“What is Empathy?”: Motherhood in Village of the Damned

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I think one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy Village of the Damned (and horror in general, really) is because it’s never afraid to tell a narrative from a woman’s viewpoint. While other genres of film have often shied away from female narratives, fears and concerns, horror has always embraced our stories. This is very apparent in Village of the Damned, which is basically a film about unexpected pregnancy.  So why are John Carpenter’s, perhaps the horror genre’s greatest filmmaker, post-’90s women’s pictures so undervalued? Village of the Damned, The Ward and Ghosts of Mars are almost always written off as lesser works in the director’s oeuvre by cinephiles, and yet I find myself endlessly fascinated by the stories they tell. Their dismissal is completely baffling to me. In Village of the Damned, specifically, Carpenter revisits themes he has been playing around with his entire career like alien forces (The Thing) and apocalypse narratives (Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness), but with the added benefit of tapping into the real life concerns of women, specifically, the problems of pregnancy and the role of motherhood.

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The way Carpenter shoots the opening is very ominous. The landscape is absolutely massive because of his 2.35:1 aerial work and he places us directly inside of this evil entity that is about to take over the town of Midwich, California. In the midst of a local celebration, an alien force strikes and makes everyone in town unconscious for several hours. The people don’t know it yet, but the alien raped and impregnated ten of their local women with emotionless, violent children. Children that they later learn all possess psychic abilities. Carpenter’s score punctuates these scenes with rising moody synths as the horror quietly builds. The camera snakes its way through the town, hovering over the townspeople, and makes it feel like the camera may attack you at any moment. But then, the horror is seemingly over. Everyone in town wakes up and they think everything has gone back to normal. Women brush their teeth, men rest in bed, and husbands and wives share an embrace. It is a sleepy town that you could find anywhere in America, a place where religion and family are the only ways of life.

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After the aliens impregnate some of the local townswomen, the female characters must decide what to do about their delicate conditions. They are given the option of abortion, but their personal values, perhaps because of having lived in such a religious town, push these women into actually keeping their babies. One scene in particular plays as a kind of divine intervention in convincing the women to keep them. One night, while all the women are asleep, they share a celestial dream. This is assumed to have been implanted by the alien forces, but it plays like a message from God. The women are all framed beautifully with round stomachs and soft light reaching from above. There are streaks of blue painted across the scene and Carpenter cuts back and forth between the dream and their reality. When they wake up they all seem content in keeping their children.

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It might be a little troubling that Carpenter’s views on the female characters lean to the conservative side in Village of the Damned. He connects many of their desires to motherhood, but I think those claims are held off with Kirstie Alley’s character, Dr. Susan Verner (the leading government psychologist the town calls to help with this crazy situation). She’s a successful independent woman in a male dominated field working in a town whose heteronormative ideas are cherished. She’s clearly the liberal voice of the picture with her pro-choice ideas. She’s thoroughly confused as to why these women don’t want abortions. This plays in direct contrast to the attitudes and lifestyles of the other women in the town. What I like, though, is that all of these women are treated equally whether they strive for motherhood or career status. Carpenter doesn’t play favourites and doesn’t outright say Verner or the pregnant mothers are better because his films are always very respectful of female characters. Even when one woman loses her alien child in the process of labor, Carpenter is empathetic to her grief. She spirals further and further down until she eventually reaches a point where she takes her own life. Carpenter doesn’t graze over this lightly. You feel the real pain of her loss from the moment Verner says her child is stillborn up until her eventual death, and it makes for one of the more powerful moments in this picture. David (Thomas Dekker, one of the alien children) was supposed to be paired with the stillborn child. David feels the loss of his mate, and doesn’t understand his emotions. In an attempt to try and empathize with the mother who lost her child he learns of her sadness through his psychic abilities. They share a brief moment of connection and, through the eyes of David, we also empathizes with her loss, and begins to understand emotion.

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The strongest aspect of Village of the Damned is the honest and thoughtful look at the bond a mother and a child can have and how horrifying it can be to lose that child. The main protagonist in Village of the Damned, Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski), is a very devoted mother to David, the only child who seems relatively normal. Carpenter shows the bond between these two as strained but incredibly warm. Their best scene together shows a brokenhearted David not being able to understand his emotional mindset after he begins to feel sorrow for his mate who was stillborn. Jill opens up to him about feeling empathy (he would put this lesson into effect in the next scene as mentioned above) and does her best to show him how much she cares for him. The push and pull between David’s duties to his clan of alien relatives and his growing feelings of attachment to his mother is essentially the biggest conflict of the movie because there’s a lot of emotion steeped in this relationship. David is the most important thing in her life and you can easily see this as truth in the final moments of the film when they share an embrace bathed in golden light from a distant explosion.

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One of my strongest childhood memories is helping my mom out around the house. We always did the chores together, or more accurately, she did everything and I followed her. I learned how to fold clothes, do the dishes and take care of my baby brother because I emulated her constantly. I’ve always looked up to my mom because she worked constantly to provide for my family. Before she became religious, she was everything in my entire world. I wanted to be just like her, and that’s what made me feel so much like David in this picture. David struggles as a child because he feels perpetually different from those around him, and I basically grew up feeling different as well.  It’s always really difficult to adapt to your surroundings when you know you are different. David felt a kind of difference between him and the alien children and I personally felt a difference between myself and other boys. It took years to figure out, but eventually I learned what was causing me to feel so different. I was transgender and I wasn’t a boy at all. I strongly relate to the struggles David had of trying to be like the others and failing, but he had something I never had, and that’s a mom who loved him no matter what happened. My relationship with my mother ended when I came out as transgender a few years ago, and I watch Village of the Damned almost with a sense of longing. In a perfect world I’d still have my mom and she’d treat me the way Jill treats David in this picture. I’ve always wanted to be a mom, and I find solace in stories about motherhood. I’m not sure if it’s because I lost my mother or because I strive for a day when I can be a mom too. I have definite fears about being a mom, but I want to be like Jill McGowan. I want to be the type of mom who could star in a John Carpenter picture. It’s empowering to feel that kind of connection. I truly feel like this is one of Carpenter’s best efforts, one that should be reevaluated in the years to come.

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