Plot summary: Teenage Lisa Johnson is stuck in a time loop that is not quite the same each time. She must uncover the truth, but her actions have consequences for herself and others.
Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussion of rape, domestic violence and murder. There are also extensive spoilers for the film Haunter.
In this entry, I discuss girl ghosts, dead girls, domestic violence and the importance of execution over a wholly original premise in the Canadian mystery thriller film Haunter.
The film begins with Canadian fifteen-year-old Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) spending a dull Sunday at home with her mother Carol (Michelle Nolden), father Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) and younger brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha). Her mother tells her to go down to the basement and start the laundry. “I did it yesterday, you just don’t remember me doing it,” Lisa says in a sulky voice. Informed that her father is trying to fix the car, Lisa remarks, “He won’t fix it.” She is sullen, removed and disinterested in family life, which the film seems to attribute to both her age and her general demeanour. However, her demeanour is a red herring.
Concerned about her sullen attitude, Lisa’s parents sit her down for a discussion. Lisa explains her malaise in what seem to be melodramatic terms. “Every morning, [Carol] makes [pancakes] for breakfast, and [Bruce is] always trying to fix the car, which for some mysterious reason has always stopped running. Then, mac and cheese for lunch. Then, we have meat loaf for dinner every night. And at eight, we watch Murder, She Wrote and go to bed, wake up tomorrow, and do the exact same thing.” When her parents point out that the children will be attending school tomorrow, and Bruce has work, Lisa tells them, “There is no school. There is no work. … It’s always the day before I turn sixteen.”
Lisa’s parents ask her whether she is bored or anxious, or if she is concerned about a boy. They encourage her to try and explain, in more concrete terms, what the issue is. Simmering with helpless frustration, Lisa shoots back, “I have tried to explain it many times, and you guys just never remember and you don’t believe … [t]hat we’re stuck in this house and we’re never gonna leave. Because all of us –”
At this moment, Robbie screams at her to shut up, and Carol and Bruce rush to comfort him. They demand that Lisa tell her brother that everything is fine. Avoiding their eyes, she says flatly, “I’m gonna go finish playing the clarinet in my room. Let me know when the mac and cheese is ready.”
As the next day begins, we quickly find that Lisa’s feelings of boredom, frustration and even fear are justified. As Lisa predicted, the next day plays out exactly the same as the one we just witnessed. Each and every day is the same Sunday in 1985. Lisa practices the clarinet, her brother plays a video game, her mother does household chores and her father works on the car. The house is surrounded by a heavy fog which obscures the rest of the neighbourhood from sight and prevents the Johnsons from ever venturing outside. The family are stuck in a time loop which no-one except for Lisa notices (or will admit to having noticed). The entire family are dead, and this Sunday afternoon is their afterlife.
Haunter bears some basic similarities to films like The Others and The Sixth Sense, in which characters are unaware that they have entered the afterlife. Like Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run and Predestination, it also features a closed time loop, in which characters live out the same events over and over. However, Haunter uses this premise in novel ways, especially from a girlhood representation perspective.
A film using plot elements which have been seen before does not mean it cannot be original. For example, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games both feature dystopian societies which enter teenagers into a fight to the death, which they are picked for via lottery. However, the ways that they play out this premise (which dates back to the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur) differ considerably, which is a big part of where the relative strengths and weaknesses of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale come from. When it comes to films about people realising they are ghosts, the reveal that the characters are dead often comes as a twist ending. However, in Haunter, the reveal that the family are murder victims endlessly reliving their final Sunday at home sparks Lisa’s journey to discover who killed them and how she can protect others from their killer.
Dead (specifically, murdered) teenage girls figure prominently in the horror, crime, mystery and thriller genres. The death of a teenage girl often serves to set a plot in motion, as a male and/or adult seeks must obtain justice on the part of a victim whose powerlessness is threefold, being that she is female, young and dead. The girl’s death is seen as particularly unfair because she was young and innocent. As Sady Doyle points out, “You’ll rarely see a horror film in which the monster goes around slaughtering 70-year-old retired insurance agents” (2013). While the girl’s death is considered tragic, this is much more because of what she represents than who she was as a person. In fact, the girl in question is unlikely to be characterised, beyond being either innocent and unknowing (and thus undeserving of death) or wild and promiscuous (and thus having courted death).
Often, a film will imply that part of the tragedy of the girl’s death is that she was never able to become a sexual being. This usually entails having heterosexual intercourse with a committed partner. In the film The Lovely Bones (adapted from Alice Sebold’s book), the murdered girl Susie Salmon is stranded in the In-Between, a place midway between Heaven and Earth, from which she watches her surviving family and her murderer as they go about their lives. For decades, she hopes that her murderer will be caught, and yearns to experience the kiss she was never able to have in life. Eventually, Susie’s spirit inhabits the body of a clairvoyant friend, Ruth, and kisses Ray, the boy she loved in life. This fulfils Susie’s final wish and allows her to enter Heaven.
That the tragedy of a girl’s death so frequently stems from her sexual inexperience indicates that not experiencing sex is something which deserves to be unpacked. Now, while I would have dearly loved to kiss another girl during my teenage years, when I would picture myself menaced by a murderer, my imaginary pleas for mercy usually took the form of announcing that I wanted to be a writer more than anything in the world, and I didn’t want to die without having told my stories. Even as a hormonal teenager, there were things I wanted to do as much as, or even more than, I wanted to have sex, but this is not often reflected in stories about teenage girls and death.
This is not to say that it is wrong or juvenile for people to dread dying without having sex. Regarding the book version of The Lovely Bones (in which Susie sleeps with Ray, rather than simply kissing him), Brian Norman argues that Susie having the opportunity to experience sex is “an unexpected form of justice, even if it seems childish or suburban. This teaches us not to impose a predetermined vision of social justice on […] women” (2013: 20). I simply argue that this portrayal stems at least in part from the idea that sex is what makes us human (which is problematic for those of us who are asexual – do they never become human, even if they live to a hundred and two?). It also derives partly from the idea that heterosexuality, sexual intercourse and motherhood are the most meaningful parts of a woman’s life.
That the most tragic part of a girl’s death is that she never had sex or became a mother is something that we often see with girl murder victims in reality. In the recent CBS documentary on the murdered child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, the investigators described the tragedy of her death by imagining that, had she lived, she might “have a family of her own” by now. I bristled somewhat at this, considering that JonBenet was my age. While she might very well have a family of her own by now, it’s also equally likely that she wouldn’t, considering that the average age of a first-time mother in the United States is currently a little over twenty-six years old. It’s like the only noteworthy thing they could imagine a girl growing up to do is have sex and become a mother – which is rather insulting, considering that JonBenet was a talented performer at the competition level. While she may not have become a professional performer, this would indicate a range of virtues outside of her reproductive capabilities: dedication, creativity, the ability to win and lose honourably. A woman who had spent her life cultivating these qualities could conceivably channel them into parenthood, professional life, both or neither. Our sexual and reproductive lives are not the measure of who we are as people.
The intertwining of a girl and death also has its roots in the idea of the ideal sexual object as passive. Considering the film Deadgirl, in which two boys sexually assault a female zombie, Steve Jones argues that the dead girl of the title is “an erotic object because she epitomizes powerlessness” (2013: 532). The same could be said of the endless parade of murdered teenage girls in film and television, so many of them categorised strictly as innocent virgins or wild whores. In much of media, there is no person more powerless than a murdered girl, and this is where the interest in her (whether narrative or erotic) generally lies.
In light of these stock images of dead girls as ciphers, there’s something wonderful about seeing a murdered girl as a heroine with agency. In Haunter, the fact that Lisa has lost her life does not mean that she must resign herself to a fate worse than death. The tragedy of Lisa’s death does not stem from the fact that she never got to become a mother or make her (hetero)sexual debut, but from her predicament of being forever trapped in a house with a father who is about to snap.
Lisa is neither an innocent girl-child or a dead sexpot. She’s a thoroughly average girl in her mid-teens who is a bit mean to her little brother, has chores to do around the house and has to practice clarinet on a Sunday using a dorky recording of Peter and the Wolf. She makes no reference to schoolfriends or a love interest. From this, the audience could infer that Lisa was something of a loner, that she has spent so long reliving her final day that she no longer remembers her classmates, or some combination of the above.
Her costuming and the set dressing of her bedroom helps to show the life she lived before her murder. Lisa wears a Siouxsie and the Banshees shirt, black jeans and little silver earrings in the shape of the ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol signifying the concept of eternal life). This costuming shows her personality, while not being unrealistic for what a fifteen-year-old punk girl living in the Toronto suburbs in 1985 would wear around the house on a Sunday. A home movie of the Johnson family moving into their house shows Lisa in 1984, wearing a rather girlier outfit than her current punk style, suggesting that her interests in punk music and fashion are a more recent development.
Lisa’s room also shows her personality. A string of Chinese lanterns adorn her bedframe, posters of David Bowie and The Smiths decorate the walls, and a collection of well-loved teddy bears are clustered in a corner. This alludes to her earlier teen years (the lanterns), her childhood (the teddies) and the time shortly before her murder (the posters).
Throughout the film, Lisa uses everything she has at her disposal – a Parker Brothers Ouija board, her physical strength, her deductive skills and her willingness to seek the truth, even when it is horrifying – to liberate herself, her family and her murderer’s other victims from the hellish situation they have been placed in.
The figure of the murdered girl has an additional significance for people who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as potential victims of violence. Many girls and women take precautions such as holding our keys between our fingers as a makeshift weapon, or making sure that our entire group of friends leaves a party at the same time. We share and internalise rape and assault prevention strategies, even when we are fully aware that they are nothing more than a “ritualized expression of anxiety” which serves primarily to “make[… us] feel slightly better about things [we] can’t control” (Harding 2015: 32).
This violence that girls and women are taught to imagine is often visited upon us by a shadowy boogeyman, leaping out from an alley or a clump of bushes, or breaking into our houses. The fear that so many girls and women have of being murdered by a stranger is somewhat unfounded, given that many women are murdered by their family members or romantic partners. Haunter compromises on this by having Lisa’s father kill his family while being possessed by the spirit of a murderer, similarly to the film Hide and Seek (also the subject of an entry on this blog), in which the father of the family becomes a killer while under the sway of an alternate personality. That cinema cannot seem to portray a middle-class father terrorising his partner and children without explaining it away using the supernatural or “multiple personalities” is significant. However, depicting the horror of domestic violence as originating largely within the family, rather than a murderer creeping into a house or pouncing from an alleyway, takes a step toward acknowledging how dangerous the family home can be. Increased awareness creates the opportunity to address domestic and family violence in practical ways.
Another notable facet of Haunter is that Lisa must make contact with her murderer’s other young female victims, namely Frances (Samantha Weinstein) in 1953 and Olivia (Eleanor Zichy) in 2013.
Lisa does this using her Ouija board, her clarinet, the air vent in her room and the trophies that the murderer took from each girl and stashed in a secret space beneath the house. Here, we have a murder victim not only striking back against the supernatural force that killed her, but enlisting other girls to do so. Lisa’s loyalty to the other girls is such that she even allows her family to progress to the afterlife without her, once they have all “woken up” and realized that they are dead, because she must rescue Olivia. This contradicts the common pattern of the lone female character who has no use for other girls:
Alone in a group of men, she is the exception. ‘Not like other girls’, the strong female is exceptional by virtue of the fact that she ‘fights like a man’. She is not allowed to be vulnerable, she is often never given the chance to communicate with other women- because her basic plotline so often begins with ‘all women are weak’ and ends with ‘except me’ (Ford 2015: 32)
In Haunter, Lisa isn’t special for her isolation from other girls; Lisa actively needs the other girls in order to achieve her goal. Were it not for her murderer’s efforts to prevent her from communicating with the other victims, the mystery would have been solved much more quickly.
The only boys in the film are Lisa’s younger brother and Lisa’s murderer as a child. However, the film is extremely White, with no people of colour appearing onscreen. I am unsure of how racially segregated middle-class neighbourhoods in northern Ontario were between the 1950s and the 1980s, so perhaps it was largely accurate to portray both Frances and Lisa as White girls. However, considering that the murders continued after the Johnsons’ deaths in 1985, it would have been feasible to cast Olivia or any of the other victims as people of colour. This is my only major gripe with the film from a representational standpoint: even in a film where most of the principal characters are members of the same family or residents of the same house, there is really no reason for every single character to be White.
Finally, I will note that Haunter has some striking similarities to the French folk tale Bluebeard, in which a young heroine marries a mysterious aristocrat. Bluebeard leaves his new bride alone in his castle, telling her she may go anywhere except one particular room. Overcome by curiosity, the heroine enters the forbidden room, only to find it filled with the murdered bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives. She accidentally drops the key, staining it with blood and incriminating herself when Bluebeard returns. Bluebeard permits her one final prayer before he kills her, but luckily, a cavalry of the heroine’s brothers arrive and slay Bluebeard. In Haunter, the murderer is Bluebeard, Lisa is the young wife whose curiosity drives her to search for the truth, and the other girls are the cavalry who arrive to rescue the heroine just when things are at their most dire.
- Doyle, Sady. 2013. “The Violently Killed Femmes.” In These Times. http://inthesetimes.com/article/15006/the_violently_killed_femmes
- Ford, Elizabeth. 2015. Feminist Field Notes : A Girl’s Guide to the Gender Revolution. Lulu Press.
- Harding, Kate. 2015. Asking For It: Slut-Shaming, Victim-Blaming, and How We Can Change America’s Rape Culture. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
- Jones, Steve. 2013. “Gender Monstrosity: Deadgirl and the Sexual Politics of Zombie-Rape.” Feminist Media Studies 13(3): 525-539.
- Norman, Brian. 2013. Dead Women Talking: Figures of Injustice in American Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.