Shudder’s Z Explained- Domestic Abuse And Is Z Real?
Z directed by Brandon Christensen and written by Christensen and Colin Minihan is a scary ride through the nightmares of our own mind.
Imaginary friends who may or may not be demons like Daniel Isn’t Real or Babdook have forged new ground in the last couple of years. How much is actually happening, and how much is mental illness is fertile ground for horror. Demons are scary, but your own mind turning against you is more terrifying still. Add in a creepy kid that may or may not be possessed as in Netflix’s Eli, Dreamkatcher, or Prodigy, and you have something. That is the exact space Z occupies. That charcoal grey area where things are neither dark enough to consume you and not light enough to illuminate the truth. Z is a chiller with no gore but heaps of dread. Just like in I Trapped The Devil, you are never really sure who has trapped who.
The film, which is out today on Shudder, is heavy on atmospheric chills and metaphorical demons. Elizabeth, who The Magicians fans recognize as Keegan Connor Tracy, is a desperate housewife. She has a nice material life. Husband Kevin gives all initial appearance of being a supportive husband and father, and Josh is a cute eight-year-old with a wild imagination. Things aren’t perfect for her as we quickly find out.
Her mother is in the final stages of cancer, her sister is an addict who avoids their mother on her death bed, leaving Beth to deal on her own, and Kevin only appears to be a committed partner. When Beth gets called to the school, she finds Josh has been causing trouble for quite a while, and Kevin has been hiding it from her. He has the stereotypical “boys will be boys” response and avoided telling her for fear she would overreact. It is then it becomes clear he isn’t a monster, he’s just deceptive and dismissive.
Kevin, Sean Rogerson from Grave Encounters, believes his role as a father is to provide financially, encourage his son to tell white lies to his Mom, make excuses for him, and fist bump every morning. All the real heavy lifting should be Beth’s problem. The worry, day to day grind of being parent, spouse, caregiver, playmate, and counselor should be her job solely. Unless, of course, that entails her disciplining or medicating Josh.
If that isn’t bad enough, Josh begins playing with someone he calls Z. Josh claims it is Z who made him act out in school. Fearing for her son Beth takes him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Seager(Stephen McHattie), for help. The doctor initially dispels the idea that there is anything wrong with him and tells both parents they should help Josh by eliminating his loneliness. That loneliness is what has prompted his invention of his imaginary friend. That night Kevin suggests Beth should spend more time with Josh and try harder. Gender roles are essential in Z. Make no mistake, there is a demon, but it is more an inner demon than a physical one.
During a horrendous playdate, Josh’s friend Daniel is thrown down several flights of stairs. Convinced Josh did it; Beth medicates him. Unfortunately, either Josh reacted to the medication or Z made him sick. It is then that the wheels of sanity fall off. Josh’s doctor treated Beth as a child. Beth also imagined Z when she was eight. He didn’t recognize her at first but did remember the unusual name of her and Josh’s friend.
Beth had forgotten all about Z, and the film does not make any overt connections, but it could be implied Beth’s father died around the time Z disappeared. Beth could have imagined Z as a form of protection from her father, or he is the Bob character to Laura Palmer’s father, Leland, who had been sexually abusing her for years. A final explanation remains that Beth and Jenna’s Mom was the abuser. It is certainly reasonable to infer that from the girl’s strong emotions toward her.
Domestic Abuse And Mental Illness
From the beginning, Beth shows all the classic signs of domestic abuse if you know where to look. She is isolated, dependent, and systematically belittled. Kevin isn’t abusing her, but someone in her past may have and has come back for more. Beth and her sister Jenna, Sara Canning from Level 16, are reticent about their mother. Beth cares for her, but their interactions are cold while Jenna refuses even to see her. Their father died sometime before, and no one mentions him except for their mother, who claims he spoke to her as a ghost recently. Might he be the mysterious Z who has come back to claim Beth?
Z doesn’t explain if Beth and Jenna’s father was abusive to them or their mother and certainly does nothing to explain why the women have such strong negative feelings toward their mother. What it does do is drop bread crumbs to follow to their logical conclusion. Z is the manifestation of whatever childhood trauma Beth endured. Similar to Babadook trauma can take corporeal form. It could also be as simple as her mother was mentally ill and so is Beth. She has passed it down to Josh who now suffers as well.
By the final act, Beth has completely regressed into her role as a child playing lava and watching cartoons in between rushing around placating Z’s every whim. She visibly cringes when he demands she serves him 2% milk. Later that night, something climbs into bed with her making their relationship weirdly sexual. Finally, his control of her is complete by removing everything she loves that isn’t him. It is textbook abuse, and she looks a little too familiar with it.
In the end, Beth tries to kill herself, thus snuffing out Z’s life as well as saving her son. She was not entirely successful and is now catatonic with Jenna caring for her and Josh. Josh says good night to everyone, including Z leaving the possibility open that the demon still exists somewhere. Earlier, when Josh’s pet dies, he continued to say good night to him, telling Beth just because he was dead didn’t mean he was gone. With Beth’s mind gone, hopefully, she trapped Z. Z might just be waiting for a new victim, or Josh might just be the sweet kid he appears to be.
Is Z Real?
It doesn’t really matter. Beth believes he is real, and so he is. He is only seen in glimpses, but something drinks from a glass, killed Kevin, and broke down the door of Beth’s childhood house. It is also highly unlikely little Josh threw Daniel down the stairs. Just as in Babadook, intense emotional experiences made something real, and Z is that manifestation. Curiously there are four different demons whose names begin with Z. Zabaniyya, Zagan, Zepar, and Ziminiar. He could be any or all of those.
Z makes good use of camera work from above especially of stairs creating a claustrophobic sort of vertigo. It also uses simple tricks like a child drawing a Z with black crayons and staring at a ceiling fan to scare rather than mask-wearing killers and comedic jump scares. Anyone who has a cat can attest to the power of suggestion convincing you there really is something on the wall or ceiling. For a psychological thriller that will have you turning on lights before entering a room stream Z on Shudder today. Click here for a free trial of Shudder to get you started. Just type in the code Signal.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.