Parenthood as the Ultimate Horror in A Quiet Place
Parenthood is an exercise in managing fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt. It gets to be that you don't realize all the little things that you have to do in order to give yourself a modicum of peace of mind. You turn off the stove and push the hot pan towards the back of the range; you set the knife against the wall instead of resting it on the edge of the counter; you grow adept at stepping over baby gates; you become accustomed to working a locking mechanism any time you need something from under the sink. Growing these defenses is a way to ensure that the life you created maintains itself, and as your child grows you move on from protecting them to teaching them to protect themselves, with the perhaps unstated purpose of making sure that should you need it they will be able to protect you.
Many horror films make hay of putting a child in danger (I would usually put a list of a few examples here, but, come on) but few so viscerally engage with the existential fear of raising a child and preparing them for life as A Quiet Place. Not content to simply exploit the helplessness of children and the immediate pathos of threatening them, this film wrestles with the ever-present stress of raising a family and how it can give focus in a world gone mad while also making every single choice or action take on apocalyptic proportions.
Directed by, co-written by, and starring John Krasinski (The Office, 13 Hours), A Quiet Place focuses on the Abbott family, a typical nuclear family in upstate New York, as they struggle to survive in a world that has fallen apart. Blind, agile predators of unknown origin have decimated the population, hunting via sound and killing with swift fury. To evade detection and eke out a normal semblance of a life on their farm, the Abbott's have had to adapt to a soundless existence, dedicated to creating as little noise as possible. Their tactics are ingenuous and sensible—pouring sand on common trails to muddle their unshod steps; using lettuce leaves as plates; replacing board game pieces with soft totems; painting steps to show the best place to step to avoid creaking.
As with all adjustments to life made for the sake of child-rearing, by the time we are introduced to the Abbotts these precautions seem second-nature. There are, however, complications. For one, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), their eldest daughter, is deaf, and therefore can't be sure when she is making too much noise. Equally as dangerous, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), the matriarch of the Abbotts, is pregnant, and two weeks away from her due date. Anyone who has had a baby knows that the first two or three years are nothing but noise. It is, after all, an infant's only means of communication.
Lee (Krasinski) has been hard at working making plans to deal with both complications. For the coming baby, a cellar has been converted into a makeshift soundproof room. A crate has been lined with sound-muffling material and given a nearly air-tight top to serve as a crib, with a neonatal oxygen mask provided to avoid suffocation. These are extreme measures, but they are exactly the kind of adaptations and creative workarounds any new parent is familiar with. There is something utterly comforting and horrifying about watching these measures being prepared; you can feel kinship with the extreme measures being taken to secure your family, while also shaking your head that such steps are necessary.
Likewise, Lee has been attempting to study the structure of the human ear and minor acoustical electronics to attempt to give his daughter a workable hearing aid. Reading books, soldering circuits, straining under the weight of his lack of knowledge and skill to attempt to equip his daughter with the tool that might mean the difference between life and death. It is the picture of any parent who has ever had to take a crash course in colic, infection, or any of the other maladies that might afflict their child, to say nothing of the challenges that come with being the parent of child with a disability. While Lee is struggling to provide the tools to survive to Regan, however, Regan is struggling to come to terms with the way that her father looks at her and feels about her.
Here, the existential dread couples itself with the practical challenges of parenthood. It is one thing to try to keep your child away from sharp objects or flights of stairs; quite another to watch them grow up and feel the gulf of existence separating you. There comes a point where you cannot simply interact with your child as a caretaker and protector anymore. You have to reach out to them as a human being, and forge between you a common understanding on an emotional level. The complexity of maturation and agency suddenly adds dimensions to the relationship that had previously not existed. What use is it to keep your child safe and alive if they feel as though they are a burden—that your work is out of duty rather than love? A child with a disability will already feel at a remove from a world not designed to accommodate them, and a parent who works too hard to fix that for them without taking the time to simply be with them and let them know that they are loved as they are runs the risk of making that alienation all the worse.
Therein lies the balancing act of parenthood, which is artfully illustrated in A Quiet Place during a scene during which Lee takes his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) to collect fish from traps in the river. Marcus has been perfectly trained to remain silent at all times, to keep himself safe from the monsters that threaten them, but his training and the need for caution have left him crippled with fear and anxiety. It falls to Lee to show him the mitigating factors that make a certain situation safe for boldness, for action. A parent can do everything that they can to secure a future for their children, but they cannot let that push for safety risk their child's emotional or social adjustment. If they do, then depression, anger, fear, or ignorance may destroy them just as swiftly as any external danger.
All of these fears, all of these concerns and anxieties are amplified in A Quiet Place because of the horror and immediacy of the external threat to the characters' lives and safety; but they exist as a low-level hum in the back of the mind of any parent. The fiendish cleverness of A Quiet Place is the way in which it takes that low level hum, cranks up the volume, and then pushes receiver to speaker to create a feedback loop of unrelenting tension. It is the rare horror movie where the appearance of the monster feels like a kind of release—now, at last, the danger as been externalized, simplified. A monster can be outrun, outwitted, perhaps defeated. The fear over the the well-being of your child, however, will live as long as they do; hopefully, much longer than you.