8 Oct 2013

"If I go with you now my soul will never be happy": Gothic Investigation as Therapy in The Awakening

By Vincent M. Gaine

This essay discusses the Gothic themes of The Awakening, and the therapy undertaken in the film by balancing emotion and intellect.


The Awakening, dir. Nick Murphy (2011)

The Awakening (Nick Murphy, 2011) is a Gothic ghost story 
that presents a therapeutic union of emotion and intellect. The heroine, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) represents both scientific rationality and the dangers of emotional repression, and an initial assumption that rationality and intellect are preferable to emotion and unsubstantiated belief. Across the narrative of the film and through the development of Florence’s character, an emergence, the titular ‘Awakening’, of emotion takes place, the film presenting Florence’s encounter with the paranormal as therapeutic and challenging the initial presumption. However, the film does not offer a valorisation of emotional indulgence and a simple leap of faith, but rather a balance between the intellectual and the emotional. The film therefore presents the attentive viewer with a warning against excessive rationality but also against emotional indulgence.

Florence’s therapy is, in part, a generic resolution for the Gothic narrative, which often displays ‘the discovery and release of new patterns of feeling’ (Ellis, 458), a release that is often tied to the Gothic heroine: ‘the release of feelings as the preeminent domain of the Gothic explains the persistence of women as vehicles for delivering its effects’ (Ellis, 458). This emotional release is the resolution of a central gendered tension within the Gothic tradition between intellect (male) and emotion (female): ‘From a feminist point of view, the coherence of gender conventions keeps women oppressed’ (Ellis, 458). Whether this is the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre or the governess in The Turn of the Screw, female emotion is contained (or at least should be contained according to the societal institutions of the Gothic world) by male intellect. Within the conventions of the horror film genre, the woman is often presented as both victim and monstrous, a representation of castration anxiety and the dangerous Other to masculinity. This dangerous Other needs to be contained, repressed and denied expression, especially in terms of her sexuality. The Awakening demonstrates an understanding of these conventions and plays with them to create its therapy for Florence.

The film quickly establishes Florence as a sceptic reliant upon scientific method and equipment, reminiscent of Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in The X-Files (1993-2002). After the first scene shows Florence debunking a false séance, she is hired by a boarding school that has recently suffered a death, which some attribute to a ghost. At the school, Florence investigates and establishes that the victim died of an asthma attack, but cannot explain the mysterious sights and sounds she encounters. Aided by history master and WWI veteran Robert Mallory (Dominic West), school matron Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) and a pupil who remains during the school vacation, Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Florence investigates further. Along the way, she nearly drowns in a possible suicide attempt, develops a romance with Robert and is almost raped by the school groundskeeper, Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle). Eventually, she discovers that the ghosts are part of her own history, as she lived at the house as a child before it became a school, and experienced terrible trauma that she has repressed. Confronting this trauma both lays the ghosts to rest and reunites Florence with her full memory.

The incomplete resolution provided by Florence’s explanation of the boy’s death demonstrates a recurring disjunction throughout the horror genre, that between the normal and the supernatural: ‘The narrative quest of the horror film, then, is to find that discourse capable of solving this disjunction, explaining events’ (Gledhill, 353). This is the quest of the ghost investigator, and indeed many a detective who attempts to explain the seemingly impossible. In the mould of Sherlock Holmes, investigators endeavour to debunk supernatural explanations, such as the existence of a monstrous hound or the presence of ghosts. In this investigative narrative, resolution comes with the revelation that everything has been the act of tricksters, as demonstrated in the opening sequence of The Awakening when Florence exposes a group of con artists. Yet the explanation may be incomplete, the ghost story rife with ‘ambivalence or tension [that] is between certainty and doubt, between the familiar and the feared, between rational occurrence and the inexplicable’ (Briggs, 176). 

Ambivalence may result in a lack of certainty, but that does not prevent a resolution for the characters/viewer. This resolution however, does not come from a single source – Florence’s scientific investigation may expose the séance as a scam, but there are clear gaps in her expertise and righteousness. The victim of these con artists slaps her in anger, because the séance gave her hope that her deceased child was in the afterlife, and Florence has destroyed that hope.

The bereaved mother clings to an irrational, inexplicable hope, an emotional lifeline severed by the (limited) conception of scientific rationality that Florence operates with. The scientific explanation gives the mother no comfort, whereas believing in the scam could have. Knowledge, it seems, is not enough. Rationality and the intellect seek to contain, control and neutralise emotions, especially fear. We fear the unknown so try to understand more, know more and therefore neutralise our fear. This is what Florence does throughout the film, emphatically stating at one point that she will not live with fear. This approach towards emotion is similar to patriarchy’s attitude to women – contain, control and neutralise. Florence is unwilling to be contained, and does so through male-coded acts of professionalism, trouser wearing and scientific method. But arguably this masculinises her, and what The Awakening demonstrates are the dangers and ultimate futility in attempting to suppress and deny part of one’s own identity. The film’s therapy, therefore, repudiates and debunks patriarchal/rational containment of femininity/emotion.

The bereaved mother equates Florence’s heartlessness with her childlessness, this lack signified as aberrant and unnatural. This is perhaps ironic considering Florence’s reliance upon scientific, i.e. natural phenomena in her work and the apparatus that she uses to measure these.

Florence, The Awakening, dir. Nick Murphy (2001)
Furthermore, it relates what she does with the conceit of the Gothic genre, as ghost stories challenge the rational order with ‘what is perceived as fearful, alien, excluded, or dangerously marginal’ (Briggs, 176). These dangers may be the past, the dead, war, and challenges to the social order of patriarchy. A further demonstration of Florence’s ‘aberrance’ is the concern of Sergeant Evans (Steven Cree), who fears suspicions of both personal and professional impropriety. To the first, Florence attempts to assuage his concerns by reassuring him that his wife is very lucky, but there remains a sense that her work is aberrant and unusual. Professionally, Evans is concerned about taking instruction from a woman, finding it a compromise of his masculinity. To this, Florence is largely contemptuous, indicating her disregard for traditional gender roles.

This disregard continues, as Florence repudiates the role of a ‘lady’, a role challenged by the aftermath of the Great War in which over 30% of Britain’s male population was killed. Florence’s lover died in the trenches, and in the absence of male presence she has made a new role for herself as a professional, emancipated woman. Evans’ concerns are over the traditional role and place of women, which Florence and indeed the film has little interest in.

By contrast, the more modern Robert Mallory is comfortable with Florence’s professionalism. Robert is a casualty of war in both body and mind and, like Florence, he lost people in the War, witnessing these deaths first hand and suffering injuries himself. Furthermore, Robert displays post-traumatic-stress-disorder and performs self-harm as a form of penance. His reference to seeing ghosts himself could be literal or figurative, but in contrast to Florence he is not dismissive. Within conventional terms, he is more ‘feminine’ than she is, given to emotional indulgence through his self-harming and uncontrollable panic attacks.

Florence’s lack of femininity is characterised by her reliance on traditionally male concepts of rationality and science, and a disbelief in concepts such as ghosts, Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and, more controversially, God. Florence’s early description of these concepts is derisive, suggesting a scornful attitude to beliefs in what cannot be scientifically proven. To include God in this list emphasises Florence’s reliance upon science, simplistically presented as the opposition to faith and religion. Furthermore, Florence seems uninterested in significant emotion as a whole, her general demeanour one of slight amusement. It would be a mischaracterisation to describe her as cold, as she displays warmth and compassion to the children of the boarding school and there is attraction between her and Robert. Yet repression runs throughout the film, and has done so in the protagonist’s history as well.

Repression, especially in relation to women, is a Gothic trope: ‘The vast, imprisoning spaces that appear so regularly in the Gothic as castles, monasteries, and actual prisons can be read as metaphors for women’s lives under patriarchy’ (Ellis, 458). The school in The Awakening serves a similar purpose; Florence’s return to her former family home perhaps a re-entry into the oppressed position of women that her self-determined role repudiates. Being the site of her original trauma and false memories codes the house as the manifestation of the prison in her mind, which must be returned to, questioned and investigated in order to be understood. Thus it is through her investigation into the paranormal events at the school that Florence undergoes therapy as to who she is and where she came from, acquiring a more complete understanding.

Nor is repression confined to women, as the boarding school represses its students, through its stone walls, stern lines of the mise-en-scéne and its own institutionalised rules. Such a trope appears in much horror cinema, including an early adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian (1932). In this film, the ‘dark, foggy, labyrinthine streets of London give an expressionist sense of the confinement and hypocrisy of this society, with its outdated Victorian mores … [and] the character of the young man hemmed in by conventionalities’ (Kaye, 244). The students and staff of the school are also trapped by particular, outmoded versions of masculinity. One of the teachers, Malcolm McNair (Shaun Dooley), keeps his students in a state of constant fear and canes them for the slightest misdemeanour. Robert tells Florence that the boys are ‘scared to death’, and this could be attributed to the school itself rather than any supernatural occurrence. 

Indeed, the goal of this discipline, the creation of sturdy young men, is misguided. McNair found one of the boys, Walter Portman, up at night, and placed the boy outside to get him to ‘man up’. The terrified Walter succumbed to an asthma attack, essentially dying of fright because of an attempt to make him tougher. The standard macho way of dealing with fear, the film suggests, is a fallacy – a more caring and sympathetic approach can produce more capable people.

The stylistic tropes of the horror film are used to create this sequence of terror, but it is significant that what is actually terrifying are completely human acts. While there have been moments of supernatural horror in the film, the revelation is that human acts of cruelty and murder are what scared and scarred Florence. As these memories resurface, scaring her afresh, the viewer shares her terror and comes to the same understanding, undergoing the same therapy. The presumptions as to where Florence came from are shown to be incorrect, as are her assertions about positive mental health as she confronts her childhood trauma.

Violence and suffering are intrinsic to the school, most obviously in the figure of Judd but also in the violent history that Florence has repressed. It is significant that Judd avoided military service but is himself violent and, interestingly, killed by a gun that Florence strikes him with to escape his rape attempt. Violent death is, it seems, not confined to the battlefield. This proves to be the case as Florence’s memories return – her father murdered her mother with a shotgun (much like Judd’s), then attempted to kill Florence herself but, accidentally, shot her half-brother Tom and then himself. Florence’s ‘awakening’ is expressed through discontinuous editing and unstable cinematography, the past and present merging as the viewer sees both the adult (Hall) and child Florence (Molly Lewis).

This trauma is the monstrous element of The Awakening. Within Gothic horror, the monstrous ‘can be seen as embodying modern fears such as alienation, the horrors of war, and sexually transmitted disease’ (Kaye, 240). World War I casts a long shadow over the events of The Awakening’s narrative, but its 2011 release and the presence of a character suffering from war-inflicted PTSD makes it very much a post-9/11, post-Iraq War film. This is the modern fear that the film taps into, its confrontation with fears that are both overt (Robert) and suppressed (Florence), offering the therapy of balancing emotional release with rational understanding. In some adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde, ‘the story of a man’s – and by way of audience identification, a country’s – descent into bestial violence had a clear metaphorical link to the conflagration just past’ (Skal, 140, cit.Kaye, 241). Similar descents appear in The Awakening – Judd is bestially violent towards Florence while Robert is towards himself. The violence of Florence’s father is linked to animality, through the portrait of a lion attacking a horse visible behind him as he kills Tom and then himself. From this image, Florence constructed a belief that an actual lion killed her parents and scarred her, whereas she was actually scarred by the same shot that killed Tom. Man collapses into animal as part of the repression of trauma. As Florence’s memories awaken, she sees her father shooting himself, the painting of the lion merely the background.
The therapy of this revelation is that Florence need not be terrified little girl nor (masculinised) overly rational adult – she balances the emotional with the intellectual. Her experience at the school reawakens her emotional responses, as she weeps unashamedly into Maud’s arms. It could be argued that the awakening of her buried memories restores her to proper, feminine emotionality, but this is not the film’s therapy. As well as being able to cry, Florence has also achieved her goal of overcoming her fear – now that she knows what happened to her, she no longer fears it. And there is a danger of emotional over-indulgence still to come. 

Maud, The Awakening, dir. Nick Murphy,(2011)

Another part of the revelation is that Tom’s mother is Maud, who can see the ghost of her son and stayed with the house when it became a school. She tries to create company for Tom by poisoning herself and Florence. But while Maud dies, Florence urges Robert to get her something that will make her sick, purging the poison from her system, using her scientific knowledge to save her life. Robert is unable to find anything, but Florence’s emotional plea spurs Tom to provide her with a suitable agent. Scientific knowledge combined with a plea to a loved one ultimately save Florence’s life, as her psychological life has also been saved through an overcoming of fear through recognition and embrace of emotional trauma.

As a British horror film, The Awakening inevitably echoes Hammer Films, which often ‘allow some release of tensions, [but] ultimately they deny excesses of sensuality by punishing transgressors’ (Kaye, 246). Maud is punished for her excessive connection to her dead son, being allowed to die while Florence lives, but rather than a return to repression, Florence’s salvation is also the reason for the attempt on her life – Tom saves her because Florence tells him: ‘If I go with you now my soul will never be happy’. Rather than a return to the status quo of repression (of one form or another), The Awakening depicts therapy, the balance of emotion and intellect rather than one overcoming the other. This balance helps to neutralise ‘woman as threat’ and more as an equal partner, as demonstrated in the final scene between Florence and Robert. Robert is not a paragon of machismo, being troubled by both physical and psychic injuries, but as such, he is the ideal partner for Florence, and the film ends with a clear sense of equality and mutual recognition between them.

It could be interpreted that Florence does actually die from the poisoning, as the final scene only features her speaking to Robert and apparently not seen by the school’s headmaster, Reverend Hugh Purslow (John Shrapnel). The film’s evidence is more supportive of her having survived, however, because she leaves when Maud wanted to keep her there, and the ghost of Tom is not seen again. What is striking in the final scene is that Florence seems much warmer and less haughty than her earlier scenes. From her original position of rational superiority, she has confronted her own ghosts, literal and figurative, in a terrifying experience that leaves her deeply shaken. Yet she is able to balance this trauma with an understanding that is rational and emotional, demonstrated by her final line that closes the film ‘Not seeing them, it's not the same as forgetting, is it?’ This line expresses the therapeutic philosophy of The Awakening: the importance of remembering and maintaining a sense of the past and your experiences. Florence forgot, and then re-encountered what she had forgotten. Now she need not see, but she does remember, embracing her past and keeping it as part of her future. 

As a genre, ‘the Gothic itself is locked “in the encapsulating social systems that engender repeated trauma’” (Massé, 19, quoted by Ellis, 459), but The Awakening unlocks these systems by allowing therapy for its protagonist, confronting her trauma and integrating it into her consciousness. She does not remain in the prison, the film denying an either/or opposition, and allows her to leave, with the suggestion of a continuing romance with Robert. Although Florence and Robert make plans to meet again, the film’s emphasis is not upon this union – love is not Florence’s defining feature. Good mental health (shockingly!) may be enough for this Gothic heroine.

Florence and Robert, The Awakening, dir. Nick Murphy (2011)
The Awakening uses the tropes of the horror and Gothic traditions, such as the opposition between emotion and intellect and between masculine and feminine, to show the fallacy of these oppositions, promoting instead the philosophy of integration and balance. This is the film’s therapy, a reworking of Gothic and horror tropes through an engagement with PTSD, tied both to family trauma and the horrors of war, to provide a useful therapeutic lesson.

Works cited:

Briggs, Julia, ‘The Ghost Story’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter (Chichester: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 176-187.

Ellis, Kate Ferguson, ‘Can You Forgive Her? The Gothic Heroine and Her Critics’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter (Chichester: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 457-468.

Gledhill, Christine, ‘The horror film’, in The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook (London: BFI, 2007), pp. 347-366

Kaye, Heidi, ‘Gothic Film’ in A New Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter (Chichester: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 239-251.

Skal, David, ed., The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (London: Plexus, 1993).

No comments:

Post a Comment