Warning — Spoilers!
In this delightful film, teen siblings Becca and Tyler are in the throes of dealing with parental abandonment just as their fairy tale counterparts. Their father has left them to move across the country and start a new family. Mom here is well-intentioned but distracted by a new romance. These wounds leave both children less well able to protect themselves as they venture through the dark woods to meet their mysterious grandparents for the first time.
There are many things about Hansel and Gretel that are unique, and make it a special, powerful fairy tale. Happily, many of these same elements find their way into Shyamalan’s adaptation. Hansel and Gretel deals with childhood trauma, and can teach us much about surviving and healing from horrific parental abuse.
First, Hansel and Gretel is one of a small number of tales to portray a positive sibling relationship as a central aspect. On a literal level, it is often the case that siblings in an abusive household are likely to become strong allies. Those that manage to do so have a better chance of surviving psychologically intact. An older sibling may care for the younger, taking on the role of nurturing parent when mother and father abdicate. Older sisters make sure they their father comes for them every night instead of victimizing their younger sister. Older brothers lovingly concoct elaborate birthday surprises for their younger sibling when parents are emotionally or physically absent.
In Hansel and Gretel, Hansel first cares for his sister, comforting her, and coming up with the plan to drop pebbles first and then breadcrumbs. At the end, of course, it is Gretel who finds a way to protect Hansel. The chemistry between Becca and Tyler is one of the best parts of “The Visit.” Behind their mutual irritation with each other, the goading and teasing, a real fondness and solicitude is evident. As their situation gets increasingly threatening, both work to protect the other. Particularly touching is the scene where Becca comforts Tyler in the midst of an OCD related panic attack.
Symbolically, the loving sibling pair can be an image of a psychic state in which we find an inner ally. No matter how dark the woods become for us, we are able to muster psychic resources, perhaps in the form of kind words for ourselves, or some sense of ourselves as competent or worthy of being in the world.
Psychologically, Hansel and Gretel is about how the wounds inflicted by an abusive childhood make us vulnerable to re-victimization — Hansel and Gretel are easily seduced by the sugar covered cottage, unable to discern potential danger. The secret to survival is to be able to claim the split off aggression that has been disallowed in the traumatic situation. Many abuse survivors report that their abuser was the only one in the family who was “allowed” to be angry. Kids who are abused often adapt by becoming as compliant as possible. Their own rage goes underground — as it must if they are to survive the abuse. Later, however, they absolutely must reclaim their connection to this healthy rage in order to protect themselves.
Because abuse survivors learned that anger — their own or their parent’s — could be deadly destructive, anger becomes split off, and appears to the ego as a dangerous, frightful content. In Hansel and Gretel, the lysis of the tale occurs when the heroine is able to integrate aggression – to be witch like. Gretel does to the witch what the witch was trying to do to her — shove her in the oven and lock the door. When Gretel behaves like a witch, then the witch ceases to exist. At this point in the story, the witch is no longer needed. That content is no longer foreign to the ego. It has been integrated, so there is a witch no longer, only the vast riches that always were there, yet were hidden by the ego’s fear of the aggression, which to the ego seemed evil, but in fact was full of wonderful things.
So we see that this most despised content is the possessor of great wealth. The alchemists taught that the Philosopher’s Stone could be found in a dung heap. This is very much the same idea. The fact that the tale is so easily resolved after this point tells us that the witch does indeed hold the secret of the tale. Whereas earlier in the story finding their way home confounded them, now the same task is no problem. Finding a way to kill the witch has been the central conflict all along.
I am suggesting here that the image of violently killing the witch is the psychological equivalent of integrating needed aggression, thereby moving from victimhood to a more empowered stance. When we do so, we are able to kill off our inner victimizers. This in turn opens up the possibility of working through psychological conflicts.
Just as Hansel and Gretel need to connect with their aggression to kill off inner victimizers, so too do Becca and Tyler. Their grandparents abandoned their mother, casting her out into the dark woods alone at a crucial point in her life, leaving her open to further victimizations, which we see evidenced by her poor choice of partners. (Becca is very aware of her mother’s wounded bird psyche. Her mission throughout is to get the “elixir” that will allow her mother to heal.) Becca and Tyler have inherited these same wounds. The inner negative mother and father must be confronted.
When Hansel and Gretel succeed in killing the witch, they are able to find the positive father. Once Becca and Tyler have managed to kill off the negative parents, the family can again have access to the good parents. Becca’s mother can recall the efforts her parents made to reconnect after the rift. The final scene of the film shows Becca and Tyler having resolved significant psychic conflicts. Becca can now look in a mirror, and Tyler raps delightfully about her germ phobia. Clearly, their encounter with their witchy grandparents has helped them to heal.
And the scenes in this film where Becca climbs into the oven to clean it? This viewer was delighted!