Early in Bloober Team’s The Medium, a horror game about a supernaturally gifted woman named Marianne, a standard sort of horror scene plays out in the main lobby of the Niwa Workers' Resort, which serves as the game’s main setting. The bell on the hotel’s front desk dings frantically, though no one else is around. Lights flicker and echoing, childish giggles fill the air. From a dim corner, full of shadows made deeper by the setting sun, a dirty rubber ball bounces free. Its owner soon makes herself known: an apparition who calls herself Sadness. She is small and frail, her face—like that of most spirits Marianne meets—is hidden behind a chipped porcelain mask. One of her arms looks torn or rotted away, leaving only a frayed bundle of nerve endings and jagged bone.
In the face of this grisly sight, our hero, surprisingly, does not recoil in horror or flinch in disgust. Instead, Marianne treats Sadness as if she is a perfectly normal human child out on a highly unlikely stroll through the ruined and dilapidated halls of this abandoned old resort. She treats Sadness with immediate care, and frank concern, so natural and warm that all of Sadness’ gristly exterior seems to melt away, to lose its horrific bite. All the death and decay which surrounds them cannot seem to temper this tender moment between woman and child.
We soon realize that this type of interaction is deeply familiar to Marianne. She has lived with the curse of being able to see through (and even cross) the veil between life and death for as long as she can remember. She follows a narrow and winding path between the two worlds, and is often involuntarily torn from one to the other. Before visiting Niwa and meeting Sadness, we witness Marianne helping the lost soul of her recently deceased adoptive father Jack cross over from purgatory into a more final after-life. The ease with which she guides Jack’s spirit suggests a well-heeled confidence in her role as spiritual caretaker—as a kind of "spiritfarer"—as well as a sense of emotional satisfaction at its result. “Getting to use my curse to help others used to keep me going …” Marianne muses to herself during the course of the game.
Marianne’s existence is marked both literally and metaphysically by trauma. Burn marks from an ill-remembered accident scar her neck and part of her face. She has no recollection of her childhood, or her parents, who she is told died in the same accident which marks her. Even her erstwhile guardian, Jack, is now gone, a passing which has clearly affected Marianne deeply, and one from which she has barely recovered before being beckoned to Niwa by a mysterious caller. Yet she holds no apparent bitterness or anger for her cruel fate. Struck constantly by vicious migraines that force her to hold her head in her hands as she is psychically flung across spectral barriers, she carries the burden of unstable and recurring pain, and the spotty memories of a tragedy-stricken past with an air of solemn, even agreeable acceptance.
Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook also explores how burden and responsibility affect women. Its story follows the young, single-mother Amelia, who must care for her demanding six-year-old son Samuel after losing his father in a car accident on the way to the hospital to deliver him. Like Marianne, she is expected to provide care all on her own, and in spite of all her trauma. But Amelia’s trauma weighs far more heavily on her, and shapes her interactions and relationships in insidious ways. It ultimately manifests as a monster, which lashes out at the supposed recipient of all her care and attention, her son. The Babadook’s central premise is predicated on a subversion of the maternal caretaker role which western society tends to automatically cast on women and femmes. The film explores what it means when one’s own traumatic injuries stand in the way of being a good caretaker. When one’s love is twisted and distorted, injuring the ones who need it the most.
In The Medium, these bad caretakers are all men. Marianne’s father, Thomas, who’s the one who summoned her to Niwa, operates as a tortured and vindictive figure. His powers resemble Marianne’s, but he treats them as a weapon where she uses them as a balm. When he isn’t lashing out in rage, he’s looking into ways to violently shut out his spiritual side, researching methods to control and restrain it. He appears to have been mostly focused on himself, leaving Marianne’s estranged sister Lily alone to play with other children in the resort, or to be looked after by Thomas’ old mentor Richard who, driven by his own psychic injuries, abuses her.
But Marianne, in spite of all she has suffered, remains pure. There is no question, or hesitation behind her decision to befriend and comfort the spirit, Sadness, or to seek out and try and help Sadness’ human counterpart: Marianne’s older sister Lily. Despite being trapped in downright hellish surroundings (on material and spectral planes, alike), despite being pursued by Lily’s demon, The Maw, in spite of her desperate confusion at rediscovering her secret family, Marianne never fails to respond with grace, limitless patience and sympathy.
After learning that Lily is still alive, she seamlessly transitions from paranormal investigator into selfless caretaker, looking to ease her sister’s long standing suffering. Marianne’s dedication and concern toward a woman she just met, familial bond notwithstanding, extends beyond and surpasses the twisted forms of love which the men in Lily’s life had previously attempted to provide. When Marianne finally finds Lily, she even considers taking her own life in order to save her sister’s. The stark drama of this decision is only in its extremity. It is an otherwise natural and characteristic continuation of Marianne’s unimpeachable maternal role; mom who’s come to clean up the mess after another one of dad’s violent tears; mom here to surrender her body once more, for the good of the family.
The extremity of The Medium’s existential cliffhanger reveals the central assumptions underlying Marianne’s character, a sacrificial role tied up in expectations around femininity and motherhood. Her mother who came before her, who is never named, was also sacrificed into the maw of narrative convenience. Her only presence in the story is from a few stray notes and letters, lipstick on postcards. Her role is as the absent saint, who entered Thomas’ life and balanced it temporarily, grounding his wild spark long enough for two daughters to be produced. Her death during the second birth, Marianne’s, serves as a catalyst, freeing Thomas to fly off into obsessive pursuits and sneering ultraviolence, providing Lily and Marianne with sufficiently tragic backstories. Less a character in the game that a formulaic series of interactions, a container for other stories and other motivations.
Motherhood doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. It can be ugly and damaged; tortured and resentful. We see this play out through Amelia’s behavior in The Babadook. Angry and alone, unable to connect with her child while being suffocated by his presence and his needs. Amelia buckles under the heavy, impossible weight of motherhood and rejects it. Failing that, she tries to swallow it down, regurgitating something horrible as a result.
The Medium does not allow space for that version of femininity, and suffers for it. Even Lily, despite her role in bringing about the game’s central monster, is ultimately just another helpless victim, dragged along and traumatized by the masculine forces which dominate Niwa. The Maw is less a product of Lily’s anger and hatred than a mark of her abuse and shame. Less a manifestation of her warped agency than a spectral reminder of her total lack thereof. And, like Marianne, her only way out seems to be self-destruction: ridding the world of herself and her shame alike. Meanwhile the game seems to imply in a post-credit scene that Thomas, or some version of him, still lives. Free of the torment suffered by his daughters, disentangled from the familial responsibility he invited Marianne right back into.
The Babadook ends in a kind of uneasy stalemate. Amelia traps the monster, her rage, in the basement and feeds it worms from the garden. She cannot be rid of it entirely, cannot ever achieve that level of perfect sainthood which society expects of mothers. Her torment comes along with her, living underneath her, and as a result, grounds her, making her a more compelling, more believable character.
Marianne, meanwhile, floats untethered. In the game’s final moment a gun fires offscreen, either ending her life or helping her sister end her own. Her role is thus satisfied, even as her personhood is erased. We must sacrifice her to the plot, to the violence of the world, hoping to heal it through her, making productive use of the mother, even as the woman underneath languishes.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.