The man at the front of the tour bus was young and doughy, dressed like Jack the Ripper, and speaking with the rapid confidence and slurred sibilants of a tech lecturer. As the bus tooled through the neon Las Vegas night, the man bounced between ghost stories, the horrible tragedies of the suicide capital of America, and what he believed hauntings actually were. We passed by the location of the MGM Grand fire (now Bally’s), Redd Foxx’s house (almost oppressively normal), and Liberace’s restaurant (pretty much what you’re picturing), and many other less famous locations. Three of our stops were genuinely eerie. There’s a city park built on the bones of early settlers, famous for apparitions and poltergeist effects. Because I’m the only skeptic whose life goal is to get in a fistfight with a ghost, I dared the poltergeist to shove me while flinching as the chimpanzee in me wanted to run screaming for the nearest tree. There’s a bridge built over one of Vegas’s many drainage ditches (inside which there are vast communities of subterranean mole people) from which a man hanged himself. The rope is still dangling there. But it was the last place that scared the shit out of me.
The guide set the scene. There is a house right across the street from Wayne Newton’s ranch. (To be fair, almost everything in Vegas is across the street from Wayne Newton’s ranch. That fucking place is huge.) In this house, a group of crackheads ritualistically murdered a young woman. There was maybe one streetlamp on outside when we rolled to a stop in front of the dark house. It looked like the house from E.T, the familiarity giving the sense that this crime, this haunting, could happen anywhere. Every window was boarded up except one on the second floor. Sometimes, late at night, the ghost of the young woman supposedly appears at that window. As I stared into the darkness, I desperately wanted the ghost to appear. I kept hoping to see her pale white form (he never said she was in a nightgown, but dammit, in my mind, she was) slowly stalk from the black, a phantom bloodstain spreading across her abdomen. At the same time, I wanted the bus driver to hit the gas and get us the hell out of there.
What put me in that state? Just as certain things in this world are intrinsically funny (marching bands, things getting caught in wells, fat kids falling down) certain things are objectively scary. Boarded up suburban homes. Places where horrible crimes went down. And then there are places where nightmares sit around thinking of ways to get right up behind you while you’re at the computer, reaching out a maggot-covered hand to brush the back of your neck.
That picture isn’t random. That’s Danvers State Hospital, an insane asylum opened 1878 and abandoned in 1985. It was designed because of the pervasive 19th Century belief that only terror could cure insanity. It is also the setting for this week’s movie, 2001’s Session 9. Horror benefits from two things: accessibility and reality. Though Danvers isn’t readily accessible (At all anymore. It was torn down to make room for condos that will be abandoned in a couple years by families screaming, “You never moved the bodies!”), it has the benefit of reality. No matter how talented the production designer, there’s just no substitute for a hundred years of inhabitation by the criminally insane, decay, and the kind of mental anguish my tour guide insists spawns ghosts.
Brad Anderson, the director, probably had a list in his head of creepy shit and he decided to stick it all in there. To the abandoned mental institution, he added the threat of the insane and homeless. Early on in the film, the armed security guard explains to our heroes that he is there to keep people out, not in. After the hospital was closed (by Reagan’s policies, though the film dances around that little factoid), tons of insane people flooded the streets, and sometimes return to the hospital. Thus, the seed is planted: a criminally insane homeless man with brown teeth might be around every corner. The walls are covered with graffiti, some of it Satanic, the result of local teens using the place as a hangout because they wanted to mix alcohol with fear-pooping.
Even abandoned mental hospitals need their asbestos removed, probably because once someone dies of cancer, they can no longer shudder helpless in the clammy grip of terror. Enter the heroes, an asbestos-removal company. There’s Gordon (Scottish actor Peter Mullan), a new father chafing under the burden, bitter Phil (David Caruso, leaving the ruthless puns at home for once), law school dropout Mike (Stephen Gevedon, also the film’s co-writer), flaky Hank (John Lucas), and Gordon’s nephew, the nyctophobic Jeff. The film shows all five men as walking on the edge. Gordon is desperate for money and sleeps in his van after apparently being kicked out of the house by his wife. Hank stole Phil’s girlfriend away, and it’s unclear what Phil is using to cope. For Hank’s part, he finds a stash of treasures confiscated from patients bricked up behind a wall, and quickly goes about looting them, heedless of the gypsy curses no doubt attached. Even placid Mike displays a dark side when some initially harmless kidding turns into threatening Jeff with an orbitoclast.
As the heroes go about their business of removing asbestos, tension simmers around them. Hank vanishes during a nighttime trip to retrieve his treasure. Suspicion falls on Phil, who has more than a little bit of motive to want Hank gone. Gordon unravels, making tearful calls to his wife Wendy that she never answers, later confessing that he slapped her in a moment of anger. And lastly, amongst the rusted equipment, the rotting restraints, and crumbling furniture, Mike unearths audio recordings of patient therapy sessions on a primitive reel to reel recorder. The grainy, distorted recordings tell the story of Mary Hobbes, a woman afflicted with Multiple Personality Disorder. Mary’s presence is a constant shadow over the film. Her room is the site of a climactic conversation between Gordon and Phil. Her tombstone is directly beneath Gordon when Jeff asks after his aunt Wendy. Throughout it all, Mary acts as a psychotic Greek chorus to the action onscreen. Even the discovery of the tapes is an ill omen. As Mike cuts the box open, at another point in the hospital, Gordon cuts his finger. As Mike opens it, asbestos dust rains down on an unmasked Hank.
The recordings are labeled Sessions 1 through 9. Mary’s story centers around something that happened on Christmas, which resulted in her commitment to the asylum. The first two of Mary’s alternate personalities, the Princess and Billy come out rather quickly. The doctor asks where all three of the personalities live. The Princess lives in the tongue, because she won’t stop talking. Billy lives in the eyes because he sees everything. When asked where Simon lives, Billy is silent. The film expertly builds the myth and presence of Simon in the recordings without actually using him so that when his personality finally does emerge, it is one of the more chilling scenes ever put on film.
Session 9 is the best kind of movie: the kind you don’t want to spoil. I’m tempted to talk about what Simon really is, what the asylum represents, and what the cracked psyches of the main characters really mean, but the movie so odd, so unique, so assured, that I want new viewers to come at it as I did. Fresh. Fortunately, Session 9 has found a small, but fervent cult, of which I’m a proud member. It’s a nearly perfect hundred minutes of psychological, atmospheric horror. It’s currently on Netflix instant. So turn off all the lights, fire up the Xbox, and check it out.