Phil: “Gordy? You look tired, man. You look beat. Your turn to feed Emma?”
When I was in high school, the debate team was at Stanford University for a tournament. The debate tournaments at Stanford were legendary for running until two or three o’clock in the morning, with hours dragging by while results were apparently tabulated on abacuses in order to schedule the next rounds. So with nothing better to do at midnight, and with all the doors to all the academic buildings unlocked for the tournament, we wandered all over in our fifty dollar suits with ties ever so casually loosened, looking for anything of interest. We found a bathroom in the basement of the psychology department that years later was the only thing I could think of when I saw the bathroom in Saw.
Fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed, a sort of haze hung in the air, trash bags were ripped open and taped against the walls and over the urinals. Not a drop of water remained in any of the toilets, and the sinks gasped air when you turned the ancient silver handles. Holes gaped in the walls, broken tiles cluttering the floor under foot. In the back, in a little nook were piles of black trash bags and a wooden door with a two-foot-wide hole broken through the middle. Darkness was on the other side, though the dim fluorescents revealed the shadowed outline of mounds more trash bags.
We dragged other students down there, whispers and excitement spreading of the madness in the basement of the psychology department. Paranoid sixteen-year-olds told each other of the Stanford Prison Experiment and speculation raged as to what exactly was going on in there, as to what exactly was in those piles of trashbags. A coach overheard, cocked an eyebrow and said “it just sounds like a bathroom under renovation.”
Explanations were attempted at length, but every detail dug the narrator deeper into a hole of trying to explain why such mundanities were of any interest. The individual components of the room were almost irrelevant when enumerated, it was the sum of them that mattered, combined with the giddiness of group hysteria mixed with sleep deprivation. The bottom line was that the bathroom felt wrong on every level. You walked into that room and were convinced it was the lair of a serial killer.
Session 9 is that experience in movie form.
The movie is about a small company employed to remove asbestos from an abandoned mental asylum. We are introduced to the workers, normal guys instead of caricatures. They have the odd sort of cross section of problems and worries that real people have. David Caruso stars but isn’t the main character. His star power is a great addition to the film because he functions as a red herring throughout. The recognizable guy in the low budget film has to be either the protagonist or the antagonist in the end, right? Just like how any guest star you recognize on “Law and Order” has to be the killer.
With a slow burn of growing tension, the men become more and more uneasy as the simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic asylum dominates their days. One of the characters finds a series of tapes and begins listening to them while he works. These are the sessions of the title, a series of psychiatric sessions with a little girl with multiple personalities, a former patient named Mary Hobbes to whom something terrible happened, something to do with a final personality not revealed until the final words of the movie in the ninth recorded session. It’s a brilliant conceit, these sessions that creep both us and the characters out, but that have absolutely nothing directly to do with the plot of the film. We feel that they must, that the creepiness of the asylum must have a secret within those tapes. But the tapes are not a plot device so much as a parallel story that echoes the themes of the story of the characters. The tapes are the distraction that the director uses on the audience while the sleight of hand occurs elsewhere.
The film is full of brilliant moments that stick in your head after the fact. There’s the scene in which a character thinks he’s found a hidden treasure trove of old gold coins and trinkets behind some bricks, while a simple pan of the camera shows the audience that he is actually digging into the clogged debris at the back of an old crematorium. The most cringe-inducing removal of sunglasses ever. The warbling voice on the tapes when Simon finally speaks. The final ten minutes, when everything snaps into focus, not a twist so much as a revelation.
There are no sudden reveals, no gory cuts, no slow motion escalation of inexplicable events until you’re just waiting for a knife to punch through the wall. It has the trappings of a haunted house flick, building terrible tension throughout, but it pulls away from that genre standard of ratcheting, and then loosening a bit just to rachet more. It accomplishes this by tightening the screws entirely through atmosphere and characterization. The trope is to present a place that would freak people out and then give reasons why the characters should freak out, even as they don’t, or at least don’t to the point that a real person would. Session 9 shows us the creepiest location in the world (it was filmed at the actual moldering remains of Danvers Asylum, a real location where they pioneered lobotomies early in the last century) and then proceeds to have the characters freak themselves out without any help. By the time the first hint of actual violence occurs, the movie is almost over, and it is done so deftly that even we the audience are not quite sure that violence actually occurred until the final ten horrifying minutes. The film is a masterpiece at relying on audience empathy. We are not scared because scary things are happening. We are not even scared because we think something scary is about to happen. We are scared because the characters are scared, even if they can’t articulate why.
We’re not scared of the dark because there might be monsters in it. Monsters are the easy way out, the way of defining and corralling that fear. We’re scared of the dark most profoundly when we are forced to reconcile by process of elimination the notions that we are both alone and in the presence of evil.
Doctor: “Why did you do it, Simon?”
Mary Hobbes: “Because Mary let me, Doc. They always do. They always do.”
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.