The Hole in the Ground. 2019. Directed by Lee Cronin. Screenplay by Cronin & Stephen Shields.
Starring Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall, Eoin Macken, Sarah Hanly, James Cosmo, & Kati Outinen.
Savage Productions / Bankside Films / Head Gear Films / Metrol Technology
Rated R. 90 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article features MAJOR SPOILERS.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
A film’s concept needn’t be 100% original to be effective. It only has to be fresh in the way it presents the material. The Hole in the Ground uses a premise that’s no stranger to the horror genre: the creepy kid. There are many in the annals of horror history, from Linda Blair’s possessed girl in The Exorcist to The Shining forever haunting us with the Grady Twins to The Omen‘s Damien Thorn and Rhoda in 1956’s The Bad Seed— only to name a few of the most recognisable characters.
What makes The Hole in the Ground different is how director Lee Cronin and co-writer Stephen Shields use folklore to turn the story into a tale of a mother’s anxiety, embodying women’s deepest fears as they enter the unpredictable arena of motherhood. The screenplay concerns a mom named Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) who moves to the countryside with her boy Chris (James Quinn Markey) and begins to experience a strange series of events making her question the identity of her own child.
Folklore’s influence takes over in rural backwoods spaces of the small town where Sarah moves, specifically the changeling. What Cronin does so well is straddle a line between folklore and mental illness, not allowing the audience answers until the end, and even then there remains ambiguity. The best part is Cronin’s film, regardless of how viewers choose to interpret the ending themselves, acts as an allegory of the terror in motherhood, one many women know very well, and one people are often afraid to confront as a reality.
Like all great backwoods horror, Cronin’s film distinctly separates small town from city. In the beginning, Sarah seeks a return to order outside the chaos of an urban centre and modernity’s incessant loudness. She wants a simple place for herself and her boy— there’s suggestion things with mom and dad haven’t been well. She appears to have halted taking her medication, too. The rural is also where there remain spaces in which the unbelievable and the mythical continue to exist. The small town setting evokes changeling folklore, as well as opens up a space for those folk tales and modern psychiatry to intertwine in horrific surrealism.
The changeling theme rears its head in subtle ways, rather than resting on typical instances of a mother believing a child isn’t her own. One of the earliest signs little Chris has been potentially replaced by a changeling is his appetite. The boy’s seen to be a picky eater, as Sarah tries to get him to eat his meals to not much success. This pays off not long later after Chris leaves the house one night and returns not quite the same, and soon mom notices her boy is ravenous, scarfing down his meals with little thought. “I‘m starving,” he tells her. A sudden change in appetite is one of those signs folklore says indicates a changeling’s presence.
Changeling folklore conceives that children are often stolen by fairies, for a variety of reasons depending on from which culture the stories originate. An aspect of these folk tales that works interestingly with Shields and Cronin’s screenplay comes out of Welsh lore, involving kidnapper fairies. These fairies are known as Tylwyth Teg, also called the Bendith y Mamau— the latter translates to “Blessing of the Mothers.” A curious piece of the name’s history ties directly into Sarah’s plight as a mother unsure of her child’s identity. Originally, the Bendiths were known as Melliths— the Melliths’ name instead translates to “Curse of the Mothers.”
Initially, the physical hole in the ground Sarah discovers in the forest is like a fairy hole, which is where many folk tales say people can locate the entrance to the fairy world. The hole works as a perfect metaphor for post-natal anxiety a mother feels watching her child grow up no longer tucked away in the relative safety of her womb. The hole in the ground becomes a figurative gaping hole within the mother after she’s carried a child around for nine months only to birth them and divide them into two separate human beings. The hole’s symbolism bridges themes of folklore with those of mental illness.
“Sometimes when you’re a grown up, life gets all blocked up with worry.”
Sarah experiences recurring nightmare visions of Chris. She pictures him doing terrible violence to her and others. When a person has a child, they occupy themselves with the anxiety of wondering who their son or daughter will become. Sarah’s unsettled by the thought Chris could grow up to be violent, at odds with what she previously thought about him before he disappeared briefly. She represents the paranoia of a parent watching their spawn grow from infant into a grown child. Her terror-filled reaction is indicative of a mother’s inability to reconcile with the fact her son is growing up and becoming a different person than she anticipated.
The connections between Sarah and Noreen Brady are troublesome, suggesting events the former experiences with her son aren’t supernatural. Noreen also thought her son wasn’t her own, culminating in her running the boy down in her car. We particularly see Sarah paralleled with Noreen in the final scenes (we’ll return to that shortly). There are further suggestions Sarah is the one to worry about, not her son. We see everything entirely from her perspective and there are several examples mom isn’t well. Chris mentions his father early in the story in such a way we can infer Sarah possibly ran away from him. Moreover, mom isn’t taking her pills, and her prescription bottle is a recurring image throughout. She’s also smacked her head on the way into town.
Perhaps the biggest reason Father Gore feels her mental state is questionable relates to the inclusion of the song playing over the end credits: “Weela Weela Walya” covered by Lisa Hannigan. The song is a variation on a murder ballad called “The Cruel Mother,” about a woman who commits infanticide. The song’s traditionally sang with a comedic tone, yet the version used by Cronin is haunting. The film ends with Sarah’s home covered in mirrors and her taking digital photographs of Chris, noticing the boy’s face smudged in the pictures. Clearly she hasn’t been able to rid herself of the paranoia her son is a changeling. “Weela Weela Walya” here becomes less a comedic ballad, more an ominous tune. Can Sarah control her mental illness? Or, will she someday succumb to it and dispatch Chris like Noreen eventually did to her own son?
Changeling folklore was used in previous centuries to give supernatural meaning to misunderstood mental/physical ailments, similar to how witchcraft was used to subjugate women because of their sexuality, among other things— look at the story of Bridget Cleary, covered on the podcast and show Lore, murdered in 1895 by her husband Michael after he was convinced she was a changeling. We can view The Hole in the Ground in light of an allegory about mental illness and motherhood. Capgras delusion is a psychiatric disorder that makes people believe someone close to them has been replaced by an identical impostor, not unlike the changeling lore but modified for modernity. Not inconceivable that Sarah’s suffering from Capgras delusion and normal changes in her growing son became twisted deviations in her ill mind. If this is the case, the ending transforms into a far more sinister finish to the plot.
Cronin’s weaved a quietly upsetting piece of folk horror touching on many bases over the course of 90 minutes. The Hole in the Ground shifts from potentially supernatural horror to potentially psychological horror at various intervals, never quite offering a concrete answer but revelling in the spooky atmosphere conjured at every turn. There are typical jump scares, just as much as there’s an organically constructed sense of dread that never quite lets go— not even after the credits roll.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who believes the plot veers into the supernatural and who believes the film depicts the scary mental health struggle a mother can go through in her early years of parenting. What matters is, regardless of how each viewer interprets the ending and all the events preceding it, this creepy kid horror is more than the sum of its parts, and the unique use of the changeling folklore sets it apart from other similarly themed horrors in the past.