“A Quiet Place”: Defamilarizing the Unknown

When I first heard of A Quiet Place, the movie’s premise—a world in which any sound you make can cause your untimely and gory death—seemed terrifying in a new way. Instead of using haunted spaces, Ouija boards, or serial killers for shock and scare value, this film seemed like it would transform sensory perception into a terrifying thriller. But after watching the film at our screening, I realized that wasn’t really the core of what made this film feel scary.

During my presentation, I asked the class what made the film feel like a horror film. A couple responses referred to the unknown elements of the setting, like the broader world, the origins of the monsters, the apocalyptic setting, and the location of other humans. Several others pointed to the world’s premise itself and its anxieties. I asked this question to see if the unknown elements of the film drove the feeling of horror and terror. As we mentioned in class, Lovecraft claimed that the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown. I think A Quiet Place challenges this claim by defamiliarizing what the unknown actually is. There are few specific unknown elements in the movie. The monsters and their origin are unknown, yet the film neutralizes this aspect by starting the story well into this post-apocalyptic setting and visually showing how the family is settled into their survival techniques. Perhaps the most obvious evidence that the unknown origins aren’t a source of horror, it’s Evelyn’s pregnancy. Even in this world’s setting, she and her husband felt secure enough to carry a child to term rather than choose to find alternative solutions. The rest of the world is ambiguous and only vaguely touched upon, as shown with the signal fires pointing out other humans around and the random old couple in the woods. A Quiet Place transforms the unknown from literal aspects of missing information into the case of inevitability. What is horrifying in this film is not what’s clearly unknown, but the inevitability of the known, which is creating sound.

I think A Quiet Place beautifully transforms and defamiliarizes this inevitability by presenting it through the lens of parenthood, family, and disability. There is inevitability in the family because children are uniquely prone to making noise. Except for three times (the old man’s suicide, Lee’s sacrifice, and Evelyn’s interaction with the nail), every noise that triggered the monsters was caused by children. Most of these are accidental noises as well. And because children are prone to this, this creates tremendous stress on parenthood—how are parents supposed to impose the grave danger of noise on children? How can parents teach a baby not to cry when crying is all an infant instinctively has to alert their caretaker? And if this wasn’t anxious enough, Evelyn and Lee need to teach Reagan how to be safe in a world that is more dangerous to her than the rest of them. It is the unknown aspects of the children’s behavior and actions that are the underlying thrum of the anxiety and suspense in the film. Rather than exploring the complete unknown like Lovecraft does, the film explores the unknown actions and results of known characters and problems.

Switching gears slightly, I want to address Reagan and deafness within this context of what is horrific in A Quiet Place. Gabrielle Berry’s paper examined the many complicated ways Reagan’s deafness is understood and explored implicitly and explicitly throughout the film. In the above paragraph, I mentioned the anxiety of Lee and Evelyn teaching Reagan how to be safe in this world with her disability. Within the theme of parenthood, this makes sense, but within the context of Reagan and her disability, this is actually quite limiting for her. The film tries to grapple with this by showing the difficulties of Lee connecting with Reagan, but ultimately it does not do enough, in my opinion. The audience does not see what Reagan fears in this world. We see her guilt and her frustration at not being allowed to interact in the world as she wishes she could, but this is not the same as seeing her fear. We do see her afraid of the monsters like everyone else, but her underlying fears are never explored in the ways Lee and Evelyn’s are. (This may also be due to the thin characterization of the Abbott family, but this would be important to demonstrate even in very thin characters.) This reminds me of the biggest fault of Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown claim—it is a claim filtered through his own racism and fear of others different from him. Similarly, A Quiet Place almost falls into a similar pit by overly projecting an unknown fear that is hearing-centric throughout the film.

Given this major pitfall, I had a difficult time grappling why A Quiet Place offered two explicit solutions to the Sound Dilemma. The first solution is hearing and speaking-centric: simply make a louder sound. We see Lee teach this to Marcus at the waterfall and again when Marcus sets off the fireworks to save Evelyn. The second solution is deaf and hard-of-hearing centric by utilizing the cochlear implant (CI). We see this technology develop throughout the film until it gives the family an opportunity to shoot the monsters. Berry’s paper wonderfully examines the questionable representation of the CI as a miracle tool, the CI as a tool that seems more visible than the other aspects of deafness that allowed the family to survive to this point, and the CI’s complicated relationship with Deaf communities and cultures. In the film, the CI solution is clearly presented as better than the louder sound solution. It feels like the film is trying to suggest that our differences are our strengths, but that seems almost too explicit for a film that takes so many measures to be subtle and innovative. Therefore, I’m still not sure what to make of this pairing, especially in the context of defamiliarizing the unknown. Perhaps this tension is expanded upon in A Quiet Place 2, but for a film as creative and intentional as A Quiet Place, I think this connection is worth contemplating further.


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