(Note: the following post contains spoilers for the film XX, which is currently available on Netflix.)
The multi-artist 2017 effort XX featured four different horror offerings as told by women, one of which is an adaptation of a male-authored short story: “The Box.” Based on a short story by Jack Ketchum, director Jovanka Vuckovic adapted the tale of a boy named Danny (Peter DaCunha) who curiously glances the contents of a present around Christmastime while on a train with his mother, Susan (Natalie Brown), and sister, Jenny (Peyton Kennedy). In the days that follow, Danny begins to refuse to eat, much to the alarm of father Robert (Jonathan Watton); eventually, Jenny and Robert join the fast, resulting in their deaths while Susan remains unaffected and in the dark concerning the box’s contents. Ultimately, Susan rides the trains alone, looking for the man (Michael Dyson) whose present kicked off the whole business of death by willful starvation. This tale has received mixed reviews out of every piece in the anthology, with the main criticism being the lack of definite answers. After all, what’s in the box? What causes Danny, Jenny and Robert to waste away? How lazy was Ketchum, and how lazy is Vuckovic to follow suit? All valid criticisms if you prefer your horror to have finite answers. However, what if the point isn’t the present – what if the point is something much darker and more relevant in the age of the emergence of equal parenting?
The key to this tale is perspective. Nerdist panned the entry, frustrated with its lack of definitive ending. Also in this corner is RogerEbert.com, citing the push and pull between a lack of answers despite the anguish of mother Susan to uncover what’s robbed her of her husband and children. Several of my friends questioned my like of the segment as well, each feeling that the ending was cheap in its lack of explanation. This isn’t the only opinion on Vuckovic’s entry, though: one-third of the intrepid trio over at Horror Homeroom – Dawn – found the tale to express just why a seemingly perfect family can’t thrive: they lack the substance to go on, victims of their sterile, bored lives (note: Dawn also points out that “The Box” and “Her Only Living Son” frame the anthology, which in and of itself is an interesting case study. I highly suggest this article.). It’s this interpretation that I feel is on the right track, and I’m willing to go a step further: this story is about the willful disconnect of one parent from the rest of the family, and the installment goes on to view this bonding breakdown through the lens of shifting gender roles and frustrated maternity.
The first words of this tale are telling: “It’s not easy spending the day in the city, with two kids around Christmas time. Even if you have taken them to a matinee, and outdoor skating. I’d have to fight with them, with Danny in particular, to get them aboard the 355 down to the suburbs in time for dinner. Presents were still in his mind.” This is Susan’s voice, telling us about all the wonderful stuff she’s done for her kids at Christmas, and how it’s not enough – what’s more, she looks exhausted, as seen through a reflection as the voiceover plays out on the train. Susan doesn’t voice to anyone but the audience how she’s feeling: a bit tired, a bit taken for granted, and a bit focused on receiving a thank-you as opposed to sharing in the creation of a fond Christmas memory. She comes off as annoyed, which is understandable for those of us that have kids this time of year: Christmas can be tough – it’s why Santa gets used as a bargaining chip (if they’re young enough). As mothers, though, we can’t express that frustration out loud. We have to sit and stew with it, where no one can question our dedication as a parent. After all, you’re not a good mother if you complain, because this is part of the deal. There are only beautiful children in this strange microcosm, not personal dissatisfaction.
When they arrive home, the beginnings of this disconnect between how Susan presents herself and how she feels become more apparent in something that’s easy to pick up: while she’s the professional-looking mother, dad Robert is emphatically placed in the role of caregiver. While mom was out galivanting with the kiddies at Christmas in the city doing fun stuff, dad was at home making dinner in the picture-perfect house. In fact, it’s Robert that observes Danny’s lack of eating as out of character. It’s dad that suggests visits to the doctor while mom casually takes her earrings off before bed. It’s the dad that cries when his son hasn’t eaten in four days. When Jenny joins in the refusal, Robert confronts his wife with, “Well I just don’t understand… how you can eat while our children are starving.” Susan’s response is telling: “Well I have to eat, don’t I?” Susan is worried about taking care of Susan first, not her children, which is a sharp shift from the self-sacrificing mother figure we’re used to seeing – nay, expected to be according to social expectation. Susan will eat first, then worry about the welfare of her children. It’s the caution mothers often hear taken to the extreme: it’s fine and good to give yourself for your children, but make sure to take care of you in the process too so that you’re not run down. Susan not only takes this advice, but runs with it to the point of making sure her needs are met before worry can commence. This is at least a little jarring, especially to Robert, who assumes the role of the caring parent that frets over his kids starving. He’s more in tune with his children’s bodily functions and expresses concern far more openly, which are knowledge and actions typically reserved for the female caregiver: the nurturer who devotes their life to the upbringing of the children. Just like that, the Vuckovic flips the stereotypical gender roles of the parents – we can just about see Susan’s high-powered career reserved for sharp-shooting dads that unwind with a glass of scotch at night while Robert slaves over a stove in an immaculately-maintained home with lots of food porn. While we’re being blunt, Watton is not an unattractive man – to come home to a beautiful, spacious house that’s obviously maintained by a kick ass career with a handsome husband waiting with an incredible-looking dinner is pretty much the dream for most working women. It’s a switch in genders, but it’s the same slice of Americana as the 1950s time capsules want us to believe: gorgeous house, nice food, everyone is pretty, and the business of raising children is left to the one who maintains the home while you reap the spoils of their efforts. Susan gets to be the dad that spends less than 30 minutes with her kids and hasn’t a clue about the goings-on of the home, and it doesn’t feel quite right when we watch it because this is outside of what we’re used to witnessing.
It makes sense, then, that Robert is the one that attempts to forge the connection with his children, and has a different reaction than Susan when she attempts to do the same thing. Susan first catches Jenny and Danny conversing, but the kids won’t tell her that of which they’re speaking. They do, however, confide in Robert when he sits down with them, the dad who make sure he sits on the bed next to the son he’s shown such concern over. He’s not standing over Danny – he tries his best to be eye-to-eye with the child, making the two equals. Robert is willing to put himself on the literal level of his child and share in the boy’s knowledge in order to truly join him, whereas Susan stands in a doorway for her interactions with the kids, removed and towering over them. In fact, go back and look at the placement of Susan as opposed to her family throughout the film: she’s sitting on a chair when everyone else is huddled around the sofa; she’s in a doorway when the kids are on a bed; she’s seated across from the children at the dinner table, interview-style. This is not a portrait of warm, fuzzy, connected motherhood – this is someone coldly removed and dismissive of the experience of others. This is an outsider. Even in her dream sequence – in which she’s carved up and served to her family – she remains detached. After all, she doesn’t make eye contact with anyone. She stares straight ahead while her body is served, smiling at the ceiling rather than gazing lovingly at the sacrifice her body can make for her children. When Susan gives her literal body to her children, she still can’t be bothered to look them in the eye or utter two words to them.
Which means that it makes sense that we never learn what’s in the box – like Susan, we’re too disconnected to gain that bond and therefore knowledge. On Christmas morning, she finally thinks to ask her gaunt son (who can’t walk at this point) what was in the box, but he replies with the typical answer a disinterested kid would give to someone to get out of a conversation: “Nothing.” No one tells her what was in the box, so she infers it was empty. She refers to that Christmas as “the most together we’d ever been,” but again, she sits apart from the family, who have physically begun to change in appearance in contrast to her. Susan may be ready to ask the million-dollar question, but she’s not ready for the answer: she still can’t bring herself to truly want to share the experience with them; she just wants to know what was in the box so that things can go back to normal. She gets shut out, unable to bond in the same way that Robert does with the children. The trio may die, but they die in short order with a shared experience. They develop a closeness in their shared knowledge and fasting from which Susan is exempt.
In returning to the source material, Ketchum’s tale has been faithfully adapted with only minor changes: the narrator is female in the film, not male, and there are only two children that die in the film as opposed to three in the short story. Ketchum’s male narrator explicitly states, “I’m convinced that it was my essential loneliness that set me apart and saved me, and now of course which haunts me, makes me wander through dark corridors of commuter trainers waiting for a glimpse of him – him and his damnable present, his gift, his box.” The closing words of the short story are the same as the film: “I want to know. It’s the only way I can get close to them. I want to see. I have to see. I’m hungry.” It’s loneliness in the story – a father that’s an only child, who works hard at a brokerage firm, who provides well financially while everyone wastes away – that drives the action, which has its echoes in the film. So why is it such a huge deal that the roles have changed? Simply, the narration shifting from the father in the short story to the mother in the film demonstrates changing times. It’s relevant: women are working more and more, while more fathers are expressing a greater interest in the lives of their children, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. The social construct is by no means uniform nor entirely equal, but there have been leaps and strides made in recent years for greater paternal involvement, in everything from sports to homework to cooking to primary caregiving. The times, they are a-changin’, and with it comes the honesty to be able to sit back in the parenting game as a mother and say, “This is exhausting sometimes.” We now live in a world where the mother can work (and sometimes has to work), and with that escape of the domestic environment comes the confidence to say, “This is not what it’s cracked up to be.” Pre-babies, mothers get sold an incredible experience that’s dripping with sweet smiles and social inclusion with other women – we’re not expecting it to be so hard, from postpartum depression to health crises to the daily grind of trying to be everything to everyone. That experience is getting voiced now, and more women are demanding the space to be themselves. Mom is now allowed to be the party that doesn’t know what’s going on all the time, because her role is more than just chef, maid and nanny: mom can have a career and experience things outside of her children. Enter the inner turmoil provided by the motherhood guilt of working, with the notion that different aspects of the self can coexist to the point of the home no longer being the sole thing that defines a woman, and then we arrive at an identity crisis. It’s the fear that the role we’ve always heard is ours – the one who centers the family, the one who knows everything – can be replaced. It’s a real fear that because we can either share the experience with our partner fully or go out and disconnect from this environment – however stifling it can be at times – that we’ll lose our families and miss the greater points of being a parent.
It’s not really about what’s in the box. That part doesn’t matter. What matters is the result: Susan is shut out because the whole business of having a family is bothersome to her, and someone else assumes her role. It’s not the health scares or deaths that bothers her the most: it’s the quest for knowledge. Even in death, she still doesn’t get that the point of the mystery was that her family members trusted one another to get involved and share in it together. It’s the dissatisfaction of being left behind. It’s the detachment from what we’re told is instinct. It’s the challenging of an archetype. The box’s contents don’t matter – it’s Susan that is empty.