Trapped with the Horrors: Stephen King and Isolation
With any artist that produces a large body of work, various themes arise. Hitchcock has his wrong man stories, Springsteen has his hymns to the open road, and Giger has his alluring and beautiful biomechanical monsters. Stephen King has several recurring themes in his massive collected works, but some of his most intriguing, enduring, and often personal stories are about solitude and isolation. From early-career short stories to gargantuan latter-day novels, King has always explored the fears that come with being trapped. Sometimes characters are barricaded inside against an external threat, sometimes trapped with one, and sometimes what can harm them most is within their own mind. These works and the films they inspired continue to be among King’s most celebrated, frightening, and relevant.
Those stories in which characters are trapped against an external threat are the easiest to identify and take on several forms. The ultimate small cast version of this type of story is the excellent Cujo (1983). Directed by Lewis Teague and starring five-year-old Danny Pintauro (in one of the best child performances ever put on film) and Dee Wallace, in what King himself has called the best performance in any movie based on his work, Cujo still remains effective and frightening. It also introduces an important dynamic found in King’s isolation narratives: the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The official villain, or “movie villain”, of the film is the rabid St. Bernard that will strike the moment they leave the broken-down Ford Pinto. But the real villain is the stifling heat within the car itself and the unbearable stress that both characters are undergoing throughout their ordeal.
The large cast version of this type of story deals more with how people react to isolation and fear and the societal tensions that occur under extreme duress. Many of these could also be called “prison stories.” Frank Darabont’s efforts The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) literally take place in prisons, but the Amazon Prime series Under the Dome (2013-2015) and Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (2019) could be considered prison stories as well. Even within this type, there is a “fun romp” version like King’s own Maximum Overdrive (1986) and a deadly serious version like The Mist (2007), once again from a favorite for King adaptations, Frank Darabont. Of all these, The Mist continues to be one of the most frighteningly relevant films in the entire King canon. In light of recent events, it may be more relevant now than ever before.
As with Cujo, there is the “movie villain” or fantasy threat that traps several residents of Bridgton, Maine in a supermarket: a mysterious mist teeming with bizarre and dangerous creatures. The real villain, however, is the social dynamics, the distrust, and above all the fear of the people trapped inside. The characters are a cross-section of America showcasing varying temperaments, ages, races, political and religious views and, socio-economic positions. Some fear the unknown. Some would rather die than lose their freedom. Some refuse to believe there is any problem at all. The character of Ollie (Toby Jones) has some of the most insightful dialogue in the film. As a group organizes to leave the store because they believe the threat is exaggerated, he says, “You can’t convince some people there’s a fire even when their hair is burning.” As Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) begins to prey upon and stoke fears among the townspeople with her rhetoric of God’s judgment, Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn) comments, “If you scare people badly enough you can get them to do anything. They’ll turn to whoever promises a solution.” Ollie responds by adding, “As a species, we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another.” Unfortunately, as we have been locked down due to the external threat of COVID-19, King’s story has become all-too prophetic. Fear reduces us to instinct, and sometimes our instinct is selfishness, cruelty, and the ugliest faces of human nature. That is more frightening than any monster that lurks in the mist.
The next type of isolation story is a character trapped alone with something that could destroy them. This is told in an ironic and rather humorous way in the Creepshow (1982) segment “They’re Creeping Up on You” starring E.G. Marshall as a wealthy, bigoted, germophobic shut-in that is overrun by cockroaches. But the quintessential telling of this story is Misery (1990), directed by Rob Reiner. Most of the story takes place in the snowbound Colorado farmhouse of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance), the self-proclaimed “number one fan” of romance author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) whom she has saved from a devastating car accident. Annie begins as a saving angel, who nurses Paul back to health. But before long it becomes clear that Annie is obsessive and mentally unstable. When she discovers that Paul has killed off her favorite fictional character, Misery Chastain, in his most recent book, she forces him to bring Misery back to life in a new book in the genre that brought him his greatest success but has sucked his creative soul dry. One of the key ironies of the film is that Paul needs Annie in order to survive, but she is also the source of physical and psychological torture. On a deeper level, the book and movie are about toxic fandom some twenty years or so before it had that label, but its surface story of isolation and codependence is as chilling as ever.
The third type of isolation narrative that I’d like to explore is also the hardest to define. It seems to me that it is also the hardest to create and film. These stories generally involve a lone individual fighting for their own sanity. In these kinds of stories, the isolated person becomes their own greatest threat. In the end, they will either destroy themselves or become their own salvation. The most powerful examples of this are another segment of George A. Romero’s Creepshow, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game (2017).
Jordy Verrill’s story is one of the saddest that Stephen King ever wrote, though it is wrapped in a comedic package. In it, King himself plays the titular character, a backwoods bumpkin who comes across a meteor that has crash-landed on his farm. His greatest hope is to sell the meteor to the local college and gather a reward of two hundred dollars—a fortune to him. Instead, he gets “meteor shit” on himself which soon begins to grow as a moss-like fungus that quickly spreads, causing his body to itch and his paranoia to rage. In desperation to relieve his discomfort, he takes a bath which only causes the moss to grow faster. Realizing that he has been utterly defeated, Jordy takes his own life with a shotgun blast to the head. As with Paul Sheldon in Misery, what Jordy hopes will be his salvation becomes his destruction.
The more serious version of this type of story with a far more hopeful resolution is the masterful Gerald’s Game, a novel I assumed would never be filmed when I first read it. The setup finds long-suffering wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) handcuffed to a bed in a remote vacation home by her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) in an effort to spice up (and possibly save) their marriage. She quickly becomes uncomfortable with Gerald’s sex game and in a struggle, he suffers a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie shackled to the bed alone with his dead body on the floor, a hungry stray dog that has wandered in through the open front door, and the ghosts of her own mind and past. And then there’s the “Moonlight Man.” This is one of the most psychologically rich works King ever produced. In it, Jessie taps into a horrifying repressed memory, which has caused her nothing but pain and feelings of weakness her whole life, to discover the secret to her survival and the strength she needs to follow through. She examines her mind to discover “the people who are supposed to protect you from the monsters turned out to be monsters themselves” as she writes in a letter to her twelve-year-old self. Ultimately, unlike some of the other movies mentioned, Gerald’s Game is a story of hope. It is an exploration of trauma and survival. It never excuses or glorifies the trauma but shines a light on the power of the survivor.
Of course, the ultimate example of the isolation narrative is King’s masterpiece, The Shining and the Stanley Kubrick film it inspired. This is King at his most personal, dealing with his own fears and demons of addiction and how they can lead to the unraveling of the mind and a family. I’ve saved this one until the end because it is an example of all three types of stories we have explored so far. It has the external threat of the unyielding Colorado winter (and in the novel the animal-shaped topiary sculptures), the Torrances are trapped with the malevolent ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, and Jack Torrance himself gradually becomes the monster of the story.
I suspect the main reason that King has expressed such dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s film is that the story is so personal to him. In his novel, Jack is a good man trying to be better for his family, which he loves desperately, but his demons and the malicious Overlook spirits slowly overtake him. In the film, Jack appears to be a willing participant from the beginning. One gets the sense that he intends to kill his family before they even set foot inside the Overlook. Still, the film is a masterwork of horror filmmaking. The isolation and the descent into madness are felt deeply and depicted masterfully through Kubrick’s camera and Jack Nicholson’s performance.
Over the past few months, these isolation narratives have become both terrifying and, in a strange way, comforting. The day the lockdown orders and school closures became official in my state in early March, we had a late-season freak snowstorm, quite a rare occurrence where I live. Here I was, ordered to stay inside for an undetermined length of time with my family, a touch of writer’s block, and snow falling outside the window. It was hard not to think of Jack Nicholson’s unwavering maddened gaze while standing before the windows of his workspace as Wendy and Danny explore the hedge maze. Still, these stories are comforting because they prove that these kinds of fears are not new to the human experience. As some of King’s characters might say, “Ka is a wheel.” Experiences are lived and relived, lessons learned and relearned, and what has been endured before can be endured again. If we search deep, we too can find the strength to endure and prevail. And hopefully, we can discover that though we may be isolated, we are not alone.