The recent boom in horror movies may want to be careful: judging from the box office returns, people are tiring of the torture porn that passes for horror movies (such as the Saw and Hostel franchises) or the slasher flick model (such as the Friday the 13th and Final Destination franchises), as if that is all there is to horror movies. Like most horror booms, the audience gets burned out on the same premise played out over and over again to lessening effect even as the films up the ante with the gross factor. People love to visit haunted places. From Psycho to The Shining, haunted hotels are a staple of horror films because hotel rooms are a naturally creepy place, especially the long abandoned ones.

Stephen King has mined this territory before, with the aforementioned The Shining, and 1408, based on the eponymous novella, distills his haunted hotel idea down to a single haunted room. We have a claustrophobic, one room horror tale full of Lovecraftian menace and atmosphere. A tale where most of the horror happens in the main character’s (and reader’s) mind. Director Mikael Håfström makes use of a jarring soundtrack and clever effects to create a surreal nightmare.

“It’s the prospect of something after death.” –Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson)

The movie explores many of the ideas that resonate so well in the genre language of horror. Horror, as a genre, embraces the reality of the supernatural, acknowledging a spiritual dimension to life, and exploring how that transcendent reality often intrudes into our own. Even as we hunger for the transcendent realm and can’t help but grapple with the idea of its existence, nothing scares like the unknown, the mystery of the afterlife, the mystery of unseen forces. Mystery defies explanation and we’re uncomfortable with it despite our need for it.

1408 follows the familiar arc often experienced by a Stephen King character. After the death of his child, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) becomes obsessed with the afterlife. He becomes a writer of some reknown exploring haunted locations, a literary Mythbusters. Mike Enslin seeks answers to questions many of us have, approaching them from the perspective of critic, disparager, even debunker. A critic who complains a lot but offers no real solutions other than cynicism, despair, and abandonment – he “doesn’t believe in anything or anyone besides himself.” He is not only sure of himself, but knows everything/has an answer for everything. He has become cynical and world weary, living in a state of desperation because ghosties and beasties don’t exist, and even if they did “there’s no God to protect us from them, is there?”

Such is the power of his non-belief, or rather, his misplaced faith in himself, as he hides behinds the illusion of protection it provides. He maintains his sense of safety and sense of control until he is confronted with how little he knows about life, the universe, and reality as well as how little control he truly has.

“I hate this place. How did I get here?” –Mike’s Father (Len Cariou)

Mike Enslin is on an existential journey of belief, or re-discovering his belief. It started after his daughter. Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) becomes terminal and Mike considers he and his wife, Lily (Mary McCormack), guilty of “filling her head with stories” about heaven:

Katie: “Is God there?”
Lily: “Yes.”
Katie: “Do you really believe that Daddy?”
Mike: “Yes.”

After looking for a miracle, an answer to prayer, an end to the pain and finding none, he watches her suffer and then senselessly die, Mike then descends into a morass of bitterness, denial, and cynicism. He asks the kind of questions we all end up asking in life: “what kind of God would do this to a little girl?” But those questions defying easy explanation and sometimes turning to the Bible can feel like opening a book only to find blank pages.

Still, Mike clings to his own brand of superstitions (“You can’t die in your dreams”) as he continued descending to ever deeper levels of personal hell. It’s a dark place where one can learn a lot about themselves. At one point he ends up doubting his own existence; his was the ultimate end of self moment: “I’ve lived the life of a selfish man, but I don’t have to die that way.”

“We’ve only just begun, to live …”

The 1408 experience is allegorical of the dark night of the soul many people experience.
Seeking to be released from being trapped in the Kafkaesque nightmare rooms of our lives
Seeking healing and dealing with our pain, the pain of our lives One that can leave a person rattled, shaken to the core, but if they come out the other side, they can also be renewed. Such that when Mike asks “are you really here with me right now?” in the silence he might feel God presence, grieving alongside him even as He restores him.

“Sometimes you can’t get rid of bad memories. You just have to live with them.” –Mike

Psychological horror, my favorite kind of horror, creates its scares within the viewer’s/reader’s mind. In 1408, we get a tight production filled with disturbing imagery and the movie playing with our senses and even our memories to disorient and to disquiet (it even uses The Carpenters to horrific effect). It’s an intense little thrill ride.

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