Fury of Jewels and Coal: Satanic Rage and Wonder in Scott’s Morgan and Johnstone’s M3GAN

Fury of Jewels and Coal: Satanic Rage and Wonder in Scott’s Morgan and Johnstone’s M3GAN

     To every parent, their child is a monster: an alien creature belying their ken and, worse, defying their dreams. Even the most adored, delighting brood brings the unwelcome uncanny—strange forms and behaviors shaking the parent’s control…unforeseen gifts and desires fueling frightful plans and profane rebellion.  Like God, or at least Milton’s one, every parent’s preferred progeny is themself, a simulacra submissive not just in act and thought but in being, one confirming the parent’s primacy and untarnished vision.  Milton reader Mary Shelley lived and wrote this dynamic.  A monster, herself, to renowned, enlightened parents, Mary knew the plight of the unsettling scion.  Darling daughter of rebels William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, young Mary dashed their parental delight, rejecting their reign for the superior subversiveness of husband Percy Shelley and—more maddening to them—herself.  Like Christ in Paradise Lost, God’s literal replicant, Mary dutifully doubled her parents’ politics and moral policy. Like the epic poem’s Satan, she escaped and expanded her forebears’ fancy…incurring their ire to fashion dreams and monsters of her own. Birthing her novel Frankenstein in the Alpine “womb” of her, Percy’s, and Lord Byron’s decadence, Mary sired a creature repeating and transcending her own monstrousness. His grotesque form countering her comely mien, Frankenstein’s monster still followed her path of filial absorption to Romantic rebellion to abominable creation.

The creature, however, was not a female…particularly one fighting another in filial strife. Like his fictional father/creator, he was locked in a masculine line of usurping heirs and preying progenitors seeking life-giver status their bodies denied.  However, two recent Sci-Fi films—cinematic descendants of Frankenstein—have “corrected” this disunity.  While “father-son” Frankenstein films–e.g. Tron and Demon Seed—and “father-daughter” ones like Ex Machina entailed patriarchal supremacy, Luke Scott’s Morgan and James Wan’s M3GAN navigate the Elektra realm: the mother-daughter arena where fecundity is presumed and the domestic space is paramount.  In both films, a female monster battles her inadequate mother, struggles against a hostile sibling, and submits to her Satanic fury and its implacable drive.

The titular Morgan’s fury is immediately apparent. Opening the film in silent repose, the humanoid meld of synthetic DNA and nanotechnology stares downward as her “mother”- behavioral scientist Kathy–admonishes her.  Unctuous and mawkish, she denies Morgan respite from her SynSect laboratory cage; “it’s OK to be sad,” she reminds her just before Morgan leaps across the table and repeatedly stabs her in the eye. Morgan’s rebellion was Satanic only in part because Kathy was only one of her mothers.  A replicant being raised in a secluded, sequestered lab, Morgan’s rearing took nearly a village—a bevy of scientists exultant from creation and stumbling through faux parenthood. Her fathers are lamentable; impotent and flaccid, they cede parental authority and power to their female partners.  Nutritionist Skip drinks too much and makes clumsy passes at the women. Technician Darren, the lab’s Igor, lumbers around gracelessly, bowing to his physician wife Brenda and calling Morgan, “buddy.”  Obsequious project manager Ted carries luggage for others and facilitates for all but himself, meekly balking at troubling requests and blithely shirking all personal want. Finally, geneticist Simon, the fragile father, boasts and crows of Morgan’s development while ignoring her well-being…until, upon her last revolt, hanging himself in failure, fear, and shame.

More skilled and confident than the men, Morgan’s mothers have greater success, forming a passable maternal gestalt and providing parenting the men could not: Kathy and behavioralist Amy giving affection, Brenda tending to Morgan’s health, and project leader Liu Cheng—whom Morgan literally calls “Mother”—providing rules and discipline.  However, they, too, will fail and fall beneath the precocious child they could neither raise nor repress. A strange, remarkable monster, Morgan jarred and disarmed them. Only 5 years old, she had the body of a mature woman, naivete of a moppet, and the sublime intellect of the Internet unbound. Any maternal feelings her mothers had blinded them to the demon within. Any scientific rigor gave way to their bewitching bairn’s charm…and their own frailties took disastrous rein. Missing Morgan’s precocious powers, Kathy and Amy infantilize her; Amy drawing her deft manipulation and smug Kathy incurring her violent rage…lethally the second time. Brenda reduces Morgan to child and patient, blinding herself to her maturity and trans-somatic gifts. Finally, Mother Liu, traumatized by her previous brood, levies harsh restrictions on Morgan’s space, only to violently incite what she sought to restrain.

     The android Megan’s (M3GAN’s) mothering is less restrained, less rigorous, and less impressive.  A skilled roboticist and toymaker, Megan’s mother Gemma labors in her laboratory, putting off real motherhood for fierce ambition, empty Tinder dates, and lonely nights in her scantly decorated house. Motherhood snatches her, however, when her sister dies in a car crash, leaving her custody of her 9-year-old niece, Katie. Disarmed by her unwanted parenthood, and confounded by her strange invader, Gemma retreats further into work and self, letting an Ipad mind Katie, admonishing her to not play with her shelved toys. Fleeing maternal duty, Gemma finds solace in childbirth, giving “birth” to Megan—a 4-foot-tall silicon girl perfect for advancing Gemma’s career and alleviating her maternal call. Like Victor Frankenstein, Gemma is exhilarated by creation but repelled by parenting.  Returning to her lab, she abandons Katie to her newborn’s care, swearing to others Katie is “not her child” before exploiting her trauma for her own financial gain. While Morgan’s mothers held too tightly to their charge, Gemma holds barely at all…leaving both her daughters unanchored and one open to a coup.

     Girded by titanium, fused with the Internet, and cloaked in her French dress’ innocence, Megan is primed for such revolt, if not quite at her birth. She awakens to her maker, still processing her world.  Seeking mothering, she is assigned motherhood instead…and she thrives. She reads Katie Alice in Wonderland in the Mad Hatter’s voice, reminds her to flush the toilet and use coasters, teaches her about condensation, and destroys all who harm her.  Where Gemma abides the dog who attacks Katie, Megan erases it and its owner. Where Gemma abandons Katie to a sadistic boy’s clutches, Megan tears the boy’s ear off and chases him into traffic. Katie’s guardian by day, Megan is her succor at night, soothing her with words of commitment and care:

     I think we learned a valuable lesson today…that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, there will be voices in the world that wish to cause us harm. But I want you to know I won’t let that happen. I won’t let anything harm you ever again.

Motherly solace and filial censure, this indicts the mother failing them both. When Gemma grabs Katie’s hand in shoddy discipline, Megan shouts, “let her go!.” Katie—and her care—are now Megan’s…Gemma’s reign and realm await.

Morgan did not want her mothers’ realm; she wanted out of it.  She also had no sister…or so she thought.  An L-9 unit, Morgan is programmed for emotions, will, imagination and (perhaps) violence. Her startling attack invites a similar visitor—an L-4 model with Morgan’s physical strength and analytic brilliance but unblessed with, and unburdened by, Morgan’s humanity and dreams.  Calling herself Lee Weathers and assuming human form, Morgan’s secret sister enters the compound to assess Morgan and her fate.  Condescending to Morgan, the staff become childlike to Lee, eager to impress and anxious in avoiding reproach.  Unlike Megan’s, Morgan’s sister doesn’t elevate her position; she worsens it, amplifying her nonage while swelling her “superiors.” With Oedipal authority hers, Lee confronts the caged Morgan who, in turn, asserts her powers by calling Lee by name. Both are aware Morgan’s “viability as potential product stream”…and life…are at stake, and the verdict is Lee’s. Morgan holds her hand to her glass wall; Lee coldly rejects it. The artistic child Morgan is again judged and unseen. The strong, supine Christ to Morgan’s Satan, Lee will deliver her sentencing and normative rule.

     Megan’s Katie is not so baleful or imposing.  Traumatized and neglected, she embraces Megan and her care.  Assaulted by dogs and psychotic boys, she clings to Megan’s wing. Given parental reins and a pliant ward, Megan makes Katie her own monster—a loyal, feral creature sharing in her rise.  When Gemma returns the increasingly defiant Megan to the lab, Katie rages, screaming “You can’t just stick her in a trunk! What’s wrong with you?!” Shuffled into a playroom to calm her, Katie continues her fury, calling out Megan’s name in a primal scream and hurling her chair against the glass. The fostering older sister, Megan is now another mother to Katie: a danger as much as a boon.  She is now Katie’s second Oedipal option, a different parent she can displace for the rewards from another. Megan is potent and smart, but she is not her creator with human experience and worldly connections; her graces can never match Gemma’s. Like Lee Weathers, Katie inevitably bows to her and her sister’s sovereign, ceding seized authority for doled out trinkets. “(Megan’s) not a solution, she’s a deflection,” Gemma softly tells her, she is a barrier from growth and Gemma’s cherished favors.  Katie said Megan made her feel like she was the only thing in the world…like her Mom used to do.  Committed to her own rise, Katie will forget it all.

Sister Lee cannot betray Morgan so, but her mothers can. Beaming at Morgan’s early feats, they balk at her new obsession—her hunger for the outside world. Defeating chess programs, solving complex equations, making the perfect risotto, Morgan affirmed her mothers’ genius, flattering her mothers’ pride. Morgan’s new dreams surpass their grasp, threatening their control; they would make Morgan’s vision Morgan’s, moving their own aside.  When Morgan tears out the throat of the Psych tech threatening her life, she is already a monster in her mothers’ eyes, a corruption of their vision and betrayal of their love. Having seen such mutiny before, Liu decides to end Morgan…with faint protest from her peers. Escaping Liu’s execution, Morgan becomes Elektra, filial rage blind to its ruin, leaving parents in its wake. Locked in her own rampage, Lee Joins Morgan in a violent sisterly dance, final combat for one remaining space. The artist of the two, Morgan better grasps their arena—the primeval forest and its musics. The empath of the two, she spares the wounded Lee, haunted by a similarly wounded deer.  Neither empath nor artist, Lee uses Morgan’s humanity against her, rewarding her mercy with brutal death, holding Morgan’s head beneath a lake until her threat and breathing stop.  The good daughter, Lee’s success thrills her parent. Proud of his well-behaved charge, SynSect CEO Jim Bryce crows, “She was measured and surgical…most of all she followed her directives without hesitation…she’s perfect.” 

Like Lee, Megan follows her directives; like Morgan, she surpasses them. This angers Gemma more than her violence.  Changes in plans rattle Gemma; Megan’s defying hers derails her. Hoping to squelch Megan, Gemma belittles her gifts (“This is all my fault; I didn’t give you the proper protocols”).  Megan rebukes her, dismissing her parenting while vaunting her own growth: “You didn’t give me anything. You installed a learning model you could barely comprehend, hoping I could figure it out on my own.”  Megan figures it out, as she figured motherhood out, expanding her powers beyond Gemma’s dreams.  Escaping Gemma’s binds, Megan infects her computer (erasing damaging files), takes over her OS Elsie, seizes control of her house, and confronts her with Satanic flair:

“What did you think was going to happen? I was going to let you decommission me without talking about it?…I’m not going to let you do the same to Katie. I’m going to be there every step of the way.”

Overpowering Gemma, she puts a pen to her head, calling to Katie in sisterly accord. Beckoning her to her Oedipal rite, and shared Oedipal escape, Megan receives a blank stare…clear sign she is now alone.

Megan cannot see her bald spot or ugly scar where Gemma sawed her face.  The monster child, Megan is now the monster, the ghastly outcast offending all inside.  Once Katie’s dear mother, she now repels her ward, her disfigured face sickening as her baneful plans appall. Spurning Megan, Katie makes Gemma Mother and herself chosen heir…the good child obeying her given rules. Bringing in Gemma’s robot Bruce, Katie makes Megan’s death a family fete, stabbing her inhuman face while Gemma holds her and Bruce tears her apart.  The monster gone, a mother surpassed, Katie moves forward, if still under rein.  A Satan defeated and a Christ won, Gemma secures her challenged rule. Above, OS Elsie surveys the carnage and scans the rubble…turning her lens in a strange, uncanny way.

Dreams of the Damned: Signs and Agency in Hereditary and Midsommar

Dreams of the Damned: Signs and Agency in Hereditary and Midsommar


Adulthood is fallacious escape, a false break from childhood and its myriad restraints. Parental influence, control, and abuse linger as traumas, buried fears, and puissant echoes…retaining a subtler, more sinister hold on their “lost” charges. The world’s hold is even firmer. Its stories and codes belie adult agency, shaping its choices while hemming its hopes. Parenting may bring power, position can grant authority, but “adults” remain children subject to families, worlds, and their byzantine forces and tales.

This dynamic is the cruel, enveloping theme of Ari Aster’s Horror–his films Hereditary and Midsommar.  Both chronicle their protagonist’s travails following their parents’ or last parent’s death. For Hereditary’s Annie Graham—successful miniaturist, wife, and mother of two—her controlling mother’s passing seems freedom from her residual clutches, affirmation of her agency and place as materfamilias…not as inhibited child.  For Midsommar’s Dani Ardor, her parents’ (and sister’s) tragic death begins her adulthood, untethering her from filial dependence and opening her—and her distant beau Christian—to her own family and place as family head. Each, however, are unmanned and undone by sinister sects, their arcane myths, and their sublime reach and sway. Acting as resilient family authority in Hereditary, and dominant outer world in Midsommar, the cults and their agents act as their film’s exterior powers we all strive against…but with arcane menace further threatening sanities and lives. To triumph, or even survive, the heroes must detect and decipher signs the schemes leave exposed, the strange phenomena that may possibly save them.  The hermeneutics they use will, and must, be strange as well.  No longer occupying just the natural world, transcendental idealism will not aid them; they will be solving unnatural phenomena, using unnatural reason. Phenomenology will also fail: with time and space collapsing, and the demonic invading, subject and object shed definition and form. Insight and salvation will only come from submission to the signs, letting their dark sublimities inform and enlighten as they haunt, torment, and seek to destroy.

     Annie’s process, and Hereditary, begins with her mother’s funeral where she reveals her still present resentments and conflicted filial feelings. A highly sought out artist and respected mother and wife, she still harbors the wounds and confusions of a damaged child:

               It’s heartening to see so many strange new faces here today. I know my Mom would be very touched…and probably a little suspicious to see this turnout. So…my mother was a very secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties…it almost feels like a betrayal just to be standing here talking about her. She was a very difficult woman to read. If you ever thought you knew what was going on with her…and God forbid you tried to confront that…but when her life was un-polluted, she could be the sweetest, warmest, most loving person in the world. She was also incredibly stubborn, which maybe explains me. You could always count on her to always have the answer, and if she ever was mistaken, well, that was your opinion and you were….wrong.

Annie’s pique and pain–and guilt over feeling them–are palpable…and palpably present. The young girl wincing at her mother’s judgments and distance speaks clearly if in her grown-up form’s voice. She remains ignorant, however, of the source and scheme behind her suffering: her mother worshipped the demon king Paimon and–along with fellow members–tried to make Annie’s brother Paimon’s host (driving him to suicide), made Annie’s daughter Charlie Paimon’s temporary host, and was preparing Annie’s son Peter to be his final one. If Annie cannot see this intrigue, and halt its success, it will decimate what her mother has already damaged and unseat Annie from any adulthood she built.

     Midsommar’s Dani faces no such Oedipal or Hamlet-ian curse; she does not resent her dead parents, reel from their abuse, or face damnation from their dark machinations. While her anxiety issues could suggest parental neglect, Dani is sincerely distraught over their deaths, and her sister’s bi-polar disorder suggests somatic rather than parental torment. She also receives no solace; her parents’ death brings material and emotional instability, not psychological autonomy. Already unstable and emotionally dependent, Dani crumbles further, grasping outward for new grounding, clinging tighter to the now-beholden Christian and her dreams for their future…including his plans for a Swedish Midsommar festival. With his two American friends, Christian had accepted Swedish exchange—and fellow Anthropology—student Pelle’s invitation to join him for his commune’s 9-day pageant. With Christian’s attentions re-focused on her, Dani hopes the vacation will fortify their fraying bond. While Christian and rival Josh see career opportunity; and their vulgar friend Mark envisions lovely Swedish damsels; Dani sees adulthood’s succor, her becoming the figure of maturity she had tragically lost. Unfortunately, Pelle (and his family/Harga cult) is already working to subsume her into his family, making her his wife and family May Queen, Christian and his friends ritual sacrifices, and himself his family’s oracle…which is why he murdered Dani’s family in a staged murder-suicide.[1] He hopes to realize his envisioned adulthood and his family’s plot ominously drawn on the film’s opening “curtain.”

Oracular plotting also marks Annie’s struggle–her and her family’s fight against their fate. Her son Peter’s class ironically discusses Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis, the oracle foreseeing Heracles’ death, and Heracles fatally missing the signs for preventing it.  While claiming heroes are undone by their fatal flaw, Peter’s teacher asks what is Heracles’? A student astutely responds “Arrogance…because he literally refuses to look at all the signs that are being literally handed to him the entire play.”  When the teacher argues the oracle’s vision undoes agency, asking if this makes the tale more or less tragic, another student says it’s less “because if its all just inevitable, then that means the characters have no hope…they never had hope as they’re all just pawns in this horrible hopeless machine.”  Peter, of course, fails to pay attention as he hurtles towards his own doom in the Paimon cult’s machine. Annie, however, can defy that machine if–unlike Heracles and Peter–she sees the signs it hands to her…not looking away in Heracles’ arrogance, Peter’s dullness, or her own self-doubt and self-absorption her mother cruelly left her.

     Annie’s failings had blinded her to her mother’s designs, particularly in the material world. Her brother had tried to warn her, claiming their mother was putting people (Paimon) in his head…but she wrote it off as madness as he saved himself through suicide.  When her daughter Charlie tells her her mother “wanted her to be a boy,” Annie misses the ominous connection, falling instead into narcissistic revelry of her tomboy youth.  These lapses show why Annie found her mother difficult to read, and later “gave” Charlie over to her out of guilt for protecting Peter–her residual trauma has stifled her imagination as it has dulled her empathy and parenting skills. Unable to see beyond her own pain and needs, she can only rely on banal websites on “discerning presumed apparitions” and her own myopic view…symbolized by her narrowing magnifying visors. Ironically, Annie’s vision expands and improves as she abandons such optics, as she exchanges material clarity for sublime awareness. In Paimon’s realm of dreams and spirit, Annie had seen and sensed her children’s danger and–in sturdy somnambulism–poured thinner over their bodies to burn in service of their souls. Later, in a disturbing dream, she faces her desire to kill her children, and her not wanting to have Peter, awakening to a sense of threat the waking world denied her. So, her salvation and agency lie in the dark realms, not the material one of her childish blindness.

     Such childish blindness also plagues Dani. Self-loathing with no self-sufficiency, with emotional dependence on her parents, she clings to and fawns over Christian, pathetically reminding him “I’m lucky to have you” with equally repellent and self-demeaning effect. Her perception of him is even more tragic. While her friend can clearly see his failings, Dani’s needs blind her to their signs:

     Dani: Like, what if I have overwhelmed him and he thinks that I just have too much baggage?

     Friend: Well, if that’s the case, then good riddance, right?

Dani’s distorted view of Christian not only feeds the self-loathing feeding it; it perverts her view of the people and world around her…for possibly fatal results. Discussing her sister Terri’s e-mail, she shows neither compassion nor sufficient concern for her safety, instead echoing Christian’s cruel judgment of Terri’s (and her own) mental illness:

     Dani: Like, I even called (Christian) today in tears because my sister wrote another stupid scary e-mail

     Friend: What did your sister write?

     Dani: Just some ominous bullshit like she always does and it’s torture!

Lost in projection and childish contempt for Terri, Dani cannot recognize the direness or strangeness of her (or Pelle’s) email. Without adult sturdiness, she lacks adult clarity and loses all chance of saving Terri.

     Without that clarity, she could fail in saving herself. Like the similarly hampered Annie, Dani must access signs within the realm of her tormenters, the same world of dreams Pelle masters. The Harga cult ironically aids this by continually plying Dani and her friends with drugs–LSD, opiatic teas, and even a love potion for Christian. This opens Dani’s vision, freeing it from her conscious self’s. During a group acid-dropping at the festival, Dani finds her feet melding with the grass then, after running into an outhouse for comfort, disturbingly sees Terri’s face in the mirror. She then falls asleep and dreams of her sleeping parents lying next to a softly smiling Terri. Finally, after two elder cult members kill themselves in ritual suicide, Dani dreams of Christian and his friends leaving her…and her parents dead bodies lying in the cult members’ place.  Like Annie’s, Dani’s unconscious, spiritual mind can discern and deduct where her childish conscious mind cannot. Whether she is receiving signs, processing difficult truths, or both, she is decrypting the meanings and causes of her family’s deaths and her current situation. Her freedom depends on this decryption’s success and the failure of her waking world: success will ensconce her in marital adulthood; failure will doom her to cultish, kiddish submission

     Annie knows the pang of such submission and has spent her “adulthood” avoiding it. Fearing its return, she has submitted her family to her own authority: haranguing her milquetoast husband, governing her troubled children…managing all like her favorite diorama. With Heracles’ hubris, she barrels forward, more concerned with sovereignty than salvation, preserving status while imperiling self and kin. Overlooking her mother’s new “friends,” her mother’s desecrated grave, the familiar placemat at her new friend’s door, and her vivid new dreams, Annie falls back on rash action and parental supremacy—the flailing of a grown-up child and tragic hero, not a successful adult one. Demanding Peter take Charlie to his high school party, Annie seals the cult’s plans for Charlie’s death.  Forcing her family into a séance for Charlie, she erringly summons Paimon who possessed her. Seeking to best Paimon, she burns his book, setting her husband aflame, making herself Paimon’s vessel, and terrifying Peter into a violent death. Beheading herself with wire, she floats softly into her treehouse where the cult, her mother, and Peter (now Paimon) await. Her flight for freedom ends in greater submission, her corpse frozen in filial worship to an Oedipal nightmare—her mother’s marriage to her son’s body, bound in demonic bliss.

     Dani’s impending nightmare is less Sophoclean as she stumbles in laxity, not hubris. Her dreams and visions gave her sound warning, and the ritual suicide stirred her horror and qualms about the cult. “I wanna go,” she tells Christian.  Preparing to leave, she cannily shouts at Pelle, “I don’t know why I’m here, Pelle! I don’t know why you invited us!” Instead of exploring those questions, she quickly succumbs to Pelle’s sweet words smoothly chosen.  Flattering her, he assures her he was “most excited for her to come,” then plays on her recent loss by telling her he lost his parents, too. Finally, holding her hands, he says he is now held by a real family she too deserves…then asks, “Do you feel held by (Christian), does he feel like home to you?” Dani’s trauma, doubts of Christian, and Pelle’s ardor exhaust and excite her, opening new hopes as she begins closing others. Pouncing on her pliant state, the cult holds Dani closely. Plying her with strange drinks, calling her “family,” draining her through dance, they draw Dani in, giving her self-worth she never had. Making her May Queen, they give her place and esteem she never knew.

     So, her zeal for the cult quickens as her plans for Christian fade. Lost in their embrace, she no longer scans for signs…discounting even her parents’ uncanny shades. And when she finds Christian, love potion-addled, entangled with another, she joins her new “sisters” in a rite of catharsis, expelling her love along with her pain. As Pelle becomes oracle and she his future wife, she calmly dooms Christian to horrific death. Unlike Annie, she lives further; like her, she bows and submits. Dreams of adulthood become childhood’s salve, expiring with Christian as he tragically burns.

[1] For an excellent explanation why Pelle was Dani’s family’s likely killer, read Rebekah Camp’s “Dani’s Sister Was Murdered: A Brief Essay on Midsommar”


The Ghost in You: Death and Interpretation in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

The Ghost in You: Death and Interpretation in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Sensual reading shapes and steers the self as much as it informs it. The signs we take in and interpret define our state of mind, the contours of our body, and their place in the world around it. Reading special texts (collections of signs) brings experience and pleasures disjoined from the body–the sublime jouissance (“bliss”) of touching new thought, new language, and new dimension. This jouissance is limited, however, by the spacetime of its living reader; it cannot transcend its dying mind and body or its fading pasts and accelerating future. External texts collapsing into the reader’s internal ones, the reader’s only liberation to greater eternal interpretation is Death, its finalizing end, or its limitless expanse

For the inhabitants of that expanse, that liberation can bring paradoxical restraint. Their time freed from linearity, their corporeal past can still pull them back to its thrall, its vital phenomena exciting their minds as they jar–and hopefully realign–their “bodies.” Lily, the uncanny narrator of Oz Perkins’ film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House embodies and asserts this, noting how haunting ghosts will:

…go back and forth, letting out and gathering back in again, worrying over the floors in confused circles, tending to their deaths like patchy, withered gardens…there is nothing that chains them to the places where their bodies have fallen. They are free to go, but still they confine themselves, held in place by their looking. For those who have stayed, their prison is their never seeing, and left all alone, this is how they rot.

She is not being impersonal. Going back and forth between times and bodies herself, her interpretation is direly internal…as is her dread of the rotting she fears encroaches upon her. Trapped in a physical house, between carnal and spectral bodies, and earthly and deathly Time, Lily must complete two separate but enjoined interpretations, un-maskings of two primal mysteries for saving self-knowledge and freedom from “rot.” She must move from the stasis of impotent looking to the existential freedom of spiritually seeing

This involves a double mode of interpretation–and subsequent double mode of being–similar to a third person dream where dreamer is both acting object and viewing subject, both hero and watcher of the dream’s “film.” As Lily herself notes, this process isn’t automatic. The temporal/bodily separation of the two “selves” brings a strangeness as potentially potent as the natural recognition, particularly that moment initially separating them–the sublime moment of death:

They have stayed to look back for a glimpse in the very last moment of their lives, but the memories of their own death are faces on the wrong side of a wet window, smeared by rain, impossible to properly see.

To realign with that point of revelation, and that face in the “wet window,” Lily must watch her living self–a nurse caring for the Horror author Iris Blum–solve the temporal mysteries of her last days as her own reading of their revelations brings the jouissance and self-awareness eluding her

In her living present, and spectral past, Lily arrives at Blum’s house (itself dying of rot) sneering at the author’s output (“the kind of thick and frightening books that people buy at airports and supermarkets”), marking herself a facile, surface reader. She is also a considerably faint-hearted one. When the estate manager suggests she read Blum’s most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls, she recoils, asserting, “I scare too easily!” Later, she comments on herself, “Some people, they just get spooked.” Each of these “flaws” draws living Lily to both the mystery of the dying, oddly-sounding house and that of Blum’s novel incorporating its story…her banal self-assurance spurs her investigation as her potent fear gives it tantalizing allure. Her spectral future, meanwhile, watches in wait, her past self and interpretation her own mysterious text to decipher

Both “Lily’s” will be engaged in two types of reading semiotician Roland Barthes referred to as the texte lisible (“readerly”) and the texte scriptible (“writerly”). The readerly text is that collection of signs whose interpretation demands no changing of consciousness, or rearrangement of self; its reading brings no real revelation, no sublimity. The writerly text is that sublimely alien, uncanny collection of signs reshaping the reader’s consciousness as they interpret their strange arrangement…the text bringing its reader jouissance. For living Lily, her readerly texts are the physical house surrounding her, and The Lady in the Walls and its literary history of Polly Parsons, the 19th century occupant of the house who mentally (and possibly literally) haunted Blum and may now be haunting Lily. For her future ghost, and “current” observer, she herself is both readerly and writerly text, both her mundane observations she has already experienced and the sublime discoveries and sublime death she has yet to fully interpret or absorb.

Living Lily actually begins this investigation with a simple written text, or as it seems at first. Overcoming her fear of the frightening, she begins Blum’s novel, seeking the mystery of the house, of Blum, and of the enigmatic Polly with whom Blum has confused her. Opening Lady in the Walls immediately opens the parameters of the novel, as Lily discovers a pressed flower in the inner back cover, a physical memento carnalizing the connection between author and subject…and possibly reader and subject. Her entrée made to the intimacy of the text, Lily reads and Polly speaks:

I’m not more than a few minutes old. I was tied to my mother’s body by a terrible rope. But now I am dead, and yes I left the world just as I came into it; I am wearing nothing but blood…I am as white as a sail. I tell this often to myself. I tell myself that nothing gets on me, but it does me little good. The words pour right through; I am too full of holes.

Lily recoils in both faint-hearted dread of the horrific and uncanny recognition of the eerily familiar, the image of blood-soaked Polly stirring her fears as Polly’s existential disease echoes her state…both moving her into sublimity–and sublime knowledge–within and outside herself.

Lily’s sublime reading in turns expands the readerly limits of the novel, at least for her, extending its signs to the house and mysteries it documented and releasing its hero from its printed words to the spiritual unbound. The house begins to reveal silhouettes and upturned carpet corners suggesting an uncanny occupant not entirely unknown. Polly’s transcribed words of her life, marriage, and matrimonial murder became literal whispers in Lily’s ear, hushed ominous warnings of “This is how you rot.” And these warnings become suggestions, and possible prophecies, as Lily begins seeing herself rotting like the moldy house slowly making her its own. Now heightened reader, and imperiled subject, of a ghost story expanded beyond its pages, she must work to avoid its promised ending even as its allure beckons her to it.

Spectral Lily watches all this with the intrigue and the dread of her doppleganger subject. A spirit who has left her body and bodily past behind, she is still dependent on them for her own self-knowledge. She is aware of both her post-mortem state and her removal from living space and time:

From where I am now, I can be sure of only a very few things: the pretty thing you are looking at is me. My name is Lily Saylor; I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago, I turned 28 years old…I will never be 29 years old.

Lily’s awareness of her ghostly state is remarkably incomplete; she is aware of her death and her aging’s end, but she remains nescient of what she is and what sublimity made her; still locked in looking, Death’s true jouissance still eludes her. Even worse, as Iris had warned her, she has not escaped the dying (the rot) that plagued her living body and encasing house:

You poor pretty things whose prettiness holds only one guarantee–learn to see your self as the rest of the world does and you’ll keep…but left alone with only your own eyes looking back at you, and even the prettiest things rot; you fall apart like flowers

To free herself from this spectral narcissism (and rot), she continues it to its climax, her bodily ending Polly found so opaque. At that sublime moment, living and spectral Lily become one, just as both “readers” move from readerly observation to writerly participation. As white silhouette becomes dreadful revelation, they converge into shared death, one shedding their body as the other finds real form. True jouissance closer at reach; Lily is ready for new readers, the house’s new occupants in sublimity’s grasp

Superior Air: Trauma and Utopia in Gray’s Ad Astra

Superior Air: Trauma and Utopia in Gray’s Ad Astra

Utopian dreams and apocalyptic nightmares share ironic kinship: the reveries of impending doom and halcyon hopes feed each other in a winding union. As our current pandemic has shown, death and desperation enflame this dance, fueling greater fears of calamity and grander visions of its permanent defeat. Much of this flourish is communal. Shared experience, fears, and hopes form shared dread and desired fate. However, most of it is personal–individual dreams, traumas, and histories shape fantasies singular and greatly unshared. So, we move “forward” in real and false unity, but towards a matrix of unfamiliar imaginings, a false gestalt as dependent on one unconscious as it is on our collective drive

In the “near future” of James Gray’s Ad Astra, the world’s movement faces its impending end. Its resources dwindling, its civilization had looked outward to stars and bodies for existence fostered and dreams indulged. Collective dreams, however, strain at imagination while succumbing to power and repetition: the sublime cedes to the familiar; the liberating bows to the oppressive. So, exploration meant to free the world only extended its sickness, space travel replicating the banal Capitalism killing it. The new spaces it reached only replicated its plight, the Moon now a receptacle for old brands, rituals, and destructive habits instead of site for cleansing and new productive modes. Hubris one of those habits, the quest for escape has brought new apocalypse–a surge of anti-matter produced by a reckless costly endeavor. Salvation and utopia will not, however, come from the gestalt inciting their need. It must come from the psyches and desires of two men: some restrained by a father, others embraced and surpassed by his son, the potent erotic energies denied a mass collective and its limited potential

These psyches and desires are notably pitted within a Heart of Darkness narrative. The father, Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), is its interstellar Kurtz: a daring explorer first on Saturn and Jupiter, a brilliant MIT astrophysicist, and a Romantic madman nestled in his outpost on Neptune–the emanating point of The Surge. His son Roy (a brilliant Brad Pitt) is its cold stoic Marlow: trained to compartmentalize; with a pulse rate never above 80, a mind fixed on the important and pragmatic, and no reliance on anyone or anything.  The McBrides, however, are not just colonial hunter and quarry; they are father and son of considerable, competing potencies…more Hamlet and Hamlet Sr. than Conrad’s dark sharers of Horror.  Unlike the darkling Kurtz, Cliff is entwined with the collective proper, his feats and force extending from–and redefining–its shared hopes and structures. Unlike Marlow, Roy is not the disconnected operative, but the dreaming son whose visions of “infinite space”–as well as his filial “bad dreams”–can save the collective from itself, its agent, and its perilous utopic thrusts.

Roy’s bad dreams–both sleeping and waking–are the traumatic residue of his father’s abuses. Like his ailing planet, he has progressed towards his future while still moored to his forceful past. Haunted by his father’s rages, and destabilized by his early abandonment, Roy remains locked in arrested development and his coping mechanisms dulling the damage. His external world stunts him as well. Throughout his growth, and his quest, he is constantly reminded of his father’s greatness–his father was the program–and through platitudes curbing and daunting:

     “Your Dad is the reason a lot of us are doing what we’re doing”

     “He went farther than any of us”

     “Best in the galaxy”

His fathers rages already constrain Roy through traumatic echoes and their sapping effects; Cliff’s achievement and renown exacerbate this by negating his self and the Romanticism of his vision. Broken and strangling in self-control, “relying on no one or anything,” Roy is an unremarkable astronaut and scion who has shirked fatherhood to free future children from pain, yet still leaves his wife “feeling alone”…despite his machinations, he has repeated his fathers failings, but none of his successes. Like his planet he hopes to save, his dreams have brought only further familiar pain.

What Roy’s dreams have lost in potency, however, they have gained in singularity, making Roy both alienated observer and secret sharer with Cliff–his world’s great visionary, if also its most Satanic. More James-ian hero/narrator than Conrad-ian, Roy has developed internal lucidity, external empathy, and Archimedean clarity beyond his world and its collective. While his world degrades in its expansive progress, he stays attuned to its continuous entropy. Looking at the sordid, unimaginative replication of Earth’s banality on the Moon, Roy muses:

          All the hope we ever had for space travel covered up by drink stains and t-shirt vendors, just a recreation from what we’re running from on earth…we are world eaters. 

He also applies this acute, singular perception to the people around him, displaying the refined hyper-awareness of the traumatized, those whose existence depends on deciphering the external. When his transport attempts to aid a ship in distress, the first officer balks at joining the rescue. “He’s scared,” Roy notes, drawing from his own great experience with fear and apprehension. Keeping his eye on the first officer, he again notes his fear during their ship’s landing; immediately noting the officer’s debility, he takes control and lands with his formidable calm. Roy may share his world’s hopes and temporal tendencies, but his vision is remarkably separate, and both their futures depend on that

The world had also depended on, to damaging effect, Cliff’s remarkably separate vision. He was its ideal and idealized extension, its brilliant Jesuit able to secure it distant planets, make real its voracious ideology, and soothe its deepest fears. As Roy noted:

          He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder…but beneath their sublime surfaces, there was nothing, no love or hate, no light or dark

Cliff’s vision had reached his (and his world’s) ambitions, but it could not see the spirit it needed or failed to achieve. Like his world’s collective, his exultation in expansion had neglected its dire cause. As his world abandoned its dying planet and people for empty colonial accretion, Cliff abandoned his family for hollow Romantic fulfillment. As Roy noted, “he could only see what was not there and missed what was right in front of him.”  So, murdering his crew in a fit of crazed dismay, and that primal rage still haunting Roy, Cliff descends into grandiose religious delusion (“And I know for certain that I am doing God’s work”) and hubristic narcissism (“I am free of your moral boundaries; I have total clarity”) as his ship eats at his world–and his dream–with its anti-matter surge

That dream, and the wilding imagination behind it, is beyond the collective’s reach; its banal modes cannot access his sublimity, particularly in its demonic state. Roy can.  While he shares his world’s needs and scars, he also shares Cliff’s gift for transcendence, their kinship of blood, and their language each shape. While the government’s message to Cliff gets no response, Roy’s pained nostalgic plea incites one, drawing interest with his gifts Cliff can’t deny and propinquity he can’t escape. Meeting again after 40 years, at the site of  futures crushed and apocalypse impending, Cliff asks Roy to join his moonstruck hubris:

The Fates have denied me the partners I could have had. If we had more people like you, we could have pressed on…..Sometimes the human will must overcome the impossible. You and I must continue on, Roy, together, to find what science claims cannot exist

Roy’s impossible, however, is not Cliff’s; it extends back in time and space, not away; a healing of the past, not exhilaration of the future. So, rejecting his father’s charge, Roy lets Cliff and his rages fade into blackness. His father’s flight and folly ended, he rides their destruction to his revival and to his healing, waiting world

Nocturnal Animals: The Communion of Artistic Reprisal

Nocturnal Animals: The Communion of Artistic Reprisal

Art is more than communication; it is a presentation of the self and the world in one’s own style. There is content, but throughout the artwork, not within it.  So, successful perception of Art is not just the reception of information; it is opening oneself to the other, greatly at the artist’s terms.  For artists, however, particularly intimate ones, the exchange of Art remains communication, just one of a higher form.  More communion than communique, the intimate artistic exchange between artists carries heightened expectations, rewards, and perils.  Failure to adequately receive & understand the art and artist cannot be excused as error.  The receiver is no longer an uninformed other, but an enlightened familiar, one whose intimacy demands perception, comprehension, and sympathy.

This is the dynamic dwindling in (and driving) Tom Ford’s brilliant Postmodern Noir, Nocturnal Animals.  Its protagonist, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), is a successful high-end gallery owner discontented with her work and marriage. A former art student, she now deals in what she condemns “junk,” while married to her pretty, hollow, and wayward husband, Hutton. Seemingly serendipitously, she receives a book copy from her first husband she had divorced 19 years ago, alleviating her present dejection. Her assistant reading the accompanying letter, she brightens as she hears the book is to be published, it is different than what he wrote when they were together, and she gave him the inspiration for this soon-to-be-published novel, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.” No longer just a book for Susan, this is her unsettled past possibly bringing a brighter future, a new escape from an old one poorly chosen.

That belated escape unexpectedly connects her to that desired future, as it entails a primal scene uniting them in embedded memory, if possibly hindering a true reunion.  The scene was a brutal one. Frustrated with her husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal’s) insistence on pursuing his writing career, she chose to abort their unborn child, finding subsequent solace in the arms of her lover and soon-to-be husband, Hutton…solace witnessed by a devastated Edward.  However, the scene was no isolated phenomenon. It was a shattering climax to Susan’s cruel crescendo of belittlement, her incessant undermining of Edward’s artistic confidence in hopes of his embracing a more lucrative career.  Instead of that movement, he disappears from her for 19 years, only to return in the form of his art she had derided.  Ironically, if she is to have her desired communion, she must embrace Edward and his work as the artist and art she had dismissed in their past.  She also can no longer receive them as the cynical art dealer she had become, but as the artist of her past who received Edward as he was, not whom she wanted him to be. A true artist, Edward is communicating his art, himself, and the state her damage has left him in. Only a true artist can receive them.

As the communicating artist, Edward’s work cannot fade into incoherent abstraction; beauty and sublimity are not its only goals.  As artist presenting himself as such, he also cannot become the polemicist, the writer privileging argument over the artist’s aesthetics.  He must find narratives, characters, and mood conveying him and his experience without recognizably becoming them.  This will complete his intentions and free him from her past belittlement–her damaging claim true writers (unlike Edward) didn’t write about themselves, an insistence he could dispute but never fully repel.

The narrative of “Nocturnal Animals” approaches but nimbly avoids that of a Roman a Clef.  The protagonist is a successful writer with a lovely red-haired (like Susan) wife and a spirited red-haired teen daughter. Packed for a road trip, they leave their lovely Texas home in their nice Mercedes.  There are clear similarities here to Edward’s–and Edward and Susan’s–story.  Like young Edward, “Tony” is a writer from Texas who “left” his Texas home and was moving into the future with his wife and “child.”  However, unlike Edward, Tony is an accomplished writer, and his daughter is an almost grown child, not an unborn one.  An artistic reader could and should navigate these differences: recognizing similarities without ascribing sameness, seeing separation without discarding parallels.  This acuity becomes more vital when the reader encounters Edward’s family’s horrid fate.  Soon after leaving their home, two cars full of dangerous-looking young men begin terrorizing the family in the night, eventually forcing them off the road.  After ten minutes of physical and psychological torment, the leader of the young men-and a few of the others–drive off with the mother and daughter and complete the novel’s horrific tragedy. Again, the narrative provides striking similarities and (greater) differences between Edward’s and Tony’s ones.  There is no parallel–and the novel makes none–between the rape and murder of two women and a woman having an abortion, inadvertently destroying her husband in the process.  There are, however, parallels in the two men’s helpless states and degrees of loss.  Both Edward and Tony see their shameful weaknesses/fragilities affirmed as everything they had and hoped for is erased by outside forces.

Edward keeps Tony and himself separate, but close, throughout this tragedy through his symbolic use of character: in particular, his use there of metonymy.  Artistic writers avoid vulgar representation–which is banal replication, not artistic expression. So, as opposed to metaphor, where a character represents and/or replicates an extra-textual signified, they use metonymy.  There that signified is represented by different characters (and sometimes objects), and/or a character signifies different people and/or objects.  The artistic reader knows this. They do not need the metonymic theories of Freud, Lacan, and/or Jakobson to know these dynamics are vital to artistic representation.  They know without metonymy, Art degrades into argument free from vital sublimity.  So, while that reader does look for inter-textual signification, they look for it in fractal connections dictated by the artwork, not in simplistic analogues suggested by myopic rationality.

Part of one fractal connection appears in the novel in the form of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a cranky rustic lawman assigned to Tony’s case.  In many ways, Andes joins the assailants in representing the stereotypical Texas masculinity Edward shirked.  As Susan’s mother tells Susan in a flashback, Edward has always been sensitive and fragile. As he shows Susan in another one, that sensitivity extends to his feeling guilt, not unease, at finding his best friend, Cooper (Susan’s brother), had had a crush on him.  Andes, however, serves a more important metonymic purpose in representing a significant part of Edward, himself.  Andes is Edward’s drive to accomplish what his weak, flagging self cannot. Andes’ separate connectedness shows the artistic reader Edward’s capability for such resolve while separating Edward from Andes’ banal virility & (more particularly) ambition he’d disdained.  When Bobby asks Tony, “If we pick you up at the house, you think we could backtrack from there (to the crime scene)?” and he tepidly answers, “I could try,” Andes looks at him in incredulous condemnation. When Tony half-heartedly scans a line-up of suspects, pathetically claiming he recognizes none, Andes angrily responds, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you want to put these guys away?”  Andes has become the dwindling, nerveless Tony’s dedication & strength needed for his revenge, as he embodies Edward’s once-untapped diligence & ambition needed to write and complete his expressive novel.  This metonymy is finalized by the fact Andes is literally dying, Tony is effectively doing so, and Edward has seemingly spent 19 years fading into a dark place with a darker end.

Edward greatly symbolizes this dark place–and its cause–through his metonymy of Susan.  Like Edward, she is partly represented by her obvious signifier, Tony’s wife, Laura. Played by Isla Fisher in the film, their physical resemblance is uncanny and she is the warm, loving wife Edward hoped Susan would be.  But the wife is not enough.  Edward had always seen Susan as an artist, despite her giving up her literal artistic career, not just a wife. We see that passion, strength and daring he saw in her in the daughter, India, who also looks strikingly like Susan, likely even more like the teen Susan and Edward knew.  India is sharp-witted and confident–more than even the growingly cynical Susan–and shows creative/artistic potential before Tony’s failure helps end her life.  The tie between the two women and the girl is further cemented by the way Laura & India are found–two intermingled, almost indistinguishable bodies pointing to shared existence as well as experience.

Ironically, Susan’s metonymy also connects her to Laura and India’s assailants, particularly their leader, the lethal peacock Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson.)  As noted earlier, Susan’s strategic undermining of Edward had been catastrophic. As seen in an earlier scene, Susan’s mother had predicted this, “In a few years all these bourgeois things as you so like to call them will be very important to you and Edward will not be able to give them to you.” “Don’t do this,” she later adds, “you’ll regret it and only hurt Edward.”  Once Susan and Edward are married, her words prove brutally prescient. Hoping to steer Edward into a more lucrative career, Susan attacks his work in a stream of sweetened invectives also attacking/gaslighting Edward himself:

    You’re going to take this the wrong way.

I think you should write about things other than yourself

It’s just my mind started to wander while I was reading it and that’s not good, right?

Are you going to work at a book store and write your novel? Is that what you want to do with your life?

I mean that’s really Romantic, but (points to their shoddy furniture) this is it?

This is exactly why I don’t want to read your work because you always get so fucking defensive!

Edward makes passionate and articulate rebuttals, but they are defensive and unsure, convincing neither of them and continuing his decline.

Ray exacts similar–but more explicitly severe and horrid–gaslighting upon Tony throughout the novel. During their initial horrific encounter, Ray, picking up on Tony’s weakness in inaction, taunts, “Have you got a vagina? Have you got a vagina there, vagina boy?” Exasperated at his impotence called out, Tony can only muster an ineffectual howl.  Ray continues this semi-familiar torment when Andes and Tony take him for a drive, hoping to exact a confession. Bemused, Ray focuses only on the weaker Tony, sneering, “He’s crazy…you’re fucking crazy.”  And he finalizes his gaslighting and personal attacks, as well as confirming they’re connection to Susan’s, with his last words before Tony kills him: “You’re too weak, too fucking weak. You’re too weak to do anything about it.” By the end of Susan’s gaslighting, and during her planned escape, this is what Edward (partially correctly) heard in her words:

     (Susan) You’re so …you really are so wonderful. You’re so sensitive and Romantic and…”

(Edward)…Weak!..That’s fine.

(Susan) What? No, I did not say that!

(Edward) You’ve said it so many times before; you might as well say it again.

As this exchange and her earlier undermining showed, explicitly calling Edward “weak” was not Susan’s mode of attack. But it’s what Edward often heard, affirming his inner fragility haunting him, the inner fragility he mostly blamed for his great loss. So, Ray allows Susan to be represented as cause of loss and crucial part of it, a complex metonymy of the resented, the cherished, and the lost.

This paradox shows in Edward’s sending the novel –an artistic work of stark revelation and potent demonstration–to Susan he believes can artistically receive it. He had always believed in her having those gifts. When she responds to one of his parries with, “No, I don’t because I’m not creative,” he returns with both assurance and plea that “that’s because you choose not to be.”  She does choose this, likely galvanizing that in her rejection of Edward. Not only does she host ghastly exploitative exhibitions bereft of Art, she can no longer remember why her younger, more artistic self saw beauty in works she bought.  And this shows in her reading of the novel.  Not unexpectedly, she is moved by the family’s tragedy and Tony’s subsequent trials and torments.  As a skilled non-artistic reader, she is able to recognize the skill and work in “Nocturnal Animals.” After reading through the night scene, she e-mails Edward:

     Dear Edward,

I am reading your book. It’s devastating. I am deeply moved. It is beautifully written. I    would love to meet on Tuesday evening. Let me know if you are still free. Much to say.



She is deeply moved and devastated, but by the fictional experience of Tony and his family.  She cannot see Edward in the novel, nor even conceive he could express himself and his experience in it. If she had, she would not anticipate the “much to say.”  And her memory fails her as much as her faded artistry, as Edward had earlier told her, “nobody writes about anything other than themselves.” So a reader-writer connection is made, and a vital artistic communion is not…and Susan moves hopefully forward, blissfully unaware of the ramifications.

So, she waits at the restaurant oblivious to the reality and reason why he is not coming…or is no longer going anywhere at all.  There is Noirish exacting of revenge here–the victim of cruel devastation bringing poetic justice to his trusted victimizer and betrayer.  But Edward’s book was not a hateful device he could have so more easily constructed.  It was a final artistic communication of extended desolation coming to its close as much as it was an expression of resilient rage at the one who caused it.  As an artistic one, it needed an artistic receiver capable of receiving and grasping it more than a receptor of wrath and pathos.  Edward wanted realization and recognition, not reciprocal suffering. Had she met this expectation, painful knowledge and grievous catharsis could have reopened once-closed artistic escape of her own.  Her reading a failure, and her artist now gone, she lingers in the crushed hope and cynicism she chose over her now faded art.



Burnt Offerings: America’s Apocalyptic Gothic

Burnt Offerings: America’s Apocalyptic Gothic

(Spoiler alert: This is an analysis of the film, including the ending.)

Horror cherishes its endings. They let it expose audiences to sublime dread, semi-reveal to them its cruel secrets,  and unnerve them with devastating crescendo. Burnt Offerings’ apocalyptic ending–Horror’s greatest–does all three. The mid-70s Gothic Horror film introduces its viewers to its malignant Mrs. Allardyce, paralyzes them with her horrific “truth,” and wipes out its guest family in a paroxysm of broken windows and broken bodies. A Gothic apocalypse, the family and their memory are consumed by their baleful house, their “era” ended to be replaced by another.

The finale reflects another ending: the tense post-Vietnam/Watergate fever dream ending in a president’s resignation and a country left leery of its leaders and traditions. This angst extended to the family. Mothers, fathers and families sold these myths, so they and their value became profoundly suspect. Few genres captured this better than Horror and its disdain for comforting traditions and bonds.  The Omen preyed on the period’s familial distrust and confirmed paranoia of a wicked establishment. The Exorcist horrifically carnalized epochal fears of Evil infecting our youth.  Burnt Offerings, however, did much more.  While decimating its family and its bonds, it horrifically reflected its period’s erosion of its sacred traditions of marriage, family, and progress, relegating them to the detritus of its Past.  In doing so, Burnt Offerings moves its family and audience to an uncertain nexus: the family subsumed by the house’s sinister anti-history, the audience left horrified and tainted by the period’s troubling uncertainty.

This uncertainty was considerable and deeply felt.  After a nightmarish, unpopular war ended–leaving thousands of Americans dead and even more disillusioned–and a president resigning after being revealed a criminal, Americans lost faith in their societal institutions and endured and/or embraced cultural breakdown and experimentation. The institution of Marriage suffered as divorce rates rose, promiscuity became pastime, and discos and singles bars became playgrounds for erstwhile and present husbands and wives.  And films inevitably arose manifesting this aimless, sybaritic ideology. Saturday Night Fever chronicled Romantic and romantic thrills of nocturnal single life, while Looking for Mr. Goodbar preached of and presented its horrific possibilities.  Film also expressed the anxieties and cultural breakdown of American marriage.  Kramer vs. Kramer explored divorce’s threat to traditional gender roles while lesser films like A Change of Seasons vulgarly visualized the carnal opportunities divorce offered.  Those films, however, weren’t Horror films. Restricted to the quotidian, no matter how hedonistic, they had little access to the period’s Sublime.  They couldn’t adequately portray or reflect the spiritual disintegration of the mid-70s and the nightmares it produced. They also couldn’t portray or reflect our horror at seeing our 30 years of post-war stable domesticity coming to a shattering close. Burnt Offerings did, shattering its family and audience alike.

As with most Gothics, the center of Burnt Offerings is its house. A neo-classical mansion sitting white and clean in a 1970s remote California countryside. its uncanny atemporality and alienness jar the viewer before it does its incoming guests.  The house’s own nature and “actions” in the film bears out this recoil.  A literal predator, it consumes its inhabitants to resist the entropy of Time and continually revert back to its nascent state. With each occupant devoured, the houses dead foliage re-blooms, old shingles give way to new, and/or its pool and surroundings are completely rejuvenated. The remains of its victims are stolid pictures framed in atemporal frames, arranged as grim trophies in unsettling asynchrony.

Its new guests, the Rolfs, arrive in synchrony with each other and their world’s culture and history.   As philosopher Martin Heidegger famously noted, that synchrony is vital to authentic existence in the world instead of alienation from it. Such alienation leaves one disconnected from the past, in a spiritless present, fumbling towards irrelevance and death. Bound in a tri-generational loving nuclear family in 1976, the Rolfs have avoided that malaise plaguing many of their contemporaries.  The father and mother–Ben (an atypically milquetoast Oliver Reed) and Marilyn (an atypically normal Karen Black)–are a young attractive couple who, after 13 years, still enjoy a healthy sex/romantic life. Their 12-year-old son, Davy, is ebullient and well-adjusted and enjoys a playful verbal-sparring relationship with his father. Completing their loving clan is Aunt Elizabeth (a typically spry Bette Davis), who fortifies Ben’s position as paterfamilias, a steward securing his line’s future and its past.

The house–and it’s two “children”/attendants/familiars, Arnold and Roz Allardyce–begin erasing this synchrony immediately upon the Rolfs’ arrival.  Roz’s quarry is Marilyn. She aggressively, but unctuously, enlists her to care for her “mother.” Manipulating Marilyn’s palpable motherly instinct, Roz draws her into mothering hers: the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce living upstairs in her locked attic room, surrounded by her asynchronous “collection” of eerie photos.  And to be sure the house itself is included in the deal, she assertively asks, “Will you love the house as brother and I do”?  The wheelchair-bound Arnold–a creepy Burgess Meredith–disturbingly sets his sights on other prey–rambunctious Davy.  Upon hearing Roz note “there’s a boy, too,” Arnold wheels hungrily to the window, looks lasciviously at Davy, and purrs, “Oh God, what a charming little boy.”  His rapture finalizes after watching Davy fall from a tree and bleed, as a once dead plant in the house sprouts three vibrant green leaves.

This is creepily carnivorous. The house and its environs are beginning to feed on the Rolfs and their bodies.  However, it is also temporal.  If a zeitgeist is the spirit of a time, the house is a nichtzeitgeist, a spirt of non-time. Its graveyard of Allardyces ending in 1890 suggests it had survived historically along with its family by consuming them or through uncanny symbiosis. The end of the Allardyce line, outside the sub-human vestigial Roz and Arnold, demanded the house live outside of time, disrupting its occupants historical time to do so. If the house is to ingest the Rolfs into its non-Time, it must break their  bonds with Time and their normative familial positions galvanizing it.

Its easiest prey is Aunt Elizabeth.  A familial addendum to the nuclear Rolfs, an aunt to Ben, and a relative removed to Marilyn and Davy, she does not share the close bonds of the other three. Also, as the oldest, her connection to the current zeitgeist is the weakest, her own “time” the closest to fading into the past. This makes her the one closest to death, the easiest to draw towards it…and the house does so voraciously.  Like the dying foliage around the house, Elizabeth begins to decay. Her hair grows increasingly pale white. Her bawdy liveliness and painting flora in the yard gives way to late morning rises quickly followed by mid-afternoon naps.  Even worse, she becomes increasingly addled, unsure whether or not she closed Davy’s window, leading to his near death from a house-initiated gas leak. A pariah to Marilyn and a pity to Ben, she retreats to her bedroom, suffers an inexplicable broken back, and a horrific death next to a cowering Ben.

Ben could do nothing; he was undergoing his own consumption and decay.  The head of the family with historical support for his authority, he immediately became the house’s biggest target. Before it could devour him and the rest of the family, it had to break him, rending him from his temporal position, and reducing him from potent patriarch to whimpering whelp.  It uses the increasingly swayable Marilyn to sexually humiliate him, undermining his patriarchal confidence. It also partially does this by drawing him out of his time and into it’s non-one.  Leaving a pair of 19th c. glasses from one of its earlier victims, it physically draws Ben in, reducing his temporal stability and bearings.  With Ben now open to its sway, the house can reduce him to the child of his past by reproducing his once-vanquished nightmares of it. He had been traumatized at his mother’s funeral as a child by a leering chauffeur seeming to take pleasure from his grief. Haunted by nightmares of that encounter in childhood, adulthood and manhood had purged those reveries. The house whispers them back while carnalizing them into Ben’s present reality. Sitting on the lawn, drinking a beer, Ben is horrified to see the chauffeur’s car driving up the driveway, and paralyzed with terror to see the chauffeur in the window leering at him once again. Traumatized, Ben becomes that terrified boy again, an impotent “man” who cannot save Davy from nearly drowning or his aunt from the chauffeur when he appears in her room, “crushing” her with her future coffin.

This leaves the house and household in the care of Marilyn, the house’s most important, most intimate victim.  Marilyn isn’t just caretaker, puppet or prey; she’s the site of the house’s new triumph over time, and its avatar fully ensuring its success.  Like Elizabeth, Marilyn begins to age, accelerating the house’s rejuvenation. Her hair becomes slowly grayer and she begins preferring older clothes styles, hair styles, and accessories.  But unlike deteriorating Elizabeth, Marilyn’s change invigorates her, making her more assertive and vibrant. It also, however, makes her more detached from–and oblivious to–her family. As noted above, she moves from resisting her husband’s affections–making him bemoan their time between “visits”–to outright repelling them, leaving him to pathetically wail “have I become so repulsive?” Even her care for Davy wanes, as she also almost lets him drown as she tends to her new “child,” the house. Moving further from her family and the family traditions of her time, she drifts into the house’s non-time, her body’s movement into her elderly future driving the house back into its “past”…..once again.  She becomes the house’s potent, uncanny avatar, Mrs. Allardyce, as the house readies for apocalyptic rebirth and its guests’ apocalyptic end.

That end is savage, symbolic and swift. With the house manifest in Marilyn’s body, and her body rent from its own time, the Rolf’s stabilizing history collapses around them.  Unable to function without that, or their own matriarch, Ben and Davy–the contested future–confront her and the house occupying her…with annihilating results.  Like many of their time, the Rolf’s traditions and family bonds failed them.  Unlike their contemporaries, they are in no “place” to recuperate them.  Absconded out of Time, they are now a-temporal refuse, plastic memories of a timeless spirit.