Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
I admit it: I'm a movie poster fan, especially if it's designed to promote a chiller or a thriller. Itself a work of art, such a poster often gets to the heart of the film's basic claim, or theme. By “theme,” I mean both the central idea the movie conveys and the primary, or core, emotion it elicits, for, in art, the mind and the heart are as one when thought and feeling agree. That's not to say there's such agreement throughout the film. Typically, there isn't. By the end of the movie, though, the mind and heart typically unite, supporting one another, and, through feeling, thought becomes belief.
Some contend that our personal and social values are the sources of our beliefs, and they may be right, but I believe—ironic this particular word should appear in my thoughts as I'm writing about thought, emotion, belief, and, now, value—that, without the marriage of thought and emotion at some point, belief will not take root, and belief, arising from a value we or our society holds as true, often without individual examination, will be based solely on one or the other, thought or emotion. Such a basis is weak and susceptible to surrender.
So, anyway, back to the topic at hand: movie themes as they're expressed in posters promoting chillers and thrillers.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Frederick Nietzsche wrote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” The mirror in the horror movie Oculus could represent Nietzsche's abyss. But what, exactly, is this abyss—and how is one to prevent one's becoming a monster if he or she fights monsters? There are monsters aplenty in the film, as there are monster fighters, but none of the slayers appear to survive against the abyss. Could the title of the movie suggest an answer to the questions its symbolic mirror poses?
Let's begin our investigation of these questions with a consideration of the posters designed to promote the feature film. There are three in English, and one in Italian.
In one of the posters, a boy (10-year-old Tim Russell, we learn in the movie) and a redheaded girl (his 12-year-old sister, Kaylie) stand, facing away from a large mirror in an ornate, but rather grotesque, metal frame. Tim wears a red-, black-, and green-striped shirt; Kaylie, blue denim overalls over a light-blue sweater. Her hair is slightly disheveled, and both children look frightened—indeed, they seem near panic. Neither of them is reflected in the mirror, although Tim is tall enough for the back of his head to appear in the looking-glass and Kaylie is tall enough for the back of her head and her shoulders to be reflected in the glass. Instead, the mirror displays the opposite wall, showing a photograph or a painting (the image is blurry) above wall molding. Centered above the children, across the wall and the mirror, is the word “OCULUS,” in white letters; beneath it, also in white letters, in letter case, is the sentence, “You see what it wants you to see.” Presumably, the “it” in the sentence refers to the mirror.
In another poster, a close-up of the Kaylie is shown. She is older than she is in the first poster (23 years old, we learn in the movie). Her hair is neatly combed, falling to the sides of her face. She wears a natural-pink shade of lipstick, but no other makeup. A pair of small hands, one arising from either cheek, cover the locations in which her eyes would normally appear. The hands are the same color as her complexion and appear to be natural parts of her body. Below her chin, the sentence, in white font and title case, reads, “You see what it wants you to see.” Beneath this caption is the word “OCULUS,” in white font and capital letters. If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, the girl has no mirror into her soul, for her eyes are missing, stolen, perhaps, but not by an external agent, for the hands which cover the locations in which her eyes would normally appear are parts of her; they grow from her own face.
The third poster shows the mirror, its frame now green in color, rather than leaden gray, but otherwise unchanged. It stands on a bare wooden floor, in profile. Kaylie, age 23, steps from the surface of the glass, wearing a dress the same color as the mirror's frame and surface. Only the parts of her body—her face, upper torso, left arm, right leg, and part of her left leg—that have emerged from the looking-glass are visible, as if the rest of her does not exist. The mirror appears to be a portal between two worlds or dimensions. In the darkness of the room, behind the mirror, the centered same word and sentence appear as are shown in the previously described posters. Both are in the same color and font styles: “You see what it wants you to see,” followed by “OCULUS.” This poster seems to allude to Lewis Carroll's novel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, thus casting Kaylie in a role similar to that of Alice, who enters Wonderland through an enchanted mirror.
In the fourth poster, Kaylie, age 23, stands in a room with a bare wooden floor. Her neatly combed hair is in a ponytail, and she wears a patterned dress. (She is shown from behind, down to her shoulder blades.) The mirror, in its ornate, but grotesque, gray metal frame, stands against the far wall. Although Kaylie gazes into it, the glass reflects someone else: a cadaverous, dark-haired girl with a ghostly pale complexion. She wears a white dress. Her left arm is at her side, its palm facing forward. Blood wreaths her neck, stains the bottom front of her dress, and is smeared across the palm of her hand. Across Kaylie's back, in white capital letters, “OCULUS” appears. Below it, also in capital letters, but in a smaller, yellow font, is the phrase, “IL RIFLESSO DEL MALE” (“THE REFLECTION OF EVIL”). If the mirror lets Kaylie see what it wants her to see and reflects evil, the implication appears to be that, in viewing herself, Kaylie sees the evil within herself. Is the image in the looking-glass a sort of portrait of Dorian Gray, then, an image of herself that decays as a result of the evil deeds she commits while Kaylie herself remains young, healthy, and beautiful?
The allusions to Alice and to Dorian Gray complexify and enrich the possible meanings of the posters, as does their apparent reference to Nietzsche's metaphor of the abyss. The movie's plot, of course, will suggest whether and to what extent any of these possibilities may apply to interpreting the theme of the film.
After Alan Russell, his wife Marie, and their children Tim and Kaylie move into a new house, Alan buys an antique mirror for his office. Shortly thereafter, he sees his body decaying, and he begins to have an affair with Marisol, a female ghost or incubus who has mirrors in lieu of eyes.
Gradually, he and Marie go mad. Marie withdraws, as she becomes paranoid. The family's dog vanishes. Kaylie, seeing her father with Marisol, tells her mother, and Marie and Alan argue. When Marie tries to kill their children, Alan locks her up. The food supply dwindles, and Kaylie, seeking help from her mother, finds Marie chained to a wall inside the house.
Tim seeks help from the neighbors, who refuse to assist him, believing he's making up a story about his parents. Kaylie's telephone calls are answered by the same masculine voice.
Alan frees Marie, and they attack the children. Alan kills Marie when she has a lucid moment. Aware that the mirror is the source of their parents' madness, Tim and Kaylie attempt to smash it, but hit the wall, thinking they are hitting the mirror. Like their parents' behavior, theirs, too, is controlled by the mirror.
During a rational moment, Alan tells his children to flee the house, before forcing Tim to shoot him, However, their escape is cut off by ghosts. Police arrest Tim, who sees his parents' ghosts watching him as he is escorted from the house.
After eleven years, Tim is released from the mental hospital in which he has been confined after “murdering” his father, no longer believing supernatural powers were associated with his parents' deaths. Kaylie, who works for an auction house, researches the antique mirror her father bought. Allowed to take the mirror home, she keeps it in a room in which it is monitored by surveillance cameras, an anchor suspended from the ceiling ready to smash the looking-glass at the flip of a switch. Before destroying the mirror, she plans to obtain evidence that it was responsible for Alan's death.
The siblings argue about Kaylie's plans. When plants begin to wither, they check the surveillance cameras' footage and discover they have performed deeds of which they have no awareness. Tim is now a believer in the mirror's supernatural powers, but the children's escape attempt is frustrated by the mirror's influence. Kaylie stabs an apparition of her mother in the neck, only to realize she has wounded her fiance. Attempting to telephone the police, she reaches the same mysterious masculine voice that answered her telephone when she was twelve years old. When Tim switches on the anchor, it strikes Kaylie, killing her. Tim is arrested and, once again, blames the mirror for his actions. As he is led away, he sees his sister's ghost standing with the spirits of his parents. The mirror has claimed another victim.
The authorities blame Tim for the deaths of Alan and Kaylie, but Tim blames the mirror. How should the series of fantastic incidents that occur in their new house be interpreted? According to Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Litearry Genre, the fantastic either remains fantastic—essentially, inexplicable—or is resolved as uncanny (natural, if unusual, and explicable in terms of scientific knowledge) or as marvelous (paranormal or supernatural in origin). Is Oculus fantastic, uncanny, or marvelous? The authorities view the events as uncanny; they are bizarre, but they are explicable; psychiatrists can explain them as effects of Tim's psychosis, which produced hallucinations. Tim, like Kaylie, believe the incidents that happened inside their new house were marvelous, having been caused by the mirror's supernatural powers. Depending upon one's belief system, either interpretation is possible within the framework of the movie's plot.
Let's examine the film's incidents from the stance that they are the results of madness, which means that not only Tim, but also Kaylie, Marie, and Alan were psychotic (and probably paranoid); they all hallucinated, seeing and hearing things that were present only in their own minds. Everything they believed actually happened occurred only in their own minds. As the text in one of the movie posters suggests, the mirror was not evil; it was merely a mirror. It did nothing more than exhibit a “REFLECTION OF EVIL.” The images it displayed were images of madness, of psychosis and paranoia. The mirror was, in Nietzsche's terms, an abyss. In gazing too long into this abyss, it also gazed into them.
What is the nature of the abyss? The answer to this question depends on who one asks, but it might represent, among other possibilities, despair (“the sickness unto death,” as Soren Kierkegaard calls it), death, existential meaninglessness, or absurdity; the inability to sustain a definite self; or a feeling of psychological impotence. But the abyss, in Nietzsche's formulation of the abysmal, is related to monsters: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This association between the monstrous and the abysmal raises the question, what is the monstrous or, more specifically, what is a monster?
Historically, a monster was an omen created by God to warn of his impending wrath against sinful conduct. However, in more recent times, the monstrous has come to have psychological, rather than theological, significance. Today, many say people contend against personal or inner “demons,” metaphors for the inner conflicts that result from unresolved emotions.
It is by fixating, or becoming obsessed with, such feelings that one allows the “abyss” to gaze into oneself. People obsessed with vengeance may commit acts of vengeance; those fixated upon self-pity may become clinically depressed; people who dwell on fear may become paranoid; a person who ponders irrational behavior may become insane. An obsession with a particular type of abnormal behavior can not only cause such a behavior in oneself but intensify it, causing it to become extreme.
What monsters do the characters in Oculus see and hear? Their adversaries suggest whom they view as threats, as “monsters.”
Alan sees himself as being in a state of decadence; he sees his body as decaying. The body's physicality suggests he sees his flesh as the source of his decadence, a possibility borne out by his affair with the ghost or incubus Marisol. His personal demon is his emotional unfaithfulness toward his wife. His lack if fidelity causes him to view Marie as an enemy, rather than his spouse; he sees her as a monster whose relationship to him is emotionally unsatisfying.
Perhaps he feels trapped in his marriage. His purchase of an antique mirror suggests he is seeking self-awareness associated with his past. What has led to the emotional distance he feels between Marie and himself? Whatever he sees in Marisol is his own image of her; she has no eyes, no mirrors to a soul, because she has no soul. She doesn't exist, except as a delusion he has created out of his need for an emotionally fulfilling relationship. The mirrors of her “eyes” reflect only his own ideas about women, his own fantasies about what a woman should be and how she should behave.
Not surprisingly, her husband's own emotional distance makes Marie withdraw, and, afraid that her relationship with Alan is disintegrating, she becomes paranoid. She appears to blame her children for her failing marriage, because it is at them that she directs her rage. She argues with Alan, but she never attempts to harm him physically; instead, she tries to murder Tim and Kaylie. Consequently, Alan chains her to a wall—but is fettering her intended solely to protect his children or does chaining her also ensure that the distance between them is certain, affording him more time to fantasize about Marisol?
It's interesting that the Russell family's neighbors do not believe Tim's wild tale of his parents' insanity, nor so the authorities. Like the psychiatrist who treats Tim after his arrest for his father's murder, the neighbors may think Tim's ravings the products of insanity.
Was Tim's murder of his father an attempt to protect his mother from Alan? His parents argued. His father's emotional detachment from Marie obviously disturbed her greatly. She'd become withdrawn and paranoid. Finally, she'd snapped, attempting to kill her own children, and Alan had responded not by getting her the help she obviously needed, but by chaining her to a wall. In Freudian terms, the Oedipus complex may have had much to do with Tim's “accidental” killing of his father. The boy might also have been motivated by his concern for his and his sister's safety. If Alan treated their mother in such a manner, he might well treat them in the same way.
Kaylie seems to have a problematic view of men, perhaps as a result of her father's treatment of her mother. They are distant emotionally, and her father seems to be emotionally unfaithful to Marie, an insight on Kaylie's part that causes her to imagine that her father is actually having an affair with Marisol and report this act of infidelity to her mother. When she calls for help, the same masculine voice always answers—her animus, Carl Jung might suggest—but no help is dispatched.
Men are not rescuers. They are more likely to be monsters than knights in white armor. Later, mistaking her fiance for an apparition of her mother, Kaylie will stab him. Does she fear that the example of her mother's withdrawal and paranoia concerning her father will also destroy her relationship with her fiance or does she fear her fiance will be distant and emotionally unfaithful to her, as Alan also been to Marie? In her mind, it seems clear, the guilt of her parents is interchangeable; they are both dangerous monsters.
During the movie, the characters have rare, brief moments of lucidity. During one such moment, Tim and Kaylie realize that their own twisted perceptions of others is causing psychological, interpersonal, and even physical mayhem. They attempt to break the mirror, that is, to escape the lens through which they view the other members of their family. However, their attempt to break through the filters they have created is inept, even absurd, and they remain captives of their own skewed perceptions and interpretations of events.
Eleven years later, Tim is believed to be well again and is released from the mental hospital. However, Kaylie is still deluded, believing the mirror has supernatural powers. The siblings argue, and Tim, whose madness seems only to have been dormant, again comes under the sway of his psychosis, as he and his sister imagine the houseplants are withering. Checking surveillance camera footage, they discover they've performed acts they cannot recall having done and blame their fugue states on the mirror.
Kaylie tries the same pitiful defense mechanism she employed eleven years ago. She telephones for help, but reaches the same mysterious masculine voice that answered her telephone when she was twelve years old. Instead of seeking help from the neighbors, Tim switches on the anchor suspended from the ceiling, but it strikes Kaylie, killing her.
Arrested, he blames the mirror for his actions, just as he'd done eleven years ago. As he is led away by the police, he sees his sister's ghost standing with the spirits of his parents. In his mind, the mirror has claimed another victim—the sister he himself killed, even as he had killed his father, who'd killed his mother. Truly, the mirror has been a “REFLECTION OF EVIL,” the evil of the family's own personal demons.
Although the idea that all the members of a family might go mad at the same time, their delusions, hallucinations, and behaviors reinforcing, sometimes complementing, and interacting with one another, is far-fetched, to say the least, such is horror fiction, a melodramatic genre that is, by both definition and convention, over the top. For those like me who are skeptical of psychoanalytical claims (and of psychoanalysis itself), Freudian and Jungian interpretations of human behavior, as represented in Oculus by the actions of the characters, are likely to seem too neat and tidy and too over the top to be satisfying.
For us, there are other possible explanations, some of which, as we've suggested, are despair (“the sickness unto death,” as Soren Kierkegaard calls it), death, existential meaninglessness, or absurdity; the inability to sustain a definite self; or a feeling of psychological impotence. There are also artistic possibilities for interpreting the meaning of the abyss. While Jean-Paul Sartre maintains that “hell is other people,” the director of Oculus might amend the philosopher's premise to suggest, as Tennessee Williams, who warned against looking in mirrors, put it, “Hell is yourself.”