Let the Right One In
Estranged Relationships in Horror
As Eli slips into a large bed, pale skin contrasted against the shadows cast around the room, she is asked by the blond boy already in the bed if she wants to go steady. Eli’s reply, although surprising in nature, does not phase the boy’s interest. “Oskar, I’m not a girl,” she replies in a matter-of-fact tone. Not a girl, but rather an adolescent vampire. Although he must be suspicious, especially in response to the blood that lines Eli’s lips upon their first kiss, Oskar does not know the extent of Eli’s condition until much later in the film. But Eli is much more than a mere murderous monster. As the film progresses, the audience along with Oskar learn to fear and respect Eli’s mysterious and often violent nature. But it is not merely her vampirism that is cause for fear. Through Eli and her troubled friend Oskar, the audience is shown an embodiment of the horror that is created through the corruption of the expected relationship between adults and children. Children, in their unknowing innocence, are almost entirely dependent on the protection and influence of adults and horror is created through the distortion of this dependent relationship.
The distorted relationships portrayed in Let the Right One In are not meant to indicate their existence, but merely suggest their potential for existence. In his essay “The Nature of Horror” Noel Carroll identifies the horrified feeling that stems from potential. When an audience is presented with a supernatural monster such as Count Dracula or, in the case of Let the Right On In, Eli, it is apparent that it is not the actual existence of such monsters that is the source of horror. As stated by Carroll, “If [the audience] did [believe in the existence of vampires], they’d head for the hills or at least reach for their rosary beads (Carroll 56).” The audience is instead presented with the possibility that such monsters could exist and wreck havoc on normality. This potential for danger is what causes the feeling of art-horror. This concept is realized in Let the Right One In as the audience is presented with the possibility of a twisted adult/child relationship and its monstrous results. The result of such a relationship would be a population of vulnerable child victims, easily manipulated and ripe for the picking.
On the other hand, without the protecting influence of strong parental figures, children are also left to the whim of their own untested judgment. During early development, as the ego and resulting superego are molded, children need the guidance of adults in order to avoid unhealthy decisions. As Sigmund Freud theorized in his work on child development, the superego, or conscience, is not only modeled after that of parental figures but it is also a necessity in the process of repressing socially unacceptable behavior. Without a properly developed superego, a child would never learn to shy away from objectionable behavior such as violence and open sexuality. These commonly repressed actions would remain visible and create a horrific monster, a picturesque example of Robin Wood’s description of the horror found in the return of the repressed (Wood 173). Thus adult failure not only creates child victims, such as Oskar, but also child monsters, such as Eli.
The first image we see of Oskar is a shot taken from his point of view out a second story window. In the reflective glass we are found staring at a slightly blurred image of the naked body of a pale twelve-year-old boy. The point of view shot brings with it a sense of identification, as the spectator is given the eyes of the petite boy. As we watch a young girl move into the neighboring apartment, Oskar casually lifts a menacing knife and examines it thoughtfully. The pained look on his face along with the lonely atmosphere of the shot suggests thoughts of suicide, creating another level of sympathy for Oskar. The audience soon discovers that the pain etched on his face is due to the constant bullying he is forced to endure at school. The audience finds itself sympathetically identifying with Oskar, distinguishing him as a victim in the horror narrative. Adding to his victimization are Oskar’s feminine characteristics. Not only are his childish features reminiscent of an adolescent female, but he also displays feminine personality traits. In her writing on gender in slasher films, Carol Clover examines the role of female victims in films such as Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. She identifies feminine characters as ideal victims due to the identification with and sympathy for such a character. Alfredson takes advantage of this fact as he establishes Oskar as a victim of violence in Let the Right One In.
After seeing him victimized throughout the film, it is not surprising to learn that Oskar suffers from neglecting and sometimes abusive parents. In a display of sick narcissism, Oskar’s mother, overwhelmed by her child’s unusual behavior, sends him to live with her ex-husband, Oskar’s father, in the hopes of eliminating her connection to his problems. Unfortunately for Oskar, his father does not provide him with the relationship necessary to free him of his vulnerability. An abusive drunk, Oskar’s father only enhances the problem, stripping the child of any connection to a healthy adult. In the absence of a healthy superego to emulate as his conscience develops, Oskar turns to the only other influential person in his life: his best friend Eli. As Oskar continually endures violent bullying at school, Eli encourages him to fight back, giving him a skewed sense of morality. As his relationship with Eli strengthens we find that their relationship is an almost worse model for morality that that of Oskar’s drunken father and neglecting mother. Rather than being released from his weakness as he matures, Oskar will be trapped in a state of vulnerability always looking to Eli for guidance and moral judgment.
Eli, being the obvious monster of Alfredson’s film, is a poor choice for Oskar to use as a model for his developing sense of morality. As spectators, we are privy to gruesome scenes as Eli rips apart adult victims. These overt displays of violence solidify the audience’s notion that Eli is the conspicuous source of horror in Let the Right One In. As a vampire, Eli demonstrates both the categorical incompleteness described by Noel Carroll and the revealed repression described by Robin Wood that elicits horrified reactions from the audience. Carroll, in his work on the horror genre, describes a strain of horror that is elicited through an encounter with beings that do not follow the socially excepted categories that define the natural world (Carroll 55). Vampires, which are both living and dead, familiar and unfamiliar, are used as a specific example of categorical incompleteness in Carroll’s essay. Not only is Eli’s vampirism a source of categorical incompleteness, but so is her confused sense of gender. When Eli responds to Oskar’s innocent request with the comment “I am not a girl,” she is not only referring to her non-human existence but also her lack of female genitals. In a shocking shot of Eli’s nude body, the audience catches a glimpse of a scar in place of genitals. In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, from which Alfredson’s film was adapted, Eli is revealed to be a castrated boy, further confusing our understanding of Eli’s gender. Furthermore, in the recently released American remake of Let the Right One In, entitled Let Me In, a shot of Eli’s disfigured male genitals is shown, again indicating Eli is not female. Although this knowledge is not specifically revealed in Alfredson’s film, Eli’s gender is still successfully confused and arguably more horrifying than the other more direct explanations. Eli’s undefined gender in Let the Right One In is deeply uncanny, solidifying her categorical incompleteness as neither alive nor dead and neither female nor male.
Although Eli does not display any sexual drive as is suggested by Robin Wood’s description of the return of the repressed, she does exhibit overt violence and a hunger that could potentially be described as sexual. Robin Wood, in his discussion of the American horror film, reiterates Freud’s theory that what is repressed strives to return (Wood 165). Wood goes on to claim that this return of the usually violent or sexual repressed impulses results in a great deal of what we perceive as horror. This repression unleashed is a prominent source of horror in most films of the genre and is not overlooked by Alfredson. By displaying violence openly through Eli, Alfredson reveals a piece of humanity to the audience that is meant to remain hidden and is thus horrifying.
Although Eli is most likely much older than she appears in her adolescent body, she suffers from a similar failed adult/child relationship as that of Oskar. Eli, with no mention of blood parents, lives alone with a jaded forty-year-old man, Hakan, whom she passes off as her guardian. Despite his responsibilities to adolescent Eli as a protective and healthy influence, Hakan does a marvelous job of failing to uphold his duties to her. Hakan, who carries the unaccepted occupation of serial killer, not only fails as a father figure for Eli but also in his one physical role in her life: obtaining food for her in the form of human blood. After the first murder Hakan commits on screen for Eli, he is almost caught by a woman and her dog, resulting in him forgetting the bucket of blood in the woods. Later in the film, we witness Hakan’s attempt to drain a living man of blood. Unfortunately, he is interrupted again, this time unable to make his escape. It could even be said that Hakan fails in his attempt to protect Eli from connection with the heinous crime, as he is unable to successful kill himself with the acid that he pours on his face before he is discovered. This failed relationship between Eli and Hakan points to Eli’s childish tendency towards violence. Despite Eli’s status as a supernatural vampire, Hakan’s failure to successfully protect the child is a projection of the fear adults have of failing their children and results in an even more monstrous Eli.
Much to the degradation of Eli, one cannot place all of the blame on the adults of the narrative. Eli is a naturally violent vampire after all. If the adults were fully to blame for Eli’s unfortunate nature, the audience would be expected to pity her in her lack of agency. We, as spectators to Eli’s story, cannot be expected to pity a murderous monster, can we? Throughout the narrative, Alfredson seems to encourage sympathy for Eli. Eli is, like Oskar, a twelve-year-old child, giving her a natural air of vulnerability. Immediately prior to Eli’s first nighttime meeting with Oskar, we watch helplessly has Eli painfully cradles a growling stomach, a gesture everyone can relate with. Hakan’s inability to provide sufficient food not only causes Eli great physical pain but also forces her to commit the gruesome murder in the next scene. During the violent murder that Eli commits it is difficult to stomach the thought that she could potentially be innocent, but immediately after the murder the camera lingers slightly longer than expected on Eli’s childish form allowing the audience to witness a moment of sympathy. As Eli leans over the body of the now dead man, her own body convulses slightly. It only takes a moment for the audience to realize that Eli is crying, outraged by the act that she was forced to commit in order to stay alive.
Upon closer examination, Oskar is also not made of pure innocence, as one may initially believe. Immediately after Oskar’s expression of burdened pain in the first sequence of the film, the audience witnesses Oskar’s latent tendency toward and desire for violence. Oskar turns his back to the reflective window and jabs the knife into the empty room pretending to wound his enemies, willing them to “squeal like pigs.” This occurs before Oskar is introduced to Eli, taking her as a model for morality, indicating that his violent tendencies existed naturally without the influence of the vampire. After his identification with Eli, Oskar’s tendency towards violence comes to life when Oskar responds to his bullies by violently damaging one individual’s ear. Oskar, like Eli, displays the returned, or in Oskar’s case ever-present, repressed impulses that cause fear according to Robin Wood. As Oskar loses his outward innocence, we grow to fear and even be repulsed by him. By the final sequences of the film, Oskar has grown into a monstrous existence through his idolization of and love for Eli. In contrast to Eli, who is portrayed as violent for the extent of the film, the audience is witness to Oskar’s transformation from an innocent child with mere violent tendencies to a violent and monstrous child giving his character an uncanny air that is not present with Eli. As his innocent nature is openly distorted, the audience is forced to watch as the familiar and sympathetic Oskar, a picturesque image of child vulnerability, is morphed into a distorted and unfamiliar object of fear.
Both Eli and Oskar display characteristics of both victims and monsters in response to the failure of adults to protect them. With this dual nature comes a strong danger of identifying with a monster character. The audience is called to sympathize with both Eli and Oskar, making it easy to identify with both characters. The potential for identification between the spectator and the monster creates another source of horror in Let the Right One In. The spectator is not only revolted by Eli and Oskar as they partake in heinous acts of violence, but also by his personal identification with and sympathetic reaction to their monstrous characteristics. Monster identification is a standard device used in the horror genre.
As Howard Lovecraft puts forward in the introduction to his book Supernatural Horror in Literature, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown (Lovecraft 12).” Eli is not human and is therefore easily granted the unwelcome position of the Other in Alfredson’s story. Fear of the Other is one of the most instinctual defense mechanisms of humanity. But Eli’s status as the Other is not the only unfamiliar aspect of the narrative. The audience is given the choice to identify with either Eli or Oskar, both of who demonstrate horrifying traits that no audience member wishes to associate with. Whether the spectator identifies with Eli or Oskar, he finds himself relating to undesired character traits. The audience’s hesitation and uncertainty when faced with this decision is another way in which Alfredson horrifies his audience. The hesitation is an indication of the uncanny effects of the narrative, including the unfamiliar light in which children are displayed and the foreign concept of identifying with monsters.
Although the uncertainty connected with the choice of sympathetic object is strongly present in the audience, it may go unnoticed by many individuals. The feeling is easily concealed by the images of violence or the eeriness of the mis-en-scene, other strong sources of horror in the film. However, the covert existence of the dubiety is necessary for it to be effective. Jentsch writes: “In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty…and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately (Freud 625).” He goes on to indicate that such a mistake would lead to an immediate dissipation of the unusual emotional effect, since the spectator could clarify the uncertainty or choose to over look it.
The adults in Let the Right One In, stop making appearances near the end of the film. They played their role in the creation of horror through their estranged relationship and the rest of the emotion is left up to the children. Even though the audience is left associating the uncanny feeling of dread with the two child characters, it would be careless to ignore the adults’ role in the creation of the horror. It is the children’s’ relationship with adults that left them as both victims and monsters. Both Eli and Oskar are left with certain vulnerability in the absence of supportive parental figures as well as a tendency towards monstrous violence. The fact that the adults created two unstable children with the characteristics of both innocence and violence is not only terrifying in itself but also in the emotional engagement it solicits from the audience. The portrayal of the children as both victims and monsters draws forth a panicked sense of uncertainty that leads to a more heightened sense of horror. The identification, sympathy, and uncertainty experienced by the audience in response to the adults’ corrupted relationship with the children enhances the horror and serves to create a terrifying film that will remain at the forefront of the spectator’s mind even after they leave the theater.
Carroll, Noel. “The Nature of Horror.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol 46. (Autumn 1987): 51-59. Web. 30 August 2010.
Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, No. 20. Special Issue: Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy (Autumn 1987). pp. 187-228.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” New Literary History. 7.3 (Spring 1976): 619-645.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1973.
Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Grant. New Jersey: 1984. 164-200.