"Indeed, she often wondered if she were dead, or dying from the inside out, and that was the root of her calm, the reason she could surrender her character."
--Gregory Maguire, A Lion Among Men
Memento, Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky, The Others, The Sixth Sense, Just Like Heaven
The Moral of the Story: Dissociation
by Susan Lien Whigham
A quick disclaimer: Conflict is not only necessary but inevitable. If we lived lives without any conflict, there really wouldn't be much to talk about. My idea in writing these essays is not to perpetuate the idea that all conflicts can and should be avoided, but rather to make observations on the patterns of karmic movement within the context of each given story. It's a basic connect-the-dots endeavor.
I'm now noticing that many of the films I've chosen for this task, with a few arguable exceptions, have in common a certain supernatural aspect to the story. Since many don't believe in the possibility of supernatural occurrences, the question may then arise as to how much value these fables could actually have in a practical, "real-world" sense. In answer to that question, I will share a quote by Alan Watts, from his book The Two Hands of God, which beautifully illustrates why mythological stories are best interpreted in a metaphorical context:
Myth, too, is a symbolism and mythologies are likewise maps, and for this reason they, in their turn, are not to be taken literally. It is rather that when the dust falls from before our eyes, human beings are themselves the gods and demons, acting out, not the piddling business of worldly life, but the great archetypal situations and dramas of the myths. The gods are the archetypes, but they exist as perpetually incarnate in ourselves. In the mythic vision men appear as incarnations of the archetypal gods because the full and eternal significance of what they are doing appears. They are not just earning livings and raising families and pursuing hobbies: they are playing out, with innumerable variations, the cosmic drama of hide-and-seek, lost-and-found, which... is the mono-plot behind all plots.So, while some of the films I've analyzed so far technically be considered "ghost" stories, this discussion will focus more strictly on their metaphorical value, from which context the theme of dissociation emerges.
Dissociation is a natural human mechanism which often activates in response to trauma. It is, in essence, a kind of psychological compartmentalization in which painful memories, emotions, or sensations are separated from an individual's conscious awareness. Dissociation will sometimes (albeit infrequently) occur to an extreme degree, such that an individual may develop multiple separate identities, each with distinctive personality characteristics. This aspect of dissociation is commonly known as "multiple personality disorder". However, there is a more general form of dissociation which occurs quite commonly as a simple response to trauma and emotional stress. In metaphorical terms one could think of the dissociated part of an individual's psyche as being dead to him or her - a kind of "ghost" which lives in a reality that is incoherent with the one permitted by the individual's conscious perception.
The Others is Alejandro Amenábar's third film, and I can't let this moment pass without saying that this is currently my favorite movie of all time. It is so deeply rich with symbolism that my interpretations which follow address only a mere fragment of this film's profundity. Alejandro, wherever you are, I salute you.
The film tells the story of Grace Stewart, a young Catholic mother living with her two children on a large estate on the Isle of Jersey. A year and a half after her husband, Charles, leaves to fight in the war (World War II), her servants abandon her in the middle of the night, without warning. Her children, Anne and Nicholas, suffer from a severe allergy to light and as a result, Grace is unable to leave the house to get help. Overcome with desperation and grief, she kills her children and then herself. Unwilling and unable to recognize that they are now dead, she then resumes her life caring for the children as though nothing has happened. Some new servants come along, offering their services, and Grace takes them into her employ, explaining to them that the children's extreme photosensitivity necessitates that an atmosphere of darkness be preserved in the house for their protection. We come to find out that these new servants are ghosts too, having succumbed to tuberculosis almost half a century before. After a series of unnerving and otherworldly encounters with some intruders who actually come from the land of the living, Grace is ultimately forced to acknowledge their condition.
Here we have, in Grace, a woman who ritually clings to the teachings of the Bible in a literal sense, but who, in a moment of desperation, loses sight of her faith. She admonishes her children for even thinking about denying Christ, but fails to recognize that this is exactly what she herself has done in a spiritual sense. When confronted with the truth of her murder/suicide, she repeatedly denies it, demonstrating a consistent lack of faith while at the same trying to instill faith in her children. However, as unsettling and downright scary as this story can be at times, I can't help but feel overall that it contains a positive message about integration and forgiveness. In the end, Grace acknowledges the truth, her children and servants forgive her, and for the first time, she is finally able to let light into the house.
Now, in order to discuss this story as a metaphor for dissociation, let us imagine that the house itself symbolizes a human body. Let's go back two years to a time when Grace and Charles are living in the house together with their children and all their servants. As Grace and Charles are masters of the house, they may jointly be considered the conscious mind living in, or operating, this metaphorical body. Their children, who symbolize innocence and the natural cycle of life and growth, suffer from a serious allergy to light, which itself commonly symbolizes truth and awareness. Charles, representing the logical, archetypally masculine aspect of this body's consciousness, goes away to war and dies, leaving Grace as the mistress of the house. Grace, whose name carries multiple meanings including divine intervention, and forgiveness, now becomes the central figure of the story.
The house is kept in perpetual darkness, which symbolizes fear, and denial of truth. This fear is so strong that Grace both literally and figuratively surrenders her innocence by taking the lives of her children. In taking her own life, she becomes a ghost herself, a dissociated aspect of this body's consciousness. However, she's forced to realize the truth when the intruders, who symbolize the body's living consciousness, seize control by removing all the curtains in the house and letting light in. In the end, the children are able to experience sunlight without suffering from it, which symbolizes for Grace a return to innocence. She's reminded by Mrs. Mills that it will be necessary for them to learn to live in peace with all the future occupants of the house, a message which carries with it an ultimate goal of harmony and integration.
M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense tells the story of Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who, like Grace from The Others, is also unwilling and unable to recognize that he's dead. As a result of a gunned assault from a former patient, he now finds himself helplessly alienated from his wife and trying desperately to redeem himself by "getting it right" with his new patient, a boy named Cole Sear who has the supernatural ability to see dead people.
Again, if we consider the ghosts of this story to be dissociated aspects of a single individual consciousness, we come to recognize that we have here another message of integration. Ultimately, by allowing himself to be vulnerable and forthright, and by teaching Cole to acknowledge his fears and validate his ability, Malcolm comes to recognize the reality of his own death which symbolizes his dissociation (by way of his work) from his wife, who represents the archetypally feminine principles of emotionality and spirituality. At the same time, Malcolm symbolizes an internal psychological agent of integration for Cole, who is initially overwhelmed by the prospect of confronting his ability.
As a final note, the coldness that comes in the film when dead people are around is also a symbol for the way people "numb" certain aspects of their consciousness through dissociation.
Susan Lien Whigham © 2006 All Rights Reserved
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