The Underlying Horror of “Room”

Hey folks.

I recently watched the Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay film ‘Room’ in theatres, and it really affected me. Usually I would write some goofy, long-winded post about how much I loved it and make all these jokes blah blah blah but I have little capacity for humor after watching this film. I’ll try anyway, but just a warning.

Before I go into my analysis, I should talk a bit about the author and screenwriter Emma Donoghue because she’s pretty awesome. In an interviewer, she said:

I started [writing the screenplay] as soon as the novel was sold. There’s always about a year where you’re sitting around, waiting for the book to be published. And I thought, ‘I’ll finish the screenplay now before anyone can tell me not to.’ Because I knew once the book was published, I had a feeling there’d be interest, but I thought people would want to give it an experienced screenwriter. So I just thought I’d go ahead while I was still in that lovely private zone of nobody telling me what to do.

Now, speaking of Emma Donoghue and her writing, I have to admit that I just couldn’t read the book. I tried—truly, I did—but considering it was in Jack’s 5 year old voice the entire time explaining the mundanities of ‘Room’, my brain couldn’t focus. And this is coming from the guy who relishes in all things discursive and Biblical length like ‘House of Leaves’, ‘Anthropology of an American Girl’ and ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’. Plenty of people loved it though so good for them. At any rate, I’m happy the story was adapted for the screen because I think so many people need to see a story like this play out. Rather than go into the plot of the film, which is quite simple in theory but brings up so many talking points, I’d like to discuss something I haven’t seen most reviewers (save for a Jezebel writer) explore; that is, the horror elements at play here. Because at its core, ‘Room’ is a horror movie; and a terrifying one at that. It’s got plenty of the hallmarks of great horror films, save for the blood: kidnap, claustrophobia, rape, abuse, body decay, a child in peril, and a general sense of unease. And a large part of the film’s fear comes from its perversion of our cultural idea of what a room represents.

The word “room” is a pretty evocative one. By definition it is simply a noun for “a space that is or may be occupied”, but to most people it is shorthand for ‘my room’, and the ‘my’ is key here. For most of us, ‘my room’ is a universal phrase. It represents a safe haven where we can do what we please, like dance comically to loud music, scream into our pillows when our crush texts back, or sit up in there pining over distant lovers. I’m talking to you, Brandy. (Just kidding, I love you dearly sis! But after watching this ‘Room’ movie, your predicament looks like child’s play.)

It could be worse, girl.

One thing I find so interesting about our rooms is how safe we often feel in them. In the confines of our four walls, door closed, all by our lonesome, many of us feel freer than we ever would in wide open spaces surrounded by thousands of people. But what if your room was a prison? What if your safe haven was in fact the very place that put you in danger, but you didn’t know it? Some of the scariest movie and television scenes involve the corruption of that concept of room safety. Here’s a great example: how unnerving is this iconic shot from 90s cult-classic series ‘Twin Peaks’ of Killer Bob—Laura Palmer’s demonic killer—crouching behind her bed as her mom, grief-stricken, wails. This is the stuff of nightmares.



‘Room’, like most great horror films, exploits a fear we all have: the fear of our safe haven being infiltrated. It takes a room that should be protected and turns it into a horrifying chamber of confinement. It puts a girl, Joy Newsome, in a captive situation for almost a decade, where her only solace is her son, Jack, who is a product of the continuous rape she is subjected to by the hand of her captor and yet who is also her greatest joy. Helen Holmes, who wrote the Jezebel article I mentioned earlier, says this of the matter:

The creeping terror conjured from Room stems not from Jack’s rapist father, but from the unceasing confusion and disassociation that Jack feels throughout the story: he’s challenged to abandon everything about the world he ever thought to be true, forced suddenly into the fundamental element of growing up.

This is a valid point, but I think it ignores the impactful ideology of Room in Jack’s mind. The real terror comes from the false safety of Room, the always present threat of Joy and Jack’s captor, Old Nick, destroying the fantasy of Room’s security.

What leads many people astray—myself included upon first viewing—from the horror aspects of the film is Ma and Jack’s dynamic, which is a fascinating and beautiful bond that filmmakers exploit to heartbreaking effect (with the aid of some aptly placed ambient music that would even make Ted Cruz pull out a hankie). This relationship wasn’t met with universal love: some reviewers, like Collider, lamented how ‘Room’ loses itself in balancing Jack and Ma’s perspectives in an equal way, “never consistently hit[ting] its emotional mark beyond the strength of its two leads.” I find that critique interesting, because what made this movie so utterly soul-shattering to me was how well it did this.

Jack’s childish interpretation of the world was essential to providing the often morbid and dire aspects of the film with a sense of innocence and purity. Ma’s perspective was essential in keeping audiences grounded in the gravity of the situation. If it had stuck only to Ma’s vantage point, the movie would be even more brutal than it already is. If it had stuck solely to Jack’s, the movie would have been too magical. The film, in my opinion, kept these two battling elements on a level playing field, almost too well. Watching the two interact, it’s easy to get lost in the freedom of their relationship, specifically how Jack’s gaze makes their prison seem like paradise. But undercutting that whimsy is an insidious knowledge that Room is a jail, a house of horrors where Ma has to keep up the image of average, omnipotent mother for the sack of her child. And that is truly horrifying.

(Photo credits to Collider)


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