[Trevor] Purging the Past: Survivor’s Guilt in The Void (2016)

the void 2016

As an homage to 80s B-Horror movies, Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s The Void (2017) invokes both Cronenberg and Carpenter; it is at once Lovecraftian and low-budget. Atmospheric and stylized, the film showcases creature effects that are a callback to some of the most visceral moments of the Reagan era: from the demonic gore of Evil Dead (1981) to the metamorphic muck of The Fly (1986). Wasting no time, The Void propels audiences forward with its nervous, tense pacing and disjointed, ambient score. But the film is more than pastiche and contained within its approximately 90 minute runtime is a tribute not only to horror movies of the 80s but to the past itself and the idea of letting go. While some critics might find contradiction in The Void’s exhumation of cinema of the past in order to tell a story about the necessity of relinquishing the past for the purpose of healing, it is precisely this paradox that elevates the film as a work of art and assigns it a gravitas: in order to purge the past, we must process it.

After a grisly opening scene, we are given several ominous, wide-lens shots of middle America: a solitary oil derrick, a vacant motel, and an abandoned gas station. The subtext is evident throughout these images: evil lurks in the ordinary niceties of the flyover states. While the concept is a familiar one, the Canadian filmmakers present it in such a visually striking and narratively engrossing way that it does not seem tepid. Viewers are also yanked along at breakneck speed as from the beginning we are introduced to the unstable world of The Void when police officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) picks up a druggie and ferries him to a local hospital in rural, small town America. The hospital, we soon discover, is itself a burn victim, its basement level still charred from a a tragic fire that occurred in the recent past. As a result, the hospital is in transition and in the stages of moving to a new location, which is emblematic of the moving on that must occur after personal trauma. It doesn’t take long before we are introduced to a narrative of loss when we learn that one of the head nurses, Allison (Kathleen Munroe), is Daniel’s ex-wife and lost a son to a miscarriage. Meanwhile, white-hooded, knife-wielding cultists stand outside and are descending upon the building. Ratcheting up the suspense are two strange, armed men who arrive and demand that the druggie be sacrificed or everyone will be slaughtered. Drenched with pulp, the next hour plus is a blur of Chthonian creatures gestating and emerging from the womb in shots reminiscent of Aliens (1986) while the menacing threat of the cloaked figures further accelerates the sense of helplessness that is befalling our cast of characters.

Readers unfamiliar with my own backstory should know that this film resonated with me on an emotional level due to being the father of a disabled and terminally ill child. My daughter, Karis, was diagnosed with a Leukodystrophy called Krabbe disease, and that still sounds as bizarre and arcane to me as even the most obscure of Lovecraftian legends as it did the first day I heard the geneticist pronounce it with all of the accompanying dread. It was in a hospital, no less, where I pushed myself to my feet from my prostrate position where I had been leveling complaints and cries of desperation to the Almighty and wondering if the cosmos was as cruel and indifferent as the father of literary horror had so depicted it eight decades or so ago. Were my prayers penetrating the child art ceiling tiles of that sterile and cold room or were my words some frail and futile attempt to organize meaning where there was none, to find significance in suffering that was random and chaotic? As I stared into the blinding fluorescent lights, I was gazing into my own abyss, my own void of sorts. I was in my first semester at Reformed Theological Seminary, and I had subscribed to the authoritative, micromanaging deity that the Genevan theologian is known for advocating. In my case, the Father was not some deadbeat dad but a helicopter parent that monitored my every move. Why then was I receiving a daughter who was given the prognosis of never speaking, never being able to hold her own head up, never having the power to so much as swallow her own spit? Was I being given a scorpion instead of an egg, a serpent instead of a fish?

Throughout the film, there are several prominent ironies, one of which being that the hospital, a place that is meant for recovery and healing, is also a place of death. Early in the movie, a nurse intern says to a patient that a person is statistically more likely to die in a hospital than anywhere else. The dichotomy of death and healing will be developed further when the doctor (who is played by Kenneth Welsh, an actor that Twin Peaks fans will recognize at once for his villainous role as the nefarious Windom Earle) mutates into a monster who is still in mourning over the death of his own daughter. Thus, the one who is dispensing death and destruction is also the one who is seeking to bring resurrection, albeit in twisted fashion to his deceased offspring. In spite of his unwillingness to accept the pain of his daughter’s death, or perhaps because of it, the doctor is able to speak insightfully into Daniel’s pain over the death of his son. “I see it in your face,” the monster says at one point. “The night Allison lost your child. I saw relief.”

Survivor’s guilt, or the feeling of false guilt that arises when someone outlives another after a traumatic event, is not the exclusive domain of veterans and Holocaust victims. In a sense, we are all surviving, more or less, the ravaging effects of the progression of time and aging and the decay of our mortal bodies. The filmmakers communicate this sense of regret and remorse in Daniel and Allison who are bereaved from having had to give up a son before he even had a moment of life outside the womb. In the cruelest of paradoxes, they had to say, “Goodbye” without ever having the opportunity to say, “Hello.” Parents are not supposed to bury their children. It is a tragic reversal.

Karis stopped breathing my last semester on campus and had to be intubated. For the next four months, I sat vigil by her side at night while the nurses, respiratory therapists, and doctors tended to her. By day, I went to class and learned about William Perkins’s ordo salutis chart, Bavinck’s principia, and the full gamut of injunctions and prohibitions implied by each of the ten commandments. There was much irony and with it came detachment. Seminary had long been a golden calf in my mind, an idol that I had crafted from my own furnace of desires and now that I was being given it, I could care less. The only seminary that mattered to me was the schoolhouse of life and suffering that I had at Karis’s side. One afternoon in particular, when she struggled to breathe, I looked into her eyes, and I saw what I thought was a plea, “Let me go, Daddy.”

Nearing its culmination, the film depicts Allison as giving birth to a creature with tentacles and tendrils that would have rivaled the best of Lovecraft’s erratic imaginings. Her cry to her ex-husband indicates the struggle inherent to the movie’s theme, “Daniel, stay.” Initiating his journey of healing and release though, Daniel refuses to be party to this faux-delivery and pseudo-child and takes an axe to the monster, which is symbolic of him putting to death the past which he and Allison have selfishly clung to. Alternatively, the doctor and monster says, “Do you see, Daniel? Tell me what you see?” The protagonist’s response is an indictment on all of us who would attempt to construct a world outside of God’s good rule: “I see a monster that thinks he’s god.” Upholding Daniel’s assessment, the monster says, “I refuse to let death be the end. I defy god. There are things much older. Older than time, and they blessed me.” Perhaps it is no wonder then that the sign of the monster and that the occultists wear on their hoods is that of a triangle, a kind of mock Trinity. Clarifying his aims further, the monster says, “I spent my life resisting death, but now I understand. I must embrace it. I’ll have my beautiful daughter back. I just have one final thing.”

the void allison

We had a decision to make. After consulting with the doctor and respiratory therapists, Karis’s mom and I were told that she would not be able to breathe any more without the assistance of a tracheotomy. Burdened by the thought of my daughter being dependent on a ventilator and tube as well as considering the risk of her going through another major surgery, I longed for her to have delivery from her suffering. Not knowing how she felt, I agonized over the prospect of prolonging her pain just so I could preserve her life and enjoy her presence. At that point in my life, I was still committed to the idea of negative emotions, and I wrestled with false guilt and misplaced self-judgment over feeling relief that my daughter could be in the company of the redeemed and the healing proximity of the Lord. In my struggle of grief, I had to eventually accept rather than resist these emotions in order to grow. While as parents we decided to proceed with the surgery, I will not forget the conflicting emotions and the nonlinear experience of grief that continues for me today.

The monster makes an ironic request of Daniel and says that he can undergo transformation, but first the police officer must die for the doctor. The villain even adds to his monologue by saying, “Like your Father and Son before you.” Unlike the false god of the film, our God does not demand a sacrifice from our hands but received the sacrifice from the Son’s hands. Instead of pulling us into the abyss, the Son of God went into the abyss for us, and he is the original survivor, having withstood the wrath of God for all who believe in him and having taken on all their guilt such that even legitimate guilt becomes false for the faithful. And, as a beautiful inverse to the doctor/monster of the movie, Jesus is the doctor who became a monster for us for, “‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree (Galatians 3:13).’” The Son of God was wounded so we might be healed. He was deformed and mutilated for us so that in him we could become whole and transformed in God’s sight. He is the horror that is also holy.

Those who watch The Void may suggest that it could be trimmed by one scene, and there is merit to that idea. But as I watched and saw the hopeful parting gesture exchanged between the two characters I interpreted it as a note of finality to the theme that had been recurring. To move on from a fire, we first have to inhabit the pain. In order to heal from our past, we, ironically, must process it.

Sometimes, that is in the form of an 80s homage horror flick.

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