Fearing is believing (Hyperstition)

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Ian Softley’s The Skeleton Key is about Hoodoo. Although in some ways similar to Voodoo, Hoodoo is Central rather than West African in origin. The American Blues is often linked with Voodoo, but it probably has more connections with Hoodoo. Hoodoo practicioners are explicitly referred to as twin entities – “two-headed doctors,” “two-head women,” and “two-head men” – since they consort with spirits that reside in their head. The names for the harmful spells they cast include such Lemurian borrowings as “jinx” “trick,” and “cross”.

The Skeleton Key sees city-dwelling hospice worker Caroline (Kate Hudson) engaged by Violet (Geena Rowlands) to look after her husband, Ben (John Hurt), a near-catatonic who has, it seems, has recently suffered a stroke. In moving from the city to the bayous, Caroline shifts from an alienated ultra-modernity to an Oddubbian hinterland of rain-drenched swamps, spectre-haunted mirrors and scratchy Blues 45s. This is a genuine interzone: not quite dry land, but not subsumed under water; not the (post)modernity of the demystified American metropolis, but not a regression into the ‘pure primitive’ (associated with Africa). The ancient here is already mediated through Kittlerian machineries of recording (phonography and photography). The objective correlative for this ‘time out of joint’ is the decaying splendour of Violet’s house, a remnant of Southern aristocracy (the nostalgia for which American Horror has been in thrall to since Poe), a structure sinking into swampland, whose shuttered attic room contains jujus, spell-books and recorded conjurations.

It is the presence of these stage-setting devices that have led some critics to dismiss the film as little more than a repository of hoaky cliches. But this is to entirely miss the reflexive role that such elements play in a film that is very much about belief. As Walter Cannon established in ‘Voodoo Death’ and Wade Davis in The Serpent and the Rainbow, sorcery cannot work if its victim does not believe (both writers famously go to some lengths to describe the physiological mechanics by which beliefs become translated into physical ailments). Thus the insistent refrain in The Skeleton Key: you are immune provided you do not believe. But Caroline comes unstuck because, although she maintains the conviction that she does not believe until the end, it is clear to the audience long before then that she has crossed, imperceptibly, into the ranks of believers.

Caroline is a dupe, trapped by her own postmodern sceptical assumptions. Caroline’s mistake is to subscribe to the postmodern doxa that there was a ‘time in the past when people “directly believed”‘. Conversely, she is also a victim of the view that indirect belief – ‘belief through the other’ – is not yet ‘real’ belief. Zizek describes this postmodern account of belief in The Puppet and the Dwarf:

‘As Robert Pfaller demonstrates in Illusionen der Anderen, the direct belief in a truth that is subjectively fully assumed (“Here I stand!”) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through-distance, like politeness or rituals. Pre-modern societies did not bleive directly, but through distance, and this explains, for instance, why Enlightenment critics misread “primitive” myths – they took the first notion that a tribe originated from a fish or a bird as a literal direct belief, then rejected it as stupid, “fetishist”, naive… Pfaller is right to emphasize how, today, we believe more than ever: the most skeptical attitude, that of deconstruction, relies on the figure of an Other who “really believes”.’ (6)

In The Skeleton Key, the Other who ‘really believes’ is – or seems to be – Ben. Caroline infers from Ben’s horror of mirrors and his thwarted, pathetic attempts to escape the house that he has been ‘crossed’, or cursed. Or rather: that he believes he has been cursed. So Caroline rationalizes her initial interest in, and subsequent dabbling in, Hoodoo by reference to Ben’s belief. Since Ben believes he has been Hoodoo-hexed, Caroline must ‘play along’ with Hoodoo ritual in order to cure him.

As soon as Caroline has begun to perform Hoodoo rituals, she finds herself a victim of the process that Pascal described when outlining his wager in his Pensees. In his conversation with an imaginary interlocutor, Pascal maintains that the cure for ‘unbelief’ is to literally go through the motions of the Catholic faith. Acting as if you belief will eventually produce belief ‘in the heart’. Behaviour, particularly habituated behaviour, engenders belief. ‘You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.’ With Caroline, as in the case of someone who accepts Pascal’s wager, we encounter the paradoxical phenonemon of ‘belief before belief’ – for Caroline to follow the spells is already to act as if there is ‘something’ to believe in. Before she knows it, the belief she has attributed to an Other has become her belief. The litmus test here is the emergence of a particular affect – not, as for Pascal, faith, but fear. ‘Fearing is believing’, as Hume might have said when he claimed that Pyrrho’s scepticism was refuted by his shrinking from a rabid dog.

At the beginning of the film, we are led to believe that all the mirrors in the house have been removed because malign spirits reside in them. But mirrors are, after all, a powerful tool of white magic, the guarantors of an illusory consistency of identity, and their removal precipitates Caroline’s displacement from her familiar symbolic universe. It corresponds to the miscecognition necessary for her duping.

Posted by mark k-p at August 9, 2005 12:08 PM

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