Tag Archives: Taneli Mustonen

‘The Twin’ Is a Twisted Take on Female Hysteria

In our predominantly patriarchal society, we are continually fed the stereotype of agitated, irrational, uncontrollable, and emotional women — influencing the hysterical female trope in horror cinema. Hysteria was once a studied psychological disorder found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders through 1980 before the rise of the “final girl” archetype. Many filmmakers continue to let the notion of female hysterics thrive somewhat unchecked despite horror cinema’s leaps forward in representing strong and self-reliant women with characters like Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. While hysteria was removed as a formal psychiatric diagnosis, societally, women are still perceived as hysterically inclined creatures.

Before its removal, hysteria was the medical explanation for ‘everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in women,’ a conclusion only supported by men’s (historic and continuing) dominance over medicine and hysteria’s continued use as a synonym for “over-emotional” or “deranged.” This lens shows women depicted as the modern Ophelia — pretty, fragile, and unstable. Throughout history, hysteria has been a sex-selective disorder, affecting only those of us with a uterus. Therefore, women remain the poster children for frenzied and irrational behavior. The hysterical female is, in essence, a representation of horror’s damsel in distress. 

One representation of this trope is that of the hysterical grieving mother. This character archetype is represented in The Twin, directed by Taneli Mustonen and co-written with Aleksi Hyvärinen. The acutely painful psychosis of grief and the aforementioned hysterical female is evidenced through the character of Rachel (Teresa Palmer). In her case, hysteria is the side effect of immense suffering, crippling her ability to self-regulate the overwhelming emotions triggered by her son’s death. A strong religious influence also perpetuates her inevitable mania. 

Hysteria was initially thought to be a physical ailment affecting the uterus. It was believed that the ‘female seed’ retention within the womb was to blame for the anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritability, fainting, and other symptoms women experienced. Loosely following that logic, we can surmise that the profound emptiness and unimaginable feeling of loss the death of a child causes is most acute for mothers.

We all grieve differently. Rachel is no exception. Traumatic grief causes the mind to cycle through the following stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Rossin her book On Death and Dying. The mind protects us when the stress of grieving overwhelms our nervous systems. The brain is a complex organic machine with intricate pathways that control our thoughts, memory, emotions, and every process that regulates our bodies. Perhaps the most frightening side effect of grief is psychosis. Rachel’s pathways are interrupted during her bereavement.

The Twin offers a clever and unnerving examination of grief that compels us to question what happens when the mind becomes locked in a bargaining state. What occurs when the mind creates a dominant delusion as a coping mechanism to combat the trauma of losing a child? Mustonen explores these questions and the paranoid anxiety of neurotic bereavement through Rachel. Her denial manifests in elaborate delusions — a pagan cult, insidious rituals, and waking dreams — as her reality collides with the truth. Therefore, she becomes a personification of the hysterical grieving mother.

After the tragic death of their son, Anthony (Steven Cree) and Rachel relocate to an idyllic village in the Scandinavian countryside. When her son Elliot exclaims that he is his dead twin brother, Nathan, Rachel seeks psychiatric intervention from the town doctor. Though she is adamant that something is wrong, the doctor declares, “Elliot is a mirror. He’s a reflection of your emotions and fears. Especially yours, Rachel. He’s leaning on you in this difficult time. That’s why the best thing you can do for him, as a mother, is to be calm.” This short speech demonstrates the misogynistic opinion that Rachel is merely exaggerating. He posits with his words that her concerns are irrational, and her heightened emotions cause Elliot’s behavior. 

Would the trauma of losing a child not prompt a mother to be hypervigilant about the well-being of her surviving children? What is unfortunate in Rachel’s case is that Mustonen and Hyvärinen make the doctor’s gaslighting acceptable, proving him right, and Rachel hysterical. Through her grief and post-traumatic stress, she becomes psychotic. When Helen (Barbara Marten), the outcast of the village, warns Rachel about the village’s history of pagan worship and relays a story about her husband’s possession by the Devil, she further fuels Rachel’s delusions. Rachel becomes convinced that Elliot is possessed. What is reality versus a fabrication of her grieving mind?

Believing Helen’s claims, Rachel photographs Elliot playing on a swing, hoping to discover if her suspicions are confirmed. Shockingly, upon developing and investigating the photos, Elliot is vacant. Helen informs Rachel that the Devil is taunting her. “With these photos, he’s saying, ‘I already have your son.’” This is the first evidence of Rachel’s psychosis.

To prevent the Devil from attaching himself to Elliot, Helen asks to be taken to him. When Rachel introduces Elliot, Helen looks at her in anguish and states, “No. You’re sick. You’re sick.” Not understanding Helen’s reaction, Rachel’s belief in her delusion strengthens. After a pagan ritual meant to bring the Devil into the world through her womb, Rachel runs with Elliot in tow from their home to escape. 

In the woods, she fights with her husband. As Rachel sits on top of Anthony, ready to bludgeon him with a rock, he says, “Just do it. I’m too tired to go on with this.” He pleads with her to recognize the reality that Elliot isn’t real. Their only son, Nathan, died in a car accident while she was driving. Not only does Rachel become trapped in her grief cycle by inventing Elliot, but Anthony supports her delusion. Her psychosis created Elliot as a coping mechanism, leading to hysteria and eventually being committed. Anthony allows her to remain locked in her delusion, amplifying her hysteria to make his existence with her easier. It isn’t until he’s exhausted that he attempts to force her to the acceptance stage of her grief.

Ultimately, Mustonen and Hyvärinen refuse her the ability to accept the truth. Instead, they make their hysterical female, the grieving mother, a villain. Even with blood on her hands, Rachel is never given the agency to accept the truth. She will continue to resurrect what she’s lost, forever haunted by her trauma. The trope prevails.