In Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows the author muses that Westerners compulsively light spaces and scrub surfaces in fear of shadows and grime whereas the Japanese cherish dark interior spaces and the surface discolourations of patina, and that Japanese ghosts take on a physical presence (minus their feet) where ghosts in the West are transparent. Tanizaki is interested in shadowy interior spaces as they tremble with the infinite potential of yet-unencountered spectres, and more than transporting the fear of the outside unknown into the domestic sphere, the sense of terror in interior spaces can be greater than that of the woods outside. Published in 1933, Tanizaki’s book serves better as a discussion of Japanese aesthetics than a thesis on Japanese v Western ghosts, but the author’s interest in fear, familiarity, and the unknown in architectural spaces makes it invaluable for looking at (among other things) horror cinema.
Ghosts in the West have been located in/embodied by architectural spaces since at least the Victorian gothic period, and entered the modern era through the Anglo-Irish big house fiction maybe exemplified by Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929). Bowen paints the Irish landscape as one of loss, and country houses as living ghosts or ruins. She is interested in ruins of military doing, of migratory abandonment, and of historical erasure. Whatever the cause, they are sites of dispossession and violence, becoming even while lived in, “a traumatic tear in the fabric of time.” Who has been removed to allow for my presence here? Who is still present? Ruins are, according to Kevin Whelan, topochrons containing multiple time periods all at once. Ghosts and ruins turn time from something conceptual into something physical, and history from literature into living memory. Recalling Tanizaki’s observation that Westerners are fearful of marks of time in their cutlery and floorboards might seem prosaic or even offensive, but elaborated on we come to consider the modern destruction of old buildings, the clearing of ruins, and the rewriting of histories as grand narratives.
The Others delineates trauma liberated by the arrival of other histories, literally rejecting modernist impulses towards lighting spaces and”eradicating even the minutest shadow.” Like Gosford Park of the same year the house makes pretend protection for its inhabitants as outside of the house conflicts enter the world-stage, the class system collapses, the empire falls, and external forces encroach on this space mistaken as a safe-haven. Its motifs of light and mist are some of the least subtle that the viewer has come across, and the soldier even turns up for that part of the concept. That the soldier must return to live out his own trauma elsewhere is heartbreaking, and enforces the fact that this is strictly domestic. On an intimate level its pacifism has Kidman breaking down and chastising Eccleston’s involvement in a war that had nothing to do with him (contrary to World War II’s depiction in most media as an absolute moral imperative). We see her pain and her feelings of abandonment and it weighs heavily as a sympathetic perspective on family undone by notions of nationhood and heroism.
Like Signs of the following year we are of course expected to think about this familiar/unfamiliar domestic/world dichotomy in light of the work’s creation. Signs has televisions invading the gold-dappled familial home and aliens encroaching on the cornfields, and The Others has the threat of light being let into the house, doors being left unlocked, and wars being fought outside to undo this fragile domestic state. In 2001 Cool Britannia’s hyper-nationalism was finished, ‘information’ was free, and Tony Blair’s New Labour continued its ostensible social progress at the expense of socialism, steering toward unpopular privatisation, and wearing on its sleeves the proud interventionism which had it join arms with the US in the War on Terror. Amenábar’s scepticism was prescient; someone else will have to say whether or not it was fair.
The country house of the United Kingdom was always haunted, and the ground you stand and sleep on is haunted too. If the house is of any significance, then we can identify the ghosts and events through photographs and official records. Aguirresarobe’s cameras quickly have us adjust to the necessarily low-light conditions of the house which works well for the film’s thematic and dramatic elements, but this comes at the expense of Tanizaki’s “visible darkness”- those corners of absence that take on a presence, where our heads fill with the fearful possibilities of what could be hiding there. We are rarely left to use our imaginative capacity as an audience, and in fact starkly overlaid sounds are used to alert us that something is not right so that someone on screen can go and investigate for us. James Wan’s Insidious and Conjuring series have exploited “visible darkness” to varying degrees of success (sometimes offering catharsis in jump-scares), but John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle (2014) forfeits scares actualised for fears imagined. In terms of visual spaces, that film is the true inheritor of what Tanizaki touched on. It is interesting that in The Others, ventures into the garden are never played for scares and in fact on touching the cold, wet grass the feeling of dread dissipates. The threat comes from within, and from the threat of being forgotten and replaced. Gosford Park watched with a detached grin as those old systems collapsed, and Downton Abbey went through the ruins to build a nostalgic fantasy for Keep Calm and Carry On audiences. The Others is anti-nostalgic, fearful, and belligerent. The past is reconciled with the past, but never with the present or the future. Compared again to Signs where that director ends his films with families embracing each other and our hearts race with hope, The Others fills ours with ice as the family repeats “no one can make us leave this house.” Bowen in Whelan, “‘One cannot say that the space is empty’ even when it is gone; the house remains ‘very much alive.'”