Lee Cronin’s feature debut The Hole in the Ground, which premiered at Sundance Festival in 2019, marks a recent resurgence in Irish folk-horror set in remote parts of the countryside (The Lodgers, Beyond the Woods). Despite its wider setting of an ominous and dark forest, home to an ever-shifting sinkhole which pays homage to the off-the-beaten-track caverns of The Descent (2005) and the claustrophobic woodlands of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the film’s most horrifying and violent moments are intensely domestic.
The story follows a young mother, Sarah (played by Séana Kerslake), who has moved out to an old house in the sticks with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) in an effort to escape an abusive partner. The traumatic legacy of this abuse manifests itself in a number of ways through the narrative. Sarah’s tousled fringe doesn’t quite hide the large scar running across her forehead, in fact the wound re-opens when Sarah is at her most vulnerable, having just stepped out of the shower. At the film’s exposition, Chris, unaware of the abuse, asks about his father as they drive home from school, but the conversation is abruptly curtailed by the appearance of a strange woman in the road, who we later learn is Noreen Brady (played by Kati Outinen) – the ‘local madwoman’ who was sectioned after running over her young son.
Back home at the dinner table, in a domestic scene that Cronin has mother and son return to again and again over the course of the narrative, Chris mopes, unhappy about school life and resentful of his mother’s evasiveness about where his father is. Sarah leaves him at the kitchen table to continue scraping wallpaper of the walls with a spatula, the use of the cooking utensil gesturing to the semi-functional nature of this newly formed, seemingly unbalanced family unit: Sarah cooks, cleans, works full-time and in the midst of it all spends her spare time painstakingly scraping the damp walls of this alien but timeworn country house. A scream punctuates Sarah’s trance-like state and she runs into the kitchen to find Chris stood on his chair, eyes fixed on a small spider scuttling across the floor. Sarah takes the spider and Chris outside into the garden, ignoring her son’s repeated chorus of, “Where’s daddy? Daddy would have killed it for me.” Sarah places the spider gently in the long grass, it begins to crawl off tentatively, but before it can get far Chris slams his foot down. This sudden display of violence from a child that until now has been shy and quietly melancholy is jarring, it produces a particular sense of unease – in the audience and his mother.
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The rest of the plot documents the breakdown in Sarah’s relationship with her son, who she believes to be a changeling after he goes missing one night only for her to find him in his bedroom after spending hours searching for him in the woods. For most of the film, Cronin maintains a delicate tension between Sarah’s fragile mental health and Chris’ eerie behaviour: is she imagining things, or is her son actually a little monster (in the most sinister sense) and an imposter in her home? In a tense moment during the film’s climax, Sarah confronts her child, screaming from the kitchen, “You’re not my son!” She is convinced her little boy is not her little boy but a changeling, a faceless thing that has dragged Chris into the hole in the ground, assumed his identity and scuttled back into the house and arms of its new human mother.
Despite its intimations of supernatural violence and claustrophobic underground nightmare-spaces, the real horror of the film lies in Sarah’s interactions not with the so-say monstrous changeling but with the human inhabitants of the small village she occasionally comes into contact with: her slightly older boss Louise and her annoying husband; Des Brady, the husband of Noreen who refuses to help Sarah at the eleventh hour; Chris’ silently judgemental schoolteacher; and Sarah’s doctor, who we never see onscreen. Early in the film Sarah attends a dinner party at Louise’ house. Like a less comical version of the couples’ dinner parties Bridget Jones attends, Sarah is placed at the end of the table with two couples sat opposite one another, the men dominating conversation and quizzing a noticeably uncomfortable Sarah. During the mainly one-sided conversation, Sarah mentions a previous career that was put on hold when she got pregnant, the others nod – the men approvingly and the women sympathetically. The scene itself is primarily a plot device which allows Sarah and the audience to learn of Noreen’s tragic past and the murder of her son. But it also contains the real violence that haunts The Hole in the Ground, the violence of men: the literal violence of Sarah’s previous partner; the loud men at the dinner table speaking over their partners; the disapproving stare of Chris’ male teacher as he surveys her dishevelled appearance; the scrutinising questions of Sarah’s doctor, his probing fingers exploring the scar on her forehead as he asks whether she’s sleeping well. Cronin’s subtle inclusion of these gendered macro and micro-aggressions and his situation of domestic abuse as the off-screen genesis moment of the film’s events produce a fresh and anxiety-inducing perspective on Ireland’s most sinister superstition.
Sarah’s fear of her child being a changeling is twofold: the fear of supernatural interference is ultimately superseded by her anxiety that her son will become the monster his father was. It is significant that Chris kills the spider before any explicitly supernatural violence takes place. Chris’s aggression is the root of Sarah’s real fears, that the influence of his father has already taken root in her young son and is manifesting itself as an aggressive resentment of his mother – a potentially learned behaviour from his now-absent father. To what extent Cronin is guilty of romanticising Sarah as the ever-labouring single mother, or to what extent the film’s depiction of motherhood is authentic, however, is an important question that needs to be asked of any male director. That being said, through his inter-weaving of tropes of domestic abuse with changeling folklore, in The Hole in the Ground Cronin provides a fresh perspective on a classic gothic fairytale that speaks to the way in which contemporary forms of gendered and economic violence are enacted on women’s bodies.
Rhys is an interdisciplinary PhD candidate researching the politics of contemporary horror. Find him on Twitter: @rhystevenjones.