By JENN ADAMS
Trauma is a familiar subject in horror. Whether an onscreen act of violence or haunting memories of long-ago tragedy, the human response to pain is practically what the genre is built on. Shudder’s original film SON deals with the familiar themes of sinister children and a mother in danger, but is unique in its depiction of surviving trauma and the complexities of parenting. Ivan Kavanagh’s tale of demonic prophecy and original sin is a horrific yet relatable film that tugs at parental heartstrings. But hidden within Son’s familiar beats is a story about parenting while dealing with PTSD from sexual assault and the difficulty of caring for a child while struggling to care for yourself.
Laura (Andi Matichak) is a young woman who’s just escaped a mysterious cult that practices animal sacrifice and the sexual exploitation of children. Disheveled and dirty, she sips coffee at a diner and looks pensively over her shoulder. Moments later we see her giving birth in a car. “No no no. I don’t want you.” she sobs as her baby crowns. Throughout the film, we learn that she has been sexually assaulted by the cult, led by her father, and her baby is the result of those attacks. Laura’s story is built on this foundation of trauma and every act or decision should be viewed as the specific reaction of one who has survived extreme abuse. Though taboo, her terror at the thought of giving birth to the child of her trauma is completely understandable. A victim herself, she is now expected to give her body and her life to a pregnancy she did not consent to. Though she chooses to keep David, she knows that life afterward will likely be physically and emotionally challenging.
Eight years later, Laura and David (Luke David Blumm) seem to be doing well. She has a job and a small support system and takes night classes on childhood PTSD, presumably to help her process her past. After putting David to bed one night, Laura finds a group of strangers in his room. She calls the police, but no trace of the intruders can be found. Soon after, David is struck with a mysterious illness and Laura begins to fear that the cult she’s tried so hard to forget has come to reclaim their lost son. Fearing that the hospital staff may be working with the cult, Laura flees with David and takes him on a journey to uncover repressed memories. She learns that, as part of the cult’s rituals, she was raped by a demon named The Huntsman and David is likely his son. He must eat human flesh to keep his disease at bay, forcing Laura to choose between caring for her son by bringing him victims, or watching him die. Though Kavanagh is explicit in showing that David is literally demon spawn, the larger world believes Laura to be experiencing a violent psychotic break. In reading Laura as an unreliable narrator whose perspective of the world is skewed by her past experiences, we can clearly see the effects of parenting after surviving sexual assault and the ways raising children can exacerbate PTSD.
So much of trauma related to sexual assault comes from the feeling of not being in control of your own body and that is exactly what childbirth requires. Aside from the exhausting demands of caring for an infant, your body exists to fulfill the baby’s needs. Skin to skin contact is recommended, as is breastfeeding. Constant interaction with a tiny and unreasonable stranger becomes the center of your life. Parents have been sacrificing in this way for ages, but it can be particularly triggering for survivors of physical and emotional abuse. The feeling that your body is no longer your own and exists to serve someone else can often feel like reliving the trauma of sexual assault.
Laura faces the expected difficulties of new parenthood alone, but with the added complication of questioning whether she wants her child. David is an ever present reminder of her sexual assault and the complex emotions that would accompany seeing the face of the man who raped her reflected in the face of the child she loves would be traumatic in and of itself. We learn that after leaving the cult, Laura received psychiatric care in the form of drugs and therapy. She now believes that she was raped by her father and pimped out to members of the community. David’s illness and the cult that is targeting him forces her to revisit painful memories and reevaluate the truth of what she’s been through.
David’s age is likely the catalyst for Laura’s stressful episode. The home invasion awakens a dormant appetite for blood and he begins to develop characteristics of his demonic father. Regardless of who David’s father is, Laura’s actions and responses could be read as responses to the triggers of watching David grow to more closely resemble the person who raped her. No longer a helpless baby needing her care, it’s understandable that Laura would be triggered by his growth and development. Many survivors of sexual assault have difficulty forming even platonic relationships with men and every day of David’s life brings him closer to manhood.
Laura’s PTSD also manifests in her relationships with other men. She seduces Paul (Emile Hirsch), the detective assigned to her son’s case, to persuade him to stay with her – using her sexuality as a tool and commodity in a way that’s familiar to survivors used to emotionally distancing themselves from their bodies. She kisses him not out of sexual desire, but to get the protection she really wants. At the hotel, she’s triggered by the abusive pimp (David Kallaway) staying in the room next door, likely viewing his domineering treatment of the women in his party as similar to the way she was treated by her father. Luring him with the promise of sex, she delivers him to David as food. She is clearly uncomfortable being alone with him and it’s possible that this murderous action activates deeply buried guilt over bringing others into her father’s cult. Shortly after this, she tells David she won’t be able to help him if he gets sick again and while this could be read as a moral decision, it’s also possible that the return to patterns from her abusive past is simply too much to bear. Her solution, killing David if The Huntsman will not heal him, could be read as a desperate attempt to destroy the constant triggers and retraumatization.
Descriptions of Son have described the film’s plot as a mother doing the unthinkable to protect her son. While delivering human beings as food then cleaning up the mess definitely qualifies as unthinkable, perhaps Laura’s larger ordeal is being forced to use her body in ways that makes her uncomfortable. Rather than managing her triggers, she must weigh her own mental health against the life of her son. Though depicted in the extreme, it’s a relatable dilemma many parents with PTSD have likely faced and though Son’s conclusion is devastating, it’s refreshing to see these often avoided subjects brought into the light.
SON is available now on Shudder.