Filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson may be best known for his intricate and claustrophobic kidnapping drama Room (2015), but his best film to date is the Gothic drama / horror film The Little Stranger (2018). One of the issues with his most recent film is also its inherent strength: it defies genre convention and is, as a result, hard to define or place.
Although it has elements of horror, it is not a horror movie per se and may be akin to Wuthering Heights in its mood and sensibilities. Nonetheless, the filmmaker ingeniously uses horror tropes to not only shed light onto issues of class, society and tradition but also to highlight the role of personal trauma and suffering.
Briefly put, the center premise is that the crumbling mansion Hundreds Hall is past its prime and heydays, and it is being haunted by the ghost of a little girl who had died there various years ago. The current inhabitants are comprised of the mother Mrs. Ayres, her two adult children, Caroline and Roderick as well as their housekeeper Betty, and they all alternatively experience odd sensations and witness intermittent paranormal events and sightings. When the young ambitious country doctor Faraday enters this secluded and sheltered family, soon enough he also becomes aware of and attuned to an ominous presence.
Despite it all, none of them seem capable of escaping the grounds and premises, and in many ways, they end up projecting their own fears, longings and frustrations onto the ghost. Put differently, the little stranger comes to represent different subconscious facets of each of the individuals, while they are bound both physically and psychologically to the confines of the mansion and their own intangible desires.
I will give a brief description of each of the main characters here alongside their mainly unconscious fears and desires that they project onto the entity within the mansion. Please bear in mind that I have not read the book and that I watched the movie only once, so most likely there will be details that will have escaped me.
Nonetheless, I was so impressed with the film and its themes that I felt compelled to write about it in some detail. Each main character will be given their own section, but there will be some overlap among them as they interact with and are in relation to each other.
First off, I shall start from the periphery with the country doctor Faraday who enters the fray as the narrator of the film. He is called upon to treat the housekeeper Betty, but it turns out that her health is perfectly fine; her unease stems from being in the mansion, a place that frightens and unsettles her on a periodic basis. That piques the interest of Faraday, but in fact, the mansion has held a special place in his heart and mind for various years.
Indeed, that was not the first time he had entered the sheltered and reclusive mansion. As a child, he had managed to get a glimpse of Hundreds Hall; he even found a way in via his mother, a housemaid who used to work there in its glorious days while the little girl was still alive. Faraday’s mother fostered and flamed his childhood longings of the joys, privileges and entitlements that came with being part of the higher class and nobility, and hence, since his childhood, the mansion itself was imbued and filled with awe and magic in Faraday’s mind.
To the same extent that he admires the place and people, he also resents them. After Faraday as a young child enjoys sweets and candy that have never been accessible to him before, he walks off and wanders around in the mansion - something he is not allowed or permitted to do - and then he rips off an acorn from a wooden carving as a potential keepsake. However, his action is seen by Susan, often referred to as Suki, the girl that is the little stranger of the movie. In fact, when his mother finds out about his transgression, she chides him there and then and slaps him in the face.
However, he never returned the stolen piece; it was thrown into the fire and burnt down to ashes. But Faraday’s longing to be part of the household and its attached prestige has stuck with him for all the years; it has pushed and motivated him to work hard and to become a doctor, and yet, throughout all this time, he carries with him and cannot shake off his guilt for his childhood transgression.
After one of his doctor’s visits, he confesses to Caroline that he felt guilty about the incident, and she quickly forgives him. But he also let her know that his parents slaved away all their lives and had died in poverty to make his education possible; it was through their constant efforts that his career had become a reality. In fact, he wants her to know that, unlike the Ayers family, he had to work hard to reach his position and entitlements.
Throughout his life, Faraday kept alive the memory of this supposedly magical place; he wished and dreamed that one day he would be part of the mansion and that he would be respected by everyone. His colleague warns him to stay away from this family, but Faraday is intrigued and fascinated by what the place and family stand for. He keeps up his visits by first treating the invalid brother’s leg and then by asking for Caroline’s hand. Faraday also discovers that he is depicted in one of their family photos, but only his shoulder is visible as his head is eclipsed by the young girl who now haunts the premises.
Regardless his efforts, Faraday is rejected by them all. At a dinner party, the other guests reject and dismiss him as only an employee of the family and not deserving of being considered a veritable guest. Caroline rejects his wooing and says that although she likes and respects him as a friend, she would not marry him nor would she be happy living with him. In fact, his proposal was never even mentioned to Mrs. Ayers since she would immediately turn it down, at least according to Caroline.
When Faraday finally manages to have the brother locked away in an insane asylum, and after the mother commits suicide, Caroline herself dies under suspicious circumstances. But in the end the mansion Faraday strolls in is an empty and desolate place, mere ruins of what he had hoped for or imagined in his childhood. The nobility with all its glamour turns out to be empty façade and essentially meaningless and incapable of bringing joy or happiness to any of the individuals involved.
All these years, Faraday had been a prisoner of a fictitious idea and when he has his wish, he is still left with longings and desires, and he still is not accepted by society. Worse, in pursuit of his futile dream, he has sacrificed his own chances at a successful career in medicine; instead of moving to London, he remained put in his village. Like in the family portrait, he is and remains eclipsed by the Ayers family and their legacy.
The brother Roderick has never overcome his trauma nor his visible but more importantly invisible scars of his service during the war. At one point, Faraday attempts to treat his leg, but he notices that there are deeper psychological issues at stake. However, the brother would have none of it. Instead, he holds onto the drink and reluctantly but painfully begins to sell parts of the property so they can earn some necessary income for their livelihood. He rarely goes out and does not mingle with others, mainly due to his deformity but also because of his depressed mental state.
He complains that he cannot leave the place but that he perceives an evil presence that hates him. At other times, he would complain about the smell of fire. In fact, his trauma, his pain and suffering from the war have been left unprocessed and undigested. He has never come to face his inner demons from the atrocities of the war, and he projects those unwanted and subconscious feelings onto the ominous presence of the little girl.
In fact, his final mental breakdown occurs in the form of fire; he sets his own room on fire symbolically re-enacting the same way he has come to his injuries during the war. He remains a prisoner of his own trauma and is suffering from continuous bouts of PTSD. Nonetheless, unlike the other members of his family, he manages to escape from the premises since he ends up being taken away to a mental asylum.
The mother, the matriarch, is the stronghold of tradition and a symbol of a bygone era. She tries hard and one might add desperately and vainly to hold onto the remains of happier and more prosperous times for the higher-class elite. As such, she still invites and entertains her noble friends even though some seek and engage in business abroad, such as the United States and Canada and despite the fact that wealthy business people are beginning to intrude and infringe upon this privileged space once solely designated to and reserved for nobility.
We do not have much backstory about the mother nor about the death of her young child Susan, often referred to as Suki, but it is apparent that the mother is loaded with guilt and apprehension regarding her untimely death many years ago. Mrs. Ayers has not only been unable to process and digest the loss of her beloved daughter, but she has trouble acknowledging and accepting it. In fact, Mrs. Ayers claims that she is still in contact with her daughter and that Suki is sometimes upset and angry with her.
It is not clear to what extent the mother was or was not responsible for the girl’s death, but it is evident that it has left an indelible mark on her psyche. In addition to that, Mrs. Ayers has to deal with the gradual demise of her status as well as the forced selling of various parts of the property to make ends meet; it comes then as no surprise that Mrs. Ayers is filled with guilt, trauma and anxiety. She is a recluse who remains adamant in preserving the mansion to the best of her abilities as it is not only a symbol and a remnant of her once glorious past but also the physical and current spiritual abode of her beloved girl.
These pangs of guilt and denial come to haunt her to such an extent that she ends up feeling overwhelmed by the presence of the entity in the mansion, and, at one point, she even gets unexplained physical marks on her body, which are supposedly inflicted by her daughter. Faraday cannot find plausible explanations regarding what is happening before his eyes, and he asks Caroline to seek psychological support for her mother.
Not long after that conversation, they find Mrs. Ayers’ lifeless body in what must have been a case of suicide; she was desperately clutching onto a broken photo of her daughter at the bedside. Mrs. Ayers most likely used the shards of that frame to cut open her veins hence connecting the image of her daughter with her own death.
Last, but not least, there is Caroline, the daughter who supports her mother while also playing a maternal role in her relationship with her invalid brother Roderick. She rarely leaves the premises and has never married, nor does she seem to be looking for suitors. The only time she leaves the mansion is with Faraday and, in a moment of longing and desire, she almost has sexual intercourse with him in his car but then reconsiders and says that she simply cannot.
However, this only intensifies his desires for her. Then he proposes to her. At first, it appears that he has feelings for her, but they are for the most part tinged by his desire for what Caroline represents to him, namely higher position and standing in society. He unconsciously believes that by marrying her, he would attain his goals of acceptance and fulfill his lifelong dream of pertaining to the higher echelons of society.
Throughout his wooing, Caroline remains cool and distant. He is the one who is pressing her to tell her mother and to make some arrangements for their upcoming wedding. Faraday even sneaks out to obtain a wedding dress for her (with the help of Betty, the housemaid, he secretly snatches one of Caroline’s dresses for measurement at the tailor’s), and then Faraday gives her the ring of his mother.
This is another important clue that his love for her is intimately connected with his mother’s shadow.
When Caroline suggests moving to another place, Faraday is abhorred by the idea. But Caroline, especially after the death of her mother, sees no motive to remain there and as she has no more ties with the mansion, she plans to leave Hundreds Hall. In fact, Caroline is displeased with the fact that Faraday has turned down an opportunity to work as a medic and researcher in London, which was done apparently for her sake. Caroline does not want to be tied down to anybody anymore and since she does not need to take care of neither her brother nor her mother anymore, she is free to leave; she feels elated about the fact of finally leaving the mansion behind.
Yet the past still haunts her one last time as she dies from a mysterious fall from the stairs. The fall may or may not be provoked but it happens at the onset of a surprising apparition to which she claims “you” in both surprise and anger, and as she walks back a few steps, she falls to her death.
It is evident that contrary to what Faraday says, this was not an act of suicide and quite distinct from her mother’s demise. Although the movie hints at the possibility that the doctor may have had something to do with her death, I do not think that he physically pushed her, but he certainly may have desired that outcome, especially after she rejected him and his advances and made him feel even more inferior. Sadly, even though Caroline comes close to escaping her past and the prison, she remains unsuccessful and loses herself in her own mix of desires of responsibility and duty and the incapacity of living an authentic life, mostly due to her higher standing in society.
One of the questions that the film never fully or clearly answers is whether the ghost is a figment of their imagination or whether it exists on its own right. However, the film implies that there is some paranormal presence at play. This starts with the foreboding sense of Roderick that something evil is about to occur and the subsequent vicious attack of a young girl by the family dog. We also witness a scene in which the mother is harassed by an evil presence and where the bells ring although the rooms are empty at the time. The feeble excuse that it must be the rats while there is no shot of the rodents is simply not enough to dispel the mystery.
There are also certain scenes that Faraday witnesses that are not compatible with science and reason. One of his colleagues claims that these paranormal incidents are the manifestation of subconscious fears and harmful desires that make their presence known to the people of the mansion. An entity may exist, but it would also be fed and magnified by the negative energy and thoughts and feelings of the people around it. This is the most plausible explanation of these supernatural events and serves to demonstrate how each character is caught up in a web of trauma, deceit and suffering, which they then project upon the little stranger.