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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Film

So, There Are Two Sides To A Haunted House Story…..

On August 10, 2001, two films made their debut in American theaters – The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, and Session 9, starring Peter Mullin, screamed into theaters with varying degrees of success. The Others was critically acclaimed, particularly for Kidman, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Although not nearly as successful, Session 9 has become something of a cult classic, with mixed to positive reviews.

I saw both films in their original releases and it struck me then that any theater running both films would do well to bill them as a double feature (I made a point of telling the theater manager this idea, to no avail). Upon repeated viewing, thanks to the DVDs, I still think they’d make a great cinematic duo. For those of you who have not yet seen either film (and where have you been???), the premise of both is the Haunted House.

The Others is a fairly traditional interpretation of the gothic haunted house/ghost story. Set in an isolated English manor in Jersey, the Channel Islands, shortly after World War II, it is a locked-room mystery. The household servants have seemingly vanished overnight, with no explanation, leaving Grace Stewart and her two young children, Anne and Nicholas, to fend for themselves. In addition, the children suffer from a condition (Xeroderma Pigmentosum) that prevents them from being able to withstand the light from the sun. Their lives are structured within the confines of the multi-roomed, heavily curtained house, which is in constant shadow.

The arrival of three new servants (Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle and Lydia), who have their own ties to the house, only seems to exacerbate the unsettling noises and incidents that the children insist are real and that prove there are ghosts. Being a strict Catholic with no room for the unexplained, Grace retreats further into denial, which only fuels the tensions between her, her children and the servants until, at last, she is forced to confront the truth.

  1. Isolated buildings (house, asylum), further isolating the characters.
  2. Death is the inciting incident, although it is not revealed until the end.
  3. Weather is also an indicator – fog in The Others is limbo for Grace and her children, symbolic of their own uncertainty.
  4. Photographs play an important role and are used to signal the film’s secret.
  5. Grace has a strained relationship with her husband.
  6. Graves/cemetery on the property that links to the secret.
  7. Both films skew towards one gender as the driving force, with the other gender in a supporting or other role – The Others is primarily female-driven.
  8. Use of the location to demonstrate the character’s internal life – in The Others, the house is compartmentalized, much like Grace herself.
  9. Grace holds a terrible secret that is tied to the inciting incident (#2), hidden not just from themselves, but from those around them and which is revealed, in the end, by a ghost.
  10. Grace comes to understand and accept her role in her fate and that of her children, which is what resolves the film.
  11. Grace and the children reclaim the house as theirs.

Session 9 is set in the present day at Danvers State Hospital, an actual former insane asylum, a gothic structure of deep red brick built in the 19th century. It, too, is a locked-room mystery, a haunted house/ghost story, in which five asbestos workers, led by independent contractor Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullin), are hired to clear out a portion for city use.

From the moment he and Phil Cronenburg (David Caruso) drive onto the property to meet with a city official to pitch their bid, Gordon is mesmerized by the building, haunted by its shadows and items left behind by the patients and doctors, and even seems to hear a voice whisper his name (Hello…..Gordon.). After winning the bid, they are joined by Mike King (Steve Gevedon), Hank Romero (Josh Lucas) and Jeff Fleming (Brendan Sexton III).

Each man is himself haunted and the asylum serves to act as a mirror – Hank’s desire to strike it rich is signified by his constant purchase of scratcher tickets and then finding old coins dating back decades within the walls of the asylum; to cope with his own stress, his concern over Gordon and resentment of Hank, Phil indulges more and more in alcohol and weed; Jeff is paralyzed by nyctophobia (fear of the dark) and is limited in where he can work; Mike, a failed law student, finds a box containing the recordings of counseling sessions between a patient (long since deceased) and her doctor and becomes obsessed with listening to them.

As the tension cranks up, tempers flare and a co-worker goes missing, the nineth and last session reveals who belongs to the mysterious voice that first greeted Gordon.

 

  1. Isolated building, which further isolates the characters.
  2. Death is the inciting incident, although it is not revealed until the end.
  3. Weather is a mood indicator – although there is a rainy scene, most of the film features sunny days, Gordon’s attempt to put up the false front that everything is fine.
  4. Photographs are an important signifier – in Session 9, they were used as a form of therapy for the patients. This is replicated later in the film.
  5. Gordon has a strained relationship with his wife.
  6. Graves/cemetery on the property share links to the film’s secret.
  7. Both films skew towards one gender as the driving force, with the other gender in a supporting or other role – Session 9 is male driven.
  8. Use of location to demonstrate the main character’s internal life – Gordon end up weeping in Ward A, where the more violent patients were kept.
  9. Gordon holds a terrible secret that is tied to the inciting incident (#2), hidden not just from himself, but from those around them. This is revealed to him, in the end, by a ghost.
  10. Gordon, wracked with guilt and grief, cannot accept his fate and therefore becomes the asylum’s newest resident patient
  11. Gordon pleads with his wife that he misses her and that he just wants to come home.

This is not the first time similarly themed films arrived in movie theaters the same summer (Dante’s Peak and Volcano in 1997 and The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes in 1999) and, given that Hollywood relies on the tried and true, it won’t be the last. These two 2001 films stick out, however, because the filmmakers took the same premise and the same tropes and re-interpreted them to make two, uniquely different stories.

Note – in 2006, Danvers State Hospital was sold to a developer and was completely gutted, leaving only the brick façade, to make apartments. Session 9 is the last film of any kind to show the asylum as it was after it had closed and prior to demolition. Don’t get me started – clearly, no one took the time to watch Poltergeist (1982), which demonstrates the dangers of building on haunted ground.

Danvers, Massachusetts was formerly known as Salem. Yes, that Salem.

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An American Tourist in Ireland (8)

At one point, we were scheduled to go to Skellig Michael, but due to poor weather and ocean conditions, that was cancelled. We did,  however, spend some time at the information and gift center, had lunch and watched a short film about the island. If you’re puzzling over why that name sounds so familiar, it would be due to the fact that it’s where Rey found Luke Skywalker at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So, on we went to Cong, which is also famous for cinematic reasons, namely the Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne film, The Quiet Man (1952). Below, is the tavern where Barry Fitzgerald’s character has a pint so often, that his horse knows to stop there before passing on by.

Exterior of the tavern, as seen in The Quiet Man.
Exterior of the tavern, as seen in The Quiet Man.

Most of the exteriors you see in the film were shot on location in Cong, but through the magic of film-making, the geography was rearranged just a wee bit. If you watch the film and then visit (or vice versa), you’ll get a slight disorienting feeling of things not quite matching up between real life and the film. And that’s okay – that’s the beauty of it all.

Exterior of the vicar's house as seen in The Quiet Man.
Exterior of the vicar’s house, as seen in              The Quiet Man.

 

Cong is a beautiful village that retains much of the charm that was surely there even before John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and the film crew even arrived. Many of the locals were given background parts – in fact, the gentleman leading the tour of Cong had a relative in the film, his father, I believe.

The Quiet Man Museum, replicated to resemble the actual cottage.
The Quiet Man Museum, replicated to resemble the actual cottage.

 

After the tour, we set off for a pub for lunch. We had to put in our choices early for either pasta or fish and chips. I chose the fish and chips – how could I pass that up when the fish had been caught that morning? I have to say, it had to be some of the best fish and chips I’d had in a long while.

There was a TV on, which isn’t at all surprising for a pub. But instead of sports or local news, a movie was playing that seemed awfully familiar. I realize it’s a bit washed out, but I hope you can make out who the actors are. 😉

Playing at the pub where we had lunch. Coincidence?
Playing at the pub where we had lunch. Coincidence? I think not.

It was a lovely place to visit and one I hope to see again.

Recommended:
The Quiet Man (1952)

So, I was reading my favorite Shirley Jackson novel…..

…….the terrifying, subversive ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, while waiting for a friend at my local wine bar. I was finishing up my dinner and was completely engrossed with Jackson’s prose.

“Hello!” came a voice at my elbow and I jumped with a yell, that immediately turned to giggles from both of us. I love scary stories, but don’t often get spooked by them.

This startled reaction was a first for me, as any and all who know me know that I am a lover of horror and supernatural fiction and non-fiction. It also reminded me of how Robert Wise had a similar action while reading the book.

In the audio commentary of the The Haunting (1963), Wise recounts how he was reading the book in his office. He had just gotten to a particularly tense scene when writer Nelson Gidding (who was working in the office next door) burst into the room. Robert Wise “jumped about three feet off the chair” (1) and realized that if the book could inspire such a reaction, then it should make a fine picture.

True horror doesn’t come from gross out imagery that is shoved into our faces – granted, it makes for a squeamish, shocking effect, but it’s also desensitizing. Horror comes from fear of the unknown, that which hides in the shadows and cannot be fully seen. What we can’t see is far more frightening than what is seen.

Shirley Jackson knew this – in reading The Haunting of Hill House, one is never entirely sure if the house is actually haunted or if it is Eleanor who is the haunting. This ambiguity is what lingers in our minds, why we can’t let go of it and why it haunts us. It’s also why some stories, like Jackson’s novel, take on a life of their own and become part of our language.

IMG_20160227_115204-2-2-2

(1) quote from the audio commentary by Robert Wise

Recommended Reading:

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
A Head Full of Ghosts – Peter Tremblay
‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Hell House – Richard Matheson
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

So, I recently had the chance to see The Maltese Falcon (1941)……

……….where it should be seen to be truly enjoyed – on the big screen and starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor. Based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, the film follows the four as they race to get the legendary and valuable bird created as a gift by the Knights Templar of Malta in 1539.
At the end, Spade and Detective Polhaus have this bit of dialogue:

“Heavy. What is it?” Detective Polhaus
“The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.” Sam Spade

Spade’s final line in the movie resonated with me, stayed with me for a couple of days. For me, the film wasn’t just a noir mystery shrouded in murder, greed and sex, it was a metaphor for being creative. The falcon is the seed and the inspiration. All the intrigue that follows in the 20th century with Sam Spade is a result of the bird being created as a gift in the 16th century.
You have an idea (the falcon). Through trial and error and self-doubt and perseverance (Spade and villains), you create the final product (book/film/song/etc.). What motivates you to create something? What drives you to pursue it to the end?
As a writer, I am constantly asking myself questions while working on a project, whether it’s a novel or a script. This is especially true when I get stuck and I do get stuck. A lot. Years ago, I took a journalism class and, while I ultimately chose to not pursue the profession, I did learn something incredibly valuable and helpful to my creative writing.
The five W’s and one H. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Surprisingly, this is also helpful for when I’m drawing.

Back to the Falcon and Sam Spade’s classic final words. At the end of the movie, Polhaus has picked up the bird, which has been revealed to be a fake. He is surprised at how heavy it is for such a small statue. Spade’s words, while seeming to be positive, actually mean the opposite – the falcon symbolizes false hopes and broken dreams.

How is this about being creative? Because what we perceive to be false hopes and broken dreams are often redirecting us to look at the situation or project with a different perspective.
Who is this for, at the end of the day? Who do you need to satisfy first and foremost? Yourself.
Why is this important? Because it’s an expression of the self.
What is it about? What does it mean? Creative work means something different to the creator than it does to the viewer.
Where is this creative muse/inspiration? Everywhere you look, there’s a story, photograph, a work of art.
When do you do it? Right now would be a good time.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:
The Maltese Falcon (novel-1929) Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon (film-1941)
On Writing (2000; anniversary edition 2010) Stephen King

*****
Editor’s Note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC

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