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OUR SCARY SUMMER: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and the Weirding of the American Family

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by Jed Mayer
June 27, 2014 4:49 AM
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I’d never thought of my family as hip, but for a brief time, in 1979, it seemed as if we were on the cusp of a rising trend.  We were in family therapy, proudly airing our co-dependencies and dysfunctions, along with so many other American families caught up in the family therapy movement, reflected in the era’s pop culture.  The prime-time soap Knots Landing debuted in 1979, setting a new trend for dramas that favored pseudo-domestic realism and familial dysfunction.  Oscar-winning films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Ordinary People (1980) seemed to underscore an increasing fascination with sifting through the American family’s dirty emotional laundry.  The narrative structures of these dramas mirrored that of therapy itself, as dysfunctional behavior leads to crisis, followed by reflection and self-examination, and finally healing and self-actualization.  Seeing these films was like undergoing vicarious family therapy, creating the illusion that we were facing, and then working through, our collective neuroses.

Thankfully, the horror films of those years provided an antidote to the kinds of facile, feel-good narratives that abounded in popular realist dramas.   While we were being encouraged to work through our problems, to process and move towards acceptance, a different kind of advice was offered in the tag-line to the summer of 79’s big horror hit The Amityville Horror: “For God’s sake, get out!”  While the Lutz family gets away at the end, the conflicts and tensions that emerge through their harrowing residence in a haunted house are never really solved.  The resentments and fears linger rather than being “worked through.”  Growing up in what I was soon to learn was a classically dysfunctional family, horror films provided another mode of storytelling that served as an antidote to the vapid, feel-good narratives of popular dramas and family counseling. 

Few films expose the limitations of therapy narratives more ruthlessly than David Cronenberg’s The Brood.  After having explored the psychosexual demons haunting the individual human psyche in Shivers and Rabid, the Canadian director anatomized the late-seventies zeitgeist by turning his peculiar attention to the monsters lurking within the fractured family.  The Brood reads like the rotting underbelly of Kramer vs. Kramer, a divorce/child custody drama in which monsters proliferate rather than being put to rest.  After a long and tear-jerking custody battle the Kramers resolve their conflicts amicably, setting free what they love, while The Brood suggests that there is no such thing as emotional closure.

Like Meryl Streep’s dissatisfied housewife, Joanna Kramer, Nola Harveth (Samantha Eggers) is hoping to find herself.  Rather than fulfillment in a career, Nola seeks self-actualization at the ominously named Somafree Institute, an experimental therapy center headed by the bearish psycho-patriarch Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed).  Nola’s husband Frank is disturbed to discover that their five-year-old daughter Candice has a number of bruises on her body after having recently visited her mother at Somafree.  As he confronts Dr. Raglan, he is told that Nola is undergoing a critical stage in her therapy, and can’t be disturbed by accusations of physical abuse. 

We only see Nola in the context of the Somafree Institute, a narrative choice that frames her identity exclusively in terms of the therapeutic setting.  The architecture and interior design resemble a modern-rustic 1970s spa or ski resort, mingling recreational coziness with institutional chill.  This emotional ambivalence permeates Dr. Raglan’s therapy sessions, which exhibit a disturbing combination of empathy and disdain.  Large, A-frame windows reveal the bleak, late-winter weather, reducing the outside world to an emotional void, and reinforcing a need for shelter that the Institute only partly fulfills. 

Dr. Raglan practices a peculiar method of therapy branded as “Psychoplasmics,” in which the patient re-enacts traumatic emotional events in order to externalize or actualize them physically as well as psychically. It is a process of self-transformation that becomes grotesquely real, as patients manifest their mental anguish through bizarre physical transformations. Psychoplasmics is an apt word to describe the kinds of special effects Cronenberg would become notorious for in future films such as Videodrome and Scanners, which mingle the organic and the synthetic in the director’s disturbing re-imagining of the physical body. Cronenberg has become known as a purveyor of “body horror,” in which the monstrous arises from within rather than without. The Brood cunningly turns this motif into a metaphor for psychotherapy itself, which seeks to dredge up and cast out the monsters haunting the unconscious.  But in The Brood these monsters don’t simply go away: they seek out our loved ones and prey upon them.

In this respect, the mind’s monsters resemble the practice of psychotherapy itself, which in Cronenberg’s film seems to foster a parasitic relationship between therapist and subject in which one gains strength from the other. Oliver Reed perfectly captures the smugly knowing, seemingly empathetic but oppressively overbearing quality of the seventies therapist guru. Chest hair spilling from his open shirt, asserting his masculinity while implicitly inviting his patients to “let it all hang out,” Raglan leads his subjects through emotionally-fraught role playing games in which the roles seem to shift, but he is always the one in control. 

Drawn to the film for its sensationalistic elements, I was disturbed to find in Oliver Reed’s character a dead ringer for William Braun, the director of family therapy at the Minneapolis Family Center, or MFC, where my family was undergoing ten weeks of intensive therapy.  My sister and I had renamed it KFC for what we recognized even then as an artificial, pre-packaged brand of therapy, but for my mother these ten weeks were going to save our family.  My father was an alcoholic, but we’d learned that his problem was our problem, in a self-perpetuating cycle of co-dependence that only MFC could break.  We would all have to search ourselves and dredge up our psychic demons in order to create a healthy family environment.

In the mornings we’d all be split up into separate group sessions organized by age level and mode of substance abuse, which came in two brands, dependent and co-dependent.  There’s nothing like putting a bunch of thirteen-year-olds together in a room, overseen by an adult mental health professional, for getting the kids to open up and share their most intimate thoughts and feelings.  These sessions dragged on interminably, as would the various group activities and role-playing games that would fill the middle part of the day.  Most disturbing, however, were the group family sessions, in which three or four families were gathered together, each to address their issues under the shared guidance of a professional therapist. 

My mother was ecstatic to discover that our group’s therapist was none other than the actual director of the Center, William Braun, who was reputed to have done great work for families of alcoholics.  While it took awhile for the parents to warm up to the uncomfortably public nature of these sessions, after a few weeks some of them really started to get a taste for it, and were soon vying for the burly therapist’s attentions, especially the mothers.  The teens in the room studiously avoided eye contact, as their parents laid their emotions bare in sessions that routinely included crying jags, shouting matches and tearful reconciliations.  One session that I will never forget culminated in an impromptu exercise in primal scream therapy, in which Braun and an emotionally distraught Mrs. Knutson kneeled together on a large throw pillow, as he squeezed cries of mingled anguish and ecstasy from the depths of her body.  I’m not sure what Mrs. Knutson got out of it, but I had to sleep with the light on for several days afterward. 

Though I would go on to seek therapy in subsequent years, occasionally with some benefit, I can’t imagine what treatment could have been more effective at the time than seeing The Brood, which allowed me watch the same kinds of bizarre rituals I saw enacted in family therapy, but performed in a way that acknowledged their disturbing strangeness.  Though my motives in seeing films like Cronenberg’s might not have been so different from those of other filmgoers working through their issues vicariously, horror films, at least for me, have always offered a more honest, less processed form of narrative than realist family dramas, or, for that matter, institutions like KFC.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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