Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Book Reviews

If These Walls Could Talk

On our own sensitivity to the magnetism of objects.

Matthew D. Rodrigues

Carol Kane in When a Stranger Calls, 1979; Moviestore Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

“Strange how a phone call can change your day,” sings Labi Siffre in “Bless the Telephone,” a track on his 1971 album The Singer and the Song. Siffre here pays homage to the telephone, and to the way certain voices can become romantically dear to us. The song’s chorus, however, conveys a more general point about the interpersonal value of telephonic communication: Phone calls can potentially dispel, as Siffre sweetly sings, “the feeling of being alone.” But what of their less cheering qualities? Such curiosities inform the new book Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects. Its author, Brigham Young professor Marc Olivier, considers a variety of quotidian objects and their roles in horror films, their industrial and social histories, and their bearing on theories of film, media, philosophy, and culture. He is less concerned with blessing the telephone than with uncovering “the primordial terror hidden in the device itself.”

“All phone calls are obscene,” Olivier explains, “obscene in the Latin sense of obscenus, or that which is offstage. The absent-presence—the obscenity—of a phone call adds a dimension of violence to every call, no matter how friendly.” This is noted in the third chapter, “Telephone,” which finds Olivier discussing landline telephones in relation to Halloween (directed by John Carpenter, 1978) and When a Stranger Calls (Fred Walton, 1979), among other films. Each of the book’s fourteen chapters focuses on one type of household object and its mobilization in a selection of horror movies. Much of the book is also meant to run contrary to anthropocentrism, a concept that Olivier critically scrutinizes at various points. Consequently, how films anthropomorphize objects isn’t one of his key concerns. He aspires to capture something of the objects themselves—their “surplus of presence and meaning.”

He interprets the shower scene from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), for example, with regard to both Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) and the shower curtain itself. Here and elsewhere, the book recalls film scholar Lesley Stern’s remarks on affective and ever-shifting objects, including her point about how films “unhinge the solidity and certainty of things.” Marion’s shower curtain, Olivier writes, is “ready in its polyvalent plasticity to serve as a shroud, a body bag, packaging material ready for transport.” In such ways, he widens our view of the nonhuman details that invariably surround us. We are, of course, deeply familiar with a wide range of household—and ostensibly amenable—objects. We depend on them, covet them, resent them. But Olivier aims to bring to this dilemma a newfound sense of epiphany and suspicion.

He shares a few straightforward warnings as well. Final Destination (James Wong, 2000) elicits from Olivier the following observation: “objects act without us…sometimes their actions can result in our death.” He also uses the word “accomplice” to describe telephones, sleeper sofas, mattresses, typewriters, and shower curtains. But for all of these ominous nods to something resembling agency, Olivier is typically more substantive on the historical contexts of objects. In the chapter titled “Pills,” for instance, he specifies the industrial and social links between capsules and motherhood, which he relates to films like The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) and Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968).

In another impressive chapter, “Bed,” he turns to the mattress and its “interior fraught with tense coils and foams.” Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who enters dreams in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), is here read in terms of oneiric foam. “Dreams are foams,” Olivier explains, translating “a popular German expression (Träume sind Schäume).” He then borrows from philosophers such as Peter Sloterdijk and Gaston Bachelard to conjure up an idea of life as a series of brittle, compartmentalized units. This he puts into Kruegerian terms: The slasher “cuts through the house-self, the room-self, the bed-self, and the skin-self until all is foam.”

Olivier’s presented research can be enthralling, diverting, or ponderous. But his descriptions of films are often engaging and legible. The book excels when these modes—historical and theoretical contextualization and textual analysis—are deftly united. For example, his reading of a scene in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) is preceded by a list of the beds in the film and discussions of subjects as diverse as childcare literature and the history of the bedroom. In the following excerpt, he intertwines these and other elements through a moment in which the demonically possessed child Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) mimics Mary Karras (Vasiliki Maliaros), the recently deceased mother of Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest who is trying to save Regan by performing an exorcism:

Damien sits on the edge of the mattress and pats Regan’s brow with a cloth while Regan, in the voice and imperfect English of Mary Karras, asks, “Damien, why you do this to me?” At that moment, Damien is simultaneously father and son, doctor and priest. The beds have converged: the sickbed, the deathbed, the mother’s bed, the child’s bed, the defiled bed, the sacred bed, the communal bed, the solitary bed. Regan’s bed embodies all of the qualities and contradictions inherent in a piece of furniture that frames a space for birth, sex, death, dreams, nightmares, the sacred, and the profane. If, as French theorist Jean Baudrillard contends, certain pieces of furniture (bed, buffet, and armoire) constitute domestic monuments (meubles-monuments) that fight for traditional values in the home, the bed stands at the head of that trinity.

Olivier intends Household Horror “as a point of departure for object-centered readings of other media texts.” Those interested in pursuing such readings may find another useful source in Hitchcock’s People, Places, and Things, a 2019 book by the film scholar John Bruns. Olivier doesn’t mention this example, but it pairs well with his own book. “Places and things have just as much to say in determining the course of events in a film as people do,” Bruns insists. He proselytizes for “a flattened Hitchcock landscape,” which entails viewing the people, places, and things in Alfred Hitchcock’s work as equally worthy of critical attention. Bruns scours Hitchcock’s artistic output for revelations and enduring mysteries. “I mean to combine critical examination with the idea of navigation and discovery,” he clarifies, and notes that the end result “is more critical field book than monograph.” As with Olivier, he encourages readers to begin their own cinematic searches. (And he shares Olivier’s talent for situating readers, which proved helpful. For reasons of budget and access, it wasn’t feasible to watch or revisit, in advance of this review, every single film that is analyzed by Bruns and Olivier in their respective books.)

“I will ‘inhabit’ the Hitchcock landscape,” Bruns announces early on, as if committing to some psychedelic or monastic odyssey. He vows to “follow traces wherever they take me, never in haste.” Indeed, his emphases include an early, reappearing shot of New Yorkers moving about in contrary directions during North by Northwest (1959); the briefly seen intercom—the Teletalk—in Psycho; and an “impossibly telescopic,” rolled-up newspaper in Marnie (1964). Bruns takes seriously these and other ephemeral and seldom-discussed details.

He also quotes from the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. “If you remember Notorious [1946],” Godard once said to the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “what do you remember? Wine bottles. You don’t remember Ingrid Bergman.” On this Bruns is a little skeptical (“one can and should remember both Bergman and the wine bottles,” he protests). Godard’s words are also deployed to fascinating effect in “Hitchcock: The Hidden Power,” the final piece in Geoffrey O’Brien’s 2002 essay collection Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle. O’Brien there articulates a notion of spectatorship that roughly accords with Godard’s words. In O’Brien’s view, we may be drawn into the narrative of any given Hitchcock film while also tuned into something “abstract and dreamlike…that has less to do with intrigue and story logic than with images and situations exerting a mysterious and enduring power.”

Bruns and Olivier bring to mind these spectatorial realms. They effectively ask us to think of our own sensitivity to the magnetism of objects. For instance, after revisiting The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), I kept recalling the hooded duffel coat that is worn and carried by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) throughout the film. It is an object textured, weighty, and green—a green coat for a green FBI trainee. This sheltering cocoon of sorts is linked, through color and editing, to the verdant settings of Clarice’s past. Early in the film, Clarice, wearing the coat, gazes at her parked car. This prompts a childhood memory of her father (Jeffrie Lane), who died when she was ten. We see him, in a flashback scene, parking his own car in the driveway of their rural home. We also see a young Clarice (Masha Skorobogatov), who excitedly runs toward her father after he gets out of the car. This scene quickly disperses and the bygone reunion yields to Clarice’s present-day devastation. But the arboreal atmosphere of the flashback persists, however subtly, through the chromatic outlier of the green coat.

Near the end of the film, Clarice urgently doffs the coat before entering the basement of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The object falls toward its offscreen fate—the floor—and does not reappear in any subsequent shot. This event prefigures Clarice’s partial transition away from the grief of the past and toward the apparent psychological and career-oriented serenity of the film’s conclusion (the eerie phone call from Hannibal Lecter [Anthony Hopkins] notwithstanding). Still, one nearly feels bad for the object. When it is sloughed off for the last time, a certain valedictory quality attends, particularly after repeated viewings. The film attaches us to Clarice’s journey, which can seem as woven into the coat as any of its threads and toggles. The discarded object becomes a thing blessed and mourned.

It becomes other things, too. Bruns wonders if objects “activate” the behavior of characters. (This speculation corresponds with Stern’s point about how “things provoke a certain kind of gestural attention.”) Along similar lines, we can read the discarding of the coat as a propulsive event; it psyches up Clarice. The falling coat helps to enable what quickly ensues: Clarice’s combative stance and her expression of mounting fear and tenacity. It also vaguely suggests an initiatory rite, or perhaps a thrown-down gauntlet. Clarice, at any rate, is more limber without it. She proves her mettle in the dark basement. (Olivier also interprets Clarice’s wardrobe in his “Sewing Machine” chapter, although he neglects to mention the green coat.)

Objects, whether discarded or inching toward obsolescence, are haunting things. They remind us of our being and our death, as in the vanitas genre of still life painting. Olivier locates a comparable meaning in the Japanese term mono no aware, which he summarizes as the “pathos of things” and “an awareness, often melancholic, of transience.” Objects also regularly exceed us. Rachel Owlglass gets at this in V., Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 debut novel, when she regards “the dead rocks that were here before us and will be after us.” She’s talking to Benny Profane, who has his own uneasy relationship with inanimate things. For one, he can’t match Randolph Scott, the film actor “who could handle a six-gun, horse’s reins, lariat. Master of the inanimate.”

Pynchon underscores the task of retaining our humanity in an accident- and object-laden universe. When Profane arrives at his parents’ apartment and finds them away, he turns to the “inanimate food” in their kitchen, “making bits and pieces of it animate, his own.” He wiles away an hour in their otherwise unpeopled home. And he recalls the human source of this nourishment: his mother, who left enough to accommodate any appetite. “Profane was sure,” Pynchon writes, “that the world would be worse off without mothers like that in it.” Olivier, in his own book, also turns to mothers and kitchens but mostly accesses the nonhuman: lively refrigerators. Profane’s gratitude is clearly the sweeter note—the one nearer to family, friends, interpersonal blessings.

Even so, both V. and Household Horror explore the idea that we are bound, in ontological and mortal terms, to a peripheral “family” of inanimate matter. “One of the most terrifying aspects of objects,” Olivier writes in response to a Fyodor Dostoevsky quote, “is that human superiority over them is at best temporary.” This point, which recurs throughout Olivier’s book, refers to more than the inevitability of death. Olivier also has “ontological flattening” in mind here: an occasional, alienating impression of ourselves as object-like. Drawing from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, among others, Olivier ponders object-strewn bedrooms and the boundary-blurring effects of nighttime. In such dimly lit settings, he speculates, we can seem briefly absorbed into a newly indistinct “community of objects.” He makes clear that he is aiming for a similar effect: Household Horror is explicitly designed to reacquaint us with that same community. His goal is achieved not by dint of darkness but by patiently assaying one object after another. The interpersonal is vital. But there are, Olivier ultimately reminds us, less anthropocentric forms of understanding.