When I say that WandaVision is my favorite horror from 2021, that is equal parts a comment on how much I unexpectedly liked the Marvel show and on how dry the horror landscape currently is due to Covid-19 restrictions. The horror of 2021 has been… lackluster. Among the content that’s actually worthwhile, A Quiet Place II and The Conjuring III were both enjoyable, but didn’t really bring much new to the table. They were sequels. They were popcorn.
But I was craving something new. Something that made me be like, “yeah, that’s why I love this genre.” And, despite it not actually being a horror series, that ended up being WandaVision. Despite it not being horror-centric, the slivers of horror in WandaVision have stayed with me far longer than some of the other fun-but-forgettable “pure horror.” WandaVision uses its horror elements as a tool, much like it uses its TV-series-of-the-week format to build a complex picture of Wanda’s psyche. It is a reminder that horror can be thoughtful, that sometimes horror appears in unexpected places.
Why It’s Effective: WandaVision and the Uncanny
“Any reader of terror, horror, the Gothic and related tales of fantasy and the supernatural is likely to remember at least one moment of exposure to an unsettling image capable of jarring perception out of its habitual operations. Such moments are comparable to those uncanny situations in which, having become absorbed in a routine activity, we suddenly become aware of an unfamiliar thought or feeling uncoiling through our minds and bodies.”Dani Cavallero, Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror and Fear
The uncanny is a powerful but subtle horror element that turns a seemingly normal scenario into something truly disturbing. WandaVision makes use of the uncanny from its very first episode, an unexpected but welcome guest. WandaVision, like Thor: Ragnorok, is a refreshing piece of Marvel media because it instantly suBveRts oUr exPecTatIoNs of the genre (sorry, it’s hard to use that phrase with a straight face). Since 2012, moviegoers have become well-versed in the language of the onscreen superhero story. We know what to expect; we are primed for certain plot points, specific emotional beats.
WandaVision’s pilot deviates from the formula. Its Dick Van Dyke loves Lucy visuals let us know, off the bat, that this is not going to be your average superhero story. As the first episode unfolds, we are given a story that is both quirky and familiar. Midway through the episode, despite the initial jarringness of the new style, you start to settle in. Okay, so there aren’t going to be any explanations. This is nice. This is classic. This is comfortable.
That is when the uncanny strikes. That is always when the uncanny strikes. It is in those moments when we conceptualize the ordinary that strangeness can slip in.
“The Uncanny is the everyday made unnerving. Objects out of space and time. Doors that close on their own. The strangeness in the ordinary… There is nothing horrifying about a sleeping cat. There’s something deeply unsettling about a sleeping cat when you can also hear it outside, yowling.”Georgina Pearsall, “The Uncanny,” An Ever-updating Glossary of Horrors
Right at the moment when everything traditionally goes right, everything goes wrong. As sitcoms have been on the small screen for almost a century now, like with superhero movies, we have a pretty good understanding of their general structure. Each episode promises a bite-sized drama, an emotional journey that will be wrapped up by the end of its twenty-four-minute run. Things need to worsen before they get better, but by the end of the third act, everything is hunky-dory. For most of the episode, WandaVision’s “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience,” follows this formula to a tee. Hijinks ensue when unexpected guests come over for dinner. Wanda’s magic is helping more than it’s hurting but, when all seems lost, after a surge of determination, dinner is served.
Then Arthur chokes on his food. “Stop it,” his wife smiles affably, “Oh, Arthur, stop it.” Has she noticed he’s choking? His hands claw at his throat, eyes bulging. The screen is in grayscale, but we can clearly sense his purpling face. “Stop it,” she smiles. Her eyes say, sorry for the fuss. “Stop it.” Wanda looks on in horror as Arthur drops to the floor, gasping. “Stop it, Arthur.” Something is wrong. “Stop it. Stop it! STOP IT.”
Then, suddenly, all is back to normal. They eat their dinner, Wanda and Vision reaffirm their love for each other, and the couple settles in for a comfortable night. The sitcom veneer has been reapplied, but we no longer trust it.
When watching a horror movie, audiences enter with an “expectation of misfortune.” The expectation of misfortune is a cousin of suspension of disbelief, outlining how horror audiences know that, no matter what happens, things are going to go wrong. We know, going in, that this is a piece of horror. Even in slow burn horror, which begins with business as usual, we are always waiting for the penny to drop. When everything is good, we know it’s going to be bad, because this is a horror movie, and that’s what we’re here for.
“The emotion of fear is common in everyone’s daily life. We fear natural disasters: tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods. People also experience danger and fear when they see gangsters, murderers, and carnivorous animals. The human body’s chemical and mechanical responses encourage people to flee or fight before real danger occurs. However, in the cinematic context, people who buy a ticket to a horror movie already know that they will be terrified and horrified by what they see on the screen. They will still sit in the dark to enjoy horror movies with others who have made the same choice.”Fu, Xiangyi. Horror movie aesthetics: How color, time, space and sound elicit fear in an audience
When we sat down to watch WandaVision, we didn’t have that expectation of misfortune. At least, not in the way we traditionally would with a piece of horror. However, WandaVision does prime us to expect that something is wrong. The problem is that, like Wanda, we let the comfortable sitcom trappings obscure the question that should have been front of mind: why is Vision here? Vision is dead.
Why it’s Effective: Fear in the Everyday
“[Horror] helps us see that a notion of everyday life completely secure against threats cannot be possible, and that the security of common sense is a persistent illusion…the idea of security in the everyday is based on an intellectually dubious but pragmatically attractive construction. We can hardly resist relying on the world not to annihilate us, and we can hardly resist trusting others not to do so. This is not because such reliance is rationally compulsory, but because we choose it as the most easy and natural strategy. One of the best things about horror is that it allows us viscerally to experience this as an epistemological choice.”Philip J. Nickel, “The Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: on Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds”
We need to believe that everyday life is rational and safe. WandaVision preys upon this belief, uncovering how flimsy it really is. While the setting of WandaVision is fantastical, its classic sitcom plots set the show’s plot points firmly in traditional human milestones: moving in together, getting married, having children. WandaVision builds an idealized suburban life in order to destroy that very vision of perfection.
In How WandaVision Captured the Secret Horror of The Sims, Matthew Byrd explores how often destroyed normalcy draws us in. “As we watched Wanda and Vision take refuge in their idealistic suburban nightmare, millions wondered how they got there and what it all meant. We were fascinated by the idea of this powerful creature somehow pulling the strings in a world which, on the surface, seemed to disown the very idea of harm.”
The article compares Wanda’s grip on her reality and search for the “security, familiarity, and comforts” of a standard life to the gamified life milestones in The Sims. “In Wanda’s case, though, there is a sense that what she’s really striving for isn’t really an organic environment of social interactions but rather a form of controlled chaos,” continues Byrd. Wanda’s failed attempts to control the chaotic, multifaceted possibilities of a small “simple” town remind the viewer that even in the most comfortable, familiar setting, there are always factors out of our control.
Control is a major motif in WandaVision. The show questions what it means to be in control, exploring the relationship between restriction and freedom. One of the most horrifying elements in WandaVision is the realization that Wanda is in complete control of the town, subjugating the free will of dozens of other souls. Her enforced security and comfort are tortuous to the Eastview residents, who have no choice but to bear it with a grin.
In The Autopsy of Jane Doe Is the Most Tasteful Movie Ever Made About Cutting Up a Woman’s Corpse, Jordan Crucchiola describes horror as “a genre of violation.” Crucchiola explains that horror essentially tortures its characters, physically or emotionally, which the audience absorbs in watching. That is, suffering is an intrinsic part of horror. Likewise, iIn WandaVision, Monica Rambeau describes Wanda’s mind control as a “violation”.
The reframing of the sitcom setting as malicious throws every aspect of the world into question. We go from trusting everything to trusting nothing. Vision, in a quest to uncover the truth, wakes Norm from his waking nightmare. “She’s in my head. None of it is my own. It hurts; it hurts so much. Just make her stop!” Norm, Vision realizes, is suffering. Everyone, we realize, is suffering. When Vision returns Norm to his mind-controlled, placid state, it is not for Norm’s sake but his own. In that moment, he cannot face the horror of his certainty in the everyday being ripped from him so violently.
Why It’s Effective: Comfort Watches and Fear of the Unknown
“The story, such as it is, is about the various characters of the show-within-a-show, also called [WandaVision], realizing that they’re trapped by the series they’re a part of… In particular, [WandaVision] turns its sights on the ways that an endless focus on nostalgia can poison our relationship to particular culture… Imagine, [WandaVision] seems to ask, if characters in your favorite shows were actually doomed to exist within them. Wouldn’t that be hell?”
So, through some wily trickery, I have bamboozled you (lol, let’s see if the person who edits this lets me keep that line). The above quote is not, in fact, about WandaVision. It’s actually from an Adult Swim article about surreal horror short, Too Many Cooks.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that literary criticism of “Too Many Cooks” and WandaVision end up touching on similar points. “Too Many Cooks” and WandaVision have a lot in common not only in format, but also in theming and in their general language of horror. Like WandaVision, “Too Many Cooks” uses humor and familiar imagery to lull us into a false sense of security, which slowly burns away as we realize that all is not as it seemed.
As Emily VanDerWerff explains in Why the internet is obsessed with the truly bizarre Too Many Cooks (the article quoted above), “At first glance, Too Many Cooks is just an elaborate parody of opening credits sequences, starting out as a knock on bad sitcoms, before traversing everything from the cop show to the science fiction show to slasher films. But there’s way more going on underneath the surface, and a surprising amount of depth to its commentary not just on its chosen medium, but the ruinous tug of nostalgia.”
In “On Repeat: Why People Watch Movies and Shows Over and Over,” Derek Thompson explores the reason why people come back to the same shows and movies time and time again. “Familiar fare requires less mental energy to process, and when something is easy to think about, we tend to consider it good. A movie we’ve seen seven times before is blissfully easy to process.”
WandaVision (and “Too Many Cooks”) takes advantage of the assumption that sitcoms are “blissfully easy to process” to create a vision of safety that cannot actually be trusted. Wanda creates a world that is not only escapist for herself in the show’s context, but that uses the language of familiar escapist media for many of the viewers. We experience her pain and her fear alongside her as we watch the perfect facade crack. We understand the craving for comfort.
WandaVision, at the peaks of its horror, suggests that there is no escape from pain that’s already there. Despite Wanda creating a fantasy world where all can be solved, there are cracks where reminders of suffering slip through. The fantasy is nothing more than that: fantasy. By breaking down the foundation of Wanda’s sitcom world, WandaVision also chips away at our own fantasy of the idealized sitcom world, which we turn to for safety and comfort. WandaVision reminds us that popping on a sitcom doesn’t solve the problem; it merely puts it on pause.
Why it’s Effective: Wanda As an Unreliable Narrator
One of the most interesting questions in WandaVision (to me, anyway) is: Is Wanda the villain? We assume, going in, that Wanda is the hero, both because we traditionally align with protagonists and because she is literally a superhero. But the more we learn about her involvement in the unfolding events, the less certain we become.
At the start of WandaVision, we root for Wanda and Vision as they attempt to build a traditional life together despite the strangeness that surrounds them. We are empathetic towards her as the cracks in her idealized life terrify her. When the radio blasts “Help Me, Rhonda” as a strange woman calls out for Wanda, our sympathy lies with Wanda. We see her as a victim. Just one episode later, we realize how wrong that assumption was. We realize that, like the others in the town, we’ve been manipulated by Wanda.
The realization is chilling. An unreliable narrator like Wanda, who is both charming and manipulative is terrifying because it causes us to question our ability to discern truth and goodness.
Once we realize that Wanda is the perpetrator, the cracks in the foundation of the world take on a new meaning. As the town slips out of Wanda’s control, we don’t feel calmer. These aren’t steps back towards normalcy, but forward towards complete chaos. Yes, Wanda’s mind control gets at our fear of non-autonomy, but Wanda’s lack of control gets at our deeply rooted fear of the unknown.
The way WandaVision introduces horror elements reminds me a lot of watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe for the first time. For the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, each new piece of information provokes more questions than answers. It is uncanny, irrational. It breaks the established rules that information begets understanding. It stokes our fear of the unknown. The same is true of WandaVision. The broken radio, Vision as a corpse, the sudden and unprompted pregnancy. These are all elements that almost belong in our reality, but not quite. Instead, they are known elements taken just far enough out of context to be creepy. And worse, with each new piece of information, we understand less of what’s happening. With each new clue, the world as we know it becomes more and more distant.
The horror-strange in WandaVision is so effective because it often undercuts otherwise tender moments. Wanda and Vision realize they’re pregnant and, as they celebrate, there is a terrible sound outside. Along the misty street, a manhole cover is slowly moving away. From it, a man in a beekeeper costume emerges. Bees buzz around him like omens. No, Wanda says. She doesn’t want this. She created this place to escape pain and suffering, but there really isn’t an escape for that. If you try to tamp them down as she does, they bubble up in the strangest and most terrifying ways.
Horror as a Means of Exploring Grief: WandaVision and the Babadook
Horror is not a delicate genre. Grief is a delicate subject. You’d imagine that, as a result, the two would make terrible bedfellows. But, the thing about the human experience is that painful experiences lead to ugly emotions. Horror provides an avenue to explore the darker, more unseemly emotions. In horror, you don’t need to be delicate.
Is Wanda a villain? From the point of view of the citizens of Eastview, the answer is, “yes, obviously.” From the point of view of the government agencies trying to stop her, the answer is, “yes, of course.” From the point of view of Monica Rambeau, who has the best possible insight into Wanda’s psyche, the answer is “no, but her pain has caused her to do villainous things.”
Wanda isn’t thoughtful in the way that she expresses her grief. She isn’t mindful of the way it affects others, which has dire consequences. The thing is, those going through grief are not always going to be model “sufferers.” Grief is not a simple, straightforward process where it is easy to always be conscientious, self-aware, and emotionally intelligent. Grief can, and often is, messy.
The first time I watched 2014’s The Babadook, honestly, I didn’t like it. We’d shoved it on as background noise at a party, and I thought it was so dumb. I thought Amelia’s reactions to the monster were unrealistic, and the ending where they keep the monster as a pet was absurd. Then I rewatched it, this time from a lonely college dorm room, thousands of miles away from home for the first time ever, with my full undivided attention, and it clicked. They don’t keep the monster at the end because they want to; they keep it because they have to. The monster doesn’t go away; it just becomes something we learn to manage and live with.
“[The Babadook] is about the aftermath of death; how its remnants destroy long after the dead body has been buried or burned; it’s about how a loved one’s death can erode, and then threaten to kill a family….In its presence–jolting, sudden, horrific—the monster is the monster of grief. The grief in this house is extreme of course; this is a horror movie, after all. It controls, differently, mother and son. It warps them and yet makes them, and horrifies them both as it does so—just as grief does.”Tim Teeman, Grief: The Real Monster in The Babadook
While torment and loss are common themes of superhero media (I mean, if a superhero hasn’t lost a girlfriend or mom at some point, can you really call them a superhero?) but this is often resolved pretty neatly. The hero cannot save the girl in the end, it sucks, they learn from the experience, and they ultimately become a better hero. The narratives only scratch the surface of what the loss of a loved one can do to our life.
WandaVision offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the grieving process. The entire season centers on an exploration of Wanda’s grief. The pain of loss feels larger than life, an emotion too large for any one body. In WandaVision, this conceptualization is made literal; her grief extends to the entire town of Eastview. The residents are tortured not only because of their state of suspended animation but because her suffering resonates within each of them. Teeman describes the grief in The Babadook as “all-enveloping, shape-shifting, black, here intensely, terrifying, then gone.” This is the vision of grief in WandaVision. Wanda’s desire to escape the overwhelming emotion proves, ultimately, unstable. The only way out, she realizes, is through.
“Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Being alive is kind of a horror show. Not to sound all edgy, but humans expect themselves to deal with a lot when it comes to existing. Birth is disgusting. Keeping a sentient meat sack alive is time-consuming and often uncomfortable. Death is non-negotiable, not just for you but for everyone you will ever love.
I love the way you can explore fear and other “ugly” emotions in horror. The more I’ve fallen in love with horror, the more I see it everywhere. Elements of horror crop up in the places you’d least expect: children’s media like Coraline and A Case of the Stripes (a book not meant to be scary, but which terrified my sister to no end), satire like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, existential literature like The Bell Jar and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, superhero shows like WandaVision.
WandaVision is not a horror show, but it offers some really interesting aspects of horror. WandaVision uses its horror to offer insight into Wanda’s mind. She is a magic superhero that has taken a town hostage with her funky witch powers to bring back her cyborg space rock boyfriend. Her situation is completely unrelatable. She is a person who just lost her partner and, in her pain, would do anything to get him back. Her situation could not be more relatable. That is what’s so terrifying. We see ourselves in her pain. We understand where she’s coming from.