“The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
—H.P. Lovecraft, from The Call of Cthulhu (1928)
The previous post discussed Lovecraft’s depiction of psychic possession and transfers of personality in The Thing on the Doorstep. Incidents of characters exchanging personalities with some malign entity or succumbing to the more powerful will of this entity are frequent in Lovecraft’s fiction. So is the trauma of recalling repressed memories of either personal or ancestral history. After I wrote the post I began thinking of horror and science fiction movies that have depicted this dynamic—that involved a character with a dissociated mind. Classics like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) come immediately to mind, as well as the Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), among others.
A more recent but lesser known film, and one of the most horrific I have ever seen has to be Session Nine (2001). In my view, this film should be mandatory viewing for fans of psychological horror. It is an impressive film all the more because of its low budget, cast of relatively unknown stars, (with the exception perhaps of David Caruso and Peter Mullan), and minimal but effective use of gore and other special effects. It is a horror within a horror within a horror—a ghastly matryoshka doll of a scary movie.
A team of hazmat workers, desperate for work and a $10,000 bonus, arrive at an old, closed down mental hospital, to clean up the asbestos. Gordy is their boss and the owner of the company. He appears tired, worried, and distracted. In fact, he is ‘not all there.’ He bid quite low on the job so that he could get some work for himself and his four employees.
Gordy and his wife have just had a baby and money is tight. Phil, his partner, is increasingly concerned about the stress his friend Gordy is showing. Hank is the hired hand with attitude, who wants to win big at the casinos and is not-so-secretly seeing Phil’s girlfriend. So there is tension between these two, which flares up periodically. Mike is the intellectual of the group, always reading and now and then regurgitating some creepy snippet of history about the old mental hospital. Finally, there is Jeff, Gordy’s nephew and the youngest of the crew—a “mullet head.” Jeff suffers from severe nictophobia—fear of the dark—which is very unfortunate in some of the later scenes.
The interior of the run down building—the Danvers State Hospital, an actual place—is unsettling even in the daylight. Much of the film, even its climactic scenes, occurs in broad daylight. Inside there are plenty of cobwebs, claustrophobia, dripping water, medical equipment that looks like torture devices, and weird sounds. The unnerving auditory atmosphere is exacerbated by the noisy hazmet machinery, plastic sheeting, and protective clothing.
Even on the outside, in the noon day sun, the place is disquieting. On the grounds is a graveyard containing a hundred numbered markers—case numbers—but no names. There are several lovingly prolonged scenes of stinging insects cavorting in the weeds surrounding the building. The hospital environment, and the task of removing hazardous material from its interior, serves as a powerful ‘house as human mind’ metaphor. A very disturbed mind is in view. Whose?
On the first day of work, Gordy is greeted by a deep throated demon toned voiceover that no one else can hear. It says, “Hello Gordon!” and “You know who I am.” The men banter and go about their tedious but dangerous work. Bit by bit the viewer and the characters in the film begin to piece together an incomplete understanding of the place and the terrible situation the men are in, but there are many red herrings.
All the pentagrams and satanic graffiti on the walls—was this the site of devil worship after the hospital was closed down? Why is Gordy limping? Hank discovers a treasure trove of old coins, gold teeth, glass eyes and other metallic flotsam and jetsam in a hole in a wall—not realizing the awfulness of what lies on the other side of the wall he has broken through. The generator keeps failing at odd, inopportune moments, sending poor Jeff into nictophobic fits when the lights go out. Is there going to be some trouble between Hank and Phil over the girlfriend? And more ominously, it is apparent that Gordy is having marital problems—his wife will not speak to him on the phone, and he has had to stay at a local motel.
But there is a story within a story, and it forms the axle around which everything else turns. Mike, the more thoughtful and curious of the men, discovers the office of one of the hospital psychiatrists. It is filled with cobwebs and dusty files and tapes of therapy sessions—numbered one through nine—that were conducted twenty years earlier. Mike sneaks away from the group to listen to these tapes, and even visits the place at night to find out more. This is far and away one of the creepier scenes of the movie.
The tapes reveal the clinical history of Mary Hobbes, a young woman who suffered extreme multiple personality disorder, (now known as ‘dissociative identity disorder’), resulting from trauma over the gruesome deaths of her parents and brother. The doctor on the tape is interviewing Mary, as well as “The Princess”, “Billy” and other separated parts of her personality, all of whom know something about the traumatic event, but not the whole story. Billy lives in the eyes, “because I see everything doc” while the Princess lives in the tongue, “because she’s always talking”. It is a very disturbing effect, because the young woman’s voice changes its prosody dramatically as each part of her splintered personality “wakes up.”
As Mike listens to later tapes in the series it is clear that the doctor is trying to get the disparate parts of Mary’s personality to communicate with each other, so that she can remember and deal with the terrible event that shattered her soul. But the doctor needs to get the mysterious “Simon” to speak. Simon knows the whole story. Finally, Simon does speak on tape. Mike does not recognize the voice, but the audience certainly will. It is the ominous voice Gordy heard when he arrived at Danvers State Hospital.
Even on its better days, the human mind is far from unitary in its structure and operation. Like the American congress, it is a melee of competing interests and perceptions, barely heedful of each other, and prone to disunity and disintegration under duress. Every level of human organization, from the political on down to the single human being is a collective, not a unified, single entity. We are divided beings. To experience an ultimate and enduring sense of unity we can only look to God.
I will not go further except to say that Session 9 powerfully depicts the horrors that ensue when one cannot abide advice like that of Polonius in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Or as murderous.