I have heard myself say that a house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who have stayed behind.
I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House begins with the anticipation of certain death. In this 2016 Netflix original, directed by Osgood Perkins, Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson) enters the house of the dying author, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss), to serve as her live-in nurse. Lily spends solitary months caring for Ms. Blum, and the film follows her at a sometimes excruciating pace. Ms. Blum refuses to call her anything but Polly, whom Lily learns is the lead character in one of Blum’s books: a character who suffered a horrible murder but whose ending was never fully told. The ghost of this character (Lucy Boynton) begins following Lily about the house, unbeknownst to her. The death that the house has been waiting for becomes three as Polly’s end is briefly shown, Lily never reaches her 29th year (as she predicts in the first few minutes of the film), and Ms. Blum dies without her caregiver. The film slowly unravels the theme of three different relationships in regards to these deaths: 1) that of the dying and a caregiver, 2) 1) that of an artist with her work, and 3) that of the living with the dead. Ultimately, these relationships grow so neatly and subtly tangled that they become inseparable
Pretty Thing has been accused of producing an atmosphere that, though eerie, disturbing, and beautiful, cannot sustain a film without a more active and engaging plot. Dennis Harvey of Variety writes, “Wilson delivers a hardworking turn that nonetheless can’t render a familiar character type fascinating enough in a vacuum, with so little support in the writing. While Lily inhabits a house with a secret, there’s ultimately no good reason why she herself must also remain a cipher.”[i] A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club, however, asks, “Can a horror movie get by on nothing but atmosphere, on the je ne sais quoi of its unsettling mood? I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House suggests that maybe it can,” providing one of the most positive responses to this imbalance.[ii]
Here’s the trailer:
Yet, I would argue that the film needs to create a feeling of stagnation so slow that it feels like a decline: if nothing’s happening, it must mean that death is happening. This sense of creeping decay is more literary Gothic than scary movie. Indeed, I’ve heard several viewers say they wish it were a novel rather than a film, and I think this pairing of a visuals that resemble still photographs with long literary voiceovers is intentional, given what we learn about Ms. Blum’s experience of writing, Lily’s multiplicity of self, and the dead’s process of “looking.” It’s a film that begs to be read but denies us that, just as it denies us a satisfactory ending. That, too, is intentional.
Warning: Spoilers from this point on.
The opening and ending monologues in Lily’s voice are the most striking parts of the film and provide a Rosetta Stone for interpreting it:
I have heard myself say that a house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who have stayed behind…. they have stayed to look back for a glimpse of the very last moments of their lives but the memories of their own deaths are faces on the wrong side of wet windows, smeared by rain, impossible to properly see. There is nothing that chains them to where their bodies have fallen. They are free to go. But still they confine themselves, held in place by their looking. For those who have stayed, their prison is their never seeing. And left all alone, this is how they rot.
Already, Lily reveals herself to be more than just one individual. Not only can she observe herself, she describes a haunted afterlife much different from the typical “unfinished business” lore. The theme of memento mori takes on a new meaning: not only will you die, but you are already dead. The film suggests that all who are now living are watched by their future dead selves. By providing them with something to see, or to look at without seeing, the living are making their own ghosts. This is why time is intentionally palpable, it conflates past, present, and future.
The Dying and the Stranger
At its core, this is a ghost story about old age and waiting for death alone with a stranger. It’s about hospice care, professional but distant, that provides for physical comfort but cannot provide for psychological comfort. Ms. Blum appears to be in a constant state of distress, confusion, and exhaustion, projecting onto her hospice nurse the identity of one of her characters as a manifestation of both comfort and regret. This is a horror all itself, of approaching death amidst uncertainty about who is with you. There’s also a hint of the common use of the elderly as figures of fear in horror. Ms. Blum, appearing at the door in the middle of the night, produces one of the few jump scares in the film. She becomes a source of disturbance later as her certainty about Lily’s identity unsettles Lily’s own uncertainty about herself. The first moment she sees Lily, Ms. Blum’s face is contorted in fear and shock: she looks like she’s seen a ghost.
The film is also about the toll such a life takes on the care-giver. Lily herself begins to feel the effects of waiting for death, and it is her own decline that we see and pity more than Ms. Blum’s. Straight out of a Shirley Jackson novel, this female protagonist spends most of her time alone, actively interpreting her world because others aren’t around to do it for her. She talks to objects, naming flowers and arguing with the TV (not what’s on the TV). She talks to herself, slapping her own hand when she opens a drawer and saying, “No snooping, you.” She talks on the phone to an undisclosed listener, but even this sounds as though she were talking to herself: it’s unnatural, one-sided, and there’s no hint of a voice on the other end. During this phone call, she replies fleetingly to a question (from herself?) about a man she almost married before turning the conversation to domestic plans, like baking a pie. She’s every bit an Eleanor Vance or a Constance Blackwood[iii] in this conversation alone: a lonely and abandoned dreamer left in a house occupied by haunting presences. She points out that, in all the time she’s there, Ms. Blum never receives a single visitor. But, neither does she.
The Artist Haunted by her Art
Like a scene from The Haunting of Hill House in which characters create extravagant fictional tales about each other and swap identities, Lily becomes particularly defensive of her identity as a caregiver used to patients suffering from senility or dementia. She takes her identity just as seriously as Jackson’s character, Eleanor, does, and it causes a schism between her and the only other character(s) in the house. One of Ms. Blum’s most successful and controversial books is The Lady in the Walls, about a character named Polly, who dies but whose ending is left out of the book. Ms. Blum can only see Lily as Polly. While Lily brushes her hair, Ms. Blum accuses her of abandoning her (as everyone else has) and appearing now, “only to show yourself but not to let me see. You hardly resemble yourself.” These lines bring to mind the opening monologue and suggest a multi-level haunting: the creation haunting the character as an image of her past (living) self—unclear and unable to be seen. It also suggests that Lily’s role in this house is of a dead woman: the death of an author who will never write again, the death of the character she has created. If Polly represents dead creation and Lily embodies Polly, it is little wonder Ms. Blum looks so haunted.
Scenes of Polly herself are interspersed throughout the film, but she never speaks except for the occasional voiceover. The end is never given “in order to be true to the subject, to Polly,” and it becomes clear that Ms. Blum was herself haunted by Polly, who presumably never gave her the ending. The inability to see the ending (death) is what the opening monologue claims confines ghosts to their haunts. Ms. Blum cannot see Polly’s ending because Polly cannot see it, and she sees Lily as the closest she can get. Despite Lily’s angry insistence on her identity, she becomes a conduit between the dying and the dead for Ms. Blum through this manifestation of Polly.
The Living Haunted by the Future Dead
In this way, Lily becomes a medium for the fluidity of life and death in the house. In two especially strange and unexplained scenes featuring Lily’s voiceover, she is shown in a blurred, high contrast black-and-white image, and something appears to be coming out of her mouth. In the second, it could be a blurred hand, but the first offers no such explanation.
I suggest that these images further solidify Lily’s role of medium, however unwilling she is. During the Spiritualist Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mediums were often well-mannered women looking for a way to be heard: their position allowed them to act or speak in ways that were otherwise deemed unacceptable. One way in which they demonstrated their abilities was through producing ectoplasm, a cheesecloth-like substance that would appear out of the medium’s nose, ear, or (most commonly) mouth. These strange scenes of Lily look uncannily like the images of mediums producing ectoplasm and imply that she is participating in this tradition, acting as a conduit for the past, present and future for Ms. Blum, however silent or fictional its participants. Her own growing curiosity about Polly, despite her fear of scary stories, suggests that she may need this alter-ego more than she thinks. [iv]
Though Lily’s job entails waiting for Ms. Blum’s death, it is quickly made clear that she’s waiting for her own. Introducing herself to us, who are clearly looking at her, she says, “From where I am now, I can be sure of only a few things. The pretty thing you are looking at is me… three days ago, I turned twenty-eight years old. I will never be twenty-nine years old.” She has already split herself into at least two personas: where she is “now” and where she can refer to herself as a “pretty thing” and can “hear [herself] say” things, and the unspeaking self we are indeed looking at. She hears and sees herself because she is already haunting herself. (This also begs the question, if we are looking at her, where are we?) This is not a story of the past told from the present, it is past and present and future all at once, and Lily holds herself in place by looking, as she says, “never seeing and left all alone.” The repetition of the word “rot” throughout is a fleshly, bodily hazard, not one for an incorporeal ghost. It further collapses the distance between dead and living, ghost and body.
Lily’s ending is not identical to Polly’s, which we discover left her murdered and buried in the wall of the house. But it is caused by it and is veiled in a similar uncertainty. What kills Lily is a confrontation via seeing. On the surface, she sees the ghost of Polly and dies of fright.
Yet, to conclude, the death is worth reexamining. No one has seen this ghost except the viewer, not even Ms. Blum. We see it creeping around the house just as we see Lily creeping around the house. In the final confrontation, Lily turns around and looks at us, the viewer, and gasps. The camera cuts to a closeup of an eye showing Polly’s reflection.
We’re meant to think this is Lily’s eye. Yet, the point of view begs for movement, from Lily’s intense reaction to what she reacts to: we expect to see it. Thus, the ending can be read in two ways. The more obvious is that we are only allowed this blurry reflection of Polly in Lily’s eye to make her death as ambiguous as the fictional character. In other words, we don’t know exactly what Lily sees or if Polly did anything to her. The less obvious reading is that the eye belongs to whomever Lily is looking at, and the reflection of Lily becomes a reflection of Polly, revealing them to be the same: medium and ghost blur as Lily becomes a ghost herself.
Laura Kremmel is an assistant professor of English in the Humanities department at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. She received her PhD from Lehigh University in 2016 and an MLitt from the University of Stirling in 2010. Her work focuses on Gothic Studies, Medical Humanities/History of Medicine, Disability Studies, and British Romanticism. She has been published in European Romantic Review and Horror Literature through History. Her article on Disability in Josh Malerman’s Bird Box is forthcoming in Studies in Gothic Fiction, and she is currently co-editor of The Handbook to Horror Literature, forthcoming in 2018 from Palgrave Macmillan. Follow her on Twitter (@LKremmel)
[iii] Eleanor Vance is the lonely, introverted, and haunted protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and Constance Blackwood is the timid and domestic sister of a poisoner in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), who plays house with an estranged cousin, unable to stand up to him.
[iv] Image 1 from Marina Warner’s article, “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm” in issue 12 of Cabinet Magazine: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/12/warner.php. Image 2 is called Notzing by Albert Von Schrenck and is available online on Currator.com: https://curiator.com/art/albert-von-schrenck/notzing.