“Waking up from the American Dream: The Horror Of Memory in Brad Anderson’s Session 9″ by David Annandale

Memory plays a crucial role in many a horror narrative. In memory can lie, for instance, the key to defeating the evil. “You will remember what your father forgot” (King 422), Danny is told in Stephen King’s The Shining. And he does: in the nick of time he remembers the boiler (which, untended, will explode) and thus deflects his possessed father’s murderous rampage. Often, memory’s unlocking of a mystery leads only to further danger (to Jessica Harper’s dismay, as she discovers the witches’ secret lair in Dario Argento’s Suspiria), or the resolution arrives too late to do any good (and so David Hemmings realizes who the murderer is in the split second before she attacks him in Argento’s Deep Red). In Session 9, written by Steve Gevedon and Brad Anderson, and directed by Anderson, memory is itself the horror, and so it is repressed. The effects of that repression, however, are still more horror. This is the despairing dynamic of the film: false dreams are lethal, but to wake up from them is to confront a reality no less destructive. The diagnosis, however, leaves the viewers with the responsibility to defang that terrible reality.

Session 9 takes place in the abandoned Danvers State Psychiatric Hospital. The film was shot at the actual facility, and a more sinister pile of 19th -Century brickwork would be difficult to imagine. A hazardous material disposal team is tasked with clearing the gargantuan asylum of asbestos. Owner of the Hazmat Elimination Company is Gordon (Peter Mullan). He needs the contract desperately, or his company is going to go under, and so promises to do in one week a job that should really take three to do safely. He and his wife Wendy have a newborn, Emma, who has had an ear infection for some time, and Gordon is clearly exhausted and worried from the moment we first see him. Meanwhile, Mike (Steve Gevedon) stumbles across old archives in the basement of the asylum. In one box he finds a collection of reel-to-reel tapes of the psychiatric sessions of Mary Hobbes, and Mike rapidly becomes obsessed with listening to the recordings. Mary suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. She has three alters: the childlike Princess, the watchful Billy, and Simon, a presence the other two personalities greatly fear.

Shortly before Mike makes his discovery, the question of why the asylum shut down arises. Mike explains what happened, and this is where the film’s central concern with memory becomes clear.

 

MIKE

Patricia Willard. She was committed here in the 1970s by her parents. Manic depression, that sort of thing. Typical adolescent crap. But in the 1980s, this new kind of therapy took off: Repressed Memory Therapy. See, these shrinks figured that, with these new techniques they’d designed, they could release hidden memories of traumatic events in your life. Rape, incest. So Patricia, with the help of her doctors, recalls that when she was ten, her father raped her. But not once. No, he’d do it three times a week. And he didn’t just rape her. He came into her room at night, wearing a black robe. He’d take her and drive her to a wooded area where her grandparents are her mother were. And they all had black robes on. They’d take them off and group orgies would ensue. And then, they’d bring out the newborn. She was forced to watch as her mother would cut this baby’s heart out with a stone dagger. She’d drink the blood. Others would eat the flesh. Her grandfather her father would fuck her repeatedly. She was forced to have abortions and they’d cook the aborted fetuses–

GORDON

Enough!

SECURITY GUARD

This happened here?

MIKE

Oh yeah. Satanic ritual abuse syndrome. Was big in the 80s. Destroyed a lot of families. Patricia was ready to sue hers. Was all set to go to trial and […] she dropped the suit. […] Well, her parents discovered a physical examination she’d undergone about a year prior. Turns out, she was a virgin. None of it happened.

 

At the precise moment where Mike refers to “traumatic events in your life,” Gordon is staring at the word “HOME” on his cell. The true meaning of this moment only becomes clear in retrospect. At the end of the film, we learn that, the evening of landing the job, Gordon returned home to celebrate. There was an accident, and a pot of boiling pasta spilled onto his leg. Gordon lost control, and killed his wife and baby daughter. At this point in the film, we do not know that Gordon has done anything. But even more importantly, Gordon himself does not know. He has repressed the memory, just as he similarly represses the memories, as the film progresses, of killing everyone else. And these murders, in turn, occur at moments where the original memory threatens to surface. One repression leads to another, until the destruction of Gordon and everyone he holds dear is complete.

In this scene, then, the film is playing a complicated game of memory, horror, and authentication. Mike’s narrative is horrific, and the montage of shattered found objects and predatory insects that accompanies his deadpan narration builds that horror to a crescendo, until Gordon (the man who has committed an act of horrific domestic violence) cries “Enough!” But then we have the debunking moment, where Mike exposes his horror tale as a tissue of lies. The memories were false. We are horrified by the story, then relieved that these terrible events never occurred. Only they have. A memory is being repressed even as Mike speaks, but it is the memory of the killer, rather than of the victims. The other crucial distinction, it seems to me, is one of kind. Domestic abuse itself is not being debunked by Session 9, but the addition of gothic trappings is. The point seems to be that the banal murders human beings commit every day are bad enough. Casting the events as Satanic rituals trivializes the abuse itself, as if it were somehow not adequately evil without the further motivation of devil worship. There is also an ironically comforting construction here: devil worshippers are less disturbing than a man who killed because of an everyday kitchen mishap.

In his seminal studies of the horror film, Robin Wood writes,

Insofar as horror films are typical manifestations of our culture, the dominant designation of the monster must necessarily be evil: what is repressed (in the individual, in the culture) must always return as a threat, perceived by the consciousness as ugly, terrible, obscene. Horror films, it might be said, are progressive precisely to the degree that they refuse to be satisfied with this simple designation – to the degree that, whether explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously, they modify, question, challenge, and seek to invert it. (192)

He further argues that the monster in the horror film is the representation of the Other, and that the “progressiveness of the horror film depends partly on the monster’s capacity to arouse sympathy” (192). The reactionary horror film, then, would cast the monster as utterly Other, completely inhuman, entirely evil, without any connection whatever to humanity. Session 9 dramatizes the opposition between human and inhuman Other/Monster by recognizing the Satanic cult as an attempt to blame the crimes of sexual abuse and murder on a group that is clearly not us. These people, the rationalization goes, may look like your mother, your father, your grandparents and your mailman, but they are, in fact, devil worshippers, and are revealed as such by the recovered memory. They must be devil worshippers, because their actions would make no sense otherwise. No human being would rape or murder children without the outside promptings of supernatural evil. The film demolishes this comforting us/them illusion through the Everyman figure of Gordon.

At the same time, this is not to say that there is no supernatural agency in Session 9. There might well be, though on this subject the film engages in a form of undecidability in the vein of The Turn of the Screw or the films of Val Lewton. This is where the figure of Simon enters the game. We first encounter his voice when Gordon, being given the initial tour of the asylum, is left alone for a moment in a dark corridor (at the end of which is Mary Hobbes’ cell). A shadow passes over Gordon’s face, and a sinister voice says, “Hello, Gordon.” As Gevedon and Anderson point out in their commentary on the film, one might read this as the moment where Gordon becomes possessed (and that night he kills his family). Mike hears this same voice on the Hobbes session tapes, and it is the Simon alter that killed Mary’s family. So a reading of Simon as a kind of demon is supported by the film, and therefore, it might be argued, we are right back with the Satanic cult reading of evil. Simon, however, is not that simplistic a figure. Mary’s alters reside in specific parts of her body. The Princess lives in the tongue (because she “talks so much”) and Billy lives in the eyes, because he sees everything. In the final seconds of the film, only the audience hears the recording of the psychiatrist asking Simon where he lives. Simon replies, “I live in the weak and the wounded.” He cannot be localized in a specific body part, and given a function associated with that part. For this reason, Simon is qualitatively different from the Princess and Billy. But there is more: with this statement, Simon claims to dwell not just in Mary, but in anyone with her symptoms. He is not so much an alternate personality as a condition. He is certainly not just a demon from hell descending on the otherwise pure. Instead, he is the evil that comes from within. He is the manifestation of the desperate violence of the weak and the wounded. As with all good horror movie monsters, he is as much a metaphor as a character.

Simon describes Mary’s brutal murder of her family as the camera pans over the pictures of Gordon’s family that have been assembled on a cell wall in a macabre, blood-stained collage. This is the moment where we realize his wife and daughter are dead, though the scene itself suggests that it is in fact Phil (David Caruso) who is the murderer. In a few short minutes, however, we will know that Gordon is the killer, and that it is this moment, when he sees the pictures, that the memory comes so close to the surface that he slaughters the rest of his crew. Thus, the two sets of repressed memories – Mary’s and Gordon’s – approach revelation, both for the characters and the audience, at the same time. The return of these memories is the climax of horror. The film moves toward these revelations, and when the now-dead Phil says, “Gordon, I need you to open your eyes. Wake up, and remember,” that is the cue for the worst moment of all: the sound of Wendy and Emma being killed as the camera once more pans over their cheerful pictures. The movement in a horror film is, of course, toward ever greater horror. In Session 9, the more memories surface, the worse the horror, and these memories, unlike the ones in the Patricia Willard scandal, are authentic.

Horror is truth, truth horror. Session 9 deploys all the traditional vocabulary of the horror movie to make us fear the truth in memory. When Mike finds the Mary Hobbes tapes, they are in a box marked EVIDENCE (i.e. “truth”) in the room that contains the building’s print and audio memories. His opening of the box is juxtaposed with scenes of Gordon cutting his thumb and Hank (Josh Lucas) cursing as asbestos dust lands in his eye. There is no causal link between the opening of the box and the accidents, but we are invited to see one. Setting the truth free is dangerous. (The truth shall make you bleed.) Mike is using a hooked knife to open Pandora’s Box.

The Danvers asylum is more than a repository of bad memories. It is a decayed American microcosm, an incarnation of a rotten, disintegrating, dangerous dream. Early in the film, Bill (Paul Guilfoyle) gives Gordon and Phil a tour of the asylum. With its extensive facilities, the asylum was, Bill says, “a self-contained town.” For example, he points out, the asylum had its own bowling alley and church. The image conjured by these details is one of small-town USA, the Norman Rockwell image of a lost American Arcadia, so often the subject of nostalgic yearnings for a return to the imagined goodness of the past. Consider, for instance, the golden-hued, slow-motion shots of overalled boys running through fields in Michael Bay’s Armageddon. The nightmare that the asylum clearly was makes nonsense of this nostalgia. Seconds earlier, Phil was gazing in horror at the hydrotherapy baths, and it is clear that the treatment of the inmates in this establishment was little more than a form of legalized torture. In Session 9, any memory of the past that is not one of utter horror is a lie. As if to emphasize the idea of false national myths, as Bill makes his “self-contained town” speech, the characters walk by an office door in whose window is an American flag. The window is shattered, and the flag has a large, jagged chunk missing.

If the dream of the American past is inauthentic, so is the dream of the future. The torn flag is visible in the background in another scene. In this one Hank tells Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) about everyone’s “exit strategies.” The hazmat disposal game is dangerous and stressful, and Hank terrifies Jeff with a graphic description of what happens if even single speck of asbestos gets into a lung. In order to deal with the stress, each of the men has an exit strategy, a dream of self-improvement that will take him away from this dangerous and underpaid work. Mike, for instance, is always reading, with the idea of completing his law degree. Hank himself has pie-in-the-sky fantasies about casino school. Only Gordon has no exit strategy, and Hank correctly foresees disaster. Anderson has commented that Gordon’s story in particular represents “the American dream gone awry.” Gordon is Scottish, and thus, Anderson explains, is the immigrant come to the States for the better life, only to be destroyed by that lie. Of course, Hank too is destroyed by his dream: driven by greed upon discovering a cache of old coins, he returns to the asylum at night and is lobotomized by the prowling Gordon. Furthermore, all the men are driven to work dangerously fast by the promise of a ten-thousand-dollar bonus. The dream of advancement through work is as lethal and false as the myth of the golden past. The presence of that shattered flag during Hank’s monologue is a visual reminder of the fact that Hank is telling himself and Jeff comforting lies. (Interestingly, the flag was not the work of the production design. It was already there in the Danvers asylum, ready for Anderson to exploit.)

The asylum also represents the future, for Bill and for the town. Bill comments that “the land is priceless” and wishes he could tear the asylum down and “put up a Wal-Mart.” He can’t, though, because of the heritage status of the building. Put another way, he cannot erase the physical memory that the building represents. Instead, the asylum will house the town’s archives (read: its memory) and administrative offices (its brain). In other words, the asylum will move from being a self-contained town to containing the actual town. “Reclaiming the dark past to build a brighter future,” Bill says, when in fact it is the dark past that is doing the reclaiming.

To return finally to Robin Wood, I would argue that Session 9 bears a particularly interesting relation to his arguments. If one accepts his contention that the horror film is progressive to the degree that it a) problematizes the demonizing of the returning repressed; and b) engages sympathy for the monster/Other, then Session 9, one might argue, is particularly progressive by these standards since it explicitly addresses these very issues, and completely erases the premise of the monster as Other. The character who commits the monstrous acts, Gordon, is also the most sympathetic, and thus the most tragic. Even when killing his friends, Gordon’s face, far from being a fright mask, bears an expression of blank yet unbearable agony; in fact, it resembles nothing so much as the traditional image of the tragic theatre mask. He is the character we see in pain, both physical and emotional, stirring our sympathy long before we know what he has done. When his repressed memory surfaces in a partial form, he tells Phil that he hit his wife, and Peter Mullan’s remarkable performance gives us a man consumed by self-loathing, recoiling from the horror of his actions. Our last sight of Gordon is of him weeping, holding a broken cell phone to his ear, pleading for forgiveness from a phantom wife. There can be no forgiveness, of course. We know Gordon best; we understand his stresses best. The monster is not Other. He is us. And so the horror we feel at his actions is a horror of our own monstrosity.

This case would be harder to make if the horror contained in the repressed memories came out of the blue, if Gordon or Mary were born killers. This is not so. From the moment we see him, Gordon is clearly a man at the end of his rope, yet he struggles to maintain a facade that all is well. He and all the other characters are constantly pretending, repressing as best they can the grim reality of their lives. So Gordon’s repression of the memory of his crime should come as no surprise: this is part and parcel of the repression he is already engaged in, the repression that pushes him over the edge. Thus, it is not the thing repressed that is the cause of the horror; rather, it is the repression itself, and the socio-economic reasons for that repression. I emphasize, once again, Simon’s words: “I live in the weak and the wounded.” Gordon was already weak, wounded by the rotting, unattainable dream.

Session 9’s vision is a dark one. The film offers no way out of trap it illustrates. But then, I would argue, the envisioning of alternatives has never been a necessary, or even desirable, function of the horror film. (Science fiction is perhaps better equipped for this task.) But what horror can do, and Session 9 does superbly, is anatomize the problem, forcing to the light what we might otherwise wish to repress and forget ourselves.

Works Cited

Anderson, Brad and Steve Gevedon. Commentary on Session 9. Alliance, 2001. DVD.
Armageddon. Dir. Michael Bay. Touchstone, 1998. DVD.
Deep Red. Dir. Dario Argento. Seda Spettacoli, 1975. DVD.
King, Stephen. The Shining. New York: Signet, 1977. Print.
Session 9. Dir. Brad Anderson. Alliance, 2001. DVD.
Suspiria. Dir. Dario Argento. Seda Spettacoli, 1977. DVD.
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

Copyright © 2013 by David Annandale

David Annandale is the author, for the Black Library, of the Warhammer 40,000 books The Death of Antagonis, Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha, and Mephiston: Lord of Death. His horror novel, Gethsemane Hall, was published last year by Dundurn Press and (in the UK) by Snowbooks. For Turnstone Press, he has written a series of thrillers featuring rogue warrior Jen Blaylock (Crown Fire, Kornukopia, and The Valedictorians). His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, including Dead But Dreaming and Wild Things Live There: The Best of Northern Frights. David’s non-fiction has appeared in such collections as Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film: Essays on Belief, Spectacle, Ritual and Imageryand The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto. He writes film reviews for The Phantom of the Movies’ VideoScope. He teaches film, creative writing and literature at the University of Manitoba. His website is www.davidannandale.com  and find him on twitter @David_Annandale

 

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