12 Cabins 12 Vacancies: The Haunted Hotel In Cinema


I’m sure by now, most are familiar with
the idea that, in the uncanny words of Emily Dickinson ‘One need not be a chamber to
be haunted’ – that a person can be haunted without the need for a ghost, even if we’re
given the suggestion of one. A person can be haunted by their own experiences,
their own thoughts, their past and even when the danger should have past, its influence can remain. And while this image of the ‘haunted house’
can often act as a spatial double for the mind, and the idea of the familiar rendered
unfamiliar, of not quite being at home with yourself, what about when we move away
from the personal towards the haunting of collective space, a space in between public
and private. In cinema, these hauntings seem to manifest
differently, and in a way that more directly parallels Dickinson’s poem. Here we are not terrorised by ghosts, even
if they may be present in one way or another, but rather, so it would seem, by the building
itself and who we might become inside it. These buildings are old, isolated, empty where
we expect crowds of people or perhaps where there once were – but these spaces aren’t
haunted by the ghostly figures we might associate with the word, even if this image might still
present itself. In fact I’d say it’s not that the building
is haunted but that we’re haunted by the building itself, and there are few buildings
more menacing than The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, particularly as
it appears in Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation it’s impossible labyrinth-like
structure seemingly watching, even pursuing. And while the idea of ghosts is certainly
conjured, the visions that dwell here seem to exist between physical and metaphysical
space, traces of past events that might linger in the present. [audio: The Shining] “When something happens it can leave a trace of itself behind.” “Say, like, if someone burns toast.” “Well, maybe things that happen leave other
kinds of traces behind.” “I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel, and not all of them is good.” And what better place to explore such an ephemeral
conception of haunting than a hotel, a place that is itself defined by a kind of
ephemeral existence, where people pass through, a space that we occupy, that we live in, but
only briefly. This idea of the ephemeral is then frequently
paired with that of duality – doubles, mirrors, reflections that create a trace of the present.
One that, like the visions projected by The Overlook, is reliant on and responsive
to the observer. But the mirror also functions in a more uncanny
manner, being, as Foucault describes: And so, through this double, like a ghost,
we are both here and somewhere else, physical and projected, the self and the other. It is this other that is often portrayed as
the true self, the reflection revealing what the physical body is able to hide. It’s in this space that identity can begin
to break down. The film ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ takes
place in a similarly serpentine hotel, and uses mirrors to simultaneously fracture identity
and physical space, drawing a connection between the characters’ consciousness and the hotel’s
infrastructure. Here intangible space breaks free of the mirror,
and the conversation continues as past, present, reality and memory merge together: The shifting architecture of the vast hotel
provides a visual echo of the characters’ confused and competing memories – where
one says they’ve met before and the other denies it. And just as we can’t be sure of space and
time, we can’t be sure of which character to believe, and it seems, neither can they,
and without being able to trust our own memory, our identity increasingly fractures
until we become unavoidably lost. The hotel provides the perfect parameters
for this fracturing, not only in its capacity for expansive hallways, but also its position
between public and private. In addition to yet another prevalent use of
mirrors and its own type of haunting, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ makes both a clear
distinction between these public and private spaces – the private, shadowed house that
looms over the public and, now, notorious, Bates Motel – and complicates this distinction
with its voyeuristic themes and cinematography, and it’s only a matter of time before
the dark, undisclosed ‘private’ space violently collides with the ‘public’. Unlike ‘The Shining’, the
‘ghosts’ here are not fleeting visions but rather hide in plain sight. Images of taxidermy, a grotesque kind of
resurrection and preservation, where the dead won’t stay dead. [audio: Psycho] “I won’t have you bringing
strange young girls in for supper!” “My mother there?” “But she’s harmless.” “She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed
birds.” But here the past is shown to be anything
but harmless. Despite moving ever further from it, the past
still has a hold on the present. It influences our actions, our surroundings,
and there are visual reminders all around us. So, if this past lingers in the present through
the physical space it shares, then this gives rise to another fear – a fear cultivated
in the wake of merging dichotomies, past-present, public-private, self-other, – that as we
become a part of this space, it is now a part of us. [audio: Session 9] “already an itty bitty piece of
this shit may have gotten into your lungs, man. “It incubates in your lungs, and tissue begins
to grow around it like a… like a pearl.” “Like a timebomb.” The 2001 horror film ‘Session 9’ isn’t
set in a hotel, but the abandoned psychiatric hospital entered by a small asbestos removal
team is certainly comparable to the grand exteriors of The Overlook or the hotel in
Marienbad – and it’s the most overt in its suggestion that these sprawling corridors
and rows of empty rooms reflect how we too might not be so singular. [audio: Session 9]
“Billy, where does the princess live? “In the tongue … because she’s always talking,
sir.” These taped sessions of a patient with dissociative
identity disorder, with three alters, provide an explicit parallel to the fractured identity
we see in the characters of these films, a fracturing that somehow seems almost inevitable
in the shadow of such vast, oppressive, foreboding architecture. [audio: Session 9]
“And where do you live, Billy? “I live in the eyes.” “Because I see everything, sir.” There’s a fear that we could be consumed
by this space and its history that we could lose our hold on our own identity
in the way that the unnamed characters in ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ never really get a hold
of theirs – even credited at the end as only A, X, and M. Early in Session 9, a character jokes about how the only side effect of a lobotomy is
a black eye, easily treated with sunglasses but the reality reveals the violence of
that which at first might seem invisible engraving the effect of trauma onto the surface. The haunted house is the classic model for
the familiar rendered unfamiliar but the act of occupying a space in between public
and private is trying to force to unfamiliar to be familiar – trying to claim a space
as our own, a claim that’s far more tenuous, a space that’s far more outside our
control. {audio: Session 9]
“Hello, doc.” “Simon?” And this fear of empty spaces that seem as though they should be occupied, really arises
from the sense that these spaces are not empty at all, for, as film critic Kathleen Murphy
puts it, ‘these empty spaces are heavy with old air’. Traces of the past linger here as they do
in us. The past will not stay dead and this ghostly force threatens to appear on
the surface at any moment and take over not as a ghost, but as something inside us, inside everyone. [audio: Session 9]
“And where do you live, Simon?” “I live in the weak and the wounded, doc.” Hey everyone, thanks for watching. This one was a bit different
as I usually just focus on one film, but this was a lot of fun to do and probably about time I, you know, mix things up a bit as I’ve been doing this for nearly a year now. So let me know what you thought and I hope I’ll see you next time.

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