At one point in the 1980 film The Changeling, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) returns to the empty, sprawling mansion he is renting from the local historical society as slamming doors and thundering bangs echo throughout the house. He cries out to the void, “What do you want from me? I’ve done everything I can do. There’s nothing more to be done.” He is raging against the restless spirit that haunts his home, against the unknown answers to unknowable questions, and against his own grief that torments him day and night.
So much of this film is filled with sound and fury, but unlike the famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they signify everything. Though it’s celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, The Changeling remains largely unseen. Because of that, I will not reveal its secrets but instead explore its themes.
I was first introduced to this film at sixteen by a girl I was dating. Unfortunately, my taste in horror films back then (and the fact that I was more interested in the flavor of her lip gloss) did not allow much room for me to appreciate the slow-encroaching dread of The Changeling at that time. Fortunately, the title and cover image of the VHS tape stuck with me much longer than that relationship. Years later, I watched the film again, this time on DVD, and was completely spellbound. This is a mature horror film exploring complex ideas, and I simply was not ready for its exploration of grief until I had experienced some for myself.
The following year, I lost both my maternal and paternal grandmothers to horrible illnesses. A few years later, I would experience the devastating loss of a college professor that I consider one of the greatest influences of my life and a true friend. In many ways, John Russell reminds me of him, but I’ll speak to that as we go along.
The film begins with tragedy. Russell, a successful composer and concert pianist, sees his wife and daughter killed before his eyes when a large truck plows into them on a snowy mountain road in upstate New York. Overwhelmed with grief, he takes a new job across the country in the University of Washington music department in an attempt to pick up the pieces. He finds an old, secluded house to rent where he can “pound away at the piano all night,” and work on his music undisturbed. After moving in, he is woken by thundering sounds echoing through the house at six o’clock each morning that last for several seconds before stopping dead. He soon discovers terrible secrets that still haunt his new home. The central plot of the film is a mystery that drives the story. It is compelling and moves the film forward, but really serves as a device to explore what the film is really interested in — loss, grief, and learning how to live with both.
The overwhelming melancholy of the film is appropriately punctuated by its Pacific Northwest setting. As a lifelong resident of the area, I can attest to the weariness of the long stretches of gloom that last from mid-September all the way into May and sometimes even June. This is the Seasonal Affective Disorder capital of the United States, and that period of time in early to mid-March that the film is set is the most difficult. Even those moments when the sun does breakthrough, it is blinding and uncomfortable, as demonstrated in the film. But so much more of The Changeling is covered by a pall of grey skies and rain reflective of Russell’s grieving soul.
Strangely, John rarely refers to the death of his wife, particularly in the presence of Claire, played by George C. Scott’s real-life wife Trish Van Devere. He often dwells upon the death of his daughter Kathy, however, and the film gives him a great deal of space to grieve. Scott, known for his brash, seemingly unfeeling characters like General Buck Turgidson (Dr. Strangelove…, 1964) and George S. Patton (Patton, 1970), plays a sensitive, introspective soul in this film and does so brilliantly. His character, John Russell, is so often alone on screen. He sits solitary at his piano composing the tune he hears in his head only to discover it embedded in a seventy-year-old music box sealed in his attic. He weeps alone in his bed over his loss. He drives alone to a bridge at the edges of the city to drop his daughter’s red and white rubber ball into the black waters below in an attempt to let go of his grief, only to discover both the ball and his grief waiting for him upon his return home.
And then there is sound. The fact that Russell is a gifted musician is key: he hears what others cannot. Going back to my music professor, I remember an instance where he heard the organist play one fleeting wrong note in the midst of a twenty-five-piece orchestra and one-hundred-voice choir. The detail heard by the attuned ear is astonishing. It is no wonder that the unquiet spirit of the boy Joseph uses sound to get Russell’s attention — the banging each morning, the rubber ball bouncing down the steps, and the child’s voice on the tape recording. On a deeper level, the boy’s spirit also knows that the ear of his heart is more attuned because of his grief. When a husband and wife team (clearly inspired by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life basis for The Conjuring films) is brought in to investigate the paranormal disturbances of the house, the wife, a medium, notes, “you have suffered a cruel loss, John Russell…The presence in this house is reaching out to you through that loss.”
Russell’s grief is pitted against the open rage of the restless spirit of the mysterious Joseph (Voldi Way), who compels Russell to unearth the truth. Joseph’s fury is frustration at seventy years of being ignored and neglected. He doesn’t wish to harm John or Claire, but his tantrums are the only tools his forever young soul knows how to use to get his point across. Grief and rage so often feel like the same thing. The kindred spirits of Joseph and John Russell need each other to heal. Because Joseph is a child and Russell has lost one, John is compelled to bring rest to Joseph’s spirit and somehow find rest for his own in the process.
This brings me back to experiencing grief of my own. That amazing music professor I had is linked to the most acute grief I have ever experienced. I had lost two grandparents, which was certainly painful. But somehow with the elderly, there is a certain expectation that the end will come. In the case of this teacher, the end came suddenly and unexpectedly at the hand of a man unsettled by his own grief. In May of 2001, I had just met the woman who would become my wife. Life was full of joy and a new world was opening up before me. But then, a man with a bag full of guns walked onto my college campus, grief-stricken over an unrequited infatuation, intending to kill. He shot the first person he saw and then turned the gun on himself.
The man he shot was one of the most fascinating, compassionate, talented, and intelligent people I have ever known. He was on the verge of new successes in his career as a teacher and performer; he was a remarkable pianist and organist. That day, he had just finished teaching a class and was walking across campus toward the University Commons. Had his students accompanied him to lunch as they often did, the tragedy could quite possibly have been even worse. The evening before, in an ironic twist of fate, he had attended a performance by the university’s orchestra and combined choirs of the Verdi Requiem. Then suddenly, for absolutely no reason, he was gone. Twenty years later, I am still not over it and I know I never will be. That’s the way grief works. It strikes, leaves a wound, and inevitably a scar.
Even though John Russell helps to satisfy the spirit of Joseph, the scars of his loss will never be fully healed. We assume that he has found new companionship with Claire, but there is no doubt that even as the years pass, he will turn to find something that reminds him of his lost wife and daughter. Early in the film, Claire takes John horseback riding to take his mind off his troubles. In the midst of the beautiful forest setting, John strokes his horse’s nose and comments, “I was just thinking about my daughter, Kathy, how much she loved horses.” That sting of sadness will never leave John just as the ghosts of the past haunt his home. The enigmatic ending of the film in which the old music box opens and begins playing implies that the spirit of Joseph still may not be entirely at rest.
In its way, The Changeling is the last old-fashioned ghost story in the tradition of The Uninvited (1944), The Innocents (1961), and The Haunting (1963). These are films all about mood and atmosphere. Often what we don’t see is most important. Later films would show us so much, but here we are forced to imagine and feel. As a young man, I was not ready for that. Maybe it’s a little unfortunate that I am ready now.
Still, that is part of the journey of life. Some, like me, are lucky enough to not experience deep losses while we are young, others are not. Because of the temporary nature of life and the broken state of the world, it is inevitable as we grow older that we will experience loss and sometimes unbearable grief. Though it stabs at our hearts and leaves a lasting sting, it also attunes us to the needs of others. John Russell is only open to Joseph’s pain because of his own. Grief needs not close us off. It can be debilitating, yes, but it can also be the engine of our empathy.
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