Grief Never Dies in ‘1408’
By Luke Beale
“1408” perhaps isn’t the most famous Steven King story about a drunk writer staying in a strange hotel. While The Shining is rich with allegory, it is arguably much more open to interpretation than “1408,” which in this 2007 adaptation by Mikael Håfström clearly shows a man wrestling with grief. The story is more straightforward but uses that to its advantage.
The film follows author and paranormal investigator Mike (John Cusack) as he checks into an allegedly haunted hotel. Mike does not believe in ghosts, spirits, ghouls, or anything paranormal. He has visited and written about countless so-called ‘haunted’ buildings, and while he uses the scary stories around each to sell his books, he is clearly an unbeliever. On receiving a mysterious postcard from The Dolphin Hotel in New York warning him to stay out of their room 1408, he is intrigued enough to have his agent arrange for him to stay. Mike interprets the hotel manager’s protestations, superbly played by Samuel L. Jackson, as an ingenuine ploy to build up the hotel’s mystique. The manager warns him that 56 people have died in that room, some of ‘natural’ causes, some by taking their own life. Ignoring these warnings, Mike decides to spend the night in room 1408. Mike’s skepticism is severely tested over the next hour, as bizarre events quickly escalate, and his mind starts to unravel.
“Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room.”
Before his stay at The Dolphin, Mike’s literary agent expresses concern about him returning to New York, suggesting to the audience that Mike has a history there. We later learn that Mike once had a family in New York and that he had left suddenly after the tragic death of their young daughter. It seems that Mike’s journey as an author debunking ghost sightings may be a way of him dealing with this great loss. He is cynical about the existence of the afterlife, and yet continually seeks it out. It is almost as if a part of him desperately wants to experience something paranormal, to give him some kind of hope that his daughter still exists in some way. He is a cynical unbeliever, desperate for his cynicism to be proven wrong. His night in room 1408 very quickly becomes a test of his beliefs as apparitions taunt him, and the room turns into a prison, at times filled with ice, demolished to rubble, and flooded from the sea burst forth from a painting. He manages to use his laptop to contact his ex-wife and with her help eventually escapes the room. He finds himself in a hospital, and we’re left wondering if the entire experience was real or a fever dream.
After his recovery, he visits the post office, when suddenly the building is engulfed in chaos. Workmen start smashing at the walls and tearing at the floor revealing that his escape from the hotel was a delusion — he is still trapped in room 1408. Up becomes down, and we’re spun in circles, questioning everything. Did Mike ever escape the room? Was the hotel even real?
Then when Mike is at his most vulnerable, an apparition of his daughter Katie appears to him. She desperately pleads for his help, clearly unwell, saying that she is cold. She has blood on her feet as she clambers over the rubble towards him, while he tries to deny what he is seeing with what little determination he has left. Ultimately, he falls to his knees and embraces her, promising they can be together forever as tears run down his face. Tragically, this is not the cathartic experience it promises to be, as Katie goes limp in Mike’s arms, and he is confronted with the most awful truth: his daughter is dead. Katie’s body crumbles to ashes as Mike cries and screams, his grief as raw as ever. This is a tough scene to watch and shows viscerally how grief can work — just when you thought you were free, at any moment you can get dragged right back into the horror.
“Sometimes you can’t get rid of bad memories, you’ve just gotta live with them.”
Eventually, Mike does seem to get rescued from the hotel room, if not from his metaphorical room of grief. As we watch Mike write about his experience in the hotel, it appears as if he and his ex-wife Lilly are moving back in together. He claims he has ‘checked out’ of writing ghost stories having worked through his pain during his stay at The Dolphin. He has come to accept the pain of losing his daughter, finding whatever it was he was searching for on his journey of exploring and writing about haunted houses. The assumption is that his experience in room 1408 was not literally real, but a way of him exploring his grief that was enabled somehow by the spectral presence haunting the room. However, in a ghostly twist, the film ends with Mike playing the fire-damaged audio recording of his time in the hotel, with both him and Lilly hearing the voice of their daughter coming from the tape. The film offers no solid explanation for the happenings in room 1408 leaving the mystery of the room itself unsolved. This works really well, and far from feeling unsatisfied by the lingering questions about the nature of the room, it allows us time to focus instead on its metaphorical power.
Great stress or loss can do strange things to the mind, including causing very realistic hallucinations. Research on post-bereavement hallucinations suggests that between 30% and 60% of widowers experience some kind of auditory or visual hallucination. Although speculation, it would make sense that a parent losing a child would also be likely to experience hallucinations considering the high emotions involved. Western society typically views hallucinations as ‘mad’ when in fact they are quite common, especially in times of grief. We are taught to expect that grief will slowly get less intense over time when the reality is more complicated. Rather than shrinking, the pain often remains as intense as ever, while it is us who grow and evolve around it as time goes by. At first, it seems all-consuming, but slowly and gently we can learn to live with it and to live around it, acknowledging the horror in all its untidiness and complexity. 🩸
Luke Beale is a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.
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