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).

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