Mike Flanagan: Trauma-Informed Filmmaker

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Mike Flanagan understands trauma better than perhaps any filmmaker working in the horror genre today. His entire filmography, from Absentia (2011) to Doctor Sleep (2019), is replete with the nuances and minutiae of living with trauma. Not in a hippy-dippy filmic sense, either, where trauma is just a nice way of embellishing narrative conflict. No, Mike Flanagan understands trauma, and given how often trauma is inextricably linked to the genre, it means that Mike Flanagan understands horror.

Storytelling writ large has the inherent capacity to render fear and desperation as hope and acceptance, the inherent capacity to sift through the rubble, illuminate upon those life-affirming qualities, and rebuild and reinvent a narrative previously acquiescent to the trauma. The protagonists in Mike Flanagan’s films are as diverse as they come, and at the start, they are all grappling with their own distinct trauma in their own distinct way. In Oculus (2013), Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) are grappling with the unexplained deaths of their parents, while in Gerald’s Game (2017), Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) is still reeling from sexual assault at the hands of her father years prior. These trauma-inducing events do more than kickstart the story– they’re core to the characters and their actions.

It would be easy for Flanagan, as some filmmakers do, to inflict trauma on his characters and then do nothing with it. The horror genre, in particular, is sometimes too eager to see, well, the horror in trauma, inundating its characters with expositional and visual pain for the sheer horror of it all; a scary movie equivalent of the trope of using sexual assault as a common backstory for female characters. In horror, children die, parents die, people are maimed, killed, and slaughtered in service to some of the most perfunctory depictions of trauma and recovery committed to screen. Mike Flanagan resists that pulpy temptation, however, and demonstrates great care– think of it like trauma-informed filmmaking– in his stories. Perhaps the reason for this is healing.

Trauma does not have to be congenital to longstanding suffering and resignation from healing. Instead, horror narratives informed by trauma have the potentiality to profoundly reshape the life of a fictional survivor by, in any given individual’s way, making them the protagonists, and the victors, of their own narrative, whatever that might look like. The siblings of The Haunting of Hill House grow closer through their shared pain. In Before I Wake, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Cody (Jacob Tremblay), despite having lost their husband and surrogate father (Thomas Jane) respectively, learn to understand Cody’s gift and the good it can do.

Movies are gateways whereby the human experience is imbued with mediated and cultural content and extended beyond literary passivity into an active, visceral realm. The capacity for films to explore trauma, and to explore it well, is boundless. To wit, Mike Flanagan understands this. Gerald’s Game, for instance, is easily read as a metaphor for the influence of trauma on both the body and mind, while Absentia could be read as indicative of the way trauma can be contagious. Indeed, trauma influences the family, the body, the life, and even the passage of time for survivors. Mike Flanagan’s films are not just about trauma, then, but of trauma. They are narratives of reclamation and loss, hope and despair, healing and pain, and strength and understanding.

Mike Flanagan’s filmography, like the best-informed of movies, is a string of micro trauma narratives that are easily and satisfactorily synthesized into a whole, a thematic through line of understanding and a tangible timeline of healing. Researchers have demonstrated that violence and trauma, much as it leads to physical and mental injury, can also engender a healing response, and Flanagan’s films, in their own distinct way, are just like that– curative, healing cinema.

Violence begets healing, and healing can beget change on both a micro and macro level. It can clarify the uncertainty of the human condition, help survivors cope with their own trauma and experience, and shape survivors into teachers and orators of their own experiences– individuals more comfortable sharing their own stories– thereby inspiring others as well. It’s like Hands Across America, where everyone is connected by healing and understanding. There is reciprocity between storytellers and audiences, and Mike Flanagan as storyteller inspires his audience.

 Mike Flanagan is certainly not the first or only filmmaker, even within the horror genre, to tackle trauma so directly and, frankly, so well. He is, though, among the most consistent and moving in his understanding of trauma, body and mind, his understanding of what power and value the stories he chooses to tell hold. There is unequivocal value in the creation of horror films genuinely informed by trauma, and Mike Flanagan is leading that movement. As a scholar whose research often considers trauma and trauma theory, Mike Flanagan’s work not only make for fascinating filmic case studies, but they also make for, quite frankly, dang good movies.

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