DEFYING DEATH IN THE HORROR FILM: Since at least Pet Sematary (1989), we’ve known it’s not a good idea to try to bring loved ones back from the dead. Indeed, this theme goes back still further. What was Frankenstein (1931), in the end, if not a warning about what happens when you raise the dead? But if horror is at bottom about the inevitability of death, it’s also about our efforts to defy that inevitability—efforts that are at the same time heroic and dangerously hubristic.
The release last week of The Other Side of the Door (2016), directed by Johannes Roberts, written by Roberts and Ernest Riera, and starring Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead, Colony) and Jeremy Sista (Six Feet Under, The Returned), is a dramatic manifestation of the fact that we’ll never get over (or around) the implacability of death.
Indeed, we can see the persistence of the human desire to overcome death in the fact that The Other Side of the Door is strikingly similar to another relatively recent horror film—Wake Wood (2009), which was directed by Arthur Keating and stars Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Eva Birthistle (The Children), and Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Mr. Turner). Both films are worth watching, both in and of themselves and also because of what their similarities say about an enduring theme of horror.
Both films, while set in dramatically different locales (India and Ireland, respectively) have a virtually identical plot and narrative structure. The films begin with a couple losing a child, with their (especially the mothers’) unbearable grief, and then with their discovery of a way to bring their child back. The second third of each film dramatizes the ritual of return and shows that the return of the dead child seems to have worked—seems to have brought happiness and closure. But the rituals had rules, and, in both films, driven by grief and love, parents inevitably break those rules. The last third of each film, then, constitutes the object lesson: evil has seen its chance in this rupture of nature and in the transgression of the rules that gave limited access to what is otherwise forbidden. As Arthur (Spall) says, in Wake Wood, “I warned you there would be consequences.”
FOLK HORROR: Aside from more generally elaborating horror’s preoccupation with death and the punishment that ensues on trying to defy it, both The Other Side of the Door and Wake Wood are also interesting entries in the folk horror tradition. And through these films, we see that one of folk horror’s themes may well be the effort to repair loss of some kind (often, obviously, death).
In a crucial article, Adam Scovell has articulated what he calls the “folk horror chain”—a series of “cause-to-effect narrative, aesthetic, and visual aspects” that form folk horror. The first is landscape, almost always a rural location, and which, as Scovell puts it, “isolates the characters and communities.” Isolation thus becomes the next part of the chain and “leads to communities that develop skewed morality and belief systems of practice,” often but not necessarily pagan or occult. These belief systems then lead to the final link in the chain—“the manifestation due to these belief systems”—typically some sort of ritual or sacrifice.[i] The Other Side of the Door and Wake Wood fit this formula perfectly.
The Other Side of the Door and Wake Wood both follow characters as they move to isolated communities that, it turns out, have rituals that enable the return of the dead under very specific conditions, conditions that the protagonists (who are foreigners) break because of the strength of what are at bottom their selfish impulses: they fail to think in terms of the larger whole, both the community itself and the natural cycle that the community has, thus far, managed to alter by acquiescing to certain limits.
In Wake Wood, the locals who participate in rituals that return the dead for three days are rendered as fully human characters, and Patrick (Gillen) and Louise (Birthistle) cooperate in the ritual that brings back their daughter, promising to remain an integral part of that community (although they soon break that promise).
One rather glaring problem with The Other Side of the Door, on the other hand, is the way in which it treats its particular “isolated community.” The Aghori, a tribe associated with the ritual that allows people to speak to their dead loved ones on the other side of a temple door, are used almost exclusively for their shock value. Maria (Callies) travels to a remote part of southern India, on the advice of her housekeeper, Piki (Suchitra Pillai), but there’s never a sense that she understands or will be a part of the community that controls the ritual. She wants to exploit the ritual for her own purposes—and the film itself exploits the Aghori: far from being humanized, they suddenly appear in and disappear from the frame looking horrifying, manipulated only for jump scares and thus rendered thoroughly inhuman.
FOLK HORROR AND NATURE/DEATH: Both The Other Side of the Door and Wake Wood do, though, render the landscape of folk horror beautifully, mobilizing the forest as the place where life bleeds into death. In The Other Side of the Door, Piki says of the forest in which the temple stands (where Maria will conduct the ritual to raise her dead son): “the line between living and dead is thin in the forest.” And in Wake Wood, the raised dead must, in due course, be taken back to the woods: “Go back to the trees and lie among the roots,” Arthur commands Patrick and Louise’s living-dead daughter.
But it’s not mere landscape that is central to folk horror but the awesome power of landscape—of nature itself. As I argue in another post, what I think is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of folk horror is that “Nature is no longer content to be background. . . . It lives, moves, acts, overpowers, destroys.”
And The Other Side of the Door and Wake Wood are about nothing if not dread of the most powerful fact of nature—death itself, which is, in both films, bound to and manifest in their landscapes. In both films, humans face the fact of death and refuse to accept its inevitability. Driven by one of the few emotions more powerful than fear (grief), they try to curb nature’s threat. Tellingly, both films end with the characters not only failing to surmount death but trying again to defy it. We will, it seems, keep on throwing ourselves at the intractable force of nature—no matter what the consequences.
[i] Adam Scovell, “The Folk Horror Chain,” Celluloid Wicker Man, September 25, 2014, https://celluloidwickerman.com/2014/09/25/the-folk-horror-chain/