Aronofsky film 'Mother!' eerily anticipates Idaho massacre
Some crimes are so awful that much of the world stares at their aftermath in dumb shock, and this has been true of the murder of four young adults in a rented house near the University of Idaho last November. Amid the outpouring of grief and agony following the slayings of Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Madison Mogen, there were cries of frustration over the perceived slowness of the police investigation and the lack of publicly announced suspects or persons of interest as weeks dragged on.
Now police have apprehended Bryan Kohberger, a former Ph.D. student in criminology, at his parents’ Pennsylvania home and charged him in the ghastly crime. With preliminary hearings set for June, perhaps it is not too soon to try to draw a few lessons as we continue to grieve, and to reflect on certain aspects of the case that, even with constant coverage by our true-crime obsessed media, have not gotten due attention.
It seems fairly obvious that the misuse of social media played a role in setting the stage for the crime. Some cultural commentators—and one in particular, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky—have tried to warn the world. Aronofsky’s 2017 film Mother! polarized critics and audiences, with some finding it entertaining and others reviling it as an exercise in ludicrous excess. People struggled to make sense of the violent, chaotic, semi-surreal storyline and to tease out metaphors. To my knowledge, the film has not been treated as an allegory about social media in our time, but the more you reflect on it, the more apt the interpretation seems.
In the Idaho case, suspect Kohberger’s twisted fixation with his victims appears inextricably connected with his use of Instagram to access their social media footprint and obsess over the images of the young women. Former CIA agent Tracy Walder has commented on the fact that Kohberger had an image of one of the four victims on his phone, a fact first reported by People magazine. Citing an unnamed source, People did not specify whether Kohberger took the photo himself or found it online, but we do know that his own Instagram account followed those of the three women, and having the image on his phone seems of a piece with his cyber-stalking of the victims in the weeks leading up to the November 13 murders.
Again, much has still to come to light, and we will probably have to wait until the trial for these questions to be fully resolved. But based on the facts as we know them, it appears that Kohberger did not know the victims personally and his obsessive, sociopathic, and, finally, homicidal behavior toward the four seems to have taken root in his discovery of them through social media.
Did Instagram facilitate a pattern of obsessive behavior, culminating in a quadruple murder, that otherwise never would have happened? The question is well worth asking in light of this tragic and horrible case. I would love to be proven wrong, but based on the facts we have, it does appear that the killer and the four University of Idaho students were strangers, and the four would have gone right on with their lives if they had not put out a social media portfolio full of enticing pictures of themselves and accessible to anyone with a phone. In the absence of Instagram, Bryan Kohberger might have gone through his whole life without knowing of the existence of these four young people, and their paths might never have crossed.
The above paragraph might sound like blaming the victims, but that is absolutely the last thing I want to do. They went along with the zeitgeist and took part in a phenomenon, Instagram, with an estimated two billion users worldwide. Instagram, like Facebook and other social media, is not excessively concerned with privacy and helps foster a certain mindset on the part of its users, an unconscious assumption that the world is not really all that dangerous. It’s fine to share at least some of the stuff of your private life, everybody knows everybody, and you should not be overly concerned with the possibility that strangers will react to what you post. Don’t worry that people out there, of whose identities and motives you know nothing at all, will find images of you in private settings. You’re just posting images of yourself with your friends, your partner, your roommates, your parents, your dog. What’s the worst that could happen?
We’ve just seen one of the most terrible consequences imaginable. Four young people came to the attention of someone unstable and unsavory through their social media footprint, and a sick obsession quickly grew.
In Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple living in a remote house. The husband is an ambitious writer and the wife a not entirely happy younger woman with unresolved feelings about motherhood. They find their quiet life disrupted when a stranger, portrayed by Ed Harris, comes knocking on their front door one night. The husband lets him in and, believing his claim to be a local doctor suffering from a worsening terminal condition, invites him to stay the night, despite Lawrence’s protestations that he is a total stranger.
Then the putative doctor’s wife shows up, and the two guests engage in all manner of inappropriate conduct and disrespect house rules about staying out of the husband’s study. Soon acquaintances of the two new friends begin to show up, and then their two sons, who have strong opinions about the estate and will of the terminally ill Harris. A violent quarrel culminating in tragedy follows, but the victim is one of the guests’ sons.
Things get much worse for Lawrence and Bardem, however, after the husband commits the naïve error of letting mourners and putative fans of his writing into the house. What starts as an uncomfortable pairing of two couples quickly morphs and multiplies into a ludicrous bedlam as friends of friends invade the house, and a scenario develops where strangers are running every which way and stealing things as Lawrence screams for them to put that down, to not sit there, to stay out of this or that space, to respect the privacy of their “hosts” and observe the rules of social etiquette.
Watching these increasingly harrowing and traumatic scenes in Mother!, it is hard to imagine a more apt analogy for the experience so many of us have had on social media and, in particular, Facebook, whose parent company Meta also owns Instagram and many other apps and services. Facebook’s credo used to be, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life,” but it is a stretch to think anyone today could utter that line with a straight face. Many of us have accepted friend requests from actual and legitimate friends, only to have our privacy invaded. Given the site’s configuration, those who are friends (and “friends”—i.e., total strangers) of your own friends often can easily gain access to photos you have posted, in theory, for those “people in your life,” your actual friends, to enjoy.
I have had total strangers, including people with whom I subsequently had very nasty interactions, comment on a photo of my cat or some other image which in theory was part of a portfolio for the exclusive consumption of vetted and actual friends, not strangers, and such experiences are the norm for many of us. But it is easy enough to see how such situations develop when using social media that encourage the attitude that everybody knows everybody, we are all part of a big online family, and there is no need to go to any great lengths to protect your privacy and deny strangers access to any of the stuff of your personal life.
Aronofsky’s film may be delirious, shocking, and loudly resistant to interpretation, but this critic cannot help thinking that he has offered a sly commentary on the way that social media make hitherto solid social barriers permeable in a fashion that quickly turns civilized order into Hobbesian chaos, leading quite literally to murder and mass devastation.
Admittedly, part of the film’s purpose is to provoke questions about our moral obligation to strangers. How could you think of turning away an ailing man in the middle of the night? And if his wife then shows up, do you tell her she can’t come into the house where her husband is recuperating? And then, when others arrive, they too will have rationales and excuses, however thin, all based on some putative mutual acquaintance. The film makes you consider where you would draw the line and how low is too low to set the bar for social interactions.
What is going too far? Attractive young people setting bait for the sick and disturbed by posting public images of themselves online, for one thing. We cannot change the awful events of last November, but surely the world can draw valuable and long-overdue lessons from them.