Disembowel Disavowal, and Vice Versa

Of the many wonders of The Shining, bear fellatio is one of the most beguiling. In this rattle-and-synthesizer unravelling, the ominous surrealism in the film’s veins since the first mountainous vista gushes out, and the one hold-out onlooker finally tunes-in to the proper wavelength. The ursine sex, rotten, sliced ghouls, and out of order elevators are largely dislodged in the collective unconscious now, or are foggier, having dissolved in the acid of cable-rerun decay and more iconic, beaten-to-death iconography: maniacal glares, stretched, exasperated line readings, Dadaist manuscripts, tongue wagging threats, repetitious interior design, ominous continuity errors, and moon landing conspiracy theories. Room 237 didn’t dwell on this tardy, nonlinear reveal much, in other words. But, that moment when the horror of the setting finally coheres before Wendy’s eyes is a significant one, a sequence that embodies the imbalanced, hallucinatory ambiance—like Folke Rabe’s What??, tones and tempos slowly, near-imperceptibly shift until that moment when you suddenly realize you’ve drifted not just far afield, but beyond a point-of-no-return, into all-enveloping existential panic.   Leyland Kirby, as The Caretaker, crystallized the liquid reality in sepia amber, reveling in the warped new order and parlor haze in the decayed-78s masterstroke Overlook séance, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. The disconcerting mystery of that record title is apt: “beyond this world” could quite literally refer to a macabre supernatural plane just beyond perception, or a shift in lived-reality wherein memory either miscarries or uncomfortably reconstitutes. Fading times and declining physicality combine with fallible mental processes; experience softens and pops, and insignificance comes into focus. The fragile, frosty, paper-thin veneer the mind created to paper-over the difficult-to-reconcile undercurrents melts away and instantaneously vanishes from memory. In the warp and crackle, there’s beauty and terror, warmth and chill, beckoning and hesitation, as well as diffuse, mourned sensations—of “empty bliss,” “sufficient lucidity,” “gradations of loss,” “fleeting dreams,” and a “disappointingly elusive sublime”—all dwelling in a windowless mental cavern.

Under the icy surface, The Shining is full of these conjured swells. What seems to be a pressed-death-dirge to an inevitable mental break is more an ambient exercise of smooth surface and churning Hobbesian surplus repression sea—“The Great Hidden Sea of the Unconscious,” violent, silent crescendos delivered with ruthless precision. In the aforementioned moment of revelation for Wendy, her perception finally aligns and attunes and she can fully see beyond the veil. Her denial breaks and her brain chemistry cocktail flash boils. To that snapping point, hers was a more visceral experience of family disintegration and mounting domestic abuse in a grand, incredibly isolated setting. If her skim-read of Jack’s “Untitled” was the moment she confronted her husband’s irreversible madness, her communion with the hotel proper is when she steps into the realm of psychosis and sees its scope, surmising what had always been there, so to speak. Kubrick was eminently keen to dilate archetypes. What is The Shining but an exercise in turning popular-horror into an impenetrable drone-film, and vice versa? Fitting then, that the concept of diegetic denial is not just protracted but hypotrochoidal. In his hands, denial is a many-splendored motherfucker.

Denial is a continuum of psychological refusal—from normal stress-recoil to severe psychosis—wherein an individual delimits a given reality to avoid potential feelings of discomfort. It is the defense mechanism to defeat all defense mechanisms, playing a role in all under the umbrella; Freud referred to it as disavowal. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of early childhood development. It’s internal editing; it’s a plausible fantasia in the mind that transposes pragmatism; it’s feeling over fact. So often in horror film, the supernatural leaks into the established setting—an unsettling creak, an inexplicably moved inanimate object, a rupture in time and space that defies the tenets of the known universe, a mythological beast suddenly thrust into the natural world. For long lengths, characters stretch every conceivable shred of evidence, every clue, no matter how shaky or suspect, to craft an ill-fitting rationale. In the process, the cracks in the characters’ sanity slowly spiral; the dense wall constructed from previous notions of certainty succumbs to a new reality. On screen, it’s a naked exploration of the inner-workings of the mind at its most desperate visualized and narrativized— centripetal force takes over, anxiety supersedes rationality as a thinning alternate theory is pulled over that which is outwardly plain-as-day and chilling.

It’s tricky business making self-effacing, internalized, stillborn sui-deception literal; horror is best at it, banking on the abstractions of human psychology, traversing the precarious ground between willful censure and deeply-ingrown delusion, and setting up the inevitability of a system failure. As a genre, horror is constructed and mappable, defined by the ebb and flow of adrenaline. The denial defense mechanism can function as a tether to our own experience of the text., a throughline for pure experience and slack for ingratiating with the besieged on-screen proxies. In many, it’s just a matter of how drawn-out or how rapid the crumble, how long it takes for the faulty logic to cave in. Sometimes, it’s even institutional; more often than not, it’s reduced to a representative individual slowly suffocating on lunacy. The immutable fact about denial is: without fail, it does not work long-term. Reality always wins. Even when horror snaps back around and reconciles the inexplicable into what was, there’s still the insuppressible embrace of insanity that was forced to the fore.

There are few things more terrifying than having your perception upended, than coming face-to-face with your cognitive lack, to realize that not only have you been seeing the world all-wrong, but that the fatal flaw digs deep down into the core of your being. Its pervasiveness and descending arc makes it an ideal horror convention, and a dispiriting mirror into modern times, plagued by two dominant, cohabitating nervous systems. Even at this climax of the inescapable ideological collision, there’s little-to-no cohesion or osmosis, just more division, each unequivocally rejecting the legitimacy of the other, both entrenched in a particular, unbending worldview. In a world where subjectivity is the default fallback position, no matter the circumstance, it’s valuable to witness this mechanism dismantle itself, to observe as ideology, inertia, momentum, impulsiveness, and stubbornness all slam into a wall. That the death of denial is a violent one in horror is supremely satisfying.

Biases in the human mind favor negation rather than the heavy-lifting of affirmation. Mental boundaries are sketched and drift and augment as uninvited information enters. Tension builds as the distance between reality and the mind’s eye widens. A given horror character’s success at suppressing the unwelcome outside world defines the gap between our perception and theirs. In the fissure, we can both rehearse and analyze denial as a psychological mechanism, as a sociocultural framework, and as an anthropological adaptation. Once the omnipotent distance closes, the allegory pivots and the next psychological stage is entered. The nature of the new reality, the film’s relation to the new status quo, and the real-world correlatives that mirror the shift all point to a particular ideology forged in fire, for good or ill, transgressive and vulgar.

In our real world slow-motion implosion: Qualifications and public service be damned. Syntax, articulateness, rationality, and lucidity? Who needs ’em? Misogyny and crypto-fascism? Who gives a flying fuck? Traditionalism embraces its most regressive, hypocritical, wrong-side-of history, hallow nostalgia tendencies. Neo-liberalism prematurely flirts with the mainstream then recedes back, perhaps losing ground. Competing realities widen and ossify. Juxtaposition doesn’t clarify, it forces false equivalency. Malleable strategy, naked pandering to the ugliest, most reliable blocks, words with no meaning, profit over principles? All totally normalized in short order, liquefied and dumped like toxic waste in an ocean of information and attenuating attention where it’s only measurable in parts-per-million. The anodyne denial phase, an atmospheric base element of any slow-to-evolve state, is at the heart of our contemporary co-communal cognitive dissonance. As with the classic horror spectator, the ideal viewer of modernity is not one who seeks coherence, but rather one who accepts its absence. If you don’t think denial applies to the deafening tenor of our times, you’re deep in its clutches, putting blinders up to unsettling and enlightened trends alike. The future is no longer what it was, sadly and not; it’s coming with a vengeance for those fighting the tide, grizzly sodomy and all.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine

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