The Changeling demonstrates how fairytales can be used to devastating effect to process our deepest fears and desires. By Sarah Krasnostein.
In Norway, they blamed trolls. In Germany, it was the devil. Across Britain, it was fairies or elves. Spain had nymphs. Nigeria had the ogbanje, an endlessly reincarnating malicious spirit whose fearsome power derived from a buried object tying it to the human world. While its expression varies between local cultures, the changeling of global folklore is a supernatural being left to impersonate a stolen human – a baby, typically – after it has been carried off to another kingdom. Recently married women and new mothers were also susceptible, replaced by magical others or enchanted objects such as logs, which gradually withered and died.
Adapted by Kelly Marcel from Victor LaValle’s eponymous dark fairytale, The Changeling (Apple TV+) is built – like its protagonists – from books. “This fairytale begins in a library in Queens,” the narrator (LaValle) says near the start of episode one. Antiquarian bookseller Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield), reaching for a copy of Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller’s The Other Islands of New York City, is about to meet librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo, who bestrides the narrow screen like a Colossus). What follows is, like Seitz and Miller’s book, a tour through worlds hidden in plain sight.
Ricocheting across time and place as seamlessly as traumatic memory, the first episodes are Apollo and Emma’s love story. Parentally abandoned in different ways, the intergenerational trauma they both carry is, initially, invisible. Apollo was raised by a loving but struggling single mother, Lillian Kagwa (played, at different ages, by two superlative actors: Alexis Louder and Adina Porter), who immigrated from Uganda with her own trauma. Apollo is defined by his persistence, his father-wounded sorrow and his drive to be a good dad to his future child. Orphaned at five, optimistic Emma was raised by her older sister. Like Apollo, we know her by her fearlessness and the self-possession that keeps her on course (“like a fucking sorceress”). Despite falling in love with Apollo, she proceeds with plans to move to Brazil.
There, walking alone in the deep woods ringing a lagoon she was warned not to visit, Emma encounters a witch by the water who grants her three wishes while knotting a string around her wrist. The wishes will come true as long as she does not cut the string. On her return to New York, Apollo, in a realistically surprising act of hubris, cuts the string, saying he will give her everything she wished for. And they seem set to live happily ever after, until their much-desired baby is born.
Emma – postpartum, sleep-deprived, her personality both monstrously diminished and inflated in that time of enormous vulnerability – starts believing the ravenous, unsleeping child is not hers, and, then, not human. Maybe it’s psychosis but her belief is not without grounds. Refusing Emma’s request to protectively baptise the baby, Apollo’s main contribution is to advise medication for her and, derisively, exorcism for the baby.
“The message board said we can try therapy or church, and we can’t afford therapy,” Emma pleads.
“Why don’t you go take another pill or something?” Apollo replies.
When Emma finally breaks, committing unthinkable violence before disappearing, Apollo follows her trail across the porous boundaries between worlds.
Psychoanalysis tells us reality is medicinal. Folklore, myth and fairytales resist that discomfiting prescription, preferring the sophisticated defence of the fantastic. In such narratives, the “cosmic horror” , as H. P. Lovecraft put it, of a universe unconcerned with human need is replaced by a natural order sufficiently spacious to include the supernatural. As folklorist Jack Zipes has pointed out, this introduces the possibility of “imaginative justice”.
What better narrative mode to come to terms with a society where reality itself is fantastically fictionalised to serve the few – infused with magical thinking about racism, gender violence, strangulating economic inequality and unobtainable mental healthcare? “Monsters may loom in the forest and abandoned subway tunnels and online that are excited to victimize your child,” wrote Nandini Balial on RogerEbert.com, “but low wages, domestic violence, the lack of subsidized childcare, and mental illness are just as insidious and much harder to avoid than the creepy forest or the far end of the subway platform.”
It takes a few episodes before we disappear down the rabbit hole, but, like Apollo and Emma, we are in fairyland from the moment we believe in the redemptive power of love unaccompanied by the harrowing labour of confronting one’s own ghosts. While it carries a multiplicity of meanings, The Changeling is fundamentally about the most difficult and worthy quest of all: the effort to love in ways that break cycles of intergenerational trauma.
Partly because of the hypnotic performances, partly because of the genre’s Disneyfication, I’d forgotten that “dark fairytale” is tautological. Here, it is also euphemistic to the point of inaccuracy. The Changeling is horror and should be approached as such. While it comes girded with warnings about self-harm and suicide, the list should also include: depictions of infanticide, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect.
For anyone lucky enough in life – so far – to require this information: “being triggered” and “feeling really uncomfortable” are different planets. For those who fall into the latter category where these topics are concerned, whether you watch is entirely up to you. I found episodes two and three nearly unbearable. After viewing them, I found the experience valuable but not enjoyable. This raises larger questions about what we seek from our engagement with art and what is lost when the small screen is reduced to a comfort machine. Perhaps both questions have similar answers: the chance for deeper insights about ourselves, each other, the world and its representations.
The wonder of genre narratives – myth, fairytale, horror, romance – is that while the repertoire of human stories is limited, there are infinite ways to spin them. Criticism of The Changeling has argued that while the cinematography is excellent and the performances unerring, a “lack of narrative cohesion” or “redemption” ultimately lets it down. The same could be said about life itself. Meaning, like redemption, is not something that is given, it is something that is made – each for ourselves. We’ve never been comfortable with the extent, or limitations, of our powers, so we continue to look to everything from fairytales to fortune cookies to Facebook for assurance in a world where everything is as changeable as water. As Apollo says, “The new fears are the old fears and the old fears are ancient, but when it’s our turn to face them they are made new.”
It’s easier to believe in happily-ever-after. Or that evil is as separate from ourselves as light from the dark. Or that the baby is “an asshole” or “the devil” rather than your own wounded psyche. Or that your brutally unsupported wife ran off with the fairies out of nowhere or was replaced with a log, so wooden are her responses to the conditions of her existence. But what comforting delusions give with one hand, they take away with the other. Fairytales are laden with mytho-poetic metaphors and meanings. When we encounter in them something that fortifies us in our interior conflicts, we are enlarged in ways more wondrous than any fairy godmother could offer.
Applying equally to the best televisual storytelling, scholars Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz wrote, “If films are to a large extent public dreams, then our role as critics is similar to that of the depth analyst: to interpret how the film as collective dream provides a picture of the cultural unconscious.” On my reading, then, The Changeling shows the only thing to be feared in our depths is the scariest thing of all: the danger we pose to those we should protect, as long as we remain a mystery to ourselves.
The Changeling is streaming on Apple TV+.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "The monsters within".
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