Mind Control in ‘Oculus’

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One of the sad truths of the modern streaming era is that sometimes you wind up playing a little bit of a game of Whack-a-Mole with the movies you’re interested in watching, as they drop off of one service and pop up on another. This happened with the 2013 horror movie “Oculus”, which I had been interested in ever since I saw the short film it was based on at a film festival and finally found out was on Netflix just three short days before it dropped back off again. Luckily, that was enough time to watch it, and I gotta say… this is a sadly underrated movie.

I could go into the really powerful metaphor that Mike Flanagan weaves for adult survivors of child abuse, with Tim and Kaylie literally remembering two different versions of their childhood thanks to Tim’s experiences in therapy and Kaylie’s obsessive pursuit of the Lasser Glass, an antique owned by her father that she believes is responsible for their parents’ descent into murderous insanity. (Spoiler Alert: Because this is a supernatural horror movie, Kaylie is right.) There’s a lot of intense, emotional material wrung out of this, with both protagonists each having a valid and reasonable point of view about the ways they’re coping with a past trauma.

I could also go into the beautiful, beautiful ways that Flanagan weaves the two stories together with increasing intensity as the film goes on and the mirror’s power to induce hallucinations twists past and present back on each other in all sorts of inventive ways. There are so many vivid, scary, haunting images that I would love to see a sequel (although I’m glad that Flanagan’s apparently in no rush to pump something out just to make a buck).

But let’s face it – this is a mind control blog, right? So let’s insert a spoiler cut, and talk about the mind control after the break.

This is, to be honest, the most mind-controlly of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s not the sexy kind of mind control – the Lasser Glass isn’t interested in making you strip naked or fuck a stranger, it’s more into the “eating glass” and “ripping off your own fingernails” kind of mind control. But it is entirely mind control. The Lasser Glass just hangs on the wall, quite literally, and sadistically fucks with your head until you die. If you are fascinated by mind control, even when it’s not employed for sex, this is a movie that’s going to keep you riveted.

There are so many tropes of mind control in use, many of them simultaneously. There are unreliable narrators – Kaylie gets the main action underway by giving a speech about the mirror’s history, abilities and limitations, but Karen Gillan delivers the lines with the kind of zealous conviction that makes you imagine her reading the dictionary and taking notes on the words she imagines herself seeing with rapt attention. There are fake-outs and double fake-outs; at least one of the murders in the movie may never have happened, because Kaylie is staring at her fiance’s dead body while taking a call from him asking if she’s alright. (And then there’s the light bulb scene, which is what I think everyone remembers. Oh, man. The light bulb scene.)

There are characters doing things that they think make perfect sense, only to realize that they’ve been doing something completely different and perceiving them as innocuous. There’s blank-eyed staring by the victims, there’s a gorgeous sequence where Karen Gillan sways like a groggy boxer as she tries to keep her wits about her, there are scenes where characters tell themselves to resist and then sink into the trap laid for them like a red-hot ball bearing dropped into butter.

And there’s a note-perfect defiant heroine in Kaylie – all of her precautions are laid out in exacting detail, one by one, and they’re all completely useless because she simply had no idea of the sheer power that was going to be brought to bear on her tiny, defenseless mind. She assumes that the power only works on the unwary, or at the very least the less-than-fully determined, and her hubris leads her right to her doom. She’s set alarms to keep her from forgetting to eat, timers to smash the mirror if she doesn’t reset them, phone calls to keep her centered, and it never hits her until it’s far too late that all of these things come to her through the medium of her senses. And those are under the control of the Lasser Glass.

Again, this all assumes that she was ever free of it. The film makes it absolutely clear that the Lasser Glass, even though it never communicates, is an artist of sadism; if you want to murder someone and you can control their mind completely, there are all sorts of boring ways to do it. This mirror makes people fill a bath and float in it until they dehydrate, or smash their own bones one by one with a hammer until the only thing intact is one arm. It enjoys what it does. And despite what Kaylie says, there’s no actual evidence that the cover over it halts its power, or that it needs the plants or the dogs to “charge up”. There’s no reason to believe its power is limited by distance or time. You could easily construct a reading of the film that suggests that it spared Kaylie and Tim as children purely to set them on the path to their final, disastrous confrontation… and that it spares Tim at the end purely because it amuses it to watch him crushed under the weight of his guilt. There’s a terrifying, Lovecraftian aspect to the totality of its control and the uses to which it’s put. You can’t fight it. You can’t even choose the manner of your demise. You are what it wants you to be from the moment you see your own reflection staring out at you.

And if all that isn’t scary and fucked up enough, I’m going to close by directing you to what I thought was the most chilling moment in the film. There’s a scene where Tim goes into his old bedroom, and hallucinates his childhood self… but it’s the adult who fades. It’s the younger Tim who’s hallucinating his own future. Meaning that the Lasser Glass doesn’t perceive time the way we do. Either it’s precognitive, or it transcends time, or something similar, but it knew that Tim and Kaylie were going to return to that house. It knew what they would look like, where they would go, what they would do. The entirety of their lives was nothing more than a game to it.

It’s not sexy, but damn is it mind control.

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