Tag Archives: Cults

Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation”: the horror of positive thinking

I first saw Karyn Kusama’s elegant, slow-burn horror film The Invitation at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival. In my opinion, it tied with The Final Girls as the best of the festival. While it is slow-burn, it is never lacking interest, and the slow buildup explodes into violence in the last 20 minutes. Rest assured, there are spoilers ahead.

We are first introduced to Will, who is grief-stricken following the accidental death of his son two years ago. Will and his girlfriend receive a dinner party invitation from Will’s ex, Eden, and her current husband. Despite not feeling social, Will accepts the invitation, and is reunited with several old friends and two mysterious newcomers, Sadie and Pruitt. As the evening progresses, Will can’t shake the suspicion that something is terribly wrong. As in many horror movies, his suspicions are proven valid.

The Invitation has many layers. The first is that the characters are endangered by their own politeness. Will is not the only one to notice something “off,” but the other guests are, for the most part, too polite to say anything. Eden and her new husband David spout hollow rhetoric about how suffering is optional, play an unsettling cult recruitment video for the guests, and introduce a party game designed to break down their guests’ inhibitions. Even more unnerving are their new friends Sadie and Pruitt, who seem to have no filters or sense of appropriate boundaries. One character, a tenured professor, decides to leave during the game and it’s not clear in the film itself whether she manages a safe escape. In the Stanley Film Festival Q&A session, Karyn Kusama stated that the character was both “smart and dead,” that is, she was smart to leave but was indeed murdered offscreen.

The film is a thoughtful depiction of the arrogance and toxicity of cults. In an interview with Vox.com, Kusama states, “The overriding principle was the idea that you can have a belief system in which you can make the decision that you know better than others….When do they stop just providing order for an individual’s life, and when do they start controlling or mandating other people’s lives? That is what we were really interested in, thinking about the notion of the group itself as less a fringe cult and more a representation of belief systems when they’re out of control in general.” Indeed, the cult depicted in The Invitation seems generic in many respects. It claim to offer its members a reprieve from suffering and some sort of blissful reunion with loved ones in the afterlife.

The fact it is a suicide cult is the only fringe element, because its tenants appear to be the distillation of society’s most treasured values, the most problematic of which is the glorification of positive thinking. Ultimately, it’s positive thinking that drives the cultists to murder, and positive thinking that causes the victims to endanger their own lives. The former desperately want to stifle their grief in favor of entering a blissful afterlife. The latter choose to ignore obvious signs of trouble, because they want to give their friends the benefit of the doubt.

In contrast, there is Will, who is so consumed by depression and grief that he can’t play these games, or even put up a positive front. In an interview with Nick Allen of rogerebert.com, Kusama posed the question, “What does that mean—not just for him, but for us as a larger society—what does it mean to negate our pain, or to seeing that as useless? What it boils down to for me is that it’s pretty horrifying.” As it turns out, studies indicate that mildly depressed people are more accurate in assessing certain situations, and fear is a vital survival signal, as discussed in Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, but perhaps the most thorough defense of negativity was presented by Thomas Ligotti in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Will is barely tolerated by the rest of the group because of his depression, social anxiety, and paranoia, but these are the things that ultimately save his life. Furthermore, Will’s expression of his pain is authentic, unlike the brainwashed and chemical-induced “happiness” of the cult members. In The Invitation, grief and trauma cannot be rushed or “spiritually bypassed,” but have to be fully felt and processed to eventually heal.

 

Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill


Joe Hill’s work has matured greatly since early novels such as Heart-Shaped Box and even Horns: A Novel, both of which provoked a love-hate response in me. Both were clever, but wallowed self-consciously in their own cleverness. Heart-Shaped Box utilized every horror genre trope and cliche before inverting them, setting readers up for a multitude of “gotcha” moments. (For instance, a spirit uses a Ouija board to incessantly question the living protagonist.) In all fairness, Hill’s fiction is inevitably compared to his father Stephen King’s work, rather than appreciated exclusively for its own merits.

Then came NOS4A2: A Novel, which one could argue was Hill’s breakout work (and will be reviewed here later). NOS 4A2 was in many respects more nuanced and complex than his earlier novels, with greater character depth. This novel made some bold references to Stephen King’s fictional universe, and can easily stand alongside many of King’s novels.

The Fireman: A Novel continues the positive trends of NOS 4A2, and the central conceit of a contagious disease that causes the infected to spontaneously combust is deliriously creepy. However, this isn’t the novel’s scariest aspect. (Here’s where I warn for mild spoilers ahead.) The most disturbing scenes involve dysfunctional group dynamics, particularly those involving social control. The tribal mentality isn’t merely drawn along the lines of the infected vs. the uninfected, but even within the group of infected survivors who are already vulnerable to attacks from “cremation crews” as well as their own illness.

Here we have a story about an isolated and marginalized group that devolves into a murderous cult. The process is familiar to anyone who has read about real-life tragedies such as Jonestown and so many other cults. In The Fireman, an initially likable character creates an environment of of hope and trust, anchored to her own brand of religion. As the characters become more isolated from the outside world, the tone shifts to paranoia, and she grabs as much power and authority as possible. As with real life cases, it’s frustrating that so few characters call her out on her bullshit or hold her accountable. Naturally, the few dissenters are demonized through character assassination, and in some cases, subjected to physical abuse. And naturally, the followers are so desperate to maintain their in-group status that they blindly believe their leader’s lies. The protagonist’s character development arc is satisfying (even if I could have lived with fewer Mary Poppins references), because her previous relationship with  her gaslighting and manipulative ex-husband immunizes her to the cult members’ manipulation. Hill creates a believable transition from passive spouse to assertive hero. Another strength of the novel is how seamlessly Hill provides a biological explanation for the toxic group dynamics that dovetails with the mechanics of the disease itself.