Saturday, October 18, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #18: THE AWAKENING (2011)

The Story: A professional debunker investigates the alleged haunting of a rural boys school in post-WWI England, and finds clues to unravel mysteries in her own past.

Expectations: An old-fashioned ghost story, along the lines of THE OTHERS or THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE.

Reaction: The milieu of this story is interesting.  Just as BANSHEE CHAPTER is built upon 1960s American ideas about consciousness-expanding drugs, so this story is rooted in the culture of early 20th century British Spiritualism.  The main character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a scientist devoted to exposing charlatans who make money off of people's need to believe in ghosts... a refreshing novelty in 21st century America.  Early in the film, a committed spiritualist barks at her: "With sceince, people believe in nothing."  Cathcart responds: "Without science, people believe in everything." 

Some time ago I read a book called The Believing Brain, written by a neuroscientist who says that the human brain evolved to seek patterns -- even where there are no patterns.  He writes: "The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old.  Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training."  That's one way to explain why our modern, supposedly rational culture not only still believes in ghosts, but finds them everywhere.  

THE AWAKENING being a traditional horror movie, it says that ghosts are real and the skeptic is the irrational one. "I can't live with fear," Cathcart admits, which is why she has repressed her memories of a childhood horror.  Supernatural agents bring those memories to the surface, and the ghost story plays out as an extended metaphor for PTSD.  (This angle is amplified by the presence of a secondary character played by Dominic West, a WWI veteran who is haunted by his own "ghosts.")  The result is a vaguely Freudian version of THE TURN OF THE SCREW.  Unfortunately, this makes the film sound more interesting than it is.  The story is routine, the characters are flat, the scares are tame.  It looks great, but lacks frisson. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The setting is a reminder of better English ghost stories of yesteryear... It made me want to re-watch THE INNOCENTS (1961).

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