Describe A Place: Medical Rooms and Hospitals

William Simpson - One of the wards of the hospital at Scutari 1856

Medical rooms and hospitals are safe, infantalising, dangerous, creepy, life-saving, traumatising places, and I offer them here as examples of what Foucault called ‘heterotopia‘.

The hospital’s ambiguous relationship to everyday social space has long been a central theme of hospital ethnography. Often, hospitals are presented either as isolated “islands’ defined by biomedical regulation of space (and time) or as continuations and reflections of everyday social space that are very much a part of the “mainland.’ This polarization of the debate overlooks hospitals’ paradoxical capacity to be simultaneously bounded and permeable, both sites of social control and spaces where alternative and transgressive social orders emerge and are contested. We suggest that Foucault’s concept of heterotopia usefully captures the complex relationships between order and disorder, stability and instability that define the hospital as a modernist institution of knowledge, governance, and improvement.

Heterotopia Studies

Shutter Island landscape poster
In 1954, a U.S. Marshal investigates the disappearance of a murderer who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane, making use of hospital as island symbolism.

Hospitals (like airports) elicit the full range of human emotion and are symbolically useful arenas for storytellers. Who better than writers to describe what it feels like to be inside a hospital? Continue reading “Describe A Place: Medical Rooms and Hospitals”

Swamps, Quicksand And Sinking In Storytelling

Charles Ernest Butler - Poole Harbour, Dorsetshire 1904

Here’s one little-known aspect of existing as a Gen X — the fear of sinking to death in sand. Perhaps you escaped this particular horror if your television exposure was moderated, but I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only child of the 80s to approach wet, sandy areas with extreme caution. Films and cartoons conveyed the idea that sinking into sand, never to be seen again, was an ever present danger.

This is why, when our village was recently required to switch from septic tank to town sewerage, I panicked a little when I realised our plumber had turned our entire back yard into a sinkhole:

Clearly I did get out alive.

BUT IS QUICKSAND EVEN REAL?

Continue reading “Swamps, Quicksand And Sinking In Storytelling”

The Symbolic Basement In Fiction

The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826

In Gaston Bachelard’s Symbolic Dream House, you probably shouldn’t go down to the basement, ever. I mean it. Nothing good ever happens down there. The basement is the house version of a fairytale forest — a descent into the subconscious. We can’t control our subconscious. That’s what makes it scary.

EXAMPLE ONE: BASEMENTS AND BEREAVEMENT

The older woman character in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” has recently lost her husband. It’s scary to live alone. The reader is never entirely sure if she really had an intruder, or if she sort of hallucinated him, inspired by a visit from the meter reader, who goes down to that dreaded basement.

First she must deal with her dead husband’s things. That’s when the reader is introduced to the basement. Or, shall we say, ‘cellar’. (Cellar sounds way less scary.)

This is also the bit where Munro introduces the fuse switches –a soft Chekov’s Gun. (Munro is generally expert at depicting places in a realistic way.) I mean, this is what a real cellar looks like, right? Important: Detail is multivalent in Munro’s fiction — it works at both literal and symbolic levels.)

She would deal with the cellar first. It really was a cellar, not a basement. Planks made walkways over the dirt floor, and the small high windows were hung with dirty cobwebs. There was nothing down there that she ever needed. Just Rich’s half-filled paint tins, boards of various lengths, tools that were either usable or ready to be discarded. She had opened the door and gone down the steps just once since Rich had died, to see that no lights had been left on, and to assure herself that the fuse switches were there, with labels written beside them to tell her which controlled what. When she came up, she had bolted the door as usual, on the kitchen side. Rich used to laugh about that habit of hers, asking what she thought might get in, through the stone walls and elf-size windows, to menace them.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals

EXAMPLE TWO: BASEMENT AS COSY PRISON

Another example from Alice Munro.

Basements are not always scary, spooky places, especially in a city like Vancouver, where a basement may simply be another ordinary level of a house, set up accordingly. In “Cortes Island“, the newly married 1950s bride feels both cocooned and stifled by her marital home. Here we have the cosy description:

There were two and a half rooms in our apartment. It was rented furnished, and in the way of such places it was half furnished, with things that would otherwise have been thrown away. I remember the floor of the living room, which was covered with leftover squares and rectangles of linoleum–all the different colors and patterns fitted together and stitched like a crazy quilt with strips of metal. And the gas stove in the kitchen, which was fed with quarters. Our bed was in an alcove off the kitchen–it fitted into the alcove so snugly that you had to climb into bed from the bottom. Chess had read that this was the way the harem girls had to enter the bed of the sultan, first adoring his feet, then crawling upward paying homage to his other parts. So we sometimes played this game.

— Alice Munro, “Cortes Island

When the couple move out into a third floor apartment, the narrator has got herself a job and become less of a shadowy, peripheral figure in the world. She has been relegated to ‘married woman’ status — newly invisible. She is inclined to retreat further into her comfortable, introverted state.

This means leaving the cosy comfort — but also the prison — of her basement.

MORE ON BASEMENTS AND CELLARS

Attics aren’t much safer than basements, to be fair. Atriums are different again.

Basements are secret places — what we do down there is often against the rules. In Adventureland, teenagers have sex in their parents’ basements rather than in their own bedrooms. In the popular imagination, young adults remain in their parents’ basements if they fail to launch into the responsible world of adulthood.

You might try writing a scary basement scene using the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as inspiration. Notice how the camera moves as if it’s a fish in the ocean, about to gobble you up. Stephen King as well as the filmmakers fully get that symbolic association between City and Ocean, underscored by the dialogue “You’ll float too!”

How to recreate this ominous floating on the page? Well, it’s all in your choice of detail. Try starting with a wide-angle description, zooming in, lowering your ‘camera’ by describing feet and stairs… and so on.

A Quiet Place is another film in which a basement fills with water. (Ridiculously quickly, but acceptable within the world of the film.)

Stephen King loves his basements. In Carrie, Mrs White is destroyed while taking refuge in the basement.

Basements are pretty much mandatory in gothic children’s horror, and have made me wish many times we had basements here in Australia. Lemony Snicket and Courage the Cowardly Dog stories make heavy symbolic use of basements. Mercy Watson’s family has a basement, and those are cosy picture books, with just a hint of danger.

But in funny children’s stories, the basement can be a carnivalesque setting. Jeff Kinney’s Greg has a basement. That’s where sleepovers happen, among other hijinx. The basement of an office block is used to similar effect in The I.T. Crowd.

Silence of the Lambs turns the ground level of a house into something way more reminiscent of a basement, then we realise there’s a deeper layer — a deep hole, where the baddie keeps his skin prisoners. All of this is highly symbolic, of course: This guy lives among us (at ground level) but has hidden, evil depths in his twisted psychology.

As far as fairytale basements go, Bluebeard depicts your archetypal horror basement.

 

Header image The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826