The film The Skeleton Key – psychology and a little horror
In the responses of viewers who have watched the thriller The Skeleton Key, one often encounters bewilderment: where are the horrors? In fact, in the film of the British Ian Softley, there are no vampires with bloody teeth, no dead people rising from the coffin, or other familiar elements of mystical thrillers. However, the genre of the film is precisely defined: it is indeed a thriller, but a psychological thriller. The psychological component in it is more important than mysticism, because The Skeleton Key is a story not so much about hoodoo magic as about manipulating human consciousness.
Why is the action taking place in Louisiana?
The place of action plays a very important role in the development of the plot: after all, this story could hardly have happened in another region. Louisiana is not only endless swamps, but also a special culture. Most of the state’s population is African-American, including descendants of immigrants from Haiti who have preserved the French language and archaic cults.
Some African Americans in Louisiana believe in hoodoo, a magical system that combined North African beliefs with the traditions of white warlocks and Indian shamans. Hoodoo sorcerers practice a ritual that allows them to move into another, younger body, thereby postponing their own death. But for the exchange of bodies to take place, the victim must voluntarily perform a certain rite, and, most importantly, she must believe in the worst. If the victim does not believe in witchcraft, she is invulnerable.
This is a very important point, without which it is impossible to understand the meaning of the film.
Caroline and Mrs Devereaux’s relationship
The main character, 25-year-old hospice caregiver Caroline Ellis, is seen in the very first frames of the film. Another patient dies before her eyes, and the girl is outraged by the staff’s indifference to his death, depressed by her own impotence and inability to help. Wanting to change her life, she hires a nurse in the house of a certain Mrs. Devereaux, an elderly and not very pleasant white lady. Her husband, Ben, is paralyzed after a stroke, and doctors give him no more than a month to live.
Mrs. Devereaux agrees to Caroline’s candidacy not without hesitation: she is not sure that the girl will “understand the house.” Nevertheless, Caroline remains, and the hostess begins her game, giving her a universal master key, which supposedly opens all the doors in the house, and then sends her to the attic for seeds of flowers. In the attic, Caroline discovers a locked door and unsuccessfully tries to open it, which she immediately reports to the hostess. Mrs. Devereaux is pleased: the first step in the right direction has been taken – Caroline is interested in the right room.
Then the hostess takes the next step: she tells the girl about the events of the 1920s, when a pair of black sorcerers lived in the house as servants: Dad Justify and Mom Cecile. Mrs. Devereaux explains the absence of mirrors in the house by the fact that sorcerers can be reflected in them. The task of Mrs. Devereaux at this stage is to interest the girl in the magic of hoodoo, and she succeeds very well. It should be noted how competently she acts. In the famous book by R. Cialdini “The Psychology of Influence”, this tactic of psychological influence is called “Start small and build.” Caroline does not yet believe in ghosts and magic, but she is already constantly thinking about it, and the hostess gives her all new reasons for thinking. Finally, the girl comes to the point that she herself decides to perform a hoodoo ritual – but not for herself, but for her ward Ben.
Why is Caroline so attached to Ben?
Ben Devereaux is a paralyzed and speechless old man whom Caroline did not know before arriving at the house (as well as his wife). Nevertheless, the desire to help Ben, and later – to save him – is the driving force behind the actions of the main character. Why is this happening? The answer is simple: Caroline associates Ben with her father, who died a year ago. Since Caroline did not have time to look after him before her death, he apparently died suddenly, and the girl developed a guilt complex.
Caroline failed to save her father, and the more she wants to save someone else’s Ben. Assuming that the old man’s illness was caused by his belief in hoodoo, Caroline conducts a ritual designed to remove the spell from his tongue – and, lo and behold, Ben begins to make sounds, and then even says, however, only one word – “Violet”, the name of Mrs. Devereaux. From this moment, Caroline, firstly, begins to believe in the worst, and secondly, she is convinced that Ben is trying to drive Ben into the coffin by his wife.
The complex of the savior, combined with the complex of atonement, deprives the girl of mental equilibrium, and she begins to commit ambiguous actions: she mixes Mrs. Devereaux’s sleeping pills and tries to take Ben away from the house. But the attempt fails – the gate is securely locked. Then Caroline hides Ben in the barn and floats away on the boat. She hurries to Luke, whom she considers her ally.
What is the role of Luke’s lawyer?
Mrs Devereaux’s lawyer Luke Marshall is a charming young handsome man, to whom Caroline is a little partial at heart. It is he who hires her as a nurse and persuades her to stay when the girl, outraged by Mrs. Devereaux’s initial unfriendly reception, wants to leave. Caroline completely trusts Luke until the end and counts on his help. Luke’s betrayal and the discovery that he and Mrs Devereaux are acting in concert is a shock to Caroline.
In fact, Luke, on the one hand, helps Caroline to plunge into the atmosphere of hoodoo, for example, organizing a meeting with Ben’s former nurse, and on the other hand, he controls the girl who informs him of all her suspicions. The plot, when the heroine seeks help from one of her enemies, is clearly borrowed from the classic Hitchcock thrillers.
What is the meaning of the climax scene?
Luke brings the bound Caroline back to Mrs. Devereaux’s house, where the inevitable denouement is played out. Trying to escape from Mrs. Devereaux and Luke, Caroline uses the Hoodoo rituals she knows – first she scatters brick chips, and then runs to the attic, to the very room where a circle of burning candles is already ready. Holding in her hands a leaf from the book of spells, which the mistress skillfully slipped her, the girl creates, as it seems to her, a ritual of protection. But in reality, she prepares herself for the transmigration ritual. In a minute, Mrs. Devereaux – she is Cecile’s mother – will move into her body, and Caroline herself will be in the body of an old woman. In the same way, a little earlier Ben Devereaux – aka Daddy Justify – moved into the body of the lawyer Luke.
The couple of sorcerers will continue their existence in new bodies, and Caroline and the real Luke will be sent to the hospice to die. Caroline lost because she believed in magic. She owes her defeat not only to the work of Mrs. Devereaux and Luke, but also to her own complexes, as well as the lack of an unambiguous picture of the world. The girl can not be called either an atheist or an ardent believer. If she was an atheist with a scientific picture of the world, she would not believe in magic for a second. If she were a believer, she would not be afraid of witchcraft, knowing that the believer in God is invulnerable to magic. And so it is played out as if by notes by experienced manipulators.
What is the meaning of the title of the film?
Since the original title of the film “The Skeleton Key” can be translated both as a key to all doors and as a master key, it is obvious that the filmmakers interpret it ambiguously. This is a very real key, which was given to Caroline, and a symbolic key between the worlds, and a key to the human soul. Mrs. Devereaux and Luke, or rather a couple of sorcerers, picked up a master key to Caroline’s soul, and this master key is universal. First, using both complexes and positive personality traits (Caroline had empathy and interest in the world around them), the manipulator deprives a person of psychological balance, and then pulls him into his territory, where he is obviously stronger, and forces him to play his game.
Artistic techniques and allusions
An analysis of The Key to All Doors would be incomplete without at least a brief mention of the techniques the director uses to create the film’s atmosphere. A key place among them belongs to the motive of the “double bottom”: in the world of the film people, places and things are not what they seem. The photograph of the children is hidden behind the photograph of the sorcerers; the old white lady is actually a black witch; the young lawyer is not a lawyer at all, but a black sorcerer; dying old man – a young man who is killed by magic; a harmless laundry – a secret shop that sells hoodoo goods, etc.
Among the allusions, the image of a house with a forbidden room, which comes from fairy tales about Bluebeard, catches the eye first of all. But there is also a more interesting motive, which refers us to the theme of rock, popular with the ancient Greeks. In the myth about Oedipus, the hero, who was predicted that he would kill his father and marry his mother, does everything to avoid this, but every action brings him closer to the realization of the prophecy. In the same way, Caroline, trying to save Ben, and then herself, with every step comes closer to death. However, in this case, it’s not about rock: we ourselves create our own picture of the world, and then we begin to act accordingly.