James Wan’s Malignant Reshaped the Family Trauma Trope in Horror

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Summary

  • Malignant represents a turning point in the horror genre by breaking away from the overused family trauma trope.
  • James Wan defies expectations and embraces the incomprehensible, undoing what The Babadook popularized.
  • The forthright and fun approach of Malignant challenges the mainstream audience’s view of horror, resulting in mixed reviews.


In a time when it feels like every horror movie is about trauma, James Wan’s Maligant represents a turning point in the genre. Released in 2021, the movie was met with a divisive reception by both the general audience and the critics, stirring a heated debate around its true message. It revolves around a woman who begins to witness a series of brutal murders through a strange psychic connection, unaware she has a violent, malformed twin living — quite literally — in the back of her head.

Wan’s name on the poster is usually enough to sell a horror movie, regardless of whether he’s the director or producer. The filmmaker established himself as one of the most creative voices out there, with an eye for commercial cinema that big studios found welcoming. Yet with Malignant, Wan seemed to be doing something he wanted for a long time, and most importantly, made fun of a horror trope he helped to create.


The Family Trauma Trope Took Over the Horror Genre

Ever since the first horror film ever made, horror has been the genre that changed the most, while also creating a series of equally volatile strands. There’s an argument that the word “horror” has pretty much lost its meaning, especially with terms such as “elevated horror” or “atmospherical movies” joining the mainstream scope. This word is no longer enough to infer what a movie is about, and the horror label is often accompanied by another qualifier such as “possession movie,” “slasher,” or “folk horror” so that viewers can know what to expect. Seldom will fans stumble upon dramatically-charged movies that use horror as a last-resort tool to get that extra reward from people who don’t like horror movies but want to watch one (or at least feel like they’ve watched one). The list of A24 movies that fit this formula is a long one.

The truth is that every horror movie is about trauma, and, simultaneously, horror will always be a tool to explore it; it all depends on whether the story embraces this characteristic or touches it specifically. However, what Malignant does is turn its back to the in-between lines and dive headfirst into the unknown. The recurring attempts to turn horror into a more accessible genre have caused it to become stale.

For example, The Babadook seems to have really left an impression on its audience, given how so many horror movies that came after it feel like the exact same movie. While Jennifer Kent’s film didn’t necessarily create the family trauma trope, it brought value to it, subsequently inciting a boom both in the independent scene and the mainstream sphere. Before long, family trauma had turned into a cheap narrative choice to add depth to the characters and make it easier for the viewers to sympathize with them. Even movies with a completely original idea, such as Smile, or others with a sturdy source material to rely on, such as Five Nights at Freddy’s, found themselves going down the same easy path.

Uniformity is never a good thing in the film industry — that’s why so many people are quick to renounce the Hollywood formula nowadays. The same applies to horror: for a genre as volatile and multilayered as horror, it can be catastrophic. Trauma dismantles the dreadful mood created by clashing with the darkness and the unknown, replacing it with an atmosphere of paranoia that, regardless of whether it’s effective or not, aims at sentiments anyone can relate to.

The problem with movies that revolve entirely around trauma is that they pretty much beg the viewers to take them seriously — something that Wan completely ignores in Malignant. He understands that horror in its true essence should never be about familiarity, but rather the incomprehensible. In this context, what The Babadook did to the family trauma subgenre, Malignant seemed determined to undo.

Related: Best James Wan Movies, Ranked

Malignant Exposes Everything Wrong with the Current State of Horror

Wan found his voice in commercial cinema with accessible horror masterpieces, launching popular horror franchises such as Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious while formulating a new approach to jump-scares and violence, for better or for worse. There’s no denying that his eye for success can get in the way of quality, introducing perfectly elastic stories that can go on for countless sequels, prequels, and whatever else. However, his artistic choices in Malignant seem to illustrate the ideas of a truly self-aware filmmaker, and Wan disrupts everything one would expect of a movie he wrote about a pregnant woman going through a traumatic experience. For one thing, it’s his goriest movie in years, as well as a genuine tribute to Giallo masterpieces. Malignant welcomes not fans of his previous movies, but rather fans of horror as a whole.

A recurring trademark of horror movies fueled by trauma is their tendency to confuse viewers about whether all the strange events are actually happening or are just the fruit of a character’s imagination. Initially, Malignant seems interested in this very same question, until the jail scene kicks in to show there’s no turning back: when Madison is provoked by one of her jail inmates, Gabriel, her malformed twin, takes control of her body and slaughters every single person there, including the cops. This moment is the catalyst of shocking revelations concerning Madison’s family roots, revealing that Malignant never stopped being a movie about family trauma. In fact, the tragedy is precisely what links the main character to the film’s antagonist.

In Malignant, trauma isn’t what inserts familiarity into the horror narrative, but rather what removes it entirely from the movie, inviting in the unknown: the fateful moment in which Madison’s husband Derek smashes her head against the wall is what unleashes Gabriel, bringing an end to her traumatic marriage and motherhood while awakening the trauma of another (the deformed supernatural being living in her head). Suddenly, the overdone twist most horror movies about trauma love to rely on — that is, “it’s all in the character’s head” — takes literal proportions in Malignant. It’s all in Madison’s head, but it desperately wants to get out. The revelation of Gabriel is a darkly hilarious practical joke that manages to sum up everything the film stands for while remaining entirely fateful to itself and its author.

Related: Every Horror Movie Directed by James Wan, Ranked

Why Malignant’s Reviews Were So Mixed

A bloody monstrosity attached to the back of a woman's head raises its fist in triumph
Warner Bros.

Read Our Review

The forthrightness of Malignant‘s approach is even scarier than its subject matter, delivering a genuine attempt to blend fantasy and horror without having to justify these absurdities in a grounded appeal. The film brings the master of commercial horror back to what made him famous in the first place. This time, Wan is truly invested in making fun of his own legacy, but without taking its credit. It’s been a long time since horror movies were fun, vibrant, and electrifying. It’s almost as if Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead hasn’t taught anyone a lesson: it’s possible to be scary with an amusing approach.

In the minds of the mainstream audiences that Wan himself helped bring to the horror genre, horror movies can either be this unreliable middle-ground sustained by cheap jump scares and tamed violence, or a genuine descent into the worst of humankind, where the supernatural is left aside to give space to actual, human threats — that’s why dramas disguised as horror are replacing horror movies, and that’s exactly why Malignant‘s reviews were so mixed.

Yet Malignant‘s timing was perfect: it was about time the horror genre looked back on its roots and applied them to contemporary scenarios. It’s difficult to see now, but the movie planted a seed that has the potential to represent a turning point in the genre. Movies such as Barbarian, Cobweb, and even the infamous Halloween Kills all feel like the offspring of a brilliant idea; they all rely on the family trauma trope like Malignant does, using it as the catalyst for the absurd without ever abandoning it. It’s just the beginning of a fruitful perspective.

Stream Malignant on Netflix or Max

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