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How Flowers in The Attic is More Than Just an ‘Incest Story’

For all the 80s kids reading or watching the story and first movie rendition of Flowers in the Attic, empathizing with four abused children who are tucked away by their mother and grandmother in an attic overtook a majority of the storyline. That said, most viewers also found themselves immersed in the storyline of incest – between the main character Cathy and her older brother Christopher Dollanganger.   

The 2014 remake of Flowers in the Attic presented a whole different visual influence and meaning to the purpose of the movie, highlighting the corruption in society. As interesting yet twisted as the storyline may seem, the overall encompassing points are more subliminal than meets the eye. As viewers, we see a displacement of what culture, external forces, and unspoken laws of society do to people – more so with adolescents and children who are basking in the nature of their own growth and embodiment of a newfound entity.

Essentially, Flowers in the Attic is a raw microcosm creation of a society where there is an influx of hegemonistic forces and “inherent” corruption of a community in this minuscule version of a “utopian society.”

Flowers in the Attic begins with four children, the Dollangangers, who had just suffered the loss of their father and as a result, their mother, Corinne, taking on both parental roles to give her children a sustainable lifestyle. Corinne finally reconnects with her mother, which surprises the Dollanganger children due to their assumption that their grandparents are deceased. As Corinne relocates her family to her parents’ estate, the Dollanganger children, Christopher, Cathy, Corey, and Carrie, are all told that they must live in the top floor and attic of their grandmother’s estate because they are children of “sin.” Their existence is to be unknown. They are also told they are to have no contact or to be seen by anyone else in the estate, especially not with their terminally ill grandfather as he would not be pleased or accepting of their existence. In addition to the Dollanganger children’s stay, Olivia, the grandmother, lays strict rules and punishments for termination of such rules while also, corruptly, ensuring they are met with the bare minimums of life essentials – food and shelter.

As time goes on, Corinne kept promising her intentions were to stay on good terms with her father in order to inherit his money and eventually move her children out of the estate and into a wealthy and pleasant life, soon. She also promises to visit the children every night while they are locked away and that she would fulfill the duties of a mother in her minimal time spent around them. This “promise” is dragged out for over two years and the children began to see how the corruption of the state they live in is immoral and progressively begin to villainize their selfish mother for enabling it. Corinne, who is consistently lying to her children about the wealth and activities she engages in, soils her relationship with her children. This doesn’t make the situation any better once the children find out that their youngest brother, Corey, dies from being poisoned from donuts Corinne delivers to them. The only truth that Corinne did give her children, though, was the history of her children being children of incest.

During the Dollanganger children’s imprisonment, they begin to craft their own version of a home between the main room and the attic they have access to. Christopher and Cathy who are both going through their teenage years, begin to adapt to adult roles – becoming new parental figures for Corey and Carrie and the endearment of romance. The flowers in the attic come from the flowers that are given to them by their mother alongside the arts and crafts Cathy helped allocate for by using flowers in symbolic ways – hope and a sense of livelihood, despite being stuck in an attic which becomes their own sense of world. In the end, this hope translates into Cathy and Corey’s ability to perfectly execute an escape plan to leave the estate.

While child abuse is a major theme in Flowers in the Attic, the underlying political reasoning behind this is not far from how society seems to function. The movie exemplifies this in a condensed way for which we can clearly see its political narrative. We see that, at first, it is the grandmother, Olivia, who is physically abusing the children when she believes Cathy and Christopher are engaging in a romantic and sexual relationship – which she assumed too early before having this assumption confirmed later on. Olivia’s implementation of violence and abuse by following through with her initial fear appeal only reinforces the hierarchical dominance of her position and power over the children. Yes, violence happens to have a means of assertion, but why is it seemingly necessary for Olivia? The inherent lack of control Olivia has over the Dollanganger children – more importantly, with Christopher and Cathy – comes at the cost of having to take physical means to achieve her objective. The audience witnesses a transfer of power from Olivia to her daughter, Corinne, when she began to lose herself and her children’s trust and natural assertion. This progressive separation of mother and authoritative figure led to Corinne’s utilization of violence to reinforce the “control” she once had over her own children. Seeing the simplicity of violence’s effectiveness in confirming hegemony, it comes to no surprise that this is manufactured naturally in Olivia and Corinne’s order – and frankly, its normalization intertwined with societal rulings.

To control the “society”, the powerhead, or powerheads, understands they have less influence on what occurs structurally and externally and, in turn, can only solidify their assertion through confiscating freedoms of those who make up their union. Interestingly enough, the audience witnesses a duality of surveillance by Olivia and Corinne in contrast with Cathy and Christopher. Where Cathy and Christopher end up scaling the estate they are in to absorb information that they are closed off from for the sheer purpose of insight and knowledge, Olivia and Corinne use constant and unpredictable check-ins as surveillance for the intent of maintaining their insight and knowledge on the Dollanganger children. Olivia and Corinne are able to expand the intention of their oversight to the point the children are consistently fearful. In Flowers in the Attic, we witness multiple scenes where Cathy and Christopher pull together a “proper” image out of trepidation of potential consequences when check-ins occur.

Surveillance manifests itself in seemingly non-present ways. Not only do Cathy and Christopher constantly worry about the presence of Olivia and Corinne when they visit, but the fear terrorizing them in being caught leeches itself in time. How do terror and surveillance intertwine with time? Essentially, Cathy and Christopher lose a sense of tangible time as their “clock” since it is instead concurrent with visiting times and the general uncertainty of when they would be seen by Olivia, Corinne, and anyone else in the house. Their constant fear of being caught leads them to abide by behaviors that they emphasize more for the sake of hoping to stray away from punishments, or additional future demise– Corey’s murder being the first. Surveillance as a tactic of power happens to take on a large portion of the surveiled’s mentality, as it finds its grounds in evoking the fear people can escalate on their own into becoming what is seen as “obedience.”


Like surveillance, savagery in Flowers in the Attic poses itself in the Dollanganger children differently than it does in Olivia and Corinne. Taussig writes that the torturer is the one that channels human savagery. Violence and fear are more primal in human nature and when we revert to torturing others, we are using the tortured’s inherent reactions to solidify our own assertions. To channel such an innate behavior to implement power over others is exemplified throughout the movie in how both Olivia and Corinne’s actions put themselves in authoritative positions over the Dollanganger children – as explained in the Violence and Transfer of Power section.

The Dollanganger children are dealing with the need for freedom and having to survive in a closed-off environment. They begin to lose touch with humanity. Cathy and Christopher are constantly battling with what minimal materialistic, inherent, and vanity-based commodities they possess to sacrifice in order to survive – deprivation of food for vanity and risking abuse for the sake of exploring the estate. For example, the audience witnesses Cathy’s hair being cut as Olivia posed the ultimatum that Christopher must be the one to cut it off if the children are to receive any food for a week. This was the agreement to trade vanity for food as a result of being caught by Olivia for the sexual engagements that previously occurred between Cathy and Christopher. Due to the encounter between Cathy and Christopher, this leads to another layer of human savagery. There is still a primal human necessity of a compassionate or romantic relationship that people seek; as a result of the Dollanganger children’s confinement, Cathy and Christopher’s bond flourishes, despite incest being “sinful.” The sexual interaction and romantic involvement with each other unraveled and was heightened as Cathy and Christopher began progressively losing hope in being a part of the outside world again and a humane desire for a different depth of intimacy.

Deborah Chow, the director of Flowers in the Attic (2014) movie adaption by V.C. Andrews, aimed to translate the literature of V.C. Andrews in a societally paralleled manner. It is important to keep in mind that the nature of this movie is contextualized in a form that the surface leveled portion of it is twisted in its treatment of the children. The storyline and twisted nature are, in its own immoral ways, feasible and understandable by human nature. As many people would like to believe that what happened to the Dollanganger children and the unspeakable actions of Olivia and Corinne are hard to associate with reality, the darker resonation viewers have with Flowers in the Attic are distasteful but not unreasonable to accept as truths. As a movie, that is what makes the storyline captivating. As living people in society, those are the fears we wish could only wish to not live in. Though this is about a family, this soon becomes a case of an innate society where given a small community, the birth of a new community and rawness of humanity is fundamentally savage. Essentially, what humanity would be more than happy to completely dismiss in their everyday lives and avoidance under a hegemonic system, we see that even in small branches of society the violence, fear, and channeling of human savagery are only cyclical – we are never able to avoid such detrimental human behaviors.

Kayla Ishisaki

Washington '21

Undergraduate student at UW Seattle.
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