“Fear is a Place”: The Asylum as Transgressive Haunted House in Brad Anderson’s Session 9 – Jessica Balanzategui


Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001) features a gothic, abandoned mental asylum, a decaying relic of the past whose uncanny power is reinforced through the extra-diegetic fact that the Danvers Asylum of the film was a real abandoned asylum in Boston until its demolition in 2006.  In the decaying space of the Danvers Asylum the supernatural and the unconscious realms are united through the (invisible) figure of Simon who, as the malignant genius loci of the asylum, assumes a position of duality between supernatural and psychological realms, internal and external worlds. This essay examines how Session 9 binds the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum to the construction of madness and the eerie return of the repressed.

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The figure of the mental asylum looms as an unsavoury cultural emblem of oppressive and sometimes violent confinement, typified by the semi-legendary institution, Bedlam. Asylums metonymise the sinister power of madness, which is frequently represented in popular culture as an inherently uncanny and abject condition. The human potentiality for madness is a dark shadow lurking in the social unconscious, the acknowledgement of which is repressed in the quest to present a rational and coherent identity. This domain of repressed social otherness — represented by madness and symbolised by the asylum — often re-emerges in dramatic fashion in the horror film. As J.P. Telotte suggests, the horror genre typically expresses fears that “the otherness in ourselves lurks just beneath the normal human veneer and threatens to resurface some day with all its horrors” (1985, 34). This notion evokes Freud’s concept of the uncanny, a cognitive dissonance induced by the re-emergence of something once familiar to conscious thought that has been estranged through repression.

Madness represents a central source of the uncanny; Freud asserts that “the layman sees [in madness] a manifestation of forces that he did not suspect in a fellow human being, but whose stirrings he can dimly perceive in remote corners of his own being” (2003, 150). Julia Kristeva’s (1982) theorisation of the abject can be used in tandem with Freud’s notion of the uncanny to elucidate the symbolic power of madness. Abjection involves the cognitive exclusion of elements that threaten or subvert conceptions of the self as a unified, distinct entity. It details the nightmarish emergence of these excluded thoughts, feelings or images, both personally and culturally.  More specifically, the abject assists in providing a ‘visual’ evocation of the uncanny, in that the abject does not “respect borders, positions or rules”, it is an “in-between  …  which disturbs identity, system and order” (Kristeva, 4). Ultimately, the spectacle of madness in others is an inherently uncanny and abject experience which is frequently exploited in horror cinema, especially those films that centralise an asylum as a setting. The construction of the asylum in many horror films both centralises and fetishises repression and the chaotic power of the unconscious, implanting the abject and uncanny condition of madness into the space of the asylum.

These “asylum horror films” constitute a long-standing and persistent subgenre of horror film; one of the earliest horror films, the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), is a formative representation of the subgenre. Recent incarnations include Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010). The focus of this essay is Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001) which centres on the abandoned Danvers Asylum — an asylum that actually existed in Boston until its demolition in 2006 to make way for an apartment complex. The Danvers State Asylum opened in 1878 and officially closed down for the final time in 1992, standing abandoned for over ten years (John Gray, 2009, n.p.). In its abandoned, decaying form the asylum represents a dark symbol and metonym of the violently oppressive past of mental illness treatment. This is highlighted by the various decaying implements of ‘treatment’ and oppression which linger in the hospital, and by the allusions to histories of treatment and de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill in the dialogue[1]. Through an uncanny fetishisation of its past, the abandoned asylum stands as a variation of the haunted or, to use Robin Wood’s broader term, “terrible house” figure (1985, 188). The contemporary symbol of the haunted house is a precise reflection of the uncanny, dramatising the unhomely qualities central to the German unheimlich. Like a haunted or terrible house, the abandoned asylum in Session 9 is inhabited by a ghostly presence named “Simon”, which exists as the malignant genius loci of the gothic building. The assimilating of the asylum with the haunted house is also underscored by the ways in which Session 9 echoes the qualities of another paradigmatic “terrible house” film, The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)[2].

In Session 9, Anderson centralises sound in his construction of madness and the uncanny. The sounds of the asylum, in particular the sinister voice of Simon, evoke the experience of auditory hallucination. Simon’s disembodied voice represents what Michel Chion (1994) has termed an “acousmetre”: a “character whose relationship to the screen involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation” (129). This oscillation, fostered from the character’s visual absence, enforces Simon’s transgressive existence between supernatural and psychological realms. In addition his status as an acousmetre ensures that the spectator shares in the sensory and mental disorientation of delusion. Through the disorientating duality embedded in the soundscape, the entire figure of the abandoned asylum comes to represent the mythical space of madness, repression and the unconscious.

Unlike many asylum horror films, such as the aforementioned Shutter Island, the diegetic world of Session 9 is not entirely contained within the confined space of the asylum. Instead, the protagonist, Gordon (Peter Mullan), is a functioning member of society who has come with a team of workmates to clear asbestos from its decaying walls. Gordon and his colleagues appear to be everyday working men, concerned with getting their work finished on time, acquiring enough money to care for their families, and fantasising about being prosperous and successful members of society. Gordon struggles with the pressure of family life, having just become a father. On arriving at the abandoned asylum to start working on the hazardous asbestos, he is spoken to by a mysterious voice (later identified as “Simon”). Simon, who is never visually represented, is not given clear borders of definition — he seems to exist as a disembodied incarnation of the malignant genius loci of the abandoned asylum, and also as an agent of repressed memories and thoughts. Simon has the power to vanquish the controlling forces of the ego, which leads to the disastrous release of Gordon’s repressed aggressive drives. The audience is forced to follow Gordon’s perception of events so that the spectator, like Gordon himself, is unaware of the extent of his actions until the final scene. Thus, the spectator shares Gordon’s destabilising experience of madness and the uncanny return of the repressed. While the audience becomes aware of Gordon’s ongoing cycle of violence and repression towards the end of the film, it seems that Gordon does not. In the final scene he occupies the room of a former inmate of the asylum, Mary Hobbes (Jurian Hughes), and is found speaking to his dead wife on a phone with no battery in it — Gordon has become a ‘patient’ in the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum.

The decaying implements which litter the abandoned asylum serve as silent but potent spectres of oppressive authority. A decrepit wheelchair sitting in a hall of the asylum becomes one of Session 9’s recurring images: the film opens with an inverted shot of this lone wheelchair. Through being framed upside-down the image is immediately imbued with a jarring, uncanny quality which underscores the way in which perception imposes meaning upon visual stimuli. The camera slowly rotates upright, accompanied by the ever increasing sound of dripping water, suggesting that something intangible has been roused within the asylums mouldering walls. This opening image introduces the mysterious genius loci of the abandoned building, as it is upon Gordon’s sighting of this wheelchair that Simon’s voice first emerges. Thus, the lingering power of these decaying implements of oppression is foregrounded from the opening shot of the film.

Figure 1: The opening image of the sinister wheelchair.

In addition to the eerie wheelchair, the asylum’s hydro-baths remain decayed but intact, still filled with murky water. The guide (Paul Guifoyle) explains that these were used to “soak the nut-job in water”, an act which evokes Michel Foucault’s discussion of the various “water therapies” that have existed throughout history as treatment for madness, which he argues functioned as a symbolic “christening” into the world of reason (2001, 164). The guide further explains that “if that didn’t work, [patients] were given a pre-frontal lobotomy”, which was “perfected at Danvers”. The lobotomy is another of the film’s recurring motifs, symbolising the ultimate form of oppression which reduces the human to a ‘zombie’ robbed of his conscious will, similar to somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The image of the empty wheelchair condenses these anxieties, standing in for a human who — through madness, oppression and ultimately death — is no longer ‘fully’ present, yet whose uncanny affects are still sensed; thus signifying an abject non-presence.  As well as the wheelchair and hydro-baths, the camera lingers on an electro-shock machine attached to a gurney and strait-jacket.

All these implements, like the overbearing asylum itself, compose a sordid spectacle of the oppressive past, symbols of humanity’s attempts to control the powerfully uncanny otherness of madness. The decaying asylum and its implements are ultimately a representation of repression on a cultural scale. Standing cordoned off from the present ‘normal’, functioning society of Danvers, protected by security guards and gates and hidden by forests on the outskirts of the city, the asylum stands as a concealed reminder of a long-stretching history of violent treatment of mental illness. The asylum’s metonymic position as an uncanny, culturally repressed space which threatens to nightmarishly re-emerge and intrude upon the present is further underscored by recurring aerial pans over the asylum’s sharp and sprawling rooves and steeples, in which the roads and houses of Danvers can be seen beyond the asylum’s menacingly jagged topography.

Figure 2: Danvers Asylum and the town beyond its bounds.


This menacing and decaying asylum is akin to the haunted or “terrible house” horror topos —a horrific, engulfing space, which represents the “dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future” (Wood, 188). The overbearing asylum with its rusted, decaying exterior provides a powerful visual evocation of this “dead weight of the past”.  The ambience of decay is often echoed in the filtering of rust-hued lighting throughout the mise-en-scene. The film fetishises a horrific past by dramatising the symbolic link between cultural and personal repression, utilising the asylum itself as a symbol of the unyielding power of the repressed past and unconscious drives. As Carlo Cavagna points out, in Session 9 “the past comments on the present, colouring the atmosphere and everything that transpires” (2001, n.p.).  This effect can be seen in the way in which the cells of past patients, known in the fiction of the film as “seclusions”, are presented.  The pictures and cut-outs that patients have stuck to the walls of their rooms remain intact, albeit in the faded, time-tainted form that characterises the asylum itself. Gordon becomes transfixed by the images on the walls of these seclusions, and the spectator follows his slowly panning gaze as he scrutinises them.

The pastiche of images and quotes on the wall comment on and hint at the future trajectory of Gordon and his workmates. One clip-out reads “Suddenly it’s going to dawn on you”, foreshadowing both Gordon and the audience’s sudden revelation at the film’s climax that Gordon himself is the violent monster of the film. This clip-out also prefigures the game the film plays with its audience, a device common to asylum horror films, in which the audience’s alliance with the mad protagonist’s point of view results in a sudden jolt at the climax when the ‘real’ framing story — and what has been repressed by the central character — is revealed. That this clip-out is accompanied by an image of a smiling mother and child is a further taunt to both Gordon and the audience, as the realisation that occurs at the film’s denouement involves the gruesome undermining of the myth of blissful motherhood and family life.

The other cut-outs on the wall play a similar role in using the sordid spectacle of the past to comment on the future and the present. For instance, one tattered clipping reads, “A man of peace, an act of violence”, a prediction and comment upon Gordon’s soon to be committed “act of violence”. A black and white image of five men lying in coffins presages Gordon’s murderous violence against his five workmates within the asylum’s walls. Thus, these creepy relics of the asylum’s past exude an uncanny yet powerful relationship with the present, just as Gordon’s repressed memories influence his present actions and perception. Through these images, there is an uncanny repetition embedded in the film’s narrative and imagery. The first clipping on the wall that is made clearly visible reads, “No one will leave feeling neutral”. Like the ambiguous voice of Simon himself, this clip-out reads like a menacing threat from the genius loci of the asylum, implying that the characters (and the audience) have entered an uncanny domain from which there can be no return to a life bound by the normal order.

Figure 3: The asylum’s past threatens to engulf Gordon in the “seclusion” room.

It is revealed to the audience at the close of the film that Gordon has constructed his own “seclusion”, which symbolically acts as psychological seclusion from truth and his repressed memories. He has occupied the room of former patient Mary Hobbes, sticking photos of his own family all over the walls of the cell, making himself a part of this “terrible house” which represents a sordid, culturally repressed past. As S.S. Prawer argues of horror film:

The cinematic tale of terror has played on apprehensions connected with the mystery of time as well as space. It likes to remind the viewer of the ‘I have been here before’ feeling, a feeling which we all know and which powerfully  suggests that the future is something determined, something that in a way is already here, already in the present. (1980, 79)

This effect replicates déjà vu, one of Freud’s central examples of the uncanny. The abandoned asylum becomes not just a symbol of the specific past of mental illness treatment, but of a disorientating and uncanny intrusion of the past in general upon the present. This inescapable intrusion of the past constructs a world in which “the past piles up”, ensuring that the future and present are crushed “by the ever increasing weight of the past” (Foucault, 1987, 85). The audio tapes which hold the psychological sessions of former patient, Mary Hobbes, underscore the ever mounting intrusion of the past upon the present throughout the film. Initially, these tapes exist as a mere relic of the past, as Mike (Stephen Gevedon) listens to them momentarily before turning them off and resuming his work. But as the film progresses, the tapes continue to play as Mike leaves the room — even after his death — eventually invading, merging with, and overtaking the diegetic sound. In fact the playing of these tapes is overlaid upon the entire climax of the film, as it is Simon’s voice, as recorded on Mary’s Session Tapes, that concludes the film, leaving the viewer trapped with Gordon inside the asylum’s past. This echoes Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) own merging with the past of the “terrible house” of The Shining, in which the final shot shows Jack’s face in one of the black and white photos which adorn the hotel’s walls.

As is common to the asylum horror film, the viewer does not become entirely aware of the nature or content of Gordon’s repression until the end of the film, sharing his confused perception of events. However unlike in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Shutter Island the viewer is not entirely trapped inside Gordon’s delusional world, as the cinema audience is offered observations on Gordon through the voices of other characters. Early in the film, Hank (Josh Lucas) remarks that “Gordo is the Zen-master of calm, I’ve never seen old Gordo lose it”. The fact that Gordon is established as so in control of his repressed drives renders Gordon’s susceptibility to Simon’s demands more unexpected and confronting. As the film progresses, Gordon’s ‘self-control’ appears to entirely erode. He is often shown wandering around the grounds of the asylum with a vacant facial expression, as though he is sleepwalking or a zombie. His pronounced limp further symbolises his deteriorating stability, while echoing the limping gait of Jack in The Shining. The loss of control of the rational self is further likened to sleepwalking at the end of the film, as Gordon is shown attacking Hank with a blank expression and closed eyes. Furthermore, in the final scenes an imaginary incarnation of Gordon’s best friend, Phil (David Caruso), tells him continuously to “wake up” — to regain control of his self and consciously acknowledge his repressed memories.

Gordon’s ‘sleepwalking’ and his blind following of Simon’s instructions also render him analogous to the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As Prawer says of Cesare “he is a human being robbed of an essential part of his humanity: his consciousness and his will. He is a human dreamer forced, by a malevolent agency, to lose himself in his dream” (180). These aspects become a large component of Gordon’s emergence as an uncanny figure, a source of fear for the viewer. At certain moments throughout the film, his limbs seem to move independently of his body, as if he is a puppet being controlled by a malicious puppet-master. In one scene at the climax of the film, Gordon’s blood-covered hand slowly emerges from out of shot and smears blood across his eye. It is as if Gordon is not in control of his own limbs, as if Simon (whose laughter accompanies the shot) is confronting Gordon with the monstrous violence of his actions. This fear of the human as an agent of chaos and violence when robbed of his consciousness emerges as a central purveyor of the uncanny in a number of horror subgenres, particularly the zombie and possession film[3]. As well as revealing anxieties about the subversive danger of repressed drives, the depiction of Gordon as a puppet-like sleepwalker encodes abject transgressions of the borders of humanity — like Cesare, Gordon comes to exist in a space of hesitation and duality between living and dead, subject and object.

As the ambiguous entity which possesses both Mary and Gordon is named Simon, madness is characterised in the film as a sinister game of Simon Says, in which the power of the malignant Simon is absolute when cracks in the unity of the rational self appear in those he possesses. As Simon tells the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes, “I live in the weak and the wounded”. Simon seems to assume control when Gordon and Mary experience moments of acute physical pain; their violence erupts after Simon’s voice is heard saying, “Do it, do it now.” Simon crystallises the ambiguous power which underlies many asylum horror films: an uncanny force that blurs subject and object boundaries, and which transgresses the borders between the psychological and the supernatural. When the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes asks who he is, Simon simply replies, “You know who I am”, words he has also said to Gordon in one of the film’s early scenes. Thus, Simon becomes associated with a dark and primal force inherent to human experience — his contradictory (non)presence fetishises the unknowable depths of the unconscious. Simon’s transgression of boundaries evokes a realisation that “the deepest level of the psyche  …  is the point at which we enter a completely different reality operating outside the conventional laws of the known world” (Victoria Nelson, 2004, 114). Through the juxtaposition of his disembodied voice with the decaying images of the asylum, Simon becomes the sinister soul of the abandoned asylum, and the asylum itself becomes a symbol of the uncanny.

Sound plays a central role in representing the uncanny genius loci of the abandoned Danvers State Asylum. Diegetic sound such as birds chirping and the ticking of car indicators are electronically distorted to render the film’s soundscape uncanny and destabilising, encoding a blurring of boundaries between subject and object, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, so that the spectator experiences mental and sensory disorientation. The uncanny distortion of supposedly ‘normal’ diegetic sound merges with the non-diegetic soundtrack, usually made up of a sparse chromatic piano line and a long electronic monotone.  This ambiguity of sound categories forces the viewer to share Gordon’s destabilising perceptions, as supposed ‘reality’ is increasingly rendered uncanny and the borders of the filmic real and Gordon’s interior perceptions become inseparable.  As Foucault explains, madness is defined by an inability to see beyond the limits of selfhood, that “in his delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage” (1987, 23).

Through a soundscape which blurs the boundaries of what is diegetic and non-diegetic, the Danvers Asylum comes to represent the disorientating mirage of madness for the spectator as well as Gordon. The film opens with a flurry of distorted, high pitched sounds which merge a number of the film’s sound motifs: bird sounds, vague electronic noise and dripping water. These sounds give way to the cavernous electronic monotone which can be heard often throughout the film, a sound imprinted upon the abandoned walls, halls and wheelchair of the decaying asylum, accompanied by dripping water. The opening shot abruptly cuts to Gordon waiting in his car, bombarded by the electronic static and disembodied sounds of the car radio. The radio noise closely resembles the curious sounds which opened the film; the distinctly unnatural and unfamiliar sounds of the opening have been jarringly assimilated with noises which should be comfortingly familiar. Thus for the audience, the space of the abandoned asylum has already rendered uncanny the everyday sounds outside of the asylum’s gates. This uncanniness is connected in particular to Gordon himself, as the wheelchair shot promptly cuts to a close-up of the back of his head. Eventually, among the convoluted sounds of the car radio, another character’s voice, Phil’s, is heard out of shot. Phil’s voice is initially almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the radio. In addition, because Phil is out of shot and there is instead a close-up on Gordon’s face, it is as if Phil’s voice exists inside Gordon’s mind. Gordon’s ear takes up the centre of the shot, and the camera slowly tracks around his ear to a profile shot of his face. The centralising of the ear in the shot further underscores the importance of interpreting and distinguishing these convoluted auditory sensations.

This problematising of perceiving and filtering the auditory world foreshadows the uncanny emergence of Simon.  Simon exists as what Chion calls an “acousmetre”, a term coined by Chion to describe a voice with no visually represented source which is “neither inside nor outside the image” (129). Chion elaborates that “it is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source … is not included. Nor is it outside since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary ‘wing’ …  and it is implicated in the action” (129). The acousmetre assumes a position of hesitation between offscreen and onscreen which mirrors Simon’s dual existence between the internal and external, psychological and supernatural worlds. Simon’s position as an acousmetre evokes an experience of auditory hallucination for the spectator. Foucault points out that those experiencing an auditory hallucination “hear voices in mythical space  …  in which axes of reference are fluid and mobile: they hear next to them, around them, within them, the voices of persecutors, which at the same time, they situate beyond the walls, beyond the city, beyond all frontiers” (55).

For both Gordon and the audience, the voice of Simon does indeed seem to arise from some sinister “mythical space”. As Gordon is transfixed by the wheelchair, a sourceless, flickering electronic sound gradually crescendos, overtaking the sounds of dripping water. As the sound grows, Gordon’s face becomes shrouded in shadow, until finally a disembodied voice — rendered particularly uncanny by its vaguely lingering electronic quality — emerges from the metallic drone, and remarks “Hello Gordon”. The sound does not seem to arise from any particular source; there are no visual cues connecting the sound with any specific area or object. This menacing auditory invasion, accompanied by the still images of the decaying asylum, combine to emit an uncanny and disorientating ambience which evokes the mythical space of madness. The mysterious locale of the abandoned asylum has produced an uncanny voice that seems to emanate from some shadowy dimension of the asylum itself, which, as in the auditory hallucination, neither Gordon nor the audience can pin down to a specific person, entity or space. This untraceable voice signifies an incarnation of the intangible “Elsewhere” outlined by Gilles Deleuze — a “disturbing presence … a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogenous space and time” (2005, 18).

Chion asserts that the acousmetre “draws its very force from the opposition and the way it transgresses [boundaries of onscreen and offscreen]” (131). This powerful transgression of coherent borders is also evident in the connections which arise between the dead Mary Hobbes’s “dissociative personality disorder” and Gordon’s own experience of madness, and the way in which these connections are structured and represented. Throughout much of the film,  “Simon” is merely the name of Mary Hobbes’ mysterious, unheard third “alternate personality”, the mention of which provokes extreme fear, anger or avoidance responses from Mary’s other personalities. He finally reveals himself on the Session Tapes at the climax of the film, a time when all pretence of solidarity is finally lost among the work-crew. Because the audience is already familiar with this voice, when it finally emerges on the Session Tape under the guise of Simon it is immediately imbued with a further layer of uncanniness. The nameless, ambiguous voice that both the audience and Gordon have been struggling to position within the context of the Danvers Asylum and Gordon’s descent into madness is now associated with a dead patient who was once confined at the asylum.

The voice of Simon within Mary Hobbes provides an example of what Peter Hutchings describes as “monstrous ventriloquism” (2004, 132), as the deep, metallic voice of Simon clearly does not match the photos of the mousy, middle-aged woman, Mary Hobbes. This disconcerting mismatching of the sound to its source denotes that Mary’s mental illness “is not bound by the natural order” (Hutchings, 132) but is an abject transgression of femininity and identity. This abject affect is heightened for the viewer by the fact that the performer who voiced Simon is not listed in the film’s credits, suggesting (but not confirming) that female actress Jurian Hughes did in fact produce this deep, menacing timbre. The appearance of Simon in Mary Hobbes’s Session Tapes complicates his relation to Gordon even more, further blurring boundaries between self and other, and the internal and the external world. Vague connections between the deceased Mary Hobbes and Gordon are suggested throughout the film: in one scene Gordon sits above the broken headstone of Mary Hobbes’s grave (marked merely by a patient number); in another, the wheelchair that transfixes him on arriving at the asylum sits outside the door of Mary Hobbes’s cell; and finally, during a climactic scene, an image of Mary’s face is overlaid on a close-up of Gordon’s own visage[4]. Thus, it becomes particularly difficult for the audience to situate Simon as either an entirely supernatural or psychological force. The asylum comes to represent an abject space between supernatural and psychological realms, thus evoking Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of ontological hesitation as central to the subject’s experience of the uncanny in acts of readership or (in this case) spectatorship (1975, 46).  The disorientation is emphasised by Simon’s acousmatic qualities. The spectator is thus placed in a disorientating position of hesitation, and the asylum houses, and ultimately represents, transgressive forces that breach the boundaries between subject and object, supernatural and psychological, and onscreen and offscreen.

Figure 4: Gordon, Mary, Simon or something in-between? An abject transgression of the borders selfhood.

Ultimately in Session 9, the figure of the abandoned, decaying asylum is utilised as a metonym for both personal and collective repression. The rust-coloured, corroded building is presented as a menacing spectre of the past invading the normality of the present. The past itself becomes an intrusive and eerie figure in Session 9, represented in solid form by the asylum but also in the stories of repressed pasts and memories central to the narrative. Before its destruction in 2006, the ‘real’ abandoned Danvers Asylum was a source of fascination and fear among the community of Danvers. Prior to its demolition, Danvers local Michael Puffer explains that “the massive red-brick gothic landmark that stands atop Hathorne Hill has been given many names during the past 129 years” and that “[t]hese names stand as evidence of the special place the building, and Danvers State Hospital, holds in the minds and mythology of the people of Danvers, the North Shore and beyond” (2003, n.p.). Director Brad Anderson has revealed that he was driven to make Session 9 because of the eerie lure of the abandoned asylum building, which he saw often while living in Boston. The asbestos which lingers in the walls of the asylum in the film invokes the powerful, corruptive impact of the asylum’s past upon the present. As Gordon’s work-mate Hank explains early in the film, “already a piece of [asbestos] might have got into your lungs; it incubates in your lungs and tissue … like a ticking time-bomb”. The asbestos which imperceptibly drifts throughout the asylum in Session 9 metaphorises the abandoned asylum’s ongoing powers of corruption and infectious taint.  As the promotional tagline for Session 9 suggests, “Fear is a place”: the abandoned asylum literalises the intangible depths of the unconscious, the blurred boundaries of time and space, and figures a realm in which the uncanny reigns.


[1]Discussions about the history of the asylum litter the film, including therapy methods and the period of de-institutionalisation stretching from the 1960s to the early ’90s. The guide proclaims that “nearly all these places were closed down in the ’80s, you know, budget-cuts – feds called it de-institutionalisation.” Hank adds, “the loonies are outside in the real world and we have the keys to the loony bin, boys”, delineating the asylum itself as the domain of otherness.

[2] Though technically a hotel, The Overlook functions as a large-scale “terrible house” in The Shining, adapting and embellishing haunted house tropes.

[3] Simon, like the demon in seminal possession film The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) “is an expression of the fear that beneath the self we present to others are forces that can erupt to obliterate every vestige of self-control and personal identity” (Noel Carroll, 1981, 18). As in possession and zombie films, Simon’s power over Gordon fetishises and dramatises a fear that lurking beneath the human veneer is a dangerous otherness which may one day disastrously erupt. The Exorcist (while not an asylum horror film) also features a scene in a ‘house of horror’ asylum, and represents psychiatric tools of treatment as sinisterly invasive.

[4] This effect echoes the final shot in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), in which the skull of Norman’s mother is overlaid upon a close-up of Norman’s face. Both shots conflate ‘madness’ with an abject blurring of boundaries between the dead and the living, male and female, supernatural and psychological.




 Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The. Dir. Robert Wiene. Decla-Bioscop AG, 1920.

Exorcist, The. Dir. William Friedkin. Hoya Productions, 1973.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Session 9. Dir. Brad Anderson. USA Films, 2001.

Shining, The. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1980.

Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Ward, The. Dir. John Carpenter. FilmNation Entertainment, 2010

Works Cited

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34.3 (1981): 16-25.

Cavagna, Carlo. “Session 9”. Aboutfilm. August, 2001. 12 July, 2010. <http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/s/session9.htm>

Chion, Michel. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. Ed and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Trans. David Cooper. Great Britain: Routledge Classics, 2001.

—. Mental Illness and Psychology. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Gray, John. “Chronicles: Constructing a New Danvers.” The Danvers State Asylum. 2009.   30 Sep. 2010 <http://www.danversstateinsaneasylum.com/2006.html>

Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Puffer, Michael. “The lore, and lure, of the Danvers State Hospital”. Danvers Herald.October 2003. Accessed through the Haunted Salem Website, 12 July 2010. <http://www.hauntedsalem.com/news/oct03-dh-danversstate.htm>

Telotte, J.P. “Faith and Idolatry in the Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 20-35.

Todorov, Tzvetzan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western University Press, 1975.

Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 164-200.


Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate in the department of Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films originating from America, Spain and Japan.