The most terrifying movie I’ve ever seen is the Exorcist. I saw it from the backseat of my parents’ car at a Drive-In theater when I was eight years old. For months I imagined Regan MacNeil popping up at the foot of my bed with her disfigured face, eyes rolling back in her head, and her horrendous growling, croaking voice pounding my eardrums. I fell asleep on many nights with my head buried in my pillow and the covers tightly drawn over my head.
I’ve read some scary books too. I was a big Poe fan in high school, and read some Lovecraft too. I also read William Blatty’s The Exorcist, which allowed me to revisit some of my childhood fears. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and The Shining. These were disturbing and creepy, especially when I read them alone at night.
The most terrifying book I’ve ever read, though, is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow, 2015). Well, I should say, “read and listened to.” I experienced parts of Tremblay’s book also as an audiobook. On several occasions I listened to it while falling asleep and had horrible nightmares. On one occasion I listened to it while having a root canal. I can’t be sure how much of the fear came from Tremblay’s book and how much came from the dentist’s drill. Nonetheless, the audio experience was just as disturbing as reading the book itself.
Stephen King said of Tremblay’s book, “it scared the hell out of me.” Yeah. Me too. In fact, I’d say that Tremblay’s book frightened me more than The Exorcist film and novel. A Head Full of Ghosts is a riveting psychological thriller and masterpiece of literary horror. It transforms the possession motif, and it does so with literary grace and philosophical sophistication. You get it. I loved the book.
The Story: A Synopsis Without (Major) Spoilers
A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of the Barrett family, a family in contemporary rural Massachusetts whose fourteen-year-old daughter Marjorie Barrett begins to exhibit increasingly aberrant and disturbing behavior. She has unpredictable mood swings, night terrors, and violent outbursts. She speaks in different voices, engages in self-mutilation and animalistic behavior (e.g. makes animalistic sounds, urinates and defecates in the hallway of the family home). She plays creepy and threatening pranks on her younger sister Merry (short for Meredith), and tells her sister eerie stories in which their dad murders their family and buries their bodies in the basement. And of course, there are those voices she hears in her head, the ghosts in her head.
Marjorie’s dad John Barrett, a devoutly religious man, is sure his daughter is possessed. The mother, Sarah Barrett, believes Marjorie is just very sick and needs psychiatric treatment. Mr. Barrett enlists the assistance of a priest (Father Wanderly) to perform an exorcism on his daughter. Unlike traditional possession narratives, though, Mr. Barrett brings in a TV crew to document the possession phenomena and exorcism. The production airs as a six-episode reality TV show called The Possession. The Possession series ends with considerable ambiguity as to whether Marjorie was really demonically possessed. This ambiguity permeates the events that the TV show documents. The controversial climax of the final episode, which appears to show Marjorie levitating at the staircase in the Barrett home, underscores this ambiguity.
The climax of A Head Full of Ghosts, though, is neither the exorcism nor Marjorie’s apparent levitation. The true climax of the Barrett story actually occurs weeks after the TV show has ended, when a horrific tragedy hits the Barrett family. The tragedy is a powerful twist in the story and forces a re-evaluation of the events surrounding Marjorie’s alleged possession.
A Head Full of Ghosts unfolds from the point of view of Merry Barrett, now an adult, recounting the incidents that took place in her family fifteen years earlier, when she was eight-years-old. The retrospective occurs in series of conversations between Merry and best-selling author Rachel Neville. Neville interviews Merry as part of her research for a book she wishes to write about the Barrett family. On three occasions, two of which serve as transitions to a new section of the book, the novel breaks away from the sequence of Rachel-Merry interviews. The breakaways focus on Karen Brissette’s recent analysis of The Possession in her blog The Last Final Girl. The blog provides an ostensible outsider’s point of view and critical evaluation of the Barrett story and The Possession reality TV show.
Tremblay has written a quite remarkable novel. It consciously assimilates the possession genre with a unique combination of seriousness, wit, and philosophical clarity. But it does more. It also enlarges the possession genre by telling a possession story that will profoundly disturb and terrify many readers even if they don’t subscribe to a supernatural interpretation of the events. In fact, arguably one of the story’s most important strengths and contributions to the genre is how it enlists ambiguity as a literary device. It thereby dials in a form of terror that doesn’t depend on belief in the existence of God or the devil.
Ambiguity and the Space of Possibilities
As a philosopher, I appreciate how the story articulates and deploys uncertainty and ambiguity about the actual cause(s) of Marjorie’s alterations in personality and behavior. The facts simply underdetermine the nature of her condition.
Is Marjorie really demon possessed? Is she suffering from an early manifestation of schizophrenia (or some other mental disorder)? Is she perhaps perpetuating a fraud? Or is she in some way a victim of a malevolent force purely human in origin? The novel creates enough space for the reader to remain open to each of these possibilities as the characters and situations invoke or suggest them in the course of the story. Never quite knowing the truth amidst the space of possibilities keeps the reader off balance. And fear, of course, feeds on the unknown.
As do other works in the possession genre, the novel contrasts supernatural and natural explanations. The latter, of course, are explanations of observational data that invoke no supernatural entities. Fatherly Wanderly attempts to marshal evidence of demonic possession as the events are unfolding. We get the impression that, like many religious people, he’s looking for evidence to lend support to his antecedent convictions. What’s that point philosopher William James makes? In matters such as these, passion leads and intellect follows. Karen Brissette retrospectively deconstructs the alleged evidence in her blog. And Merry’s recollection of events provides equally good grounds for skepticism.
But the novel also plays different natural explanations against each other. For example, take Brissette’s blog analysis. While skeptical of the demonic possession hypothesis, she’s equally critical of less than impressive skeptical attempts to explain away the evidence suggestive of possession. Brissette ultimately points us to an important feature of our psychology—the needs and interests that influence our perception of the world. We believe there’s something supernatural happening because we want to believe this. Why? Perhaps because the alternative is more horrifying. Brissette’s comments about the The Possession’s controversial “levitation” scene underscore this. She says, “You believe because it’s easier than dealing with the idea that you just willingly watched a sick, troubled teenage girl purposefully choose to jump from a ledge” (p. 253).
Is Marjorie suffering from a mental illness? The novel explicitly identifies schizophrenia as the suspect, though some of Marjorie’s symptoms suggest the presence of a personality disorder, perhaps even dissociative pathology (specifically, dissociative identity disorder). But mental disorders, whether one or many, don’t exhaust the natural explanations. Marjorie tells Merry on multiple occasions that she’s faking the whole possession. Why? To redeem their family from the financial hardship that’s been eating away at their family. The TV show makes her “possession” lucrative. Merry is initially skeptical of this explanation, but later begins to believe it. By story’s end Marjorie still maintains that she faked her possession, but she provides a different reason for doing so. She succeeds in manipulating her younger sister into believing the revised explanation. This becomes the catalyst for the final twist and disturbing ending of the novel.
Although one gets the impression that a supernatural explanation is unlikely, Tremblay nicely piles on evidence that moves in different directions. We never really know what the hell (no pun intended) is happening. Below I’ll return to the “horror of ambiguity” as an effective and important literary device.
A Head Full of Ghosts vs. The Exorcist
Knowing that there would be obvious similarities between his novel and the Exorcist, Tremblay meets this unavoidable feature of updating older literary themes head-on. Tremblay intentionally deploys the similarities, and the story itself acknowledges them. Consequently, the novel has considerable self-consciousness. Karen Brissette’s The Last Final Girl blog demonstrates this with comparisons and contrasts between The Possession and other horror films and novels, including The Exorcist.
But if we step outside The Possession and the Barrett family as components of the narrative, Tremblay’s novel is very different from William Blatty’s Exorcist. Take the points above about opening up the space of possibilities, keeping the reader off balance by way of ambiguity, and raising the specter of uncertainty and doubt. Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts stands is sharp contrast to Blatty’s Exorcist. And the point is worth emphasizing.
Blatty designed his narrative to support faith in God. As Friedkin never tires of telling audiences, The Exorcist is about “the mystery of faith.” Although Friedkin is not a Catholic, Blatty is. So the devil is a real supernatural agent, and Blatty’s objective is to prove this. Consequently, it’s essential that Blatty rule out natural explanations of Regan MacNeil’s symptoms within the narrative. And so Regan’s symptoms increasingly stupefy members of the medical community. Having had their brains (and balls) twisted, they quickly run out of explanatory road. Stress, drug abuse, lesion in the temporal lobe . . . these idiots are clueless. They have no answers because they’re approaching Regan’s condition from outside the perspective of faith. By contrast, Father Merrin has the answer.
Blatty’s narrative tolerates uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt about as much as it tolerates the devil. These are real, but they must be overcome. As Blatty himself has said, the Exorcist is really about Father Karras’s crisis of faith. Regan’s possession provides the framework for addressing the young priest’s entanglement in skepticism and clinical psychiatry. Don’t these go hand in hand? Uncertainty and doubt are precisely the problem. They must be overcome. And it’s the message of the narrative that they are overcome. If the devil is real, then angels are real, and if angels are real, then God must exist—something like that. The Exorcist was an exercise in Catholic theology and apologetics, pure and simple. Luckily for Blatty, the story was compelling, even if his logic was not.
Tremblay has no interest in sending a religious message or reinforcing religious dogmas. Father Wanderly and John Barrett are religiously committed, but there’s no attempt to force the reader to be. It’s not necessary for the reader to believe that Marjorie is demonically possessed. There’s evidence suggestive of possession, but there’s evidence that at least equally suggests a different explanation. Again, it’s about finding one’s fears in the possibilities that define the wide boundaries of our ignorance.
On that note, it’s worth adding that Tremblay’s deployment of uncertainty is not confined to the evaluation of Marjorie’s condition. It extends more broadly to the reliability of Merry’s memory as she retells story. She’s unsure of many things, vacillates on others, and acknowledges that she might be misremembering certain events. Well, she was only eight at that time. Nonetheless, she says she’s completely sure of a few things. Her sister was very sick, and possibly her dad too. She’s also sure about her own role in the final tragedy of her family. Rachel Neville is another voice of uncertainty. She confesses at the end of the story that she’s not sure what really happened fifteen years earlier.
Can we even be sure about Merry herself? Is she (intentionally or unintentionally) spinning the Barrett story? Might she be mentally ill? Remember, schizophrenia has a strong genetic component. But Tremblay has written the story in such a way that I have deep empathy for Merry (and Marjorie). Yet, if Merry’s in bed next to me, I’m sleeping with one eye open three nights a week. It takes a brilliant piece of writing to have the reader naturally, even enthusiastically, embrace a character, and yet feel that it’s not entirely safe to do so.
Dialing in a Natural Fear
Since Tremblay’s novel has no religious agenda, the story easily accommodates more than one viewpoint, religious and non-religious. It can deploy ambiguity to help the reader experience the fear that lurks in the open space of possibilities. It freely deploy the limits of perspective in the service of dialing in our more primitive fears.
This is worth exploring further.
Throughout the novel, Merry Barrett experiences the increasingly strange, creepy, and even threatening behavior of her older sister. In all other respects, though, Merry and Marjorie have a deep connection and familial affection for each other. What’s interesting is how many, if not most, of the more frightening scenes are illustrations of the abnormal, not the supernatural.
1) Early in the novel, Marjorie—who enjoys telling Merry scary stories—tells Merry a scary story about unstoppable “growing things” that consume a town. In the story there are two girls (named Marjorie and Merry) who live in a house that resembles the large cardboard playhouse in the actual Merry’s bedroom. In Marjorie’s story, the father poisons the mother and buries her in the basement. The father then begins to poison Marjorie. She begins to exhibit symptoms of sickness, which not coincidently resemble the actual Marjorie’s sickness. While Merry is in the basement, her mother’s corpse rises impaled on the branches of the growing things as they burst through the basement floor of the house. Merry realizes that Marjorie is correct. Their dad is a monster, and Merry’s his next victim.
This is the story the actual Marjorie tells her younger sister. It terrifies Merry, but Marjorie returns to this story throughout the novel as the gap between fiction and fact closes.
2) Marjorie suggests a looming tragedy in a family dinner scene when Merry asks Marjorie if she can borrow her sister’s hat. Marjorie replies—in a low and growly altered voice— “You can’t wear my hat because you’re going to die someday . . . no one here can wear it because you’re all going to die” (p. 79). Shortly afterwards, Marjorie slithers under the kitchen table. She then scurries off on all fours into the darkness of an adjacent room, while speaking in different voices.
3) In another scene, Merry wakes up to find that someone has drawn vines and leaves all over her large cardboard playhouse. That’s right. These would be the “growing things” of Marjorie’s horrific family murder story. Merry finds a note that says, “There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and piece the world” (p. 54). Merry then notices a “green leaf with a curlicue stem had been carefully etched” on the back of her hand.
4) Early in the novel Merry says she once woke up and found a note in green crayon left on her chest. It was from Marjorie.
I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you’re asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your little mouth and gasped. (p. 30)
5) In one of the more confrontational scenes, Marjorie is angry that Merry has tattled on her, so she threatens to “rip” her sister’s “fucking tongue out.” She provides a detailed description of how she will do this. She then adds:
I’ll keep your tongue and put it on a string, wear it like a necklace, keep it close against my chest, let it taste my skin until it turns black and shrivels up like all dead things do. What an amazing fucking thought that is: your never-ending tongue shrunken and finally stilled. (p. 66)
Marjorie tries to alleviate the fear of her sister by saying she was just kidding.
6) Some other creepy descriptive moments stand out.
I saw Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider . . . Her arms and legs were spread-eagled, with her hands, wrists, and feet, and ankles sunk into the wall as though it were slowly absorbing her. (p. 52)
She [Marjorie] stopped twisting her spaghetti around her fingers. She opened her mouth, and vomit slowly oozed out onto her spaghetti plate. (p. 78)
Mom wasn’t in the room. Marjorie was. She sat propped up against the headboard with pillows folded and stuffed behind her back. Her breathing was shallow, but rapid, and she grunted, snarled, sighed; a sputtering engine, the dying fan in our bathroom. Her head was thrown back, chin pointed at the ceiling, as sharp as the tip of an umbrella, eyes closed so tight, like she was hiding them deep inside her head. She had on a too-small black T-shirt, tight enough to outline her rib cage. No pants, no underwear. Her hands were between her long, skinny, pale legs. Both hands, and they gyrated up and down, making wet sounds. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there and watched. (p. 85)
Her [Marjorie’s] eyes opened and then rolled into the back of her head, showing off those horrible bright whites with their convoluted red maps . . . Her body shook, and she urinated and defecated right there in the hallway. (p. 86)
Now this shit (no pun intended) is freaky and terrifying just as it stands. But notice that there’s nothing obviously supernatural in anything above. Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider? Nope. As her mom explains, Marjorie punched holes in the cheap drywall with her fists. So there’s nothing supernatural there. And yet, for many of us, these scenes are no less disturbing and scary.
There’s something unsettling and sometimes downright terrifying about family or friends beginning to act unlike themselves. We naturally tolerate some degree of this. Even the most stable persons have moments in which they act out of character. But there’s a threshold beyond which the shift in behavior and personality becomes unsettling. Think of how you feel in the presence of people having an emotional breakdown, who are strongly influenced by drugs or alcohol, or borderline personality types. And beyond unsettling behavioral shifts, there are the more disturbing if not frightening forms of psychological disorder, for example, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. I think Tremblay dials in this very natural fear.
Stephen King has often said that his greatest fear is of losing his mind. Madness is really the unconstrained universe of all possibilities, and the inability to say which is yours. Much like Marjorie’s behavior, this is terrifying just as it stands. It needs no devils or demons to make it scary. Indeed, devils and demons potentially alleviate fear. The devil functions much like God—to make the alien familiar, the irrational sensible, and so on. But the gain here is also a loss. We lose the fear that thrives on the unresolved, all those what-ifs, and the menacing realization of just how little we know. To the extent that we lose that fear, we’re not conscious of the human condition or ourselves. Fear is an essential part of the human story, and good horror let’s us know it.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a first-rate contribution to literary horror and the psychological thriller genre. I think we should say of it what Merry Barrett says of her sister’s stories: “It was terrible and would give me nightmares, and yet there was something wonderful in its terribleness.”