Spatial Symbolism: The House

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Because I have friends and friends talk sometimes, it came to be that a friend and I were talking about laundromats. I like laundromats. I like the soothing, repetitive noises of clothing soup getting sloshed around in a centrifuge and the rhythmic metallic clinking of “poor ovens.”

A theory as to why we love laundromats so much comes from Shawn Coyne’s analysis of Silence of the Lambs (mentioned several times in the Story Grid podcast),  wherein he points out a scene right before Starling decides to go investigate the first victim’s house. The scene is simple and quiet. Starling does some laundry. Coyne’s point is that this is a “return to the womb” so that Starling can be reborn into her decision to defy her orders. Specifically, he points out that the rhythm of the machines and the sloshing of the water resembles a mother’s heartbeat and the rushing noise of amniotic fluid that we, as babies, attach to as sensory reminders of the safety we felt while in utero. It works as a solid symbol.

I tried to recreate a similar scenario in The Least of 99 Evils with a scene where the main character, Riley, takes a shower and changes clothes before adopting the most pivotal role in the novel. I was trying to suggest to the reader’s subconscious that a baptism of sorts had occurred. That changes have registered.  I think it works, but we have a much more sinister association with bathrooms that I had previously thought.

There’s this episode of Cracked.com’s “Looking the Part,” that examines what makes the bathroom so harrowing in pop culture and media (shower death scenes are plentiful after the quintessential Psycho, Vincent dies while leaving the bathroom in Pulp Fiction, that guy in the first season of The Sopranos gets shot in the tub, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is attacked while getting far-out in his bathtub, that scene in the X-Files when that leach falls out of that dude, medicine cabinet mirror jump scares… etc). Their suggestion is that because grooming habits have become a solitary activity for human beings since the middle ages, the bathroom is the one place where someone is the most vulnerable and that naturally creates an opportunity for a thrilling scene that will directly register with an audiences’ familiarity of being totally alone.

So I got to thinking that maybe there other broad symbols we associate with the anatomy of a house and by identifying what symbols we associate with what rooms, a writer could benefit from accurately setting certain scenes in these spaces.

The first one that leapt out to is the basement. The basement is where the secret is stored. A true crime example of this would be how John Wayne Gacy buried 33 bodies in his basement as a way of dissociating himself from his crimes, essentially keeping it separate from his primary personality. Likewise, the zombies are stored in the basement in Dead Alive, the shameful burial of the archaeologist’s wife occurs in the basement of Evil Dead II (with great payoff), and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White keeps his first drug-world rival and first murder victim in, wait for it, the basement. The Burbs even brings us into that space by the film’s culmination, justifying Tom Hanks’s paranoia by revealing hundreds of skeletons present in his neighbors’ furnace. Perhaps because we associate that space with darkness, we also attach fear. This is a common enough attachment– we fear what we can’t see, and we see this part of the house the least often– on top of it being, generally, poorly lit. Just to indulge another example: A B-plotline that registered with me as a kid was Home Alone‘s sequencing of getting over the fear of the basement furnace. It personified perfectly the fear a child experiences when encountering a space that they don’t know very well as well as machinery that they don’t understand.

If the basement is where you place scenes of fear and horror then what of the basement’s maligned sibling the attic? The attic’s symbolism revolves around the mind. You know that old phrase, “toys in the attic?” That’s a folksy way of saying that someone is insane. If the top of the cranium is where the brain resides, then so to must the “mind” of the house. Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea utilize this by restraining the crazy woman in the attic. So does The Yellow Wallpaper. Even if we’re not talking about mental unwellness, the attic serves as a venue for cerebral exploration. The entire plot of The Goonies starts by finding a map in the attic, but the better example here is The Never Ending Story– the entire thing is the imaginative exercise of a child reading a book in the attic. Goddamn Beetlejuice spends over half the movie in the attic, most of which is spent, not ghosting the shit out of the inhabitants, but rather, wrapping the characters’ heads around the concept that they are dead. It’s the mental space.

The bedroom is usually reserved for sex. In adult-themed media. You rarely get a glimpse of what an adult’s bedroom actually looks like. It’s the punctuation of sexual achievement– a dude carries a lady into a bedroom. Cut to pillow-talk followed by a source of unnecessary conflict. Right? Except in more juvenile-aged marketed media where the bedroom is a refuge. You think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Three Ninjas, Gleaming the Cube… the prepubescent bedroom becomes a space of personal expression and safety. Which makes sense in the human experience– that’s the only place where a teenager has any control over their own lives, even if that control is over which posters go up on the walls. But whether it’s for sex or personal rejuvenation (and general character building), the bedroom is almost never used as a primary stage for for plot. Exceptions to this are, of course, Toy Story (wherein the bedroom is represented as a town of sorts, and doesn’t really count) and Nightmare on Elm Street (wherein the bedroom, a vulnerable time, becomes a door for a broader stage. Johnny Depp getting absolutely eviscerated, though, remains one of my favorite film moments).

The staircase has stood reliably as an opportunity for one character to spy upon another character. And this is consistent from H.P. Lovecraft to J.K. Rowling: when a piece of information needs to be discussed and then overheard by the protagonist, the protagonist will linger on the staircase. That might divide the house into two distinct levels of trustworthiness to match its literal stories– the lower level is untrustworthy, whereas the hero always sneaks down from the upper stories. While it serves as a bridge in its architectural purpose, it’s not redundant to point out that it serves as a metaphorical bridge between two parties and the vehicle conveyed between them is generally unintentional information.

Kitchens are an interesting beast. The idea is always to portray family in a day in the life. How that family is portrayed with the kitchen is up to the author. In The Godfather Part II, a family is shown falling away from the uninterested Michael Corleone around a dinner table. Likewise, you have family comedies like The Simpsons or Malcom in the Middle where, despite the chaotics antics of the individual characters, they still come together for meals and create the status quo of the familial unit. From those two examples, we always come back to the status quo of dysfunctional, quirky families that support each other in dysfunctional, quirky ways. The status quo of the family in American Beauty is established with a similar scene, although any semblance of casual or warm acknowledgement is replaced with cold, forced and even scripted dialogue. Harkening back to Home Alone, the initial kitchen scene is one of immense chaos with a broad range of characters. Which sets up the essential conflict of the film and justifies it with a few, short scenes– there’s a lot of kids. One of them could get overlooked. (There’s also my favourite line, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetent’.”)

Living rooms are for Christmas and people getting murdered. I’ve literally got nothing else on that.

All the World’s A Page

All the World’s A Page

During the office hours for a medieval literature class, my professor (and in case it wasn’t clear that I was a poor, poor academic, I was taking this class remedially, as I had flunked out of that same professor’s Chaucer class) told me something I’ve been turning around in my head ever since– that people in the Dark Ages read the world allegorically.

What the hell does that mean? Well, first you need to consider that folks in the olden days didn’t read words so much. Literacy was a tool reserved for Jesus nerds (clergymen) who would read, and then interpret, the Bible during mass. To be a good Christian, one has to read the Bible faithfully. So how does an illiterate farmer accomplish that?

According to my professor, a farmer dude might look at a tree and contemplate it as an allegory for Christ. He’d see the roots planted firmly in the ground, the branches leaning into the sun, and I don’t know, he’d see an apple or something. And he’d interpret that to mean by firmly grounding oneself in faith (roots), seeking truth in the God’s word (light, sun), one is rewarded (fruit, salvation).

And then he’d go stick some leeches on his butt because a barber told him that cured syph’.

Basically, the gist of it is that they saw the world as a manifestation of The Bible, that the world had the Word of God coded into its every corner.

It’s a common misconception that people in history were dumb. We have a tendency to think because we’re progressively marching towards a fairer world and have smart phones, that we’re smarter than we used to be. We’re not, exactly. Our phones are. The human brain hasn’t changed much in thousands of years (except the relatively modern trend of shrinkage). The farmer doesn’t have the tools of literacy, or a socially aware history, or access to modern medical science. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

But what I think that story speaks to is that farmer still had a critically thinking brain, and he applied it to the world around him using the lens of religion to understand and interpret that world.

Despite all of our technology, despite the lowest global illiteracy rates we’ve ever seen, I’m beginning to think that we still read the world allegorically. You’d think that it’d be the other way around– that we view something, we interpret it, and then we write our piece on it. And maybe that’s true some of the time and probably definitely true in early development. But I’m thinking that maybe our brains become wired to hold certain schemas (primed by upbringing, advantages or disadvantages, and media) about how the world works such that we interpret events before they happen– or rather, we justify events to fit our preexisting schemas.

Children do this naturally and intentionally– I personally crafted my life to reflect a reality of Calvin and Hobbes, pretended to be a pirate after watching Hook, and I would fight hundreds of invisible foes after watching 3 Ninjas. That’s until I discovered video games, after which, I made swords and shields out of errant pieces of metal lying around my house. I threw Pokéballs at bugs. I’d watch the ocean, hoping to see a dragon. I wanted these things to be real to the point that I was willing to let my imagination redirect reality into a personal narrative. At least until playtime was over.

Writers have a tendency to do this in adolescence in a very meta sense– writing fan-fiction using pre-existing fantastical universes to access their own emotions and frame their own internal struggles with something familiar. (Uncomfortable example: “Oh nooo,” said Professor Umbridge. “It seems I’ve dropped my quill.”) 

Now we live in an age of information bubbles, where two polarized sides of America can watch the same news story play out and offer two completely disparate interpretations, each one validated by their home base.

How does that happen? Well, we’re all aware of the concept of confirmation bias, right? That you only seek out the information that serves your views and ignore or discredit that which opposes your views. That’s the psychological mechanic behind reading the world allegorically. It’s just that The Bible we’re priming ourselves with now includes literature, movies, the news, memes and social media. Our brains understand the world around us through what we watch and read and consume on a daily basis.

Astrology is a good example of this in action. Let’s say you’re a Libra and are interested in dating a Leo (Hey, I’m a Leo! It doesn’t matter.) because you know and love Leos. You two go out for a drink. Despite this Leo being generally uptight and reserved, you might find yourself ignoring this and focusing on what makes them appear to be gregarious and outspoken. (“They laughed at my joke! Leos love jokes! This is going to work!” or “They were such an asshole to the bartender! Classic Leo! This is going to work!”)

Or maybe your Horoscope informed you that you would find someone who had been missing from your life and advised to stay away from tenuous situations. Then a friend from high school wanders into your workplace and orders a coffee (you’re a barista in this example, because, of course you are). Later, a dispute breaks out between coworkers and you choose to separate yourself from it. You get home and remember your horoscope, and wouldn’t you know it, it came true! Didn’t it?

Well, these are examples of shoehorning a paradigm into something benign– or in the dating example, a special kind of color blindness that sees all flags as white. Not to get into too much of a tangent on the cookie-cutter advice Horoscope writers dish out (not that it’s ever bad, per se, but it’s just common sense. Avoid tenuous situations? One of the reasons human beings are still alive is our capacity for risk assessment), but wouldn’t it have also been true if you read, say, a Cancer’s ‘scope and it said something like, “You will reclaim a memory you thought you had lost and cool heads prevail under times of duress?”

When it matters, it’s when the situation isn’t so benign. Look at it from a political perspective, because apparently it’s impossible not to these days.

On the right: If your news, your friends and family, your Mark Wahlburg movies and favored political leaders are saying that Islam is a religion of war, you’re going to look at the world, afraid, and find examples to justify that fear– because examples of violence are there, and the natural tendency is to extend that example to all examples. But you’d be ignoring the 99.994% of the global Muslim population who aren’t extremists and the 94% of terroristic attacks carried out on US soil by non-Islamic extremists because that doesn’t fit the narrative.

On the left: If your news, your friends, perhaps not your parents, your comedians and favored political leaders vilify red state voters, you’re going to find examples of white supremacy, misogyny, and hate– because examples are definitely there. But you’d be ignoring the plight of former industrial workers who can’t get a job because governmental interests have left their economy to rot and their towns are in the valley of too populous yet too small to accommodate customer service jobs like cities and suburbs can. They chose the devil they didn’t know, because the last one screwed them in their perspective.

Obviously, I fall onto the left side of the spectrum. But I want everyone to recognize that our minds, beautiful machines capable of astounding works that they may be, are reactionary to precedent information which perhaps interprets the world for us, before we can even take a moment to breathe.

Psychological schemas are solid, but not unshakeable blueprints. We’re constantly updating (usually buttressing) the designs, but never lose hope that the most hateful of people can come around to a reasonable understanding as long as we remember that people are people and have always been people.

The only thing I can think to prescribe is a careful and well variegated media diet. I’m not saying you should listen to Alex Jones– I’m pretty sure no one should– but perhaps by entertaining– not necessarily believing or ascribing to– a palette of perspectives, we can understand each other’s personal allegory. Because our brains will favor a story over reality every single time.

Failing that, remember what Socrates said: “I do not think I know what I do not know.