[Trevor] One Thing Leads to Another: OCD, Exposure Therapy, and the Liturgy of Horror in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

 

But the long face that you see comes from living close to your fears
If this is up then I’m up but you’re running out of sight
You’ve seen your name on the walls
And when one little bump leads to shock miss a beat
You run for cover and there’s heat, why don’t they
 
Do what they say, say what they mean
One thing leads to another.”
—The Fixx
 
 
In The House of the Devil (2009), Ti West’s atmospheric, low key throwback to the splatter films of the 70s and 80s, the director withholds gore in order to deliver a slow burn exploration into the neurosis of a college sophomore. While I was enamored with the movie on my first viewing for its aesthetics and nostalgic 16mm retro style, upon rewatching, I discovered a much more complex protagonist and themes that paralleled my own struggle with anxiety and OCD. Throughout The House of the Devil, the main character attempts to assuage her fear through compulsive behaviors, and the film itself plays with classic horror cinema tropes, insinuating its own kind of idiosyncratic liturgy. Analogously, I have found a kind of relief and comfort through the liturgy of horror and by observing the heroine’s own rituals as she comes to confront her terror.
 
After an intertitle note about Satanic cults, the film opens with piano overlaying a zoom in to our protagonist, Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue), who is looking out a window of an apartment she is about to lease. By introducing Samantha as one gazing through a glass, we are directed to see the events that follow as coming through her perspective or psyche. Neither is it accidental that she is moving into an apartment, which signifies her desire to take up a new mode of being, to purge herself from a former life.
 
Foregoing any further investigation into Samantha’s background, the realtor tells our cash-strapped protagonist she will offer her the place and even waive the deposit. “I go a lot on my gut feelings” and “I always trust my gut” are two statements the realtor makes within moments of each other, reflecting the liturgical bent of the movie. James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom espouses the idea that, rather than being primarily thinking things— as has been the popular conception in the church since the Enlightenment and Rationalism— humans are desiring animals. By desire, he refers to a gut-level instinct which leads us into habits whereby we are engaging in worship, often unknowingly. With such an understanding of human behavior, we can speak in terms of a cultural liturgy. Cinemas are cathedrals.
 
In the opening, yellow credits, we are given not only a callback to the 80s films, especially with the title freeze frame, but also our cinematic acclamation. Outside her dorm room, Samantha finds a sock on the door, which prompts the response, “Heather, come on! It’s morning.” The sock-on-the-door is a sign all college students know, but its presence outside of nighttime speaks to a notion of appointed time. Retreating to campus, Samantha sees a flyer that reads, “BABY $ITTER NEEDED”, and she immediately calls the number from a payphone, which serves as one of many 80s relics the film contains. When she gets the answering machine, she leaves a message, hangs up, and, before she is out of earshot, hears the payphone ringing. It is, of course, the man in need of a sitter, and West employs this trope here to appeal to horror fans’ collective unease. He tells her he needs to see her now and suggests they meet outside the student center.
 
The next scene is of Samantha sitting and listening to her Walkman before a dissolve to her lying down. Students are being dismissed for Advent and chapel bells ring out, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” During such sacred time, the man has stood her up. Eating pizza with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), a kind of sacramental meal for college students, Samantha tells her that the new apartment has hardwood floors. Megan responds by saying that is “good for a germaphobe like you.” This is the first reference to an irrational or obsessive fear in our protagonist, but it will be developed further as the tension builds. Shifting the subject of the conversation to Samantha’s lost job opportunity, Megan mentions how it was weird how the man stood her up. While it is Megan’s intention to exact revenge by tearing down the remaining flyers, Samantha refuses. 
 
Evening has come and Samantha goes back to her dorm. We see the contrast between the filth and squalor that her roommate lives in and our protagonist’s side of the room. Panicking over her cluttered living situation and her financial problems, Samantha rushes to the communal bathroom and turns on all the faucets. Sitting on the toilet, she says to herself, “Get a grip”, which is a compulsive expression that we will see her repeat throughout the film. We see her engage in some hand washing here which is both a sign of OCD symptoms and of the ritual purification which foreshadows the theme of sacrifice to come. 
 
As someone who has had OCD for almost thirty years, I can relate to Samantha’s invasive phobias. When I was a child, my compulsions were outward, but, as I aged, they became inward. Corresponding to the internalizing of my fears was a transition from a childhood faith that was centered on emotion and an early adulthood faith that elevated the mind. I latched on to Reformed Theology, and I relished its intellectualizing that was so novel in comparison with my Southern Baptist upbringing. However, it was not long before systematics became a new obsession for me, further detaching me from reality and the world. Over the course of the last five or six years, I have found comfort in liturgy, and it has occurred to me that the reason liturgy nurtures me is because it replaces corrupt compulsions with divine directives. In other words, I am able to participate in rituals which are genuinely healing to my emotions and thought processes instead of empty, ritualized actions that send me into a morbid inward spiral. Furthermore, liturgy exposes me to my own mortality, and what is the most fundamental fear but the fear of death? Rehearsing the rhythm of the life of exile and faith, I am able, through liturgy, to have fear as a cohabitant without succumbing to urges to avoid it.
 
After returning to her dorm, Samantha learns from her awakened roomie that she received a phone call while she was out. It is the man in need of a sitter. “I need you tonight,” he tells her. “Another girl did not work out. You will be home after midnight.” Further advancing the idea of ritual sacrifice and offering statements drenched in irony are when he adds, “You’re saving me. I promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”
 
Although Megan drives Samantha into the country, she makes clear that she is against the idea. She does not want to take her friend to a weirdo who lied to her and does not like dropping Samantha “in the middle of Jabib.” Samantha’s rebuttal is to claim that anyone who lives out in the country in such luxury must have a good job and a lot of money. “Money makes you normal,” she says, revealing her naive belief in the morally hygienic effects of wealth. The radio then forecasts a lunar eclipse— sacred time imposes itself once more.
 
The girls arrive at Victorian manse. Enter sacred place. Upon entering, the girls meet Vincent Ulman (Tom Noonan), who only recently arrived to town. After eyeing Megan, Mr. Ulman takes Samantha aside and says, “I am only paying one person for their time.” Reassuring him, she insists that Megan is just her ride. Meanwhile, the friend is sitting on the couch crunching on blood-red candy in almost sacramental fashion. Megan takes the opportunity to “take, eat”; Mr. Ulman, meanwhile, has a confession to make. There is no child to babysit, but he needs someone to house-sit for his elderly mother-in-law. For a moment, it looks as if Samantha is going to back out of this creepy deal. Instead, she negotiates with him into getting $400, knowing the risk she is exposing herself to. She has made a bargain with the devil. 
 
Storming off, Megan is incensed. And yet, Samantha remains poised and says, “All I have to do is sit inside and watch TV.” Megan settles and pulls away, only to pull over at a graveyard. As she is trying to ignite her cigarette, Megan is startled by a guy, who we will later know as Victor Ulman (AJ Bowen), jumping out with a lighter. Realizing she isn’t the babysitter, the young man shoots her in the head in a shocking moment of intrusive violence.
 
Before leaving the house for the evening, Mr. Ulman goes to retrieve his wife and says, “Be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” This idiom further establishes the sacrifice motif. Although Mr. Ulman can be heard talking to Vivian Ulman (Mary Woronov) upstairs, the woman enters from the basement. “I get disoriented,” Samantha says when she is startled by Mrs. Ulman’s appearance. “My friend Megan says I am out to lunch.”
 
For most of the film, not much happens. It was not until my second viewing until I realized how familiar I was with what was occurring. Samantha is engaging in checking rituals. Magnifying the pain of checking rituals is that they are a kind of hyper-vigilance that tricks your brain into believing that there is danger when in fact there isn’t any. And, in some cases, being engaged in such states of hyper-vigilance, I found myself distracted from actual danger. Samantha performs the following to repel evil:
 
She checks the pool room.
She turns on a light.
She calls Megan on a rotary phone.
She gets the answering machine (replete with a fake out, “Hello–I’m not actually here.”)
She walks the halls. 
 
Meanwhile, horror aficionados know that scary films have a liturgy all their own. While Samantha is locked in her rituals, we perform ours:
 
We call for her to check her corners.
We pray for her to leave the house.
We close our eyes for potential jump scares.
We stare at our screens.
We close our eyes.
 
Suffering from OCD, I have found that the liturgy of horror that has helped me to simulate the experience of fear in a controlled fashion. Exposure-Response-Prevention Therapy (ERP) is the only proven method for addressing OCD, and horror and the rituals involved with it, has been for me a kind of exposure therapy. In college, I paced the aisles of the horror section with my best friend Ryan and my brother Logan as we gambled on obscure VHS and DVD titles.
 
 
One of the best moments in the entire movie is when Samantha pops a cassette of The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” into her Walkman and starts bopping through the house. While offering some relief to the creeping dread, the song’s lyric reminds me of the truth of OCD. One thing does lead to another as when, as a sufferer, I engage in a compulsion, whether it is mental or physical, to ward off an obsessive thought, I have just made a compact with the devil. Because I have aligned that compulsion with an arbitrary procedure for finding relief or comfort, I lock myself into an interminable cycle of a need to soothe my obsessive fear with that particular compulsion as well as with other, even more outrageous compulsions.
 
At a certain point, the song concludes when Samantha breaks a vase in the upstairs hallway. Sweeping up the remnants, she opens a closed door and sees furs that Mrs. Ulman had said were in the basement. Uncovering other lies, Samantha finds pictures of families, one with a Volvo, which prompts a flashback to the Volvo that Mr. and Mrs. Ulman drove off in and Megan pointed out. Additionally, she sees a van in a picture and spots an identical one in the driveway. It takes her back to her liturgy.
 
She calls Megan again.
She grabs a knife.
She opens the toilet.
She recites, “Get a grip.”
 
Placing toilet paper on the seat, Samantha demonstrates elements of OCD contamination. What should be noted though is that often with OCD contamination it is not only about physical dirtiness but about a moral dirtiness as well. Something is not right or just off, which is the commonality of all obsessions.
 
Continuing her checking rituals, Samantha comes to a door, which, in an artful use of dramatic irony, we are shown through a camera pan that the room is full of massacred bodies and a pentagram. The doorbell buzzing jolts Samantha and she runs downstairs, opens the door, grabs the pizza, throws a twenty dollar bill, and locks the door. She flies to the sink and turns on the water, saying again, “Get a grip.” When Sam calls Megan this time, the number, we are told, is not in service. By accident, Sam calls 911, but she reassures the operator that all is well. Cutting the pizza with a butcher knife emphasizes once more our protagonist’s contamination fears. She tosses the rest of the pizza and purges with water. She plops on the couch, turns on the television to horror movies, and turns it off. Exposure will be delayed in favor of more checking rituals.
 
 
On the second floor, Samantha eventually comes into the bathroom to find a tub full of clumps of hair. What could be more horrific to someone suffering from Contamination OCD than tufts of a stranger’s hair? Additionally, I have found that in my OCD struggles that my intrusive thoughts and fears share a kind of banality, a kind of mundaneness that heightens their horror. 
 
Throughout all of her checking rituals, Samantha has routinely passed a door that she has opted out of testing to see if it is unlocked. As an OCD sufferer, there is always that taboo or unmentionable idea that is a locked door to a room I will not enter.  The fear of the forbidden causes Samantha to pass out and when she wakes she is in that room, tied to a pentagram, and surrounded by Mr. Ulman, Mrs. Ulman, and Victor, who are wearing monkish robes. Engaging in a lunar sacrificial rite, the Ulmans force Samantha to drink blood, which is the ultimate exposure therapy for one dreading contamination. She escapes by gouging the son’s eye, which is significant because the eye is itself a symbol of obsession and fixation. In the only graphic moments of the movie, as Samantha fights her way free, being shot in the process and having to slit the son’s throat, her white dress is saturated red. As she scrambles to find help, she has intermittent flashes of a creature. An injured Mr. Ulman hobbles toward her and says, “I’m telling you. No matter what happens it can’t be stopped. It will work in spite of you.” The statement reveals that, for the OCD sufferer, fear will come no matter how many compulsions are performed. “They’re calling for you. Just listen to them,” says Mr. Ulman. Intrusive thoughts and obsessives fears are calling out, and it is constant. Choosing to not engage, Samantha takes the most extreme measure and, in attempting to exhume her obsessive fears, shoots herself in the head. The house of the devil is not the manse but her mind.
 
 
But the homage to classic 80s horror flicks would not be complete if the story ended there. The last shot is of Samantha alive in the hospital— pregnant. While the nurse might inform the viewers that Samantha is going to be fine, we know otherwise. The fetus is OCD taking on another form.
 
As I write, we are under quarantine due to the coronavirus, and it is Good Friday. The film takes on new weight in view of the current sequestration. While many feel claustrophobic and confined from shelter-in-place orders, that kind of trapped sensation is daily for OCD sufferers. We find solace though in the good news that Christ went through the sacrifice ritual so we can abandon our petty rites.  He went to the house of the devil to free us from any compact and to move us to the house of God. We do not stand beneath the eclipse of the moon but we stand staring in the face of the Son. He became filth and dirt for us so that we could be clean. He was baptized with blood, so we could be baptized with water. And we are pregnant not with our own fears but with the new creation that is being birthed in us. The whole cosmos is being renewed as the seeds of his renewing death and resurrection continue through to the world without end, where one thing truly leads to another. 
 
 

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