Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper: The Horror In Our Own Minds

What do you see?
Recently I checked out a new trailer (see below) for an upcoming film called The Yellow Wallpaper, which looks entirely intriguing and creepy.  This set me off on a quest to find the source material, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Easily purchased on my Kindle for ZERO dollars (please do note that tons of classic novels and short stories are F...R...double E! on Kindle), I finished it in around twenty minutes. 

Written in 1892, it is a stark foray into mental illness.  The movie trailer makes it out to be a horror story, and in fact it does have elements of terror in it, but it's mostly due to the frightening realism with which Gilman portrays her main character's descent into madness.  Back in the 19th century and well into the 20th, women who had any kind of anxiety or depression were thought to be not only a nuisance, but a problem to tuck away and ignore. In particular what is now readily recognized and diagnosed as post-partum depression.

The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of an unnamed woman who with her physician husband John, rents a house in the country for the summer to recuperate from what he calls a 'nervous condition'.  In fact, it is hinted that there is a baby in the picture, so it's safe to assume she is indeed going through post-partum depression.  Instead of simply acknowledging the problem, John feels it is best for his wife to do absolutely nothing but rest.  He drags her to said house and stuffs her in an attic room, with nothing to stimulate her except the patterns in the wallpaper.

If it sounds cruel, it is.  But unintentionally.  Back in those times it was standard procedure to prescribe bed rest and complete so-called relaxation to ward off those nervous troubles. John even goes as far as to lock her in the room so she can't have any access to the rest of the house. He works out of the house a lot, leaving her alone, so he fears her wandering and keeps her stowed away for her own safety. She has also been told she is not allowed to write (apparently her previous profession or hobby) so she hides her journal from him and writes when she is confined to the room with no interruptions.  Unfortunately as I mentioned, she has no stimulation of any kind, and while at first finds the faded yellow wallpaper ugly and strange, as time goes by she begins to see shapes and patterns.  Eventually she has decided there is a woman hiding behind the paper waiting for someone to help release her. The ease with which this happens is probably the most terrifying element of the story.  It's not like suddenly she's off her's a gradual decline that you almost don't see coming.

The story is told in first person and moves quickly even as it seems nothing is truly happening.  The woman's inner voices convince her there is something at work in the paper - behind the paper - and just when you think she is getting better or that the summer will end and her husband will move her out of that house...she descends even further into madness. 

I was entirely impressed with the story and can't wait to see what they do with it on film.  That being said, books always have their own degree of unattainable palpable fear.  It's your mind at work, formulating the story in your head and planting pictures to go along with it.  I'm always glad to have read the source material before seeing a film, if for no other reason than to have the story unspoiled.  In most cases the book is usually far superior to the movie, but I'm always hopeful.   Rarely does a short story grab me like this one did. I'm more of a full-length novel girl in reality.

The poor woman in The Yellow Wallpaper might have been able to have been saved had her husband's ridiculous methods been ignored and she just have been allowed out of the house to walk the gardens regularly and travel to see family members she talked about. Mental illness has been largely ignored on all counts, writing it off and sliding it under the rug.  Horror films oft display it in a negative manner, making the knife-wielding maniac bat-shit crazy. It's really a shame, and does it a terrible disservice.  The book is written with what I would call a feminist angle, making it quite obvious that is it basically John's fault that she isn't any better and that perhaps a little more caring and a lot more acceptance she might have gotten through her breakdown with a bit more ease and dignity.  Calling her "hysterical" and "nervous" when in fact she is sad and despondent is an injustice.  Thankfully times have changed as far as treating mental illness, but it's safe to say the stigma remains. 

Even though the story was written in 1892, it wears the years well and translates to become effective at any period in time.  Hopefully the film will be able to wrap its head around the real root of the story, the woman's subtle slide into psychosis, and not just try to freak us out with jump scares and filler.  I do know they add a bit of back story to it, which I will reserve judgement on until I see the movie.  The last film I can recall that handles mental illness/depression well was the largely ignored (except in certain horror-loving circles) Let's Scare Jessica To Death.  Maybe we can add The Yellow Wallpaper to its ranks. I'm hoping.
For now, check out the trailer.


ShellHawk said...

This really sounds like it's going to be worth a watch. Thanks for the heads-up!

Jose said...

Oh wow, they're actually making a film version of this, huh? Very neat. I remember always spying this one in paperback anthologies of horror stories, but only read it in recent years. I love Gilman's description of how the yellow wallpaper is like a living, contagious disease and the story has that killer last line of the narrator "creeping over" her husband's fainted body. Should make a unique feature film, and with THE WOMAN IN BLACK coming out next year, maybe we'll see a resurgence in Victorian-age terror! If not, we can just settle for a double feature of the two.

Christine Hadden said...

ShellHawk: You're very welcome. I'm looking forward to it too!

Jose: TYW is probably one of the creepiest things I've read in quite some time, it was such a joy to actually get the shivers!
And The Woman in Black is one of my all-time faves (both book and the '89 film) so I am WAAAAY excited for the new version. I'll be there with bells on.
And I know what you mean about Victorian-age horror. I love it. Have you seen the trailer for The Awakening? Looks good as well...

Emily said...

Had no idea they were doing z film of this. I read it back in the day for a college writing class. Might need to revisit.

Christine Hadden said...

I don't remember ever reading it before a few days ago...was impressed how creepy it was. I just hope the film does it justice.

Karen Shoaff said...

Believe me, this new film of The Yellow Wallpaper is a mind-blowing fear-fest, with impeccable talents and horrifying twists.
Yes. Very, well worth the viewing.

Christine Hadden said...

Karen, how did you get to see the film already? I'm so jealous I can't see straight!
Thanks for reading, by the way!

Marie said...

I WANT TO SEE THIS MOVIE SOOOO BAD. I love the short story!