Friday, November 29, 2019

Prisoner of Oneself: A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Little Stranger


Movie poster with well-dressed man holding the hand of a ghost girl
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.



Dr. Faraday


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 fa├žade 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.



Roderick


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.



Mrs. Ayers


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.



Caroline

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.



Final Thoughts

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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Public Engagement on Cancer Care Part Three: On Prevention and Quality of Life

Attending and participating in the public deliberation on sustainable funding for cancer care this year was both a pleasure as well as an eye-opening and educational experience for me. I was able to talk to fellow BC residents alongside experts and scientists about relevant issues regarding our current health and cancer care system. This provided me with a unique opportunity to ask specific questions and share my own views, while I also ended up gleaning relevant and up-to-date information about the issues at hand. Finally, as a group, we made a series of recommendations to the provincial government and let politicians and decision-makers know our thoughts and priorities on the matter.

I have previously posted about the event (Public Engagement on Making Cancer Care Funding Fair andSustainable Day Oneand have briefly discussed treatment options, costs and research (Big Pharma, Innovation and Cancer Care) but here I would like to focus on some of the other themes and issues that stood out and were discussed in detail, namely, prevention and screening as well as treatment and quality of life. Lastly, I shall wrap up with some final thoughts and impressions on cancer and cancer care.

The best news you will hear within your lifetime is that you are fortunate enough not to have had cancer. Many of us – and we should count ourselves very lucky - will go through life without being diagnosed with this dreadful and debilitating disease; nonetheless, we cannot escape the fact that it will be in our vicinity and surroundings affecting our loved ones, friends, and people we care about. Considering its prevalence, it is best to have more knowledge and information about it, and one of the best things to do would be to raise awareness about prevention and screening.

This comes down to advice we have been hearing again and again from doctors as well as health and wellness experts who alongside parents and teachers continuously preach the importance of healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. 

Unfortunately, we are also prone to roll our eyes, let the information go in one ear and out the other, ignore or disregard the given information or erroneously and dangerously believe that we are automatically immune to it. This is a rather unfortunate trait that we have developed since adolescence and that many of us do not grow out of, the belief that we are invincible and that no harm shall fall upon us no matter how we act or what we do in our lives.

As a teenager, this was partly true for me, at least when it applied to nutrition. No matter what or how much I ate, I would be skinny and not gain any weight. However, alas those days are over as I am nowadays precariously hovering between the overweight and obese category, while weight management has become my thorn in the flesh. What this has shown me is that our bodies do not stay young and that there are certain precautions and safeguards that need to be put in place after a given age.

There are different reasons why it is important to take my health seriously. First off, unlike during my youth, I am not alone nor on my own anymore. At this stage of life, I am responsible for my family, particularly my pre-teen son who depends on me and who needs me to be healthy, now and into the distant future. 

If I were not to take care of myself now, I would indeed shorten my life span by a handful of years, at least to the extent that this issue be in my hands. Yet despite the potential threat of serious and uncaused accidents and illnesses, we do have more control and say in our lives than we generally acknowledge, notice or give ourselves credit for.

The first obstacle to overcome is a general laissez-faire attitude. We need to take active control and engagement in our healthy habits, which includes - but is not limited to - healthy and balanced nutrition alongside moderate forms of exercise. This becomes even more important once you have sailed past the shores of young adulthood and are entering a shifting territory more vulnerable to sickness and disease. As soon as the first signs and symptoms of disease appear, swift action needs to take place to avoid consequences and complications further down the road.

Hence, what can you do to keep cancer at bay? In fact, there are specific suggestions and recommendations. One of them is to reduce your intake of junk food. You do not need to avoid it entirely - and some people may actually do themselves more harm than good by trying to completely cut it out - but you should be aware of it and limit it to a certain extent. 

Those potato chips and candy bars may be tempting but they should be merely a guilty pleasure indulged in now and then without necessarily having to feel guilty about the act. Eating out on a regular basis would also not be recommended but doing so for special and specific occasions or at least reducing it to a maximum of once a week ought to be fine.

If you made the mistake of picking up smoking - whether you caved into peer pressure in your impressionable youth and / or wanted to look cool and fell for its supposed charms - right now is the right time to quit. Smoking is one of the few things that will always do harm even if it is done in moderation and those who claim to be social smokers are only conveniently deluding themselves.  

For instance, if you drink too much alcohol, you need to cut down on your consumption, but smoking with its equally harmful modern form of vaping needs to be completely stopped and eliminated. Smoking is the cause of myriad diseases, and it is most strongly correlated with lung cancer, but on the bright side, there are many ways to quit, while there is a lot of support out there for those who are serious about kicking the habit.

Once you have added a healthy dose of exercise to the mix, then you shall be able to reach and maintain that ideal weight, certainly not without persistent and continuous efforts. It is important again not to overdo any of this, be it in the form of excessive dieting, cutting out sugar, fat or any food groups entirely, nor should your exercising turn into an obsession. Wellness means to be and feel well, and one’s mental health plays an important role in it too, something I will briefly touch upon here but will elaborate further on this blog as well as in my upcoming book.

Finally, when it comes to cancer, we also need to ensure to go for regular check-ups. This is especially important if you have a genetic link to this disease. Regular efforts to screen and check for breast, testicular and prostate cancer can help us stay safe and healthy. We need to keep screening ourselves and need to keep in mind that early detection increases our chances for survival.

That prevention and screening are important to all of us was apparent throughout our discussions at the public engagement, and which is why we chose to allocate funding to these areas to ensure that our residents will never have to experience cancer. This would be a win-win situation as the government can also save a lot of money by not having to treat more patients. Not unlike the environment, we need to take immediate action as cancer is considered the new epidemic of modern times. Our actions undertaken now will save many lives in the future as prevention is the best cure and the key to health and wellness.

The second issue revolved around treatment and quality of life. With current treatment options, such as radiation and chemotherapy, cancer patients generally experience a significant number and amount of adverse side effects. This ranges from complete, albeit temporary, loss of hair to strong nausea, vomiting, continuous malaise and fragility. Considering that the treatment may not even be as effective as planned and predicted and taking into the account that one may gain time but is mostly too sick to enjoy any part of it, quality of life is something that needs to be evaluated and considered on a case to case basis.

How one wants to spend the remainder of one’s life with this debilitating illness is an important question to ask and address in each given situation. In the end, it is the patient who would need to make a difficult choice whether they want to accept a treatment that involves pain and sacrifice or whether they would prefer living out the time allotted to them with adequate levels of quality of life. All this, however, applies and is related to the current treatment options available. The silver lining is that there are and shall be other innovative treatments that would be easier to digest and that are accompanied with less severe side effects.

Whatever path one takes, it is important to maintain a holistic view throughout. The problem with doctors and medicine and to a large extent science itself is that they tend to disregard the spiritual and emotional aspects and spectrum. Doctors tend to focus on dealing with and combating the illness itself but often lose sight of the person attached to the body. But the cancer has become part of the body, and it is essential to take the whole person into account when dealing with this or for that matter any other disease.

Yet currently science has begun to acknowledge the role and importance of emotional and spiritual support, and as a result, more and more patients are given a more balanced and holistic care that would benefit them most under the circumstances. In fact, this can and should involve and be extended to the loved ones around them who also suffer from the consequences and repercussions of dealing with cancer.

Finally, a more psychologically robust self can enhance not only one’s lifespan but improve upon the life quality of the remaining course of the disease. Regardless of the circumstances and the suffering and hardship, it is vital to keep up the flames and rays of hope. It is easier said than done but one should not lose hope even in the face of adversity. This is where spirituality and one’s personal beliefs can best come into focus. A person who not only accepts their circumstances but manages to find meaning and purpose in them will be able to resist the disease much better and longer than those who resign and give up hope. 

We should also keep in mind that death will occur to each of us one way or another and that it is a fate no one will or can escape from. Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, whether one thinks that we will vanish into the void or re-appear in different forms and guises is a very personal issue indeed, and it is not up for debate here. The paths may be many, but the destination shall be the same.

Regardless of what one believes or does not believe in, it can still be imbued and injected with hope into and for the future, and that is the healthiest outlook to maintain while staring directly into the hideous face of this monstrous illness. In the meantime, the best we can do is to work towards preventing and screening for cancer, to raise awareness about it and to contribute in any way we can towards eventually finding a cure for it. I am hopeful that we are on the right path as long as we keep on treading forward.