The Mortal Triptych: Meeting Death in Three Elegiac Horror Films
Don’t Look Now, Casey Productions, 1973
by Jesse Miksic
Look at me, my native citizens,
as I go on my final journey,
as I gaze upon the sunlight one last time,
which I’ll never see again—for Hades,
who brings all people to their final sleep,
leads me on, while I’m still living,
down to the shores of Acheron.
– ANTIGONE, in the third and final installment of writer-director Sophocles’ acclaimed Theban trilogy
In Antigone, King Creon makes a lot of bad calls, but his first and most damning mistake – the pilot light that burns his house to the ground – is refusing to bury one of his sons. This is supposedly punishment for the son’s role in a succession war, but according to the spirituality of the ancient Greeks, it’s borderline pathological: he’s denying his son entry into the land of the dead, a punishment that was the sole prerogative of the gods themselves.
It seems to me that Creon’s punishment has a serious symbolic dimension, in particular around Creon’s attitude towards death. Maybe I should capitalize it – Death – because when he chooses to leave his son out to be picked apart by carrion, Creon is reifying Death, allowing it to linger as a presence in the world of the living. As Death, Polyneices is a potent force of deterrence and a reminder to Creon’s kingdom, and to Creon himself: Death, robbed of the closure of ritual, has a face that is truly terrifying.
Creon makes Death into theater, rather than allowing it to run its course. He invites the scavengers and the curses of his kin, rather than making a space for the silence left by the loss of a loved one. There is a sense in which we, the inheritors of the classical tradition, have still not learned the lesson that Creon learned about Death’s rightful place in the world of the living. Nowhere is this more evident than in pop culture’s fetishistic denial of death, which takes its purest form in horror cinema.
Horror has a problem with death. Every horror movie trope and convention attests to this, across thousands of slasher films, ghost stories and possession dramas. This genre has ensnared death within a pathological web of obsession and denial, creating an entire industry around disrespectful gawking at the by-products of mortality. Just look at all the body imagery that has flooded popular media. Every ghost looks like a cadaver puppet, every cop show lingers over an occupied autopsy table, every victim is shown in a flash of gruesome detail and then, having served their purpose, left for somebody else to clean up. Death has taken hold of our culture’s imagination, joining beauty as one of our prime visual fetishes, and like beauty, it has been cheapened and objectified by our society of cliché and spectacle.
Luckily, there are horror movies that take a more sensitive approach to death, addressing it across a broader emotional continuum. They manage to juxtapose the fear – that emotional trigger that defines horror as a genre – with sadness, the necessary passenger that accompanies Death as she passes through our lives. Horror movies that really understand sadness are rare, but they number among our pop-culture masterpieces.
Don’t Look Now, Casey Productions, 1973
I call them elegiac horror films. Three elegiac horror films in particular: Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Richard Loncraine’s The Haunting of Julia (1977) and Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse (2009) follow a precedent set by Greek tragedy, leveraging its distinguishing characteristics to tell us something about Death – specifically, illuminating the existential emptiness it conceals beneath its mask of presence.
Classic horror film aficionados will know Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s 1973 ghost story about John and Laura Baxter, grieving parents adrift in the back alleys of Venice. The film begins with the unexpected death of their daughter, Christine, in their backyard pond – following a flash of intuition, John rushes out to find her body floating, face down, clad in what is to become an iconic red rain coat. A year passes in a single edit, and we find John and Laura living in Venice, still haunted by Christine’s death, but doing their best to move on. This process is facilitated by two eccentric old women, and it’s complicated by the appearance of a murderer in Venice, who appears to John as an apparition of his dead daughter.
One of the defining structural features of Don’t Look Now is that it follows John and Laura’s stories in parallel: one narrative arc for the doomed father, and one for the redeemed mother. Laura’s redemption follows a rocky but effective path, starting with her willingness to grieve in public and place her trust in strangers. She meets a pair of elderly sisters in a Venice restaurant – Heather, who is blind and claims to possess “second sight,” and Wendy, who acts as her caretaker – and with their guidance, Laura finds a connection to her daughter’s disembodied spirit. Her daughter’s signal comes to her faintly, through the intermediary of Heather and Wendy, and as such, she can sense the warmth of forgiveness, but she can also come to terms with death as an absence – an irreparable loss, a bottomless emptiness – leaving only photographs and memories.
John’s story turns out to be very different. Having discovered Christine’s lifeless body, and he bears the same burden of grief as Laura – in fact, according to Wendy, he may be even more affected, because, like her, he has the gift of “second sight.” Unfortunately, he is a hardened skeptic, and he renders himself inconsolable, welded into a rusty suit of emotional armor. When Laura mentions Christine’s spirit, John’s response is to bark, “SHE’S DEAD, LAURA.” So while Laura mourns her daughter by searching for some kind of spiritual trace, John mourns by quarantining his emotions, along with any hope for spiritual reconciliation.
One of the instructive differences between John and Laura is their sensory orientation. Laura processes Christine’s death acoustically, hearing her voice as translated by an old woman, and feeling her presence like a vibration in the air. This passive act of listening seems to bring Laura some much-needed solace. John, on the other hand, is hopelessly visual, and even as he shuts out supernatural speculation about his daughter, he compulsively wanders the streets of Venice, engaged in a dangerous, inexplicable search. Standing at the precipice of mortality, he goes looking for something to fill the absence, and this turns out to be his fatal mistake.
John starts seeing glimpses of a girl in a red coat, and – having borne witness to his daughter’s death – he can’t help but follow it, chasing Christine’s after-image. John’s attitude toward Death mirrors horror cinema itself: he is in denial about its existential ramifications, but he can’t help staring after it, hoping to catch a glimpse of something noteworthy. His search takes him deep into the film’s famous back alleys and canals and antechambers, where he is destined to find something that is not his daughter – she has passed beyond his gaze – but rather, Death as a presence, a profane inversion of Christine’s youth and innocence, the specter of evil itself.
John’s journey is profoundly Oedipal in the classical sense, structured like the descent into oblivion in Sophocles’ play. Both Oedipus and John are on quests for closure, and in spite of warnings and portents and obstacles, both follow their hubris into a revelation they’re not prepared to face. They both commit sins of voyeurism and obsession, a “sight” motif that’s literalized in the film’s title and in Oedipus’s form of self-mutilation.
Greek tragedy is a key that unlocks a great deal of significance in these elegiac horror films. Arguably, tragedy is the first narrative form that was explicitly concerned with both fear and sadness, which Aristotle refers to as “fear and pity.” Fear, he said, comes about when misfortune befalls someone like us, and pity is evoked when this misfortune is undeserved. Oedipus, the play Aristotle considered the epitome of the form, traded in both of these emotions: we anxiously anticipate the moment Oedipus discovers the harrowing truth that we, the audience, already know, a revelation that will destroy the protagonists with whom we have bonded. It’s a long, shrill rising action that lands in an outburst of agony and gore, as Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gouges out his eyes.
This primal scene is echoed in Don’t Look Now, in Christine’s devastating death in the opening minutes of the film. Compared to the sadistic cruelty in many contemporary horror films, this painful scene may seem downright tame, but it evokes a sense of hopelessness and despair that’s lost on conventional horror flicks. This emotional abandon, perfected by the Greek playwrights, forgotten by most horror, is dimly remembered by these elegiac horror films. Just as we hear it in the opening and closing notes of Don’t Look Now, so we also find it manifested in The Haunting of Julia, a British ghost story that makes for a compelling companion piece to Roeg’s masterpiece.
The Haunting of Julia, Canadian Film Development Corporation, 1977
Where Don’t Look Now followed both John and Laura, depicting their mourning in parallel, The Haunting of Julia tells a truly lonely story, belonging uniquely to the title character. It was directed by Richard Loncraine and released in 1977 – the 70’s were quite a decade for restrained horror films – and has garnered a cult following. Like Don’t Look Now, The Haunting of Julia begins with the death of a child, blasting open the comfort of an upper class British family. Katie, Julia’s daughter, chokes on a piece of apple. As her father, Magnus, calls the police, Julia panics and attempts an emergency tracheotomy. When medical personnel arrive, it’s already too late.
After Julia’s initial shock passes, she sets about rebuilding her life from the ground up, leaving her husband and buying a house. This seems effective at first – Julia finds companionship with Mark, her neighbor, and goes about her daily life. However, the signs of mourning slip through in her private moments: she breaks down sobbing when she sees a bit of blood on her hands, or when she has a moment to meditate at an open window. She takes walks to local parks and schools, and occasionally thinks she sees Katie standing among the children.
Julia’s mourning is ultimately derailed and re-routed by an ominous chain of events. When Julia allows a séance to take place at her new home, the medium makes her aware of a presence in the house. Desperately hoping to reconnect with her daughter, Julia relentlessly pursues this faint lead. Like John chasing a red coat through Venice, Julia chases bits and pieces of information, and it leads her deep into the troubled history of the house and the neighborhood, and like John, she ends up finding something she wasn’t prepared to face.
Late in The Haunting of Julia, one of the secondary characters makes a crucial distinction that may seem arbitrary, but actually bears heavily upon the theme of Death as presence and absence. This is Heather Rudge, mother of the girl whose murderous spirit is haunting Julia. Heather Rudge tells Julia that “Evil is not like ordinary people. Evil never dies.” At this point in the film, we know that the “evil” she is talking about is her dead daughter, Olivia.
Heather Rudge is trying to explain to Julia the difference between death as absence, which is Katie’s unfortunate fate, and Death as presence, which is an insidious force in the world of the living. In her period of mourning, Julia should be coming to terms with loss, emptiness, with the tragic void left by Katie in her own world. Instead, she chooses to pursue a presence, a spectral abomination whose traces still linger in her house, seeping into her psychic life.
The interrupted mourning process is a crucial structural framework underlying Julia’s story. She repeats a pattern mapped out by John Baxter, creating a stage for her sadness and remorse, where John’s stage was the urban architecture of Venice, Julia’s stage is a narrative ecosystem of oral history, which she engages by speaking to everyone who was involved with Olivia at the time of Jeffery Braeden’s murder. The cultural edifices of anecdote and architecture prove irresistible to John and Julia, shattered parents trying to reconcile their children’s deaths.
One could be forgiven for getting these two films confused, with all their formal and thematic common ground. At the most basic structural level, each of them depicts a brief holding period between two tragedies. First, the death of a child; second, the self-destruction of a parent, our main character. This structure is also echoed in Oedipus, the action of the play follows the death of Laius, the former king, and continues on until Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s repentant self-mutilation. Antigone’s action is bracketed by the death of Polyneices on one side, and the fall of King Creon, on the other.
In the Poetics, Aristotle touched on the question of duration, declaring that a tragedy should strive for unity, and that unity is acquired “when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed.” He didn’t find it appropriate when many actions were dramatized around a single protagonist (i.e. in the Heracleid), nor did he approve of episodic structures that did not hang upon a single change of fortune.
These two ghost stories distinguish themselves in that they center around the act of mourning, a self-contained arc that begins with the death of a loved one and ends with reconciliation in the form of self-destruction. The Eclipse (2009) rounds out this triptych, following the same pattern right up til the ending, where it permits a different, more humane sort of closure.
If The Haunting of Julia parallels John Baxter’s story from Don’t Look Now, The Eclipse parallels Laura Baxter’s, the mother who made fleeting contact with her daughter’s spirit and came to terms with her death. The Eclipse tells the story of Michael, a stoic widower working through the recent death of his wife. Death, mourning, reconciliation – again, this pattern, a thread leading all the way back to Sophocles and Aristotle, guides a ghost story set in contemporary Europe.
The Eclipse, Treasure Entertainment, 2009
Michael is a volunteer at a literary festival in his native Irish town of Cobh, and the middle-aged father of two teenage children. His wife died of cancer before the events of the film, and he has erected a shell of quiet, protective solitude around himself. He clearly loves his children, but their relationship is burdened by the death of their mother. His first glimmer of hope for renewal is a connection he feels with Lena Morelle, an author attending the festival, but this intimacy is compromised – first by Michael’s mourning, and second by the interference of a romantic rival among the visiting literati.
Of course, the film wouldn’t fit into this discussion if it weren’t also a ghost story. Michael starts having disturbing visions of apparitions, disrupting his private moments – in his foyer, his car, his bedroom – with grotesque acts of violence. The strange thing about Michael’s situation, differentiating it from the other ghost stories, is that Michael’s visions are of a living person: Malachy, his elderly father-in-law, who’s confined to a wheelchair in a local nursing home. Michael consults with Lena about these phenomena, trusting that her experience writing ghost stories gives her special insight into these sorts of situations. She doesn’t help much with this particular problem, but she becomes a confidante, developing a tender relationship with the heartbroken father.
The traumatic “primal scene” in The Eclipse is Michael’s discovery of Malachy’s death. He’s slit his wrists in the nursing home, and Michael finds his body lying in bed. What Michael discovers, along with the audience, is that his ghostly visions have actually been premonitions. For Michael, suspended in a solution of grief and survivor’s guilt, tragedies resonate through time, both forward and back. He still feels the cosmic vibrations from his wife’s death, and he foresees the impending death of her father, which manifests as disturbing waking dreams.
So finally, a third time, we see our patterns repeated. The mourning period, attended by ghostly visions, is bracketed by two tragic events: first, Eleanor’s death from cancer, second, Malachy’s suicide. And like the other protagonists of these films, Michael creates a theater for processing his grief: the theater of literature, both in his attention to Lena’s work, and in his own literary aspirations. On a thematic level, Michael’s latent literary consciousness is linked to a latent clairvoyance, not unlike John Baxter’s “second sight.” In mourning, these two men – and Julia Lofting, as well – become sensitized to the voices of lost souls fading from the world.
Luckily, something saves Michael from his visions, his mourning, and his isolation. Perhaps in finding an outlet for his literary gift, he also finds a way to salve his psychic sensitivity. Perhaps, after facing death as a violent presence and integrating it into his spiritual life, he is able to make peace with the absence of his wife. Perhaps her appearance in his bedroom, comforting him, is her final goodbye, allowing him to see death, the impenetrable fog of mortality, as a mystery he can live with.
In its hopeful closing minutes, The Eclipse swings far from the tragic arc that guided the other two ghost stories in this triptych. There is life for Michael after the deaths of his wife and father-in-law. Still, grief permeates the film, and as with the others, the resolution depends on the protagonist’s willingness to let go. Death, gathered to the body and mind as a presence, becomes poisonous, and only by letting the loved one dissolve into an absence can it be brought into harmony with the world of the living.
This hinge – whether the main characters can transcend their desire to chase Death’s shadowy figure – is pivotal for all four of these tragic hero parents. They are acting out scripts that are as old as drama, as old as human intimacy itself. Each has their own process of mourning, their own theater, reminiscent of the classical stage, for exploring and working out their attitudes toward mortality.
Gazing across the landscape of genre horror, one might sense some disease at work in our cultural corpus. It’s hard to say where it slipped into our bloodstream, or why it’s metastasized so much in the age of mass media, but we can all observe its symptom: an obsession with visual morbidity, a fetish so swollen that it’s displacing our authentic rituals for dealing with loss. We conduct a carnival of exaggerated death scenes; we reduce murder victims to anatomy lessons. On our various screens, we invite a sideshow of corpses and decaying flesh, possessed children and malevolent spirits and zombie legions hunting for brains. Some specter of simulated death has infected us, disrupting our ability to accept the cycle of loss that gives life its context.
Luckily, there are still antibodies in our media slipstream. A tradition of elegiac horror films, ghost stories with human roots, have leveraged the tropes and structures of classical tragedy to explore the contours of fear and sadness, death’s inevitable by-products. Michael, Julia Lofting and John and Laura Baxter inhabit this special class of films: horror films that confront death in all forms, both as a looming specter and as an empty abyss. In addressing this difference, they act as a synecdoche for our culture as a whole, which has spent recent history navigating the hazardous terrain between accepting death and treating it as an enemy. This struggle is both contemporary and timeless, bridging the two-millennium gap between Greek tragedy and our modern infrastructure of body imagery and morbid spectacle. It’s both uncanny and instructive that the most sophisticated contemporary horror films show such an influence of tragic structure and classical pathos.
These films offer some hope to our afflicted media culture: perhaps, in their spirit, we can stop being so obsessed with visualizing death and get back to listening to the silence it leaves behind.
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