“To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.” — Susan Sontag
My maternal grandfather, Shiwóyé hastiin in Apache, lived with my family during the latter years of his life in the late 1980s. I was about 9 years old and he would watch me play basketball on my makeshift hoop in the backyard while smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and spitting chewing tobacco into soda cans with the lids chopped off. He was mostly quiet, on occasion sharing stories about encounters with rattlesnakes around his horse corral, his review of western movies played on late-night cable, and stories about my mother that were lessons on respect. Sadly, many of the stories have been lost somewhere in memory since that time so long ago.
However, one memory that continues to evoke strong emotions from me in oddly strange ways over the course of life pertains to a story about mirrors that he shared with me. I remember everything about the story, the smell of the tobacco he was smoking, the hot humidity from the approaching summer storm floating off the ground, and the silhouette of his presence sitting cross-legged on a metal chair that slightly rocked with a creaking noise on every sway back and forth. I remember him taking a long drag off his rolled cigarette, looking off into the distance of the approaching storm, and saying with a serious tone “cover the mirrors, there’s lightning.” He then pointed towards a large mirror in my family living room and said only one word, “spirits.” That mirror would scare me the remainder of my time in that house.
And that memory continued to affect me; my fear of Candyman when I first watched it, how I closed my bathroom doors during lightning storms in my first apartment, and the distinct memory of the shape of the mirror in my childhood family living room that unnerved me so much. But it’s also the sweet feeling of being with my grandfather for that short time; my comfort for a good celebratory cigar that smells just like the tobacco I remember, the feeling of the changing atmosphere during a storm, and, ultimately, my love for horror. Memory, the sight, sound, sensation, is pure emotion.
The 1980 horror film The Changeling, from director Peter Medak, is a film founded and persuaded by the theme of memory and the emotion it corresponds, communicates, and conjures throughout the course of its meticulously crafted and beautifully constructed haunted house horror. Memory is completely intertwined into every single aspect of The Changeling, the story structure and the character composition are all influenced by memory in some way, shape, or form. That is ultimately what continues to strengthen the influence of The Changeling 40 years after its release.
From the start, before lights, camera, action, The Changeling channels the memory of an actual haunted house story from the late 1960s. Russell Hunter, a music arranger from New York City, moved to Colorado and rented a house in Denver. Not long after moving in, strange occurrences and peculiar phenomenon began to happen throughout the house. Loud banging and clashing without a known source of contact would echo through the house every morning at 6:00am. Faucets would turn on and doors would open and close without warrant, then Mr. Hunter discovered a secret staircase in the back of a closet that led to a secret upstairs room where the remnants of young disabled child’s toys and schoolbooks were found, detailing a life of isolation.
The memories of this large mansion nearly identically mimic the events in Peter Medak’s The Changeling. The bouncing red ball, the notorious family inheritance story, and the unnerving séance scene are directly pulled from the original events. It’s those memories of a life event that influence a majority of the frights in the film. It doesn’t need the extravagance of blood or terrifying ghosts, just the memory of a house that communicated the only way it could. There is a calm and unnerving steadiness to the composition of the film, to call it “slow” would betray the craft that goes into retelling the story. Peter Medak does an exceptional job of pushing the viewer slowly into the thick and deliberate atmosphere, crafting a haunted house film that scares you through the memories the house embodies and the emotion it connects to through the characters living inside it.
Oscar winner George C. Scott, alias Patton, Dr. Strangelove, Ebenezer Scrooge, Kinderman, and many other iconic characters, composes the lead role of John Russell in The Changeling. From the beginning moments we see John with a happy smile even during a moment of frustration while pushing a broken-down car on a snowy highway. His family, laughing and making the most of the situation, have a snowball fight as John walks to call for help, his smile still beaming towards the vessels of his complete happiness. Then, tragedy. The smile fades and for the remainder of the film, John Russell is tormented by the visual memory of the death of his happiness right in front of his eyes.
The memory of trauma found within George C. Scott’s character is deeply rooted as a supporting contributor for the effectiveness of The Changeling, Mr. Scott’s subdued yet tormented character is changed in the first few minutes of the film. And from that moment, his smile never returns, his gait is labored, and his demeanor is completely defeated. It’s the little things that make Scott’s character portrayal so emotional, how riding horses brings a flood of unbearable sadness with the memory of his daughter, how the piano that he once lovingly composed music on seems to only awaken the memory of his wife’s support that he will never feel again, and the fact that the haunted house he rents seems built for a family and not a lonesome man struggling with grief.
Mr. Scott and screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox take the memories of a life once happy and add the trauma of loss into the composition of a character the viewer is forced to discover supernatural secrets with, adding a sense of hopelessness that lingers throughout every turn; when a mysterious child’s play ball tumbles down a dark staircase, John Russell reacts with an unnerving calm because whatever terrible entity is calling out to him will never be as scary or terrifying as the loss he has already experienced. It’s exceptional character development that completely saturates the film with dread even before scary things happens.
The influence of this technique can be felt years later. Look no further than the emotional and traumatic manipulation of sadness in Toni Collette’s character in Hereditary, or the immense grief and suffering felt with every motion of Florence Pugh’s performance in Midsommer. Even before these superb examples, The Changeling was channeling memory and fright with masterful brushstrokes.
The memory of The Changeling continues today, with the beautiful Blu-ray release from Severin Films bringing the classic haunting story back into reexamination. And even as time and memory continue to move forward and fade with new stories replacing old stories, with more haunted house movies to push conversations of The Changeling farther into the depths of memory, the pure cinematic qualities of perfect story introductions, a rusted maniacal wheelchair, red rubber bouncing balls, and the legendary image of George C. Scott will always be the pictures that awaken the memory of this film that will never be forgotten.
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