my mother cried in pain within the folds of a room shrouded in darkness, letting only her husband, my father, near her, irritated and accusatory of our presence; I would often wonder whether my mother liked us at all. When her body was in pain and she was hurling barbed words at us, I wondered if they sheathed a truth that escaped with her tears. I wonder if her anxieties linked with her motherhood, about losing her unique potential and the opportunity to satisfy her idiosyncratic and “selfish” desires, were a secret kept within her flesh, and were finally exposed when her muscles twisted and turned within her legs. I used to wonder sometimes when she would get really mean if she wanted to be a mother in the first place, if she contemplated and without guilt entertained an alternate possibility.
Some people don’t want to mark their bodies with pain, don’t want to be exultant as they carry life; some people don’t want to be mothers, don’t jump without anxiety or apprehensions, unequivocally, at the opportunity to bring another life into this world, Huesera: The Bone Woman, with its color palette like bone beneath flesh and its score like dry heaving from morning sickness, seems to say. For the first time in a very long time, a gauzy and exacting mainstream horror says that we ought to be able to feel safe in not only voicing that we don’t want to have children, that we don’t want a vanilla life of heteronormative domesticity, that we don’t want to ascetically endure all the psychic and physical pain that motherhood entails; but also that we ought to feel safe in realizing this at all.