Examining The Effect Of Trauma & Psychosis In Mike Flanagan’s OCULUS

Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead For Those Who Have Not Seen OCULUS

Mike Flanagan’s Oculus marked the first wide release theatrical horror film in a long while that left me feeling like I got my money’s worth. Following up on his micro budget debut, Absentia, Flanagan’s sophomore effort found him expanding on the themes of his previous work with a larger sandbox with which to explore them. Is Oculus the best supernatural themed film to come out in a long while? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In fact, the film often falls short when it adheres to standard genre tropes, coming off as very conventional.However, Flanagan achieves tremendous success with his explorations of trauma and mental illness. His direction adds just enough ambiguity to make you question where the boundaries of physical world end and the mystical world begins. Oculus succeeds by providing audiences with a stable of damaged characters suffering through the effects of post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. Oculus works because it offers support for either the theory that the mirror hosted a supernatural entity that influenced anyone that came into contact with it, or that Tim and Kaylee suffered from mental illness directly related to their childhood trauma.

The film opens by introducing us to Tim. After spending a decade in psychiatric care for murdering his father in self defense, Tim finds himself cured and ready for release on his twenty first birthday. Before leaving the hospital’s care, Tim has a conversation with his doctor, who reminds him that his sister, two years Tim’s senior, did not have access to the same care as him. The doctor warns Tim that Kaylee may have her own issues to work through, and Tim should not let her trauma affect his recovery.

We learn what the doctor means moments later when Tim has not even had a moment to take a bite from his celebratory lunch before Kaylee drops a bombshell on him. After years of searching, she has managed to procure the mirror she and her brother believed to be cursed and responsible for the death of their parents. While Tim wants nothing more but to leave the past behind, Kaylee remains insistent that the two return to the home where tragedy struck.

The mirror acts as a trigger for Kaylee’s PTSD, which manifests itself in a series of bizarre behaviors and OCD. As she fixates on the mirror other more stable aspects of her life fall by the wayside. Her coworkers raise concerns regarding her inappropriate use of office equipment to reprint horrific crime scene photos. She makes serious ethical breaches on her job and lies, or at least withholds truths, from her fiance. Once the film shifts to the home setting, we see the full extent of Kaylee’s trauma, as it has blossomed into an obsessive and maniacal micromanagement of every detail. She obsesses over a series of different alarm clocks, each set to trigger a different activity whether it be drinking water on the half hour or eating on the hour. Video cameras are planted throughout the house to record every detail. She insists her fiance check in with her via a phone call at the top of each hour, and to not be late in making that call. Other supernatural films have played with this idea, but none work so hard to combine them all into an incredible and detailed portrait of full blown mania. In one of the film’s best scenes, and in a remarkable performance by Karen Gillian, Kaylee delivers a running monologue into the camera, detailing the history of the mirror and the dozen or so deaths she believes it is directly responsible for over the course of four centuries. The moment is delivered with rabid intensity by Gillian, and works in exposing the full depths of Kaylee’s mental illness.

If you understand anything about how schizophrenia works, you know how the real delusions and hallucinations feel to those who suffer from it. It could very well be a supernatural entity is playing with Kaylee and Tim’s perception of reality. It could just as very well be Kaylee suffers from schizophrenia, and her brother Tim, barely a day out of the psychiatric clinic himself, has not built up enough immunity that allows him to resist the sway of Kaylee’s delusions. Flanagan gives clues both large and small-including a tiny but great moment where Kaylee starts calling after her escaping dog using her childhood dog’s name-as to the depth of illness the woman suffers from. The first two acts weave in and out of the events from their child that set up their present day predicament. In the last act, the past and present timelines merge into one to such a degree that the present day siblings have to navigate around the furniture that decorated their home a decade prior, rather than have unfettered access to a bare bones home. Furthermore, the siblings find themselves interacting with their younger selves in very tangible ways. They can interact with objects from the past that should not be there in the present. They feel acute pain and injury from actions that exist only in their psyche. The viewer can no longer trust Tim or Kaylee as participants in their own story as their perceptions of time, space and even of self have been altered to a monumental degree.

At the risk or running long, I want to briefly touch on two more areas of psychology Oculus explores. First, Flanagan does something I don’t remember seeing in any other horror movie where kids have been placed in immediate peril. Oculus allows for both parents to lose their mental facilities, leaving a young Tim and Kaylee in great danger. Most films leave one parent in control in order to act as the protector, but Flanagan wisely chooses to force the kids to fend for themselves. It accomplishes this action in small degrees, so that the first time the children realize in trouble their reaction is “How are we going to eat?” not “Are mom and dad going to kill us?” It’s only over an extended period of time that the extent of the danger the parents represent makes itself clear to the kids. The film explores the very real and terrifying fear a child experiences when he worries that his mother and/or father can no longer care for them. This though is far scarier than any ghost that may live in a haunted mirror.

Finally, I wanted to touch on Katee Sackhoff’s performance as the children’s troubled mother. Sackhoff has the rare knack to balance internal strength, vulnerability and crippling self doubt, often pulling off all three things simultaneously. Oculus roots her breakdown in very real world concerns, and allows the fissures in her mind to slowly crack and expand until she turns into something monstrous. In her first scene she exposes a bit of her vulnerability when she seeks reassurance from her husband that despite the fancy new home and arrival of expensive antique furniture he will still be happy with “the same old wife”. Rather than provide some words of comfort, he cracks a joke that “he would have been happy with Ikea”, the implication being that his wife is plain and non flashy. Though she laughs at his jest, her eyes hint at the hurt this remark causes her. We see other instances of this later when she obsesses over her cesarean scar. Her desire for a few kind words of reassurance from her husband and his failure to deliver them allow her the seeds of her discontent to bloom into full blown psychosis as she begins to suspect him of infidelity. I only wish Flanagan chose to explore this theme further. In fact, Sackhoff’s break from reality results from the most overt supernatural moment in the film, and is one of the few false notes in Oculus.

This quibble aside, any student of psychology should rush out to see this film. Oculus is so much smarter and works on so many more levels that the typical supernatural thriller. It’s a wonderfully ambiguous film, with enough evidence for fans of both the psychological and metaphysical to present their arguments depending on where they stand. I can only imagine these interpretations will shift or deepen with future viewings of this very worthy film.   

Mike Snoonian

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since 2009 Mike has written about independent horror, science fiction, cult and thrillers through his own blog All Things Horror along with various other spots on the web. Film Thrills marks his attempt to take things up a notch, expand his viewing and writing horizons and to entertain and engage his audience while doing so. When Mike's not writing or watching movies, you can find him reading to his little girl, or doing science experiments with her, or trying to convince her that the term "chicken butt" comes from people putting chicken nuggets down their underwear. at age five, she's too smart to believe most of what he says.

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