La Llorona and KM31

Posted by Glennis Byron on March 13, 2011 in Blog tagged with , , ,

One of my interests is in the cultural and generic migration of monstrous figures and in particular the ways in which regional folklore becomes global horror, and in this post I want to consider the way La llorona, the weeping woman, is appropriated and transformed in the 2006 film KM 31, a Spanish/Mexican co-production directed by Rigoberto Castañeda. This is a horror film, by the way, with absolutely no interest in contemporary feminist recuperations of the weeping woman as an empowered or heroic figure; the emphasis is very firmly on her as monstrous. KM31 is influenced by and directed at both a local and global market, and it was released in 15 different countries, that’s 12 more than any other La Llorona horror film, and premiered at numerous film festivals.  So what interests me is not only the function of La Llorona as regional monster, but also what is done to her in the film to transform her into a more globally appealing monster.

Before getting to KM31, however, I want to revisit a more recent appropriation, something I brought up in a post last year, the use of La Llorona in a new ‘scare zone’ for  last year’s Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights.

Initially, it seemed strange to me that La Llorona should be put in the company of such iconic figures of Hollywood horror as Jason, Freddie, and Jigsaw. And yet, on the level of the monstrous the logic is clear. The slasher films have a basis in urban legends, and are, at least in their initial productions of the 70s and 80s, very much scripts for social control, notoriously killing off the sexually active teenagers. And as folklore, the many variant narratives of La Llorona have served a similar function, aiming to deter certain types of behaviour and to encourage others.

They promote, for example, obedience to parental authority: La Llorona becomes the bogeywoman used to make children behave. They also serve to script the politics of the normal and socially acceptable: deviancy is registered on the body of La Llorona and the good mother is distinguished from the failed and monstrous mother. And this functions not only regionally and traditionally, in the way she is positioned in opposition to the Virgin of Guadaloupe, but also in a more contemporary context as women who kill their children, like Susan Smith or Andrea Yates, are labelled modern day La Lloronas.

In addition to marking the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion, many variants of La Llorona  are implicated in colonial or postcolonial discourse. This is particularly the case when she becomes connected with La Malinche, mistress of Cortes, or, more generally, identified as a mestiza and the lover or husband who betrays her as Spanish. These variants become stories of cultural haunting, bringing to the foreground the communal nature of the monstrous ghost.

In the Universal version of the story for the Hollywood Horror Nights, there is no such detail; she is a woman prompted by jealousy to take revenge on her faithless husband,  and who drowns her children and then herself.  Universal’s August press release concludes:

Late at night, in the deep woods, or by a small creek, children can hear her weeping, searching in vain for her lost children. “La Llorona (“the crying woman”) they call her, for she frequently wails “My children, where are my children?” Her frail, drenched body is a chilling sight; any child wandering alone is sure to be snatched as her newest victim…

According to John Murdy, creative director for the Horror Nights, ‘What makes her different is that she’s a hunter; she’s on the prowl and what she’s looking for are children, and what she’s going to do if she finds you is drag you to the lake and drown you’.

Inevitably, what is done here is rather reductive; I’m not sure how this makes her ‘different’ or to what; it seems rather to make her the same as the Hollywood horror icons and to lose most if not all of her cultural specificity: the details of the background story become really quite irrelevant . She is purely a commodified figure of horror, and all you need to know is ‘she’s on the prowl’ and, like Jason, Freddy, et al, out to get you. Indeed, as the notable similarity between her representation in the poster and the representation of the ghost in the highly successful J-horror film Ju-on The Grudge suggests, she seems to have been subsumed by popular conventions.

Universal's La Llorona

Universal's La Llorona

The Grudge

There’s nothing new in La Llorona  being appropriated and commodified, of course; she’s been used to sell everything from milk to coffee to women’s underwear.

And the Universal Horror Night appropriation is quite useful in suggesting what may be the basic transformation underlying the movement of all monsters from regional folklore to more global and aestheticised forms, and that is, to use E.J. Clery’s terms describing the emergence of British supernatural fictions, the movement from a ‘real supernatural’ to a ‘spectacular supernatural’, where the marvellous is accepted as commodified spectacle: questions of belief or scepticism are marginalised and what is left is the delight in the performance.

KM31 also moves La Llorona to commodified spectacle, There is, perhaps inevitably, similar intertextual references that position the film within the wider context of the genre conventions of popular horror, and again, the most obvious connections are with J – horror, and again, the Grudge gives a good example (both original and US remake) with the eye in both posters, and the little boy ghost who entraps passersby on the highway being so similar to the ghostly child in the J-horror.

KM31 also exploits more general ghost or horror conventions with the haunted house complete with creaking door, here called ‘El Encanto’, and also offers a more modern variation of this as is found in films like Poltergeist, where the housing estate is built on the site of a cemetery. In KM31, the key roads where the monstrous reappears are built over land of equally traumatic significance, the old site of the river where the original drownings of the children are said to occur. Driving along that highway, there is the sense of the modern world cutting through the forest but also being surround by it. And those who drive through are dragged into a past associated with betrayal and deception; fog confuses thought and vision, and road becomes river.

What takes the representation of the monstrous beyond the commodified spectacle in KM 31, I think, is that it goes beyond the highly familiar conventions and  manages to retain regional significance with a story of cultural haunting that suggests the communal nature of the ghosts while at the same time constructing a new narrative (with a psychological element that I can’t get into as this post is already far too long) for a global audience that doesn’t necessarily even have to know who La Llorona is – the name is never mentioned in the film.

The revival of the past in KM31 is partly suggested by the return of old colonial hostilities. In the modern middle-class Mexican society depicted in the film, the relationship between Mexican Catalina and Spanish Nuño suggests these are forgotten, or at least buried, but as the past gains power conflict surfaces between Nuno and the other male lead, the Mexican Omar.

The sewers of Mexico City which provide the setting for the final part of the film provide an apt metaphor for what lies buried and what this monstrous past desires.

Containing the residues of the past, the sewer is associated with purification and cleansing – underground sewer: cloaca (Spanish) from the Latin clovaca, to cleanse – and yet it is also what contains the waste. The past here does not want to be cleansed or exorcised; it wants recognition and repetition, and this culminates when, in the final scenes Nuno, seeing Catalina as the monstrous Llorona, beats her to death, reenacting old hostilities, and the film ends with Catalina’s twin sister Agata, possessed by the past, and screaming over and over ‘Donde esta mi nino’.

Perhaps a primary connection between the monsters of folklore and the monsters of most contemporary horror film is, as shown in KM31, this desire to replay traumatic memory: it is not even revenge that is sought, but the reproduction and recognition of their own experiences.

Kathleen Brogan has argued that the masterplot of ghost stories of the cultural haunting variety is a movement from ‘possession to exorcism or more accurately from bad to good forms of haunting’: (she gives as an example Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Perhaps the monster of folklore and the monster of contemporary horror, while connected to such ghost stories by the concern with the communal nature of the haunting, are linked and distinguished from such ghost stories in that they represent the desire not for exorcism, but for the relentless repetition of the original traumatic experience while also playing to the more modern ghost story that recasts the monstrous supernatural as a projection of the individual self.

Here’s the trailer for KM31:

and the part in the sewer:

Kathleen Brogan. 1996. ‘American Stories of Cultural Haunting’, College English, 57.2: 149-65.

E.J. Clery. 1995. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction. Cambridge University Press.

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