The geographical make-up of a film’s scenario is often a subtle root-cause of its dramatic effect. The sense of place, both its physical and psychological attributes, can be so overwhelming that whole narratives can follow the buckling of characters under pressure from this force; to the point where their own emotional identity and personal dynamics fluctuate, reflect, and occasionally attempt to rebel against an imposing back-drop. One particular relationship which is the main focus of this essay, is how a place, specifically a man-made building, can unleash a character’s repressed desires to the point of fanatical outbursts of burgeoning passions and violence; a common occurrence in many horror films, especially those based around the idea of “Cabin Fever”.
Two buildings in particular come to mind when considering the repression of characters which are haunted by past events, but which also question and impose different aspects of eroticism. One is the monastery in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), the other is The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The two films have a pleasing dynamic parallel though are explicitly different in how their buildings effect the psychological and sexual make-up of the people unfortunate enough to be housed within their haunted walls.
Black Narcissus is a story of an odd group of missionary nuns who take over an empty monastery high up in the Himalayas. The building was once a place where a great leader once kept his women: Kublai Kahn’s Pleasure Dome being an inspiration, its walls littered with erotic artwork of an older, less sanctimonious time. Five nuns take over the building in order to help the locals with education and any illnesses they may have but trouble begins to plague their endeavour almost instantly. The air is heavy and filled with undercurrents of desire that would not be seen in such a way again until Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), another film whose drama is caused by the sexual repression of the religious.
The leading nun, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) begins to have visions of a past love, partly induced by the overt testosterone and presence of a local Englishman, Mr Dean (David Farrar). She’s not the only nun who lusts after him though. Another nun, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), begins to disintegrate because of her lust for him, eventually turning manic, violent, and possessed. All of the time, the building stands ominously on the mountainside, its brothel-house ghosts subtly mocking the chastity of the nuns. Their order is one that is volunteered for, as if cutting off the thing they most wanted was really the best option. It turns out to be les masochistic and more desperate in the end, however. The film can’t help but suggest that a building’s past explicitly effects the psychology of its current inhabitants. The repressed and spurred sexual desire of Sister Ruth eventually leads to violence which is an apt tie-in to Kubrick’s The Shining.
The Overlook Hotel is somewhat different to the monastery in that its past is one that is more surprising and one that manifests physically as well as psychologically through the building itself. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his wife and son (Shelly Duvall and Danny Lloyd) look after a hotel during its closed winter period, again high up in the mountains. The ghosts of the place, who have supposedly drove a previous caretaker of the building to grisly murder, are again goading a repressed man into violence that is both unnatural and paradoxical.
Whilst The Shining has had reams of essays devoted to it and its mysterious labyrinth narrative, there’s little need to look too deeply into the film here. Most of the film’s releasing of repression are also its visual highlights and The Overlook actually unleashes a character’s repression more violently than the gradual decay of the monastery. When Jack wants a drink (hinting at the rumbling of alcoholism), the hotel gives him an open bar and a barman. When he wants more than his wife, the hotel gives him a women in bath. The latter in particular highlights why the building is different to the monastery and its unleashing of sexual desire; in Black Narcissus, the repression is one that generally shouldn’t be present, enforced by a religious falsity that ignores the emotional reality of the nuns’ situation. The Overlook in contrast tempts and tricks Jack, allowing him brief moments of release in order to allow his more violent potential to be unleashed at the ghost’s bequests.
When the women of the bath is shown to be rotting and old, Jack should be aware of what the hotel is trying to do to him. It is a false release that enables him to gradually betray his family, first through small lies but eventually with an axe. It wasn’t the lack of work and play that made Jack a dull boy but it was the building itself that suggested to him that he was missing out on so much more. The grass was supposedly greener back in the golden, flapper age of The Overlook and its time-warped sense of place. Whereas Sister Ruth was eventually spurned by Mr Dean, his heart clearly with Sister Clodagh, Jack is continually egged on in spite of the set-backs of his surprisingly resourceful wife and son. His release of repressed feelings eventually traps him in the maze of the hotel; a fitting end for someone whose emotional identity has become so warped as to be considered maze-like, both to his wife and to himself.
In both films, the sheer gulf and level of repressed eroticism that comes gushing forth leads to a psychological breakdown. The wind gushes around monastery like screams of unmet desires whilst The Overlook Hotel literally bleeds from its doors in a literal gushing when wishing to drive out Wendy Torrance. Even visually, Sister Ruth and Jack Torrance have that same look in their possessed eyes once they are passed the point of repression; that withholding personal boundaries has allowed something far darker to brew underneath and its unleashing upon the people around them is both dangerous and ultimately due to their geographical and psychological pressure.