Sleep is becoming one of the crisis points of late modernity, as the steady encroachment of the “24/7” plugged-in world only intensifies sleep’s already uncanny nature.[i] To sleep is to slip into a realm of darkness, irrationality, and the supernatural, a realm that is not only profoundly opposed to the contemporary illuminated world but that has always lain uncomfortably close to death. Indeed, the Western way of sleeping has been described as a “lie down and die” model.[ii] To walk or talk while sleeping, in particular, is to act in ways divorced from the world of light and reason, to act without volition and the consent of the mind. The body that acts becomes something other than the person it appears to be, producing uncanny doubles and evoking the profoundly uncanny uncertainty as to whether, as philosopher Dylan Trigg puts it, “‘I’ am truly identifiable with my body itself.”[iii] Horror films in the twenty-first century in particular have turned to sleep to exploit its inherent uncanniness and the way it suggests that we are not always in control of who we are and what we do.
The central point of debate about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), as well as the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, is whether the main character (played by Leonardo Di Caprio) is insane or not. Is he Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal who has uncovered a terrifying conspiracy involving experiments on patients at Ashecliffe Hospital? Or is he Andrew Laeddis, a man suffering from a profound delusion that he is a US Marshal because he is unable to confront the truth that two years ago he murdered his wife after she drowned their three children?
I think you can make a convincing argument for both interpretations—part of the brilliance of both novel and film. Here, I just want to point out one specific moment in the film, one that resonates with a classic horror film and that may (or may not) help tip the scales.
Two-thirds of the way through Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels/Andrew Laeddis is in Ward C, where the most violent prisoners are kept, and he hears someone call out “Laeddis.” Moving toward the voice, he repeatedly lights matches in the darkness, trying desperately to “see” (in all kinds of ways). In the frame above, he has arrived at the cell of George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley)—a man at the very heart of either Andrew Laeddis’s delusion or Teddy Daniels’s conspiracy. We have a shot of Teddy/Andrew’s face, match lit, looking, and then we have the shot below of Noyce, curled up, features indistinguishable. As the two men talk, we’re not sure what Teddy/Andrew learns. Does he learn that the conspiracy exists (that Noyce has been drugged and experimented on by the doctors at Shutter Island)? Or does he find evidence that he (Andrew) has brutally beaten Noyce for confronting him with the truth that he murdered his wife? The frail flame of the match, the darkness, Teddy/Andrew’s confused and horrified expression, Noyce’s indistinct features, and the ambiguity of their words all render the scene fundamentally indeterminate. Read more