The nebulous concept of fear somehow occupies a palpable place in people’s everyday lives. In big cities, fear is capable of touching people in a direct way often due to its physicality via specific locations. A nebulous concept like fear affects people when ingrained in the architecture of the physical cities in which they live, often the case in Gothic places where the past is constantly at play with the present. This ingraining of fear comes out of the embodied histories of people who inhabited those places prior to us occupying them. Classic horror movies like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and others of its kind are set in locations attached to an older sense of place: castles, centuries old homes, villages, and various settings closely connected to a time before modern cities. Brad Anderson’s 2001 urban Gothic Session 9 evokes an older sense of place, while simultaneously confronting today’s struggles to reconcile with the past in the face of modernity by using the premise of a haunted asylum. The film is set in the ruins of an actual asylum built in the late 19th century and shut down during the mid-1980s— Danvers State Insane Asylum. The structure and history of the hospital told through physical objects encompasses ideas of the Gothic in relation to the embodied histories of the patients.
The film’s main character Gordon (played by Peter Mullan) – foreman of an asbestos removal company – experiences a personal haunting, during which the building causes him to exhibit similar symptoms to a former patient, Mary Hobbes. Gordon’s psychological experience is so frightening because of disorientation caused by his relation to place dictated by Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the uncanny, or the unhomely. Eventually, his psyche fractures. The more time he spends inside the asylum the further he separates from his home, to the point he dissociates from reality and unknowingly moves into a cell belonging to Mary on the upper floors where psychotic inmates were housed. Notably, tapes of Mary’s therapy and other physical objects found by the asbestos crew take on qualities of the uncanny as they create fear through an unsettling connection to the past. Gordon’s horrific journey into the asylum shapes fear as less a nebulous quality and more a physical reality through an overall uncanny sense of place. The physical embodiment of fear in an urban location such as Danvers State Asylum is Anderson’s way of using the horror genre to explore our modern relationship to the past through fear generated in these Gothic places.
Fear’s nebulous qualities are due to how it is “used to explain a wide variety of phenomena from the geopolitical to the micro-social, elucidating anything from post–Enlightenment ontological scepticism to behaviour in shopping centres” (Gold and Revill 30). What is scary to one person is not necessarily scary to the next. Fears differ according to gender identity, social status, class, race, sexual orientation, and other factors. An asylum may not necessarily inspire fear in every person, no matter if it is dilapidated or fully functional. For those with mental illness even the sight of an asylum or its isolating cells can terrify— made worse if the person is also a woman, a queer individual, or a person of colour, whose fears of confinement come along with corporeal horrors not usually experienced by straight white males. These perspectives make clear the “perceived safety of spaces” and the “differential notions of safety” (England and Simon 203) existing in multitudes across a concentrated area such as a city. They also reveal how power manipulates the fears of certain groups in order to “define and maintain the shifting boundaries between deviance and belonging, order and disorder” (England and Simon 204). For this reason, asylum landscapes are particularly fear-inducing as they bring “together human attitudes, values and our physical responses and interventions in the world” (Gold and Revill 33).
Many large psychiatric institutions are placed in remote areas at the edges of cities. This geographical placement is a product of societal attitudes towards behaviour and psychology deemed outside the norm: what Julia Kristeva calls the abject. An object represents a “desire for meaning” (Kristeva 2). We project desire onto objects and imbue them with meaning for many reasons. The abject is opposite – a “jettisoned object” (Kristeva 2) – and takes us “toward the place where meaning collapses” (2). Kristeva makes clear the abject, from a place of “banishment” (2), does not collapse itself, but continues “challenging its master” (2), or the object, and in doing so erodes meaning. What is abject inherently calls into question the object, as well as why the abject is so to begin with and what that definition says about its relationship to the object.
Psychology is abject when it deviates from what society values as normal psychology. The psychologically abject calls into question how we deal with it while causing us to reevaluate what is normal psychology, possibly leading us to question why one psychology is abject and the other is not in the first place. Those considered mentally fit are allowed to live their lives at home with bodily autonomy and freedom of movement. In the case of the psychologically abject, people considered seriously mentally ill are deprived of bodily autonomy and freedom of movement by their placement in the asylum. The home becomes an object of the sane and the legal, and symbolic of the logical, whereas the asylum is an abject, chaotic place where those outside sanity, legality, and logic are confined. This distinction between home as normal and the asylum as abject is a central concern of Session 9’s. Home and asylum are contrasted again in how the latter drives the main character Gordon’s uncanny psychological journey through evocation of the Gothic.
Gothic places are where there exist connections to “a distant, even primitive past” (Cohen 883). An asylum is Gothic in its history of a “time gone by” (Cohen 883): the many lives lived within the walls, whether patients or staff, the physical objects remaining inside from the belongings of the patients and discarded media to the actual architecture of the building, and the social history of the institution. In regards to Session 9, the Gothic history of Danvers State Asylum lies in the building being a form of home to its patients. One way to understand why Gothic places produce feelings of fear is through Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny. The uncanny is “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (Freud 1-2). Freud links the uncanny to a sense of home by way of his German mother tongue. The word ‘heimlich’ in German means ‘familiar,’ thus his naming the uncanny as ‘unheimlich.’ Moreover, the word ‘heimlich’ can mean “belonging to the house” (Freud 2), enabling Freud to connect the idea of home to the uncanny, becoming the unhomely. Along with “arousing a sense of peaceful pleasure and security as in one within the four walls of his house” the word ‘heimlich’ corresponds to that which is “concealed, kept from sight” (Freud 3). All at once, the home represents a place of safety and familiarity, as well as one of unfamiliarity as a place where people and things are concealed from the outside world.
In Session 9, the uncanny forms a major part of the plot in several senses. Firstly, the uncanny is represented through place in the asylum framed by Freud’s ‘heimlich.’ Before any characters are introduced, Anderson frames a shot of an asylum hallway upside down. This automatically subverts the normal relationship we have visually with place. We do not assume a hallway will appear to us upside down. We recognise it as undoubtedly a hallway, but it is unnerving. As the camera remains stationary, the shot rotates right-side up slowly, and the film’s title card appears superimposed over the image. Once the shot is fully right-side up, the uncanny has taken hold by warping our sense of place on a physical and metal level alike. Place in the asylum is significant, as patients’ rooms become a focal plot point. Just as significant is how we conceive the placement of asylums in the cities where they are located.
The geographical location and urban treatment of mental hospitals in the city casts a shadow over the film. The main character Gordon is a foreman who runs a crew of asbestos workers bidding on a job to remove the asbestos from Danvers State Asylum as part of an urban renewal project. Only alluded to vaguely in the opening scenes, the building is slated for total demolishment to make way for new construction. Before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can clear said construction the asbestos must be safely removed. A security guard explains Danvers was shut down in the 1980s like many other similar hospitals due to budget cuts under the guise of deinstitutionalisation. One of the lead workers under Gordon is Phil (played by David Caruso). Before they take a tour of the grounds, Phil asks a security guard why the property is so securitised. The guard replies it is due to former patients returning to squat in the ruins. When the city clears the “demolition of a neighbourhood [it] is not just the destruction of buildings, but also that of a functioning social system” (Freeman 108). After Danvers was shut down, many patients were displaced with nowhere to go, for reasons ranging from economics to social issues. The uncanny is immediately present in this displacement. The patients were never meant to see the asylum as home, because, by nature, it is a liminal place meant to rehabilitate. Yet they came to see the place as home, and those who had no other place to call home became indebted to the asylum environment. It was likewise a place in which they were hidden as abject and aberrant specimens of abnormal psychology. Later when this liminal, home-like place became displaced, the patients were cast out into a boundless, hostile, and ‘unheimlich’ environment foreign to them after living in the asylum so long. Finally, when the patients returned to Danvers in its ruined state and squatted, they were coming home again to a familiarity, albeit an upsetting one. The former patients were struck with an uncanny sense of home, one which “effac[ed] the distinction between imagination and reality” (Freud 15)— the asylum was never really home, and yet it was for them, but then it later became ruins incapable of being home when they had no other place to go except take the ruins as a stand-in for home. The displacement of the Danvers patients relegated home for them to a place not fully real, nor entirely a figment of their imagination.
Those patients, as well as others who died on the property and were buried in the expansive Danvers graveyard, constitute the embodied past of the hospital. A place like an asylum is “simultaneously living and spectral, containing the experience of the actual moment as well as the many times that have already transpired and become silent – though not necessarily imperceptible – to the present” (Blanco and Peeren 395). Former patients – living and dead – are the ghosts of Danvers Asylum, evident in how they are, in many ways, forgotten by the present. Patients dealing with a lost sense of home experience the same struggle as that of Gordon, whose own sense of home becomes disoriented. Gordon’s experiences within the asylum parallel those of the former patients, whose experiences have become spectral after the securitisation of the Danvers ruins. Then there are the further spectral histories of patients represented through the suggestion of a haunting. At the start, the haunting is suggested as real, and in the end is actually indicative of Gordon’s psychological breakdown. Regardless, this spectral haunting in the asylum acts as “a discourse” involving “a blurring of logical distinctions” and an “obfuscation of sense” (Cavallaro 65). It is the “complex dialogue between the past and the present” (Cavallaro 71) which occurs every step of the way throughout Session 9, as Gordon and other characters experience difficulty reconciling the past with the present. For Gordon, his experience consistently contrasts those of the patients in their struggle with home, specifically Mary Hobbes. The “discourse of spectrality” is also reliant on the “mechanism of repetition” (Cavallaro 68), aligning the theme of hauntings with Freud’s uncanny.
Among a number of elements indicative of the uncanny is repetition as “events, images, and localities” become more than themselves as “recurrent motifs” (Blanco and Peeren 396). Gordon frequently remarks he is tired, telling his employee and close friend Phil: “I want to go home.” The film obsessively returns to an uncanny nightmare image Gordon experiences over and over after first entering the boundaries of Danvers. He sees an image of the exterior of his actual house focused on the front door. He sees other familiar images of home: swing set in the yard, a dog roaming inside, and a wife holding her baby while she tends to a boiling pot on the stove. The image of home starts changing slightly with every nightmare. Gordon hears a pot noisily fall over spilling water followed by angry sounds, yelling, and his wife calling out to him in a scared voice. Later the noise evolves to include a slap and a scream. Gradually the images and auditory cues of home become less familiar to Gordon, losing their home-like qualities and becoming more disturbing. After a couple returns to the nightmare, the sounds of home play over a different image: Gordon, in his white asbestos hazard suit, covered in streaks of bright red blood. The devolving of ‘heimlich’ into ‘unheimlich’ inspires terror and he wakes from his nightmare in fright. The repetitive image of home “forces upon us the idea of something fateful and unescapable” (Freud 11). As the image of home gets more violent, we begin unlocking the mysteries of Gordon’s psychology. Before long, the “fateful and unescapable” (Freud 11) becomes painfully clear, to Gordon and the viewer alike, and the truth is laid bare: the night Gordon landed the Danvers job, he went home to celebrate, but his wife accidentally knocked a pot of boiling water onto his leg as he leaned in for a kiss, prompting him to kill her, their dog, and then the baby. Repetition centred on images of home is only one of the techniques Anderson uses thematically in this manner to frighten the viewer. An uncanny sense of home is further exacerbated by the physical asylum landscape itself.
Gold and Revill write “fear is often expressed most powerfully in landscapes where it appears to be least visible” in “objects, people, and practices” (37). This type of subtle fear is evident in the rooms of the patients in the Danvers State Asylum. When Gordon and Phil first arrive at the building, they are shown a decaying room where a patient lived. Inside pictures adorn the walls, curling and yellowing with age, and their guide explains cells were not cells in Danvers, they were named ‘seclusions.’ Here, rhetoric conceals fear. By calling the cells by the different term seclusions – a term less intimidating and more therapeutic than punitive – asylum authorities were attempting to lessen a sense of fear built up around the asylum as an institution of confinement. Furthermore, having patients wallpaper their cells with photographs as a form of art therapy is yet another method of reducing fear on a visual level, so the cells seemed less a prison and more conducive to a home environment. The guide showing Gordon and Phil around the building tells them the pictures on the walls were supposed to make patients feel more at home. This does nothing to change the fact fear existed in the asylum, despite its cultivated air of ‘heimlich.’ On the same tour, Gordon and Phil are told about the gruesome history of Danvers from electroshock therapy to the prefrontal lobotomy being perfected at the institution. It is the history of the asylum which draws Gordon deeper into the uncanny once his conception of home splits further apart and he begins to treat the asylum as home.
A significant illustration of the uncanny, or the unhomely, is in Gordon’s total extraction from the home. His own mind obscures the fact he has actually murdered his wife and child, convincing him he has simply had a bad fight with the former and is not allowed to go home. Anderson uses the uncanny to show the deterioration of Gordon’s mental state, exemplified by a specific room in the asylum belonging to a former patient. Gradually, Gordon moves into the room, once belonging to a woman named Mary Hobbes. Mary and Gordon are paralleled as going through the same psychological experience, mediated by the physical place of Mary’s room where there occurs a “complex dialogue between the past and the present” (Cavallaro 71). Neither of them are able to go home: Gordon frequently says he wants to go back, whereas on the tapes Mary laments to her doctor none of her family will come see her and so she is bereft of a sense of home while confined in the asylum. The earlier photographs on the rooms of patients’ walls come to mirror those Gordon places on the wall in the same way in Mary’s room.
The uncanny emerges again in a late scene where Gordon stumbles onto the room, unaware it is he who has decorated it with photographs in his own version of art therapy. He believes it was someone else and at first cannot believe it was him. On the wall are the many newspaper and magazine clippings Mary herself placed there, creating an added dimension of uncanny as both hers and Gordon’s pictures form a kind of unintentional mural. His and Mary’s photographs together at once make the room simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. On one portion of the wall is a picture of his baby girl right next to a cut out picture of a doll’s face with the words ‘Family Planning’ over it— a simultaneous ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’ image. The real baby represents a comforting vision of home whereas the doll conjures a more unsettling, fake vision of home. Gordon experiences the uncanny in that the wall partly contains his own photographs from the christening of his baby daughter, yet he does not remember putting them on the wall. Once he mentally pieces together what he has done, the uncanny goes from “that which had been known, then hidden from sight, which then returns” (Hook 46), and he, albeit reluctantly, accepts his culpability in not only killing his family, but also dispatching the members of his asbestos crew, as well. In this light, the ghost of Mary is “invited to enter the everyday course of life as a means of compensating for something that is painfully and inexplicably missing” (Cavallaro 68). Gordon, unknowingly, lets the spirit of Mary into his world because of his missing sense of home, and through her he regains that sense, despite it being wholly uncanny. This congregation between the living and the spectral within Danvers allows us to explore a Gothic past which is another important way Session 9 evokes fear.
Apart from the sense of uncanny derived from the unhomely, Session 9 explores how the uncanny operates in relation to how we reconcile the past with the present mediated by Gothic places, both in physical structures and objects left inside. The asylum is a perfect form of Gothic place because it is embedded with many tortured histories, such as Mary’s case. The character of Mike (played by Stephen Gevedon) – another asbestos worker on Gordon’s crew – embodies a societal fascination with the Gothic and a willingness to engage in that “complex dialogue between the past and the present” (Cavallaro 71). The haunting theme again emerges as Mike’s interest in the Gothic is facilitated through past media in the form of old tape reels on an aging recorder containing therapy sessions between Mary and a doctor.
Mary signifies a “return of the repressed” (Cavallaro 68) from out of the past to haunt the present. The rhetoric of her haunting calls on an “uncanny admixture of physical and incorporeal attributes” (71): she is found on the physical tapes, as well as in the combination of incorporeal fascination and fear the tapes produce in Mike while he listens. When Mike finds the tapes they are inside a box with other patient files. He cuts the box open and old dust flies into the air. At the same time, this physically reverberates through the crew: the cutting results in Gordon cutting his hand and the dust wafts into a crew member’s eyes in another part of the asylum. After Mike first listens to the tapes he becomes obsessed. During one scene he purposely shuts down the power to the crew’s equipment as an excuse to go down to the basement and listen to more. The method by which Mike uncovers the past is, in a way, Gothic, calling back to a bygone era by way of physical media. Through tapes and other physical objects, characters in the film use “objects to evoke experience, thus molding experience into symbols” (Low 13). As the lived history of Mary found in physical media influences Gordon’s uncanny reconciliation, and later Hank (played by Josh Lucas) figuratively becomes a patient of the asylum after discovering objects belonging to former patients, there is a “melting [of those] symbols back into experience” (Low 13). After discovering physical objects within the asylum, the characters are drastically affected. This further connects the physical asylum to the mental state of Gordon, as well. Again, the rhetoric of haunting is used in making this connection. Haunting “erodes not only the dividing line between the real and the imaginary but also the boundaries of the self” (Cavallaro 74). Objects from the asylum – in this case, the tapes – influence Gordon psychologically, and the physical building reflects his deterioration in its decay. As the film reaches its climax and Gordon’s psychological reveal, the decay of the asylum gets more vivid, accentuated by brighter lighting. A late scene sees Gordon running through the upper corridors of the asylum, where arguably most of the dilapidation has occurred. The psychological journey he has undergone is mirrored in the ruins of the asylum.
Relating body and mind to physical location is close to Freud’s uncanny in terms of what can be termed “embodied absence” and “disembodied presence” (Hook 45). An embodied absence or disembodied presence is the idea of a co-existence, or that something is and is not in the same moment— such is the basis of the uncanny. In addition, the uncanny operates on authenticity: what is familiar to us is authentic, and what is unfamiliar appears inauthentic. Part of the terror in uncanny imagery or the audible uncanny is “action being separated from a rational kind of agent” (Hook 45). What terrifies is a separation between what is and is not authentic, or better put, what can or cannot be according to the laws of logic and physics in a horror film. Such as when Gordon first enters a ward once used to house psychotic and violent patients and encounters a “disembodied intellect” (Hook 45)— the voice of one of Mary’s alternate personalities.
The initial moment in Session 9 when Gordon and the asylum appear connected via his psychologically fragile state happens when he is first shown the ward for extreme patients while bidding on the asbestos removal job. As he steps onto the floor, Gordon notices the decayed hallway from the opening shot with a sole wheelchair sitting in the middle. He hears the crackling sound of an old tape beginning to play in his mind. Afterwards, he hears an unsettling, as of yet unknown voice speak to him: “Hello, Gordon.” There is an air of the uncanny as Gordon seems to recognise the voice but cannot be sure, and the look on his face is one of terror. An experience of haunting makes the boundaries of the self begin to disappear and challenges our concept of “impregnable identities” (Cavallaro 74). When Gordon hears the voice, he understands it is inside his head. The look of fear indicates this is likely the first time in his entire life he has questioned his own identity to such a deep extent. The voice returns several times over the course of the film, and later, once Mike has listened to the tapes, we understand the voice is Simon— a violent alter-ego of Mary’s, one of three voices representing different parts of her psyche. Each time Simon speaks Gordon is on the floor for psychotic patients, alone in one of the ruined patient rooms, or experiencing his recurring nightmare of the repeating home imagery. One of the final times Simon speaks to Gordon happens as he leads the latter to an ultimate reconciliation with the past, occuring as Gordon moves through the most ruined parts of the asylum structure. The voice of Simon is part of the physical asylum and he was once a piece of Mary’s psychological state. Now he makes up the structure of Gordon’s own mind drawing “analogy between people and property” which is “common to the Gothic” (Cohen 893). The body and mind are further presented as connected to architecture through Mary’s alternate identities.
On the asylum tapes, each of Mary’s personalities is given a bodily location as if the body is a ‘heimlich’ structure: one is named Princess, who is said to live in the mouth because she does most of the talking for Mary; another is Billy, who inhabits the eyes, due to his function being to protect Mary and Princess by bearing witness to everything they are too fragile to bear; but finally, Simon tells the doctor he lives “in the weak and the wounded” suggesting he is not in one specific location of the body, rather he exists in the mind, and, because he does not claim to be specific to Mary or her body solely, in many other bodies. Through physical media and a psychological haunting, Simon coexists in the asylum and in the mind of Gordon, as well as others who are “weak” and “wounded.” As a disembodied entity floating between physical media and the mind, Simon is a direct connection between mental and physical architecture. The asylum’s vertical structure further comes to symbolically represent Gordon’s psychological journey through the uncanny.
Although Gordon hears the voice mostly upstairs, his mental state is distorted most in the lower parts of the building. Upstairs, he recognises the voice as familiar, perhaps a voice he has heard before. There is a strange sense of his having come home to the asylum, already suggested in how Gordon looked at the building as if he had been there before the first time the crew drove onto the property. As he begins to make the asylum his home unknowingly, he occupies the basement frequently. When Hank (played by Josh Lucas) goes back to the building at night by himself during one scene, he sees a shadow figure whose identity he cannot determine – whom we later discover is Gordon – off in the basement’s darkness. Here, Gordon is literally “[c]oncealed, kept from sight” (Freud 3). Once Gordon starts unravelling the mental mysteries of the asylum this process takes place entirely upstairs. One scene sees all the characters worried after they hear footsteps running upstairs and they are all together on the main floor. They split up in groups to go check the situation out, though eventually Gordon is left on his own. The further upward he goes into the asylum, the lighter everything becomes: sunlight pours in from the windows and even the decaying, peeling wallpapers of every floor lightens in colour from darker shades of blue and brown to lighter tones like orange and yellow. At the very top floor, where Gordon ultimately discovers the truth of what he has done to his family and coworkers, the sunlight is vibrant, and the asbestos tents set up everywhere – similar to quarantined cells in which the patients of the asylum once lived – reflect the light and create an ethereal atmosphere. Examining the psychological arc of Gordon, the building takes on aspects of Freud’s uncanny, where the familiarity of the upper floors disappears and the basement then hides both Gordon and Mary’s secrets, only for those upper areas of the hospital to again wholly reveal the familiar again. In this returned familiarity, Gordon is entirely unmoored from reality. He has discovered the truth of his murderous crimes, yet its uncanniness is too difficult for him to bear. After these events, he remains in the asylum by himself, having killed the rest of his crew, and he continues calling home to his dead wife. He has discovered the truth, but the uncanny refuses to let him go. All he is able to do is repeat that which is familiar to him: he goes to Mary’s room, now his own, and calls home to his wife asking if he can return home and if their baby is doing well, and he continually revisits the wall of photographs as physical representations of the memories of home now lost to him. As the uncanny moves from familiar to unfamiliar and back again, Gordon’s final realisation is a horror based in the ‘heimlich’ qualities of the asylum, upon recognising he has lost his actual home and now this place is where he must remain. Again, Gordon’s lived experience mirrors the leftover spectral experiences of former patients who once squat in the ruins. He becomes part of the lived history in the asylum, as if transforming into one of its ghosts. They all exist in a historically uncanny place of memory while also occupying the physical asylum.
During Gordon and Phil’s initial tour of the Danvers State Asylum their guide paraphrases a slogan for the institution: “Reclaiming the dark past to build a brighter future.” This line connects an absence of light with the building’s history and a broader sense of the past. In cities, the night began changing in the late 1600s with “the advent of more quotidian street lighting” (Edensor 425) as the “urban nightscape was progressively and radically transformed” over the course of history and people “flooded into urban streets” seeking fun, spectacle, or a chance to shop at night instead of before when they remain “within their homes through fear of the dark” (426). Fear of the dark, historically, has often been a fear of a time prior to modernity, as if a loss of light will plunge us into a return to a primitive state of nature. Before widespread use of lighting at night in the age of “widespread religious beliefs and superstitions, night was commonly conceived as the domain of Satan in which his powers magnified and assorted evil spirits lurked” (Edensor 424). Before the modern city, and later the postmodern city, citizens of cities treated night with superstition, and it was a space of time during which all the bad, evil, or undesirable things occurred out of view of daytime. The contrast between day and night operates as a fulcrum moving people with an uncanny force. In the daytime people recognise the city, there are no hidden or dark places in the light. Likewise, through lighting at night, people are familiar with the city even after the natural dark descends. However, when the light disappears – such as when street lights burn out or a power outage randomly occurs on the grid – the city again becomes unfamiliar to them. Because of the familiarity with cities at night, citizens plunged into unexpected darkness symbolically return to a time before widespread lighting when “darkness was the occasion for all manner of unseen, spectral, ungodly forces to emerge” (Edensor 424). Not only does the unexpectedly dark city become unfamiliar, it becomes dangerous, and its places become “stimulated by ghost stories, folk beliefs and religiously inspired terrors” (Edensor 424) from our past. Different cities feel similar fears of the dark, though each respective city usually has their own relationship to the night and its darkness. In Session 9, a fear of the dark is linked to the relationship people enter into with the past when they occupy Gothic places.
At one point during Session 9, the crew’s generator breaks down – a repetitive element of the plot – and the youngest member, Jeff (played by Brendan Sexton III), is asked to go down into the basement and restart it. He refuses because of his nyctophobia, more commonly known as an irrational or extreme fear of the dark. Jeff’s nyctophobia, particularly within the asylum setting, is indicative of fears about our relationship to the Gothic. A late scene in the movie depicts Jeff trapped below the asylum— subterranean space here taking on a symbolic quality, in which things are ‘heimlich’ in their concealment. As the crew’s generator breaks down, Jeff is left trying to outrun the darkness, as a string of lights setup in the basement shut off behind him one by one. The uncanny reoccurs in this scene for Jeff rather than Gordon. In context of the asylum’s physical architecture, Jeff’s nyctophobia is a fear of the familiar becoming unfamiliar. When the lights are on, the asylum is easily navigable, lower parts of the basement otherwise left dark are brightened. Once the power shuts off abruptly, Jeff is caught in a part of the basement he already does not know well, so it is only vaguely familiar to start, and in the dark everything becomes totally unfamiliar to him.
The uncanniness of the dark is a traditional example of the Gothic entertains a frightful relationship to the past through Gothic place. A significant part of Session 9’s plot also involves the past in Gothic places inhabiting physical form, either in old forms of media – Mike’s use of a decades old tape recorder and tapes relating to the lived history of patients – or objects embodying the experiences of the asylum. The character of Hank is shown to be a gambling addict. While marking pipes for asbestos removal in the basement, Hank discovers antique coins scattered in a hallway, following them to a hole in a wall. Upon further inspection, he removes a brick, and, like a slot machine, out pours an avalanche of coins and various other items. After sifting through his treasure, Hank finds other objects: gold teeth, fillings, a lobotomy tool, strands of hair, and a couple glass eyes. Revealed to the audience and not Hank, behind the stone partition from which he pulls his hidden treasures, is the morgue’s crematorium. He is literally sifting through the dead. All the objects were either belongings patients had on them when their corpses were put into the crematorium, or remnants of the dead filed away and forgotten in the morgue.
This Gothic connection Hank makes to the past of Danvers State Asylum is not only one used for scare purposes. When Hank finishes his treasure hunt he leaves the basement through a hallway divided into two sections: one for patients, the other for staff. He chooses to take the side marked for patients. After passing through the patient hall, he runs into someone on his way out— during the finale, it is revealed to be Gordon. After figuratively thieving the past, Hank is made a part of the hospital’s past: Gordon uses the tool Hank found to lobotomise him, then leaves the debilitated man in the basement, deep in the dark subterranean tunnels, where all the coins, leftover ashes, and patient files are kept concealed from view of the present. It is interesting Hank finds glass eyes amongst the belongings of dead, cremated patients. The material Gothic connection he makes with the patients allows him to figuratively see into the past, reinforced by the fact he finds literal eyes. Because they are not real eyes, but rather fake ones, he cannot actually see the past clearly. Together with the fake glass eyes, Hank finds the lobotomy tool, and his inability to clearly see into the past and reconcile with the Gothic resigns him to the same fate as those patients who belongings he finds. At the start of the film, Gordon and Phil’s guide makes mention of the prefrontal lobotomy having been perfected at Danvers. Following his makeshift lobotomy Hank joins the embodied past constituting the terrifying lived history of the hospital.
Gordon’s personal story being connected to the patients is part of our search for reconciliation with the past embodied in the landscape of asylum. Session 9 deals with our modern relationship to the past through the physicality of place and objects. The Gothic, in encountering the physical past of the asylum, preys on a fear of “memory loss” (Cohen 883) associated with a societal forgetfulness for these places. The plot uncovers the hidden history of Gordon alongside the institution of Danvers. Haunting as a theme involves the traditional horror figure of the ghost in Mary’s spectral presence through the tapes “interrupt[ing] the presentness of the present” and alongside Gordon the viewer sees how “beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative; an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorised version of events” (Weinstock 63). When Gordon encounters the spirit of patient Mary Hobbes, he uncovers her history, but more importantly the narrative hidden in his own mind he previously repressed. Additionally, he is uncovering the ghosts of Danvers and the lost, lived histories of the physical institution. Mary’s presence as a spectral entity affecting Gordon in a literal sense “calls into question the possibilities of a future based on avoidance of the past” (Weinstock 64). This is the same as how the modern process of urban renewal will effectively bulldoze the history of Danvers, and with it all the embodied past of its patients. The city can demolish Danvers and build a Walmart atop the land, but the spectrality of place will always remain, though may “become silent” (Blanco and Peeren 395) to the present depending on how the land is subsequently used. Just the same as Gordon can ignore the past, but he still killed his family and the rest of his crew. Part of why the duality of living and spectral is of significance has to do with Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, which “function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (6). When Gordon is in Danvers State Asylum, he disconnects from the present and fully immerses himself in the past— many pasts, even. This break is where boundaries of a heterotopia begin within the physical limits of the asylum. Heterotopias are part of negotiating the fears encountered when coming into contact with Gothic places.
Our relationship to the past today through Gothic place is one of fear because these places act as heterotopias: “counter–sites” in which “all the other sites that can be formed within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (Foucault 3). A heterotopia is so named because it acts as the opposite of a utopia and also carries in it utopian qualities. Foucault uses the mirror as his example. The mirror acts as a utopia – reflecting our image but in an “unreal, virtual space” (Foucault 4) behind it where we are a “shadow” (4) yet we are, in a way, real because our form is perfectly reflected – but it is always a heterotopia because the mirror is physical, it exists in reality, and through it we discover our “absence” (4) in the exact place we currently occupy. Therefore, the mirror’s heterotopia is in its power to show us the hidden places we occupy at the same time as the physical ones themselves. Place, through heterotopias, reveals to us concealed dynamics within them. An important dynamic found in heterotopias like asylums is power.
An asylum specifically would be one of many “heterotopias of deviation” (Foucault 5), or the so-called “profane places” (1) in our society where people deemed as acting outside of prescribed societal behaviour are confined and, idealistically, rehabilitated back into the normal order. These “enclosed” and “exiled spaces” are “created by conscious acts of social marginalisation and clearly articulated fears” (Gold and Revill 37) through state control. The asylum is a mark of state power: a structure inside which those who violate social or legal order are forcibly confined. As an institution of laws, confinement, and supposed rehabilitation, the power of the asylum is “a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions” (The Subject and Power 789) as it regulates the deviant behaviours of the patients which occupy its boundaries, and intends to hopefully regulate the future behaviour of those same patients when, or if, they someday leave those boundaries. At the height of its powers, the asylum “constrains or forbids absolutely” (The Subject and Power 789). The asylum is likewise a mark of the powerless by virtue of the fact those who are confined within its walls are without power and deprived of bodily autonomy. In this deviant heterotopia, “landscapes of the powerful are simultaneously landscapes of disenfranchisement” (Gold and Revill 42). The asylum reinforces state power by confining people and reducing their autonomy – not exactly a utopian ideal – and in doing so attempts to carve out a utopian society by eliminating what the state considers aberrant behaviour. Home is a place people choose, and does not have to be the traditional home envisioned as a square house with a fence, a lawn, or any other archetypal images the word home conjures— there are many ways a place can act as a home. Because “power is not a function of consent” (The Subject and Power 788), the asylum is only home insofar as it is where the patients physically exist and live. Unlike a real home, asylum’s home is forced upon its residents when a state, and often even a family, exerts control over an individual to place them there. Asylums become “moral geographies” where “feared social groups” (Gold and Revill 36-37) – the psychologically abject – are housed in order for those outside its physical boundaries to gain, or regain, a semblance of safety.
The heterotopia of asylum as a home shows us a place concerned with utopian ideals, where doctors, orderlies, and nurses work to rehabilitate those who live there. Likewise, asylum as home reveals the power structures of society in which the marginalised – the mentally ill – exist and how their individual conception of home is altered or, in cases, annihilated. In Session 9, Gordon embodies the heterotopic face of the asylum as a home.
The heterotopia is a physical place, and also other figurative places in the same breath, allowing us to witness how it works on its own and in conjunction with other places. Gordon’s juxtaposed homes – Mary’s cell in the asylum versus the actual home he inhabited with his family – illuminates their differences. A collision with the past through the asylum as a Gothic place also produces a heterotopia. If a heterotopia “begins to function at full capacity” once there is an “absolute break with [our] traditional time” (Foucault 6), then Gordon and the crew encountering the past in Danvers makes the asylum a Gothic heterotopia: a place where different eras collide, interact, and affect one another, and where the present is interrupted by ghosts of the building’s embodied past. In a return to Freud, the heterotopias of home and the past of a physical place through Gordon result in an uncanny experience. Once Gordon is able to see the breakdown of his real home, he deciphers the heterotopia and is faced with its full horror. He is told – by a voice in his head taking the disembodied form of a now deceased Phil – to “wake up,” as if asleep, or obscured to the past by the present.
One of the final images in Session 9 is an homage to the closing shot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in which a smiling Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) partially dissolves into a shot of his mother’s skull. As Gordon reels in the revelation of his multiple murders, a picture of Mary from the forgotten basement files dissolves over his own face, akin to the past superimposed atop the present— a literal visual of the heterotopia of the Gothic asylum, as living present and spectral past intersect. Gordon’s experience of the asylum as a heterotopia suggests there are consequences should we forget the many ways in which the asylum connects to the world outside its walls. As does the fact the ruination of Danvers leaving patients without any sense of home suggest the same consequences, only on a larger societal scale.
In its promotional material and on the main poster for the film, Session 9 presents the tagline “Fear is a place.” The poster is a photograph of the right-side up shot from the opening scene featuring a dilapidated hallway with a wheelchair in the centre. Fear becomes physical in the lives of those occupying places inextricably linked to the past. Gordon’s uncanny psychological experience within the asylum pulls him away from traditional meanings of home because of the place’s tragic past as home to its patients. The parallel trajectory he experiences to the patient Mary’s psychological history is symbolic of how modern people come into direct contact with and relate to the past by experiencing it through Gothic places such as the ruins of Danvers State Asylum. These ruined places are sites of fear because they are seen as haunted by spectralities, which add up to the lived histories of those who inhabited them. In the case of asylums, these places become fearful due to how their uncanny resemblance to a ‘heimlich’ place while being incredibly ‘unheimlich’ at the same time. The ultimate fear of the past, then, is a paradox: a fear we and ghosts cannot coexist in the same place, or home, for fear the past will somehow infect us, and the fear that removing the past entirely from our present places, or homes, will result in an irrevocable loss of self in the form of a connected human history. The importance lies in how we navigate our relationship to the past through these Gothic places, where there exists a repository of ghosts. If, in the vein of urban renewal, we choose to excise these ghosts permanently, there may be history – material or spectral – lost and unable to be regained. All the same, if we live amongst the ghosts in these places and let them exert too great an influence over the present then, like Gordon, we run the risk of embodying the past at the expense of forgetting ourselves, the present, and, in the worst case scenario, reality.
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