Tag Archives: Bob Balaban

How Trauma Shapes Perceptions of Body, Identity and Time in ‘I am The Pretty Thing That Lives in The House’

The sophomore project from horror heir Osgood Perkins, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House follows a hospice nurse named Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson) who moves into an isolated and somewhat haunted house to care for a dying author, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). Following similar narrative choices from his first film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Perkins opts for telling story through character rather than plot. Narration, metaphor and abstraction permeate the 90-minute film and asks us to not just look, but to see what unfolds before us.

Chapter I: Body

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a story about trauma and the effects it has on three aspects of a person’s life: body, identity and time.

The body is the first thing to be affected. Studies have shown that memories attached to traumatic events are first registered by the physical body. That means that, whenever attempting to recall a traumatic event, your body might initially respond with strong feelings of fear, pain or death.

After a blot of mold begins to spread, Lily asks the property owner Mr. Waxcap (Bob Balaban) to help clean it up, only to be denied. She then looks for the book The Lady in the Walls and notices a black spot on her fingertip. Later, as Lily washes blackberries, she notices black spots spreading on her body. Her arms become increasingly bloated and rotten. She’s on the verge of tears when Mrs. Blum calls for her, snapping her out of it, only to realize her arms look fine.

Other than gross, this sequence is very telling. It perfectly captures how traumatic memories can create such strong emotional responses that our minds can’t logically process, making it difficult for the person to use language to explain what they are feeling. So, our minds will temporarily delegate to the physical body to translate these emotions into sensation instead of words.

The issue of the mold spreading escalates right after Lily is first exposed to Polly’s story. After asking Mr. Waxcap who Polly is and why Mrs. Blum only calls her by this person’s name, he explains Polly is a character from one of Iris’s novels and — according to Mrs. Blum — is also a ghost that used to haunt the house after being murdered by her husband many years ago. At first Lily is scared, but curiosity gets the best of her and she goes looking for the book.

Many people who suffer trauma have what are commonly known as triggers. These cues can be sounds, smells or objects that ignite sensations and memories of the time they experienced highly stressful situations. When in contact with the book for the first time, Lily encounters the first trigger that will eventually explain the mystery that haunts her.

As we later find, the spot where the mold is growing is where Polly’s body has been hidden. So, when Lily sees her own body rotting away, she is sharing the same experience as Polly’s body. 

Chapter II: Identity

Lily and Polly are one in the same.

A common symptom of trauma is something called Dissociation, which according to the Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services 2014 edition manual, is defined as a “mental process that severs connections among a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and/or sense of identity.” 

This simply means that, after a traumatic situation, our minds — in order to protect us from more suffering — will detach from our bodies. However, depending on the level of distress, some people will bury their own selves deep in their psyche and let a separate aspect of their personality, also known as Alters, come to surface and deal with the issue at hand. This is called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

Polly is the original self that has been cast away and Lily is the version who came out. The fact that Lily is a hospice nurse is quite telling of what her function is: to care for and comfort those who suffer. After all, the function of an Alter is to provide to the person a shield between the physical body — who suffered the trauma — and their mind, that is yet not able to process what happened.

Another sign that Lily is in fact Polly is how Mrs. Blum insists on calling the nurse by the name of the character from her book. Throughout the film, the elderly woman insists on the idea and it all comes crashing down when she confronts Lily — or better say, Polly — on why she left her without any reasoning. As Lily tries to explain she is not Polly by citing her full name and address, the certainty of her own identity disappears and she kneels next to Mrs. Blum, tears of agony flooding her eyes.

When affected by trauma, people can become detached from their previous life. This is because those who go through it will see themselves as damaged or incomplete, leading them to believe that the world is a hopeless and difficult place, and that their suffering is just another nuisance for those around them.

Mrs. Blum represents the people who are left behind, those who try reaching out to the person who used to be in their lives but are no longer able to communicate, as their perceptions of the world and who they are to each other are no longer the same.

Chapter III: Time

Time is an important feature of how I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House works. When we arrive in the house, Lily, who’s already a spirit, tells us the story of how she died. However, the ghost Lily is experiencing is none other than her own future ghost. What this creates is a loop that keeps her coming back to the same time and place, reliving those last moments of her life.

This loop is shown to also affect Mrs. Blum. After dying of fright from seeing Polly’s apparition, Lily’s ghost goes to check on Iris who has died in the bedroom. However, Lily hears the sound of typing in the office, only to find a young version of Iris Blum writing. Iris then feels the presence of Lily’s ghost and calls for Polly.

What appears to be happening is something very common for trauma survivors to experience. As they struggle to connect body and mind, their perception of time becomes warped, their minds stuck to the moment when the traumatic event took place and their bodies dragging them into an uncertain future.

What happens is that a lot of people unconsciously recreenact their traumatic event in a failed attempt at regaining some control. Lily does that by recreating her last year, or what she remembers of it. As she explains, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember, the more she separates mind and body.

“Maybe it is the body that remembers, and without the body there is nothing to hold on to.” – Lily Saylor

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in The House is a quiet film with a lot to say. To analyze the narrative is to barely scratch the surface of it. With cinematography signed by Julie Kirkwood — who also worked on Perkin’s Blackcoat’s Daughter — the film constantly frames its characters alone, with massive amounts of headspace and deep shadows surrounding them, evoking the loneliness these characters experience in their pain.

I could speak about this film for days, unraveling all the visual metaphors and character arcs. Perkins is able to create a world that feels ethereal and earthly at the same time. And by focusing on character, he found an interesting spot where he can approach horror, which is sometimes wrongly deemed as an unintelligent genre, with an almost literary sensibility.

Sources:

BESSEL A. VAN DER KOLK MD. Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, Volume 58, Issue S1 – 04 January 2002. You can read it here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1440-1819.1998.0520s5S97.x

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

PERKINS, Osgood. I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in The House. Netflix, 2016. You can watch it here: https://www.netflix.com/title/80094648