DON’T BE AFRAID by Andrea Janes


This article exists because of a sinkful of dirty pots. I was doing the dishes one afternoon, listening to a podcast on Filmspotting. Guest host Alison Willmore was reviewing Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) when she mentioned off-handedly that the film’s protagonist had been changed from an adult woman in the original version to a female child in the remake. In the 1973 made-for-television movie, Kim Darby plays Sally, a neurotic housewife whose insistence that tiny, evil creatures inhabit her house is ignored and ridiculed by her husband, Alex (Jim Hutton), a self-important lawyer. In the remake, Sally becomes a ten-year-old girl (Bailee Madison). Willmore posited that the change had probably been made because nobody nowadays would believe a character like Kim Darby’s Sally – a housewife, a passive woman, a neurotic-type, clinging to her lawyer husband: “You couldn’t have remade the film as it was because it’s got this weird, almost Victorian female-hysteria edge to it,” Willmore said. In the 1973 version, Darby’s husband tells her, “You’re just stressed out,” or “You’re just imagining things honey,” things that, according to Willmore, would be “unacceptable to say to a grown woman in a modern-day movie.”

As I stood at the sink, wrist-deep in the unbeatable grease-fighting power of Dawn, I pondered this remark. I couldn’t help but wonder enviously of Willmore, “What feminist utopia are you living in? And can I join you there, please?” I am being sincere. Wherever Willmore is speaking from, I want to go to there. In my world, the soothing, masculine there-there-dear has not disappeared. Certainly not in the law office where I temped briefly, fielding calls from the lawyer’s wives out in Great Neck and making coffee (really); certainly not at the restaurant where I wait tables and still get called “sweetheart.” (At the law office at least I got the slightly more professional sounding “young lady,” a bit of a misnomer as I’m thirty-two, but at least a step up from sweetheart.) In my world there were still lots of places for pre-feminist paradigms and soothing, condescending words. I would have believed this character, particularly if her husband was a lawyer.

Because I don’t believe we inhabit a post-sexist society, Willmore’s remark stayed with me. Do we really live in a world where it would be “unacceptable” to tell a grown woman that she was “imagining things,” or do we merely live in a society where it would only be unacceptable to do so openly? Nixey’s remake changes the woman-who-is-treated-like-a-child to an actual child, unconsciously literalizing the patronizing, infantilizing attitudes suffered by Kim Darby’s character in the original film.

This made me wonder if sexism has merely gone “underground” to seep up through our subconscious choices. In other words, it somehow felt more sexist to imagine that such a character wouldn’t or couldn’t even exist anymore, and to write her out of the script, than it would to revisit such a character in a contemporary context. Though the remake overtly represses gender issues by trying to focus the film on the child-character, that which is stifled and denied — what Cynthia Freeland in Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films [1] calls the “blocked, omitted, avoided” — ends up revealing quite a bit about our attitudes toward gender. Society in general, it seems, is telling us, There-there-dear, it’s all right. Everything’s fine now. I would argue that it isn’t. But maybe I’m just imagining things.

Co-writer and producer Guillermo Del Toro defends his choice to write the adult female protagonist into a little girl: “[Sally] was almost pathologically passive in the original movie. She was powerless, and I thought when I saw it that her character was exasperatingly passive for me.” After Del Toro realized Darby’s character was “passive,” he wondered what would happen if he “[made] it about a character that is powerless, rather than by her limitations, is powerless by her age because people don’t believe her.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is an interesting implication. I interpret it to say that the reason nobody believed Kim Darby’s character in the original was not because the claims she was making – little monsters are running around my house trying to kill me – sound insane, but rather because she was a bit of a wishy-washy person. Had she been a great, big horsey outdoorsy woman with a reputation for good old-fashioned common sense, why, they all would have believed her instantly! Del Toro’s line of reasoning doesn’t follow. Darby’s character may have “limitations” – yes, she is clingy, she is passive, she is overwhelmed by the duties of being a trophy wife – but I don’t quite think that’s why almost no one believes her about the murderous little apple dolls. For the record, nobody believes the old (male) caretaker either. Whatever the reasons behind the change, the unfortunate result is that the remake loses many of the pleasures of the original, namely its old-fashioned Freudian imagery. The monsters, of course, represent Kim Darby’s dissatisfaction with her role as housewife and fear that she cannot or even does not want to fulfill that role; the house is a classic psychological stand in for the human state of mind, so the fact that she inhabits a cavernous fixer-upper that she finds totally overwhelming and even menacing, is an obvious, though effective bit of symbolism.

The original version came out at a very interesting time in relation to the women’s movement. Overt references to Sally’s place in the world vis-à-vis her husband and her financial dependence on him are made more than once. When Sally first tells her husband she might be interested in moving out of the big old-dark-house, he says, “It would cost a fortune. See things my way.” To which she replies, “I guess I have to.” Later on when she confides to her friend Joan (Barbara Anderson) about feeling alienated from her husband, Joan airily replies, “We’re just two lonely wives neglected by our husbands. Let’s go and spend some of their money.” This is followed by a long shot of the two woman immediately trotting off to a china shop – because lord knows we gals are passionate about china – and in the midst of the other female shoppers in the street, they suddenly look like incredible throwbacks: dressed conservatively with perfect coifs where the other women sport miniskirts and halter tops and wear their hair long. It is obvious they are already anachronisms, even then. Joan even says, when discussing an infestation of mice in the house, “I don’t care what Women’s Lib tells me, I’m afraid of mice.” By 1973, ten years after The Feminine Mystique, the “hysterical wife” figure wasn’t by any means commonplace and yet it wasn’t altogether extinct, either. The film seems to reflect a general societal sorting out of this transition from old to new, “liberated” woman – a process we are still arguably in the midst of sorting out.

The most interesting difference between the two films is in their treatment of the crucial dinner party, a moment that is pivotal for the careers of the men in the film. This party is a central turning point for both plots, but in the original it comes in much earlier, near the midpoint, while the remake saves it for the more conventional position near the crisis of the story.

In the original, the dinner party scene is filled with tension as Sally, on edge after a few nerve-wracking encounters with her monsters, struggles to keep it together while serving canapés to her husband’s boss. Much has been made of Sally’s role as hostess in the lead-up to the event. “You just married me because I’m the perfect hostess,” she teases her husband, somewhat petulantly. Later when she says she’s going to make “something simple” for dinner, he replies, “Not too simple,” implying that she had better not slack in her role as helpmeet. At the party, she is indeed the perfect hostess, ever polite and discreet, even when her husband’s sexist colleague asks her, “How does it feel to be the wife of a man with a great future?” But her well-groomed façade is a fragile mask and it begins to crack almost immediately after they sit down to dinner. Symbolically, their house is only half renovated, and the guests must sit in a dim room so that they don’t notice Sally’s domestic perfection is only a show; the fact that the creatures choose this moment to make their appearance is, given the psychology of the film, inevitable. Sally tries to ignore the creatures as they pull at her napkin but soon she breaks, screaming, “Alex! Alex! Alex!” Not “Help me!” or “There they are!” but her husband’s name, the creatures embodying her fears for her drifting husband and strained marriage.

The dinner party scene in the remake is less successful. In the 2011 film, Sally suffers from a number of modern-child ailments – broken home, inattentive father, an Adderall dependency – and the creatures initially are her substitute for human companionship (specifically, her father, also named Alex (Guy Pearce)). The dinner party scene is designed to symbolize child-Sally’s need for her father’s attention and his complete lack of awareness of that need, but the sequence falls flat. There is, admittedly, a fairly great visual moment in that scene when the little creatures scratch out their images on the Polaroids Sally takes of them, but beyond that it is just an overlong set-piece wherein Sally runs and runs around the big old house screaming, and then father-Alex stands up and says, “Well, let’s call it a night” and anti-climactically sends his guests away. Nothing has been resolved, the story has not been advanced, and the scene leads into yet another sequence that reprises the basic theme of Alex-not-believing Sally. Without the richness of Kim Darby’s housewife character, the remake suffers from narrative monotony.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the remake is its sentimentality. Much is made of the relationship between Sally and Kim (Katie Holmes), her father’s girlfriend, who, incidentally, is somewhat passive herself, almost always bowing to whatever Alex tells her to do. Despite Sally’s initial hostility toward her, Kim understands Sally on an intrinsic, instantaneous level, immediately believing her about the little creatures (because a woman is so much like a child, mentally). There is a great deal of mush while the two girls bond and cry, none of which adds anything to the film except tedium. At the end of the film, Kim is sucked into the furnace and killed by the little creatures, but she has saved Sally’s life. Sally makes it up to her, though, by visiting the crime-scene a few days later (in the requisite horror-film coda) and placing a drawing of the two of them near the spot where Kim died. “I love you,” the child whispers. This ending is manipulative and trite.

Now let’s contrast that pat ending with the lingering horror of Sally’s death in the original – yes, the protagonist bites it. Our heroine, the main focus of our attention for the last hour-or-so gets sucked into the furnace and dies, and the house devours the housewife.

Adult-Sally’s shattering death is an audacious end for an uneven film. It is certainly more horrifying than a child’s whispered, “I love you.” I couldn’t help but wish that child-Sally had placed that drawing down near Kim’s fiery grave and said instead, “Thanks guys,” with a wink to the creatures.

It would have been a far more unsettling film if only the female adult protagonist had been allowed to exist. If the absence of women from history is the unfortunate legacy of patriarchy, the murder of adult-Sally seems, however unconsciously or unintentionally, to repeat this erasure. The cinema – yet again – becomes “a fortress of male superiority: in it there is no room for woman.”[2] It is interesting to consider the death of the character of Kim here. It struck me that the remake still ensures an adult woman is sacrificed – perhaps it is not so easy to sublimate the gendered symbolism of the original after all.

By attempting to remove gender issues from the narrative (though not quite succeeding, as Kim’s death shows) and trying to focus the film on a sexless child, the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remake stifles and denies many potential opportunities for horror and turns the film into a neutered, watered-down rehash where every plot point is completely expected. (She’s a child; of course they don’t believe her. How dull.) A remake that dared to re-explore the gender roles of the original would have been much more shocking and unexpected. The very jarring nature of a hysterical-woman character in 2011 would have made it strange, and could have made the film work. An adult seeing small creatures in the basement is unsettling, uncanny and much more impactful than a child seeing monsters.

Del Toro’s movie is destined to be quickly forgotten. Nothing of it lingers in the mind after viewing, except maybe an irritation at having wasted your time watching it. This piece of criticism is merely a lament for a missed opportunity; by imagining we have come so much further than we really have, we are forgetting the essential human problems that still linger below the surface of our apparently modern society, still very much present – the little nightmare creatures in the basement of our subconscious minds that still whisper to us in the night.



[1] Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004

[2] Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel), 1970