by Mindy Clegg
It’s the beginning of fall and the Halloween season! As we’re still somewhat locked down (though we should be MORE locked down, if you ask me), why not a recommendation for a horror film that addresses some aspect of modern history? In this case, the Bosnian War. Humans have long loved to be scared. Mythologies from around the world include elements of horror, showing how it seems to be a universal aspect of storytelling as scholars who study folklore and mythology have shown, such as Emily Zarka of the PBS show Monstrum.
But why do we still embrace being scared for an hour and a half despite being fully modern subjects in a more “enlightened” era? Kath Bates argued that humans seek out these thrills because they are scares that we can control. Writer and artist Merrie Destefano gave a more comprehensive set of reasons for our modern embrace of the macabre including proving to ourselves that we can overcome our fears. I would add that horror stories can help us to come to terms with horrific events in the the past that seem to defy our understanding of civilization. Put differently, horror as a film genre can help make the horrific in human history accessible for those outside of particular experiences. One example is The Maus, a horror film set in the woods near Srebrenica.
What follows is horrific study in the psychological aftermath of war, violent ethnic cleansing, and genocide. A note that the trailer is NSFW!
The film follows Bosniak Selma and her German boyfriend Alex. The couple are in Bosnia for a memorial service for her brother and father (among others) whose remains had been identified in one of the many mass graves from the war. As they drove through the forest, Selma attempted to warn Alex about the dangers there. He condescendingly dismisses her concerns. But of course, their car breaks down in a forest full of landmines. When two Serbian men appear with an offer of help, Selma’s PTSD is triggered. Alex attempts to calm her and insists that they can probably trust the men, despite them being Serb and her being a Bosniak. But when Alex’s dog sets off one of the landmine, injuring Selma, she is sent into a full-blown psychosis. From there, the viewer is unsure what is real and what is a byproduct of Selma’s trauma. We never really suss out whether these men pose a threat to Selma or if she’s unfairly maligned all Serbs because of the violence she and her family experienced. The horrific elements—the monsters found in the cave—might be manifestations of her fevered imagination, but the trauma visited upon her family was very real and ongoing in Selma’s head. The coda of the film brings the question of the roots of violence home to other parts of Europe.
Some reviews of the film complained about the psychological bent of it. For many people, a horror film should frighten rather than explore the aftermath of war. The lack of clarity by the end of The Maus made the film a less than adequate horror film for many viewers. But horror films often stand in for other kinds of societal fears. The classic slasher film from the 1970s and 1980s often concern themselves with the morality of teenagers. These films gave us the “final girl” trope, where the most moral upright young woman becomes the only survivor who takes out the brutal, supernatural maniac. It helps to remember that horror films often play a similar social role as classic fairytales. In Europe, those tended to be brutal morality tales designed to frighten children into good behavior. At least until the Brothers Grimm published more sanitized, family-friendly versions as they sought out a larger audience for their collection of central European folk stories. In the modern horror film, the lifeless bodies of teenagers stand as a monument to the danger of their amoral behavior.
None of this is at play in The Maus. Selma is portrayed as fairly religious. Nor does it share the same tropes of other films about the psychological costs of war. During the 1980s, the Vietnam war provided seemingly endless material for how war destroyed the mental well-being of otherwise healthy young men. Many were set during the war itself—Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket—exploring the violence of combat and how people response to that. Others focus on the aftermath of combat on soldiers, such as The Deer Hunter and Casualties of War. Compared to films set in the Second World War (especially those made prior to the 1970s), Vietnam war films often starkly laid out just how much psychological damage war visited upon millions of young men. Films about the Yugoslav wars produced in Europe and the US have become a recent subgenre of war films. You might be familiar with Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, one of the more high profile films about the Yugoslav wars. The film tells the story of a romance between a Bosniak woman and her Serbian boyfriend during the course of the Bosnian war. Rape as a weapon of war plays a major role in that film. Compared to that, the Bosnian produced No Man’s Land seems light-hearted, more akin to MASH than to Born on the Fourth of July. Although the ending is dark and cynical, plenty of scenes leaned into dark humor. A rag-tag group of Bosnian soldiers heading to the frontline end up caught in a no man’s land after falling asleep the night before. Only two soldiers survive, though the main character Ciki assumed his comrade had also been killed. Serbian soldiers arrive from their frontline and lay the assumed dead soldier on top of a bouncing mine—a common tactic employed during the war—but he turns out to be very much alive, but now stuck on a mine. The dark humor unfolds from there. Interestingly, the star of No Man’s Land (Branko Djuric) and the star of The Maus (Alma Terzic) have roles in the Jolie film.
Despite being a film about war, The Maus bears little in common with more straight forward wars films. The focus of many war films is often on the direct violence suffered during the war. Sometimes this addressed the trauma carried over into civilian life. Soldiers, primarily men, are the protagonists (with In the Land of Blood and Honey being a notable exception). If any other war films occupies similar space as The Maus, it might be the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder (there was a remake in 2019 set during the US war in Afghanistan). Both deal with the horrific experiences brought about by war-time traumas. In Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob was a soldier while Selma was a child whose family were decimated by an act of genocide. But both characters experience unexplained phenomenon as a direct result of war. The viewer must wrestle with that ambiguity for much of both films, though Jacob’s Ladder leans towards a more conclusive ending than The Maus. Both would be an example of horror films making political statements about the past—specifically anti-war statements.
Jacob’s Ladder was rather unique when it debuted as it tied a political context (anti-war sentiment) to elements of horror. Apolitical slasher films still dominated the genre during this time. But this period might be the roots of more politically charged horror becoming popular now. Another example from around that same time period was 1992’s Candyman which explore the impact of racism on Black working class communities (and has also recently gotten a new sequel). One could also view the Hellraiser franchise as politically charged with its references to aspects of queer culture. A new wave of horror directors—many of whom were likely grew up with these films—have embraced political messaging in their work. Gwilym Mumford pointed to directors such as Jordan Peele and Ben Wheatley as prime examples.
The Maus, for its part, addresses ongoing political tensions in the Balkans. In 2015, when the Prime Minister of Serbia at the time Aleksandar Vučić attempted to pay respects at a 2015 ceremony for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide enraged family members of the victims threw rocks and bottles at him. This is not the only evidence of the incredibly raw emotions in the former Yugoslavia. Tensions on the border between Kosovo and Serbia seem to be on the edge of violence. Rumors have begun to circulate of beatings of Kosovar Serbs by the police which the government in Pristina denies. The Vetevendosje led government recently instituted a new policy of cars entering from Serbia to put on temporary local tag in part because of a similar policy in Serbia (who does not recognize Kosovar independence). Kosovar Serbs blocked border crossing in retaliation. Such disputes over national borders and ethnic identity could easily spin out into a larger conflict. This was something that the Slovenian industrial band Laibach pointed out in 1989, just prior to the start of the Balkan wars. Like The Maus the real horror is not ghosts or supernatural monsters, but the ordinary people embracing brutal acts of violence for imagined or very real crimes. If Selma’s fear and anger are understandable and even sympathetic, what does this unaddressed trauma mean for a peaceful future? It is clear that such political engagement from popular culture can help remind all of us of the high costs of violent conflict that can easily traumatize generations of people.