Towers, Trauma, and Toxicity: Symbolism of We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018)
“… a change is coming, and nobody knows it but me.” Merricat in opening scene at desk
I was super excited to discover We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a remake of Shirley Jackson’s final 1962 novel. Symbolically encoded subtext appears in lots of film, as it does in our lives in general. However, a heavily symbolic dramatic rendering done as elegantly as WHALC is scarce as hen’s teeth. Last one I interpreted was Her (2013).
Owing to time constraints, I did not read Jackson’s novel, though it was tempting, since there are undoubtedly clues to the symbolic puzzle there. On the other hand, it can be distracting to the interpreter to read a more pragmatic version of a story. So, I’ll just offer respect to Jackson, and respect to the screenplay writer (Mark Kruger) and the director (Stacie Passon) of the film for an amazing adaptation. As always, the interpreter’s disclaimer is that I cannot read minds, and symbolism is an inexact art. So, I don’t pretend to know exactly what the artists had in mind. Symbolism happens unintentionally in the arts, but I am pretty sure WHALC’s is not an accident.
I did get a little comparison of the book and film through reading online reviews. The most useful of these for the purpose is on horrorhomeroom.com, written by Dawn Keetley. For one thing, it seems Keetley has actually read the novel. Interestingly, Keetley writes:
“The seemingly small ways in which Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle diverges from Jackson’s novel… make a significant difference. Indeed, they shift the terrain of the narrative entirely from the enigmatic and even weird to the profoundly familiar. Passon’s film is still a very good film in its own right, but it simply doesn’t challenge and baffle its viewers the way that Jackson’s novel does.”
Keetley experiences the film as profoundly familiar. I assume she means it’s relatable; that the characters’ experiences and the sets are not much different from “normal” life in her culture. This familiarity is an important aspect of most symbolic film that I have interpreted, for the point to symbolic story is description of the transformational journey(s) of the character(s). Drama itself is wired to describe human transformation. The dramatic arc rule is that the protagonist must change, must grow, mature, heal, experience some measure of enlightenment, between the beginning and end of the story. Symbolic story explores the inner landscape of human transformation. We’re not talking do-overs here.
Though there are at least a handful of themes presented in the film, the dominant transformational theme is healing of trauma, with a focus on sexual, or gender-ordered trauma. The overarching background for the trauma, the feeling and color that both seeps through and roots the trauma, is toxic patriarchy. By that I mean domination, disrespect, and abuse of others in typically masculine ways. Though our masculine powers can be inspirational, strengthening, and supportive, it’s all about balance. Specifically, when the competition joke goes too far it’s not funny anymore. It’s toxic. Disrespect, domination, and subsequent abuse are based in competition- in assessing life essentially as a constant comparison game and greedy-guts grabfest.
Masculine and feminine archetypes or qualities are not male and female, as in gender. Folks in my culture are getting slightly more hip to the truth that all humans are masculine and feminine, independent of gender. We each express, and/or hide, our masculine and feminine traits in unique and complex ways. WHALC’s male roster is dominated by the greedy and the vengeful, but Merricat also expresses some harmful masculine tendencies.
Constance is all heart and hearth, archetypal feminine nurturing, a Venusian lover of beauty. In contrast, Merricat both protects, and braves the marketplace regularly, both of these being archetypally masculine activities. Merricat’s ability to murder proves she has developed enough masculine protective power to dish out hate and vengeance when push comes to deadly shove.
The filmmakers use the weathercock as a fun symbol for the masculine domination theme. The opening shot of Blackwood is a bucolic village, with the weathercock front and center. The rooster is so famed for its masculine protection and domination behaviors that in English we use ‘cock’ as a common phallic term. The weathervane symbol is also clever because it points which way the wind blows; the wind always blows the way it points, in other words. If we look at this metaphor with the toxic masculine in mind, constant competitive orientation desires that everything go MY way. There is no giving something for nothing (as in Constance’s blithely showering coins on Charles), there is no hesitating in order to consider the wants and needs of others.
This overblown masculine is described by Merricat; “Father used to say the townspeople were lazy animals. Trash. If they only worked a little harder they could have a castle too…” And there you have toxic competition in a nutshell. It seems that Merricat initially goes by this philosophical “book”, for it is a way to protect oneself; to feel justified, entitled, good about one’s selfish life, in my society. Such elitist philosophy is the behavior of the heavily defended, and therein lies the title of the novel. Merricat believes that Father’s M.O. is indeed useful, for she nails his book upon her spell tree for protection.
The book is some kind of ledger, with people’s names and a sum of money on each line. Translation: Father competes to such an extent that people are only worth what he can get from them. It’s the old Ebenezer Scrooge story. The heart is closed, and hatred is the result. And when others hate us for our contempt of them, we need more and more protection; metaphorical castles and iron gates. As for the weathervane, it appears a few more times, most notably when the sisters return to the house after the fire. Merricat picks it up from the ground and holds it by the heels, which is the way to hold a chicken if you don’t want it to fight you. The chicken submits when it’s upside down.
The upside down rooster in hand symbolizes toxic patriarchal domination in the sisters’ inner lives has been overcome. It’s redemption time, ‘redemption’ meaning revaluing. Rather than masculine “winds” and desires dominating their lives, they now value themselves, love themselves, at a whole new level. The trauma and force the sisters were subjected to had destroyed their self love and ability to stand up for themselves; that’s the whole point to harassing and torturing people. If you’re good at it, eventually they submit and become your slaves- or at least they act that way with you. Their self respect and dignity is gone, and when those go, so does their love of self. That’s the result of overcompetitive social conditioning, where all of us are losers in at least some forum.
If we’re talking internal experience, then the sisters can actually be viewed as one person. It’s a symbolic trope that’s well used in European fairy tale terrain. The sisters are opposites, two sides to one coin- or one moon. When Merricat comes back from town the first time, Constance meets her in front of the house, but the camera shot silhouettes her so she looks like a shadow. That’s undoubtedly not a mistake, for we can’t really see her. She is Merricat’s Shadow, the qualities Merricat keeps on the down low. Constance throws out her arms and says hopefully “Look how far I came today! Next thing you know I will be following you into town.”
However, if we consider that the two sisters could be aspects of one person using Jung’s concept of the inner shadow, it’s not at all prudent for the Constance persona to come to town, where everyone hates her/them. Tender Constance would shrivel under the tension and taunts that Merricat endures. Merricat’s developed strong protective behaviors as coping skills, and thus we see opposing modes of operation in the sisters. When the hate-filled populace invades the house, Constance is seen limply scrabbling away, like a wounded kitten, while Merricat fiercely kicks and swings her arms. She has masculine defenses.
This shadow persona view explains why the opening (and closing) monologue includes Merricat’s valuation that “(Constance) is the most precious person in the world.” Constance as shadowed inner aspect of the less reclusive Merricat is the more soul connected, innocent, unexpressed aspect of the personality. Compared to Merricat, Constance is quite childlike and prone to being taken advantage of. For one thing, people desire her beauty. The innate beauty of the soul is lost to many folks in my culture, post childhood. They often grope about blindly at “other”- human or animal- in attempts to retrieve it. They don’t know that it’s “inside” all the while. Like Merricat, we develop coping mechanisms in large part to protect our beautiful, loving, easily damaged souls.
This shadow perspective is clinched in Charles’s wonderful monologue at the table concerning his time in Venice. “But what is most chilling is that when you walk, your footsteps echo behind you, and you think that someone’s following you. Your shoes are loud on the cobblestones and when you stop, it sounds as though someone else has stopped. But, I suppose if you had someone walking with you, if you’re not alone, then it wouldn’t really matter if you’re being followed or not.” Constance’s coy looks imply that she likes the idea they might walk the streets of Venice together, Italy representing her inner experience of romantic intimacy in the film.
Charles’s description is of a feeling, not meant to be taken literally, though of course it could physically happen. The echo of one’s footsteps when alone is a wonderful metaphor. Footsteps are actually a symbol of the soul. Alone and moving around in “doing” mode, our senses and the effect we have on physical reality compose the echo, the feedback, of our life. In doing mode, we expect an echo, a reaction. But when we stop, when we are alone and unmoving, we still feel the presence of some Other, some echo of our existence. Some “thing” besides our physical selves accompanies us. The Other must be ethereal, for we cannot physically hear it. It is intuited; an inner echo of the soul’s footsteps.
Thus the ethereal presence is the soul- and/or the shadow self. Meeting and bringing light to our own shadow is a part of all wisdom traditions I know. The presence of the unexpressed shadow can be quite disturbing (Charles says “chilling”), of course, even fearsome. For example, Merricat is obviously disturbed many times by the innocent, soul connected behavior of Constance. She would never behave thus, for she knows it invites exploitation and other harms at the hands of the greedy and malignant.
The last point made by Charles’s monologue is that if we pair up with others, specifically in romantic relationship, then we no longer fear the shadow footsteps; our intimate inner self no longer haunts the personality, asking questions we don’t know how to answer. Romantic relationship, especially in youth, involves and activates soul and Shadow. Infatuation is intimate engagement with an outer Other, who mirrors or echoes our deeper self back to us.
However, this absolutely common behavior has a glitch. We tend to be attracted to our opposite, in part; to someone who expresses the qualities of our shadow self. Shadow’s echoing footsteps have become the footsteps of our lover. A simple example is when folks who have learned self abuse (and most of us have) hook up with an obviously abusive personality. Cupid’s arrow was feared even by the gods.
Though we can be attracted to positive shadow aspects in others, we can also be attracted to harmful characteristics. Thanks to infatuation, that which we fear, is no longer just an echo; it’s now lying next to us in bed. Charming, but potentially disturbing. This is all part of the cosmic plan, of course. Now we are hooked; we have nowhere to hide from our inner self, and we can get on with our self development.
The moon is another theme that dovetails with the soul (soul in this sense is not the same as spirit, but always connected to it), for Moon is a representative of the soul, in tarot, for example. Soul, Moon, and water element are closely linked, and are archetypally feminine. In the first moon scene, the sisters are lying in bed speaking intimately, another feminine soul quality. Intimacy, no boundaries, is the opposite of the masculine ability to detach, objectify, and manipulate.
Constance says she misses Merricat when she’s gone to the village, and someday she’ll go with her. But Merricat knows better; our deeply creative soul aspect may indeed never show its true face in situations where worldly protection is needed. This is part of the quandary of human intimacy, for when in infatuation we show our innocence and inner beauty to lovers, the dark, damaged, vengeful personality aspects can’t stay shadowed forever. When negative Shadow appears in our lover, we are challenged to find the courage to “stand up” for ourselves, an archetypally masculine skill.
Merricat proposes that, as alternative to Constance coming to town, “I’ll take you to the moon- it’s beautiful there.” The moon as abode is a reality that is all feminine. The first symbolic reference to the vegetable kingdom appears here, in Constance’s excitement about lettuce- “On the moon you have lettuce all year round, yes?” I assume the symbology is based on the genus, Lactuca, a name that describes the milky white sap that characterizes the genus. In English, we use the same Latin root for milk when we refer to mother’s milk, to mammalian lactation.
The reference is descriptive of Constance’s nurturing character- and of the Mother archetype in general. The scene where Charles and Merricat are alone in the kitchen has a fun milk bit. Leaning on the refrigerator, a repository for nutrition, cocky Charles asks “I wonder, about a month from now, who will still be here. You, or me.” All the while he crassly and greedily gulps down a quart of milk from the carton, finishing it off with a satisfied “Aaaah.”
It’s a cute metaphor for the way he is hogging all of Constance’s nurturing power, all her giving, as in English we say the cow “gives” milk. It’s a wonderful scene, and one that is pleasing to consider when the film is done, for his attempt to initiate a crowing competition meets no response. He likely assumes that he has won; that Merricat is not up for the battle. How wrong he is.
Lettuce milk is notably a soporific or sedative, and that dovetails with the moon as well. In a way, the soul is asleep to the outer world’s mode of operation; it doesn’t grok it at all. Soul reality is dreamy from the worldly perspective. It’s a whole different level of existence, a truth much expounded in symbolic fairy tale and myth. Merricat believes that if they metaphorically lived on the moon, they would both thrive; “On the moon we have everything. The locks are solid, and tight. It’s just you and me, and the sun will shine every day.” In other words, they would experience safety, and thus happiness, an inner state, mind you. The moon being a feminine place, they would be free of the threat and continuing trauma of toxic masculine aggression and socially imposed patriarchal dictates, which are innately hierarchical. Feminine archetype is egalitarian.
The moon is shown in its fullness outside Merricat’s window a number of times, implying that she does embody the archetype. We can then add in the aspect of the dark moon, associated with vengeful goddesses and Death, and the dark side of the moon, to round out the archetype. Because of Moon’s dark side, Jungian Shadow fits in very well with Moon archetype. Part of the changes in feelings women experience during the menstrual cycle are due to Shadow coming and going. I used to be generally sort of a Constance character, a typical peace loving Pisces. Shadowed self protection behaviors would sometimes rear their heads during menstruation. Recall that we earthbound humans never will see the dark side of the moon, an interesting truth to consider. The sun sees it, though.
Merricat’s clothing seems to echo the moon theme, for she sports tops that feature multicolored patterns with black background. She also wears black boots and shorts. Aside from the obvious reference to the moon’s dark aspects, the boots and shorts give her a masculine touch, seen in the hunter-moon goddess Artemis, for example, or in Athena. Constance never wears anything but bright colors, very appropriate to the soul. Her pink diaphanous chiffon or tulle dress at the last supper is the perfect soul-garb; a cloud of light, the color of soft, melting, undefended love.
The soul’s love of jewel-like colors is found in the conversations about another plant: rhubarb. Constance asks Merricat to go to town. “We’re out of sugar, and I want to make a rhubarb pie.” Merricat answers, “I dislike rhubarb.” “But it has the prettiest colors of all!” says Constance. “Nothing looks so beautiful on the shelves as rhubarb jam.” “Make it for the shelves, then” says Merricat.
Rhubarb is quite an interesting plant, thus a number of symbolic options. We do see that Constance is loving it for its color; pinkish-red when cooked. That follows her Venusian romantic tendencies. But Merricat can’t afford to get all sappy and romantic and artistic; she’s the one who can’t let her guard down. So she says it’s a thing best kept “on the shelf”, just as her sister is. Due to her deep soul connection, Constance is a sort of Sleeping Beauty character, kept away in a sleeping castle, unused, seen by some as a pretty object, like the breakable china figures on her dresser.
The sugar describes Constance’s behavior, for the rhubarb stalk (the part that’s edible when cooked) is very sour, and requires a lot of sugar for preparation. Constance’s way of coping with unpleasantness (sourness) is to smile and mollify, to nurture and placate: sweetness. That use for refined, concentrated sugar is not appealing to Merricat; her defense mechanisms involve Nature, darkness and dirt.
Rhubarb is, in fact, a poisonous plant. The desire for more sugar unbalances the sisters’ world, for Constance insists Merricat go to the market. One thing the soul does for us is carry the knowledge of how to break out of stagnant personal development phases, to the point of instigating disruptive experiences of harm and destruction. The soul is at work when we fool ourselves into crazy and/or harmful situations. Its most well known trick is falling in love with someone who will put us through some developmental paces. Crazy love!
The soul holds the keys to our transformational processes. Constance’s need for making the pie and her subsequent attraction to Charles are just that; a parting of the thorns around the Sleeping Beauty soul-castle. Her desire to join the two extremes of sour and sweet symbolizes a joining of masculine and feminine opposites. I note here that Alexandra Daddario does an amazing job with the character of Constance. In this sugar scene, as in some following, she manages to express both a sternness, and her usual placating self. Standing up for what she wants and needs is not easy for her, and sometimes she weeps when she must put her foot down.
Rhubarb’s cultural history shows its use as a medicine back to ancient times, but only since the 1700’s as an edible due to the accessibility of cheap sugar. Current science holds that rhubarb poisons mostly through high oxalic acid content. The ‘barb’ at the end of the word is the same reference found in English ‘barbarian,’ from the ancient Greek for a foreigner. It means “someone who doesn’t come from around here”, appropriate as the plant was originally a Chinese export. ‘Barbarian’ holds that same meaning the sisters inwardly experience, of being rejected, of not belonging. We can tell things have changed in that regard after the fire, when town folk are apologizing and bringing food to the door. The “barbarian” poison has been balanced with sugar, and thus neutralized.
If we make of ‘rhubarb’ two synonyms, ‘rue’ means regret and shame, and ‘barb’ is a piercing object. A barb has a hook; it can be hard to remove, thus causing pain and suffering for some long time, as in the lasting effects of trauma. Piercing objects are symbolically masculine, for reason of the male sexual parts. Survivors of violent or otherwise forced sexual abuse are ashamed, of course, for they have been shamed- made to feel lesser than their abuser. “Trash”, as Father regarded the townsfolk. Their integrity has been compromised, and their power to protect themselves, body and soul, is now in question.
Shaming also arises when socially there remains a question of who was responsible. Did we actually bring this damage upon ourselves, by looking pretty, for example? Did we “ask for it”? What would others think if they knew? When we are raped, our culture defines whose fault it was, and in my society there is still a lot of grey area in that department. Not long ago, women were the property of men, and forcing them to sexual activity, especially within the family, was normal.
Rhubarb is probably referred to also in Uncle Julian’s conversation/monologue during the visit of Helen Clarke and Lucille Wright, a wonderful scene that plays up Crispin Glover’s brilliant development of Julian’s character. Embarrassing Constance and titillating Lucille, Julian claims that Constance didn’t have to kill her family with arsenic, for she has plant knowledge enough to access deadly poisons in her yard. He mentions specifically “herbs that slash like knives through the lining of your belly.”
While I am sure there are a number of those, oxalic acid (the sour in rhubarb) is irritating to the digestive tract for reason of its sharp crystals. The killing toxicity is in oxalic acid’s effect on liver and kidney, though. We later learn that Constance's embarrassment about Julian’s dramatically revealing his poisoning memories is not for reason of her murderous behavior. It was Merricat that poisoned the family.
Merricat’s burying of objects is an ancient ritual. The feminine earth element can transmute energies, neutralizing and transforming, as in the composting powers of organisms like fungus, mentioned in the form of mushrooms. Earth element teaches that what we reject, can be transmuted to creative purpose. In a voice-over Merricat tells us “If you bury something evil, or touched by cruelty, you may take its power, and you cannot be harmed for one whole day”. She buries four silver coins, representations of the divine feminine archetype; silver is feminine and gold is masculine.
The coins represent feminine abundance, wealth, and worthiness- self worth in the case of the sisters. The number four gives us the phases of the moon. Thus Merricat’s phrase “touched by cruelty” refers to the treatment the sisters and more than likely the mother, experienced at the hands of John, her father. The earth element can remove or heal the cruelty, the negative energy, the barb, from the tainted coins that symbolize the trauma the woman, or women, have experienced.
Constance has her own cleansing rituals, of course, not as noticeable as Merricat’s for their normalcy in my culture. Women cleaning is “familiar”, as Keetley puts it. Early in the film, we hear Constance order Merricat to wash her hands, a command Merricat is quite sullenly resisting. It’s the first scene in which we observe Merricat’s childhood psyche responding to Mother in the form of Constance’s actions. Constance's cleansing is more a codependent whitewashing, one of her placating behaviors, and we can assume Mom employed the same tactic.
Constance doesn’t understand why Charles remains vengeful about Merricat’s messing up of the bedroom, since she has erased the evidence of the crime by cleaning it. Merricat’s character, unlike Constance’s, is not slavish and toadying, for such behavior invites dominance by competitive others- a truth well known by the masculine archetype.
Helen Clarke’s oft repeated insistence that Constance join society again, that “It’s all been forgotten, no one thinks about it anymore”, is obviously not so- not yet. Helen is representing another trauma coping mechanism- the ability to forget. Charles brings in this approach as well, and we get to see a clash between their mode of operation, and that of Uncle Julian. Uncle Julian’s role in the psyche of the sisters is that of the constant reminder of trauma. His obsession with writing his memoirs is nothing less than the storytelling voice in their heads that will not let them forget. His so-called book writing, his “papers”, is a broken record that never goes anywhere. He’s hooked on trauma’s barb, literally crippled by it.
Since Julian usually talks to Constance, his storytelling is angled to fit her persona better. We see this early on at the dinner table when Julian, as usual, blabs on about his manuscript. He confides “…chapter 44. I will begin with a slight exaggeration and go on into an outright lie.” Amusingly, Glover seems to have picked that word ‘exaggeration’ as basis for Julian’s dominant character trait. We find out eventually that there is indeed an outright lie; Constance’s confession to the poisoning. It’s also true that, when we create stories about anything in our lives, traumatic or otherwise, we often start with an exaggeration, and end up in some form of untruth. We naturally construct our stories in a manner that befits our personality’s wants and needs in the moment.
Julian’s behavior clues us in to the connection between the blanket subject of poisoning, and the father’s cruelty, with his oft repeated “I won’t have it” memory. “And I listened at the door, of course, as they quarreled hatefully.” Children often do this when parents are fighting. What won’t the mother have? I guess Mom is protesting abuses, for one thing, including trying to protect her daughters. In the scene where Merricat envisions her parents by her spell tree, Mother is sycophantic. She is just agreeing to Father’s suggestions, but facing in another direction, a position indicating she is not really in agreement with him. She does exchange a final meaningful glance with Merricat, and it’s not optimistic, but rather wry as I see it.
Uncle Julian’s role as inner memory keeper of the sisters’ suffering is also made clear when Charles’s attempts to change things in the castle, clash severely with his writing efforts. A few times Julian bemoans dramatically that he can’t write if Charles is going to talk “AAALL the time”. Constance’s obsession with Charles, and his desire to change the story of her life, is drowning out Julian’s story in her head. The old focus on the past has to go for the women to transform their lives, and in fact, Julian does die in the fire.
I puzzled a bit about the appearance of the parents, but then realized it was juxtaposed with the event in which Merricat’s buried objects mysteriously surfaced after the blowup in the kitchen. In the ending of that kitchen scene, Constance and Charles are both yelling at Merricat in an obvious synchrony to Merricat’s memories of her mother and father. Outside by the tree, Merricat’s voice-over claims “Some terrible force has pulled everything I ever buried to the surface. Like the opposite of a spell… a curse!”
Her way of protecting herself from the past, the burying of memories, has been breached. The memories are back. The buried doll that never shuts its eyes is an obvious metaphor for memories, for example. In the emotional kitchen scene, Constance has become their mother, Charles their father, and yelled at her- punished her, in other words. If gentle Constance will do that, Merricat’s safe place is gone. The whole issue of whether or not she would be fed lunch was part of the blow up as well, and the persistent “Can I have my lunch now?” bit is an obvious reference to Merricat’s childhood relationship with Mom. This replay of trauma is part of the healing process. It’s the old “You can’t heal what you can’t feel” maxim.
Merricat’s curse is whatever keeps her in fear, whatever keeps her from living on the moon, where life is safe and happy. And the curse involves the ways in which she was treated by her parents, as is the case for many of us, particularly those of us with very obvious “barbs”, with heavy trauma. The film points out that, even when we are adults and parental influence is no longer a practical issue, our behavior is colored by avoidance of punishment- social conditioning again. For much of the job of parents is to dole out social conditioning, from toilet training, to hand washing (Constance orders Merricat to this), to sexual mores.
Our transformational trajectory is concerned with the puzzle of what to do with these curses. The appearance of the parents informs us that Merricat’s old or immature desire is to have and do whatever she wants, as well as to be the “most loved daughter”. She wishes to never be punished, for in the mind of the child no punishment translates to being the most loved. We can assume by extrapolation that Constance was indeed never punished, and that she was indeed the most loved. That would not be surprising, for Constance’s character never opposes, never stands up for itself. She hastens to smooth over every little glitch, even at her own expense, the perfect example of the term “codependency”.
The scene with the the metal box of silver coins is a fun exposition of of Constance’s willingness to throw herself under the bus to make peace. Charles needs nails, another archetypally phallic piercing thing like a barb. Constance hastens to shower him with silver coins from the strong box. She is metaphorically throwing away her femininity, her feminine power, for the coins land on the ground, as though thrown away. She is careless with her femininity, overextending herself, always bending to the needs of others, a quality of the Mother archetype.
In contrast, Merricat had hidden the coins in the strong box. The money (power, self worth) was squirreled away to protect it, as is her simmering anger hidden, anger and power expressed in killing those who harm her and her sister. Self-righteous Charles, who believes he is there to “save” everyone, claims that Merricat “has no right” to bury the silver coins. I suppose that is metaphor for “Women’s bodies and souls are not theirs to do what they will.” He also tells Constance “I can buy half the market with this.” Which half does silver buy- the masculine half, or the feminine half?
Another item Charles is averse to burying is Father’s gold watch. Gold is the alchemical masculine precious metal. The watch is symbolically interesting. For one thing, using clock time is outer-referencing, which is archetypally masculine. It’s Kronos- measurable time, which is mechanical in the case of the watch. The soul, however, exists in Kairos- eternal or qualitative time, intuitively experienced. In my society we are trained as children to mechanical time, hustled to school before the bell rings, staring at the classroom clock waiting for recess or the end of the school day. Maybe they don’t have those features in schools now, I don’t know. But Kronos is everywhere in contemporary Eurowestern society.
Measurement, an activity of the intellectual mind which divides, is archetypally masculine; without it we would not compete, right? One has to divide and then measure first, before they compare and then compete. Constance doesn’t have a clue how much her silver coins are worth, for the soul doesn’t divide and compare. It does know the right moment, though; that’s one of Kairos’s provenances. The perfect, the cosmic moment, occurs in between the sound of the clock’s ticks.
The watch burying scene takes place in the garden, where the three “castle” residents are occupied. A garden is, of course, a soul place. Merricat’s trying to drive Charles away, as she puts it. And the watch seems to be a nice metaphor for Charles, so she’s burying it. He blocks her efforts, though, and Stan Sebastian’s spluttering incredulity and obvious personal insult are wonderful. He represents the dominant patriarchal social norm, where “Sensible people don’t go burying valuable things.”
However, the more soulful trio that we can configure as one, are on a very different, feminine page. “Nobody wants it”, says Constance, meaning none of them do. It’s not valuable to them. For one thing, masculine competition and subsequent dominance, the thing they’ve had more than enough of, are the fruits of mechanical time.
Julian claims that John was buried with his watch on. He “died with his watch on” because John’s/Father’s whole life had been dominated by masculine measurement. We cannot imagine him without it, in other words; without it he would not be himself. This is true for many folks in my society, and like Charles, we take that conditioning for granted. Charles comes on the scene acting like a superior know-it-all, too, a mark of toxic patriarchy. He assumes Merricat knows less about digging than he does; he’s mansplaining. Turns out he was metaphorically digging his own grave- she would prove she could dig a nice big hole in the garden a little later. It would take more than two fingers for that one.
The phallic is also represented in the first dinner scene with Charles, who has been heavily set up as an inner psychological replacement for the women’s father. After Charles gives his Venice monologue, he humiliates Julian for talking about the poisoning. Constance rises to help, but Charles orders Constance to sit down; he is the self appointed patriarch now. She sucks up to him by offering to sew a button on his shirt, the one Merricat had stolen to bury. It’s the one over his heart, so it has that symbolism. Then Charles offers to fix the step, and to fetch groceries.
But that’s Merricat’s job. All the scenes that involve food are referring to sustenance on different levels: emotional, physical, and soul levels. We already know that Constance’s love of Merricat is partly due to Merricat bringing back the groceries (bringing home the bacon), performing the masculine task that sustains and delights the archetypal feminine. If Charles does it, then Merricat’s intimate connection to her sister/soul/shadow side is threatened. This role of the masculine fetching what the feminine heart desires is in Beauty and the Beast, and in Cinderella, both very well known transformational stories in my culture. Both feature fathers that bring something back from their journey to the marketplace.
In the face of this threat to her sister’s loving connection, Merricat begins to recite; “Amanita phalloides contains three poisons. Mushroom amanita, which is slow, but potent, phalloidin, which attacks the liver and kidneys…” Constance offers “I taught her all the deadly ones. So she wouldn’t eat them.” Just in case we thought Constance didn’t actually have feminine powers. She just doesn’t use them in “the world”, if she is the soul. She inspires the personality or ego to implement her knowledge.
Merricat’s poison recitation is obviously unsettling to Charles, meaning, he finds it frightening. It’s a little taste of the dark side of earth element, the chthonic goddess as opposed to the milk-giving cow. Amanita brings in the moon’s dark power as well. For mushrooms arise at night, and are thus under Moon’s silvery, shadowy provenance.
Amanita phalloides is the infamous Death Cap, perhaps the most poisonous of mushrooms. ‘Phalloides’ means “phallus-like”. Of course lots of mushrooms are phallus shaped. Interestingly, Death Cap is troublesome in the regard that, unlike its relative the beautiful poisonous red-capped Fly Agaric, phalloides looks like a popular edible. In early stage the cap resembles plain cultivated agaricus, like those under shrink wrap in the grocery store. Just so, the flashy looking Blackwood sister is not as poisonous as the plain one that slouches, wears braids and shapeless clothing, frowns, and barely speaks.
The fact that Mother- Earth, in this case- can poison us to death is the truth Merricat is expounding at the dinner table. If Charles can hold forth, charming folks, so can she; if he can cast spells, so can she. This table scene is a sort of wizard’s battle between them. Though the feminine has been unwilded in many cultures (as has the masculine), She has her natural weapons. They are every bit as deadly as the weaponry the masculine has at its disposal, a roster which amounts to physical aggression in all its myriad forms. I think it’s pretty well known that weapons in general and some in particular, are phallic metaphors, everything from Thor’s bludgeoning hammer to guided nuclear missiles.
The phallic shape of phalloides (it’s actually not the most phallic of caps in maturity, but the base is scrotum-like, as you can see above) might be symbolically significant also in the sense that Merricat is calling an alarm here, a protective canary in the mine. She is shouting out that the table is being poisoned by the toxic masculine right now. She can feel it, see it, but Constance cannot, as in the scene where Merricat rises from bed and tells Constance “I feel him (Father) coming back.” Charles certainly responds violently to Merricat’s poison litanies, for he doesn’t want his designs exposed by her squawking. For her part, she is responding in kind; you poison my life, I shall poison yours. The recitation on water hemlock that incites physical attack also refers to a moon associated plant, for water element is governed by Moon.
The phallic is obvious as well in the Tower of Pisa, part of Constance’s collection of snow globes. Snow globes are symbols of psychic dreams, even fantasies, isolated in their own little bubble of protection so they won’t be tainted by harmful or conflicting realities. The romantic Tower-bubble gets busted on Charles’s head, ironically. Towers such as the famous one in Pisa were a big part of mid- to -late (as far as I can easily discern) medieval culture in Europe, perhaps especially in the part of the world we now call Italy. The towers were a way of claiming ownership of property, an “I am the lord of all I survey” thang, during a time of constant family-based land wars.
The landed gentry lived downstairs, and the top part of the tower was a fortress; perhaps there’s a correlation here to the women’s upper story burning. From a tourist article on line: “Rome, Venice, Bologna, Florence and Lucca were once virtual pincushions of towers. At least 2 or 3 towers still remain in each city although subsequent wars and modern progress has destroyed most. At the height of its medieval development, Lucca reportedly had more than 250 towers dotting its skyline.” Now that’s a whole lot of macho there! Obviously the story’s castle symbolism bears some of this competitive meaning.
Technically speaking, the famous Tower of Pisa is a bell tower, not a fortress; it’s part of a cathedral complex. But the fun symbolic thing is that it’s leaning, threatening to fall, as it has been since the 12th century during its construction. It is not built on solid ground. Metaphor: the dominance of the toxic patriarchy is not based in truth. It depends on slippery lies to sustain it, the sort of lies that sustain male dominance in the Blackwood home. The mainframe of these lies is that of superiority; I am better, more worthy, than you- or the reverse. Valuation is the whole end point to human competition. Who’s good, who’s bad, who’s in, who’s out, who wins, who loses, and on and on and on ad infinitum.
One lie begets another, as in the lie of Father’s superiority begetting female sexual slavery begetting the need to keep the abuse secret begetting the women’s internalized lie of female powerlessness/lie of the superiority of men. And so we find ourselves caught in the web. The unhealthy crookedness of the big toxic masculine lie of superiority is echoed in a fun little scene, where Charles and Julian chat outside the house as the sisters watch, busying themselves dusting. Julian points at some distant trees and informs Charles, “Your great, great grandfather planted those trees over there.” At a loss for what to say, Charles delivers a platitude, “They’re really nice.” “They’re crooked”, wryly comments Julian, referring to the generations-long male conditioning in his family. Trees, specifically the trunk or ‘wood’, are phallic, like a tower. Perhaps that’s one reason Merricat uses the tree for nailing up Father’s book.
The toxic masculine shall fall in part because of the sheer leverage of its height; its unsustainable, unbalanced struggle for superiority shall be its death. That’s the message when Merricat clouts Charles on the head with the Tower of Pisa globe. She raises it higher to deliver a second blow that sounds like the tower pierces the skull; a sardonic sort of killing gory head rape. Constance, our hyper feminine sister-shadow, recoils in horror; not a thing she would ever, ever do.
The religious aspect of the bell tower is perhaps expanded upon in the symbolism of the stained glass rose window, and the ubiquitous stairs. Merricat discerns that her life is regressing to the traumatic status of her childhood, and she decides to burn it all down. The sisters gaze at the burning bed of their torturer briefly. Constance reveals that her cleaning efforts are psychologically important in controlling her psyche and relationships, with the statement “I just cleaned it. It has no right to burn.” The statement echoes Charles’s assertion that Merricat has no right to bury coins.
Stairs are the means to ascension, and at the top of the stair well is a rose window, another medieval item with associations to Mary, mother of Jesus. The sisters pause on the landing, watching the flames break through the glass. The stairwell has a dual symbolism, for there are two different kinds of climbing; egoic and spiritual. The one of competition and striving is obvious in the panning of the dominant men’s portraits arrayed along the wall.
A previous passing comment on the staircase by Helen confirms this meaning; “Oregonian pine. Shame. Nobody sees it anymore.” More wood! Helen is, of course a social climber, wooing rich and beautiful Constance for reasons of competitive power, quite the norm in my society. In case anyone thought that only men express toxic masculine behaviors. She makes her competitive, goal-oriented character clear with her talk of iris contests, which don’t inspire Constance a whit.
The other meaning of stairs is that of ascension as in psychospiritual progress, the proverbial stairway to heaven. Human development is naturally ordered to ascension, from a more egoic way of living in our young adulthood, to increasing soul and spirit connection. A lifetime focus on egoic striving can severely inhibit such growth. The personality’s old conditioned stories get in our way on the developmental path. Stories of powerlessness and inadequacy are just as inhibiting to our development as those of materialistic aggression, such as Father’s story of townspeople as dirty animals.
Houses are a common dream symbol, the house representing the person on different levels in the case of a multistoried house. One way to configure house symbolism is from the chakric system; basement is first chakra, roof is crown chakra. In that case, the burning rose window is a perfect representation of a crown or seventh chakra opening.
A crown chakra opening is the case when we release conditioning patterns that have kept us disempowered, in the sense of loving ourselves and therefore our lives. We are “en-lightened” when we see beyond lies that our society has forced us to swallow, and we step off the wheel of suffering in some regard. Trauma holds a special place in human development, for it is like poison. Too much of it, and we are permanently frightened, shriveled, psychospiritually wheelchair-bound. Just enough, and we have a chance of recovery, of redemption, of finding some antidote to human inner disconnection. Indeed, many healing medicines are also poisons.
Constance and Merricat have burned down the old conditioning. Her face illuminated by the light coming through the ruined rose window, Merricat says, “We can’t go upstairs.” Once we move out of old stories that keep us in thrall, we can’t go back to that way of being in the world.
When the sisters flee the burning house, they run to Merricat’s tree and shelter in Mother Earth’s embrace. Face to face, light and shadow give us the impression again of one round face, of the moon. When they wake in the morning, Merricat says “We’re on the moon at last.” In the kitchen, she picks up and reconstructs a pineapple shaped pot, I assume because it’s supposed to be a sugar jar. And we hear her plan to poison all of the townspeople, a conversational opening to the film’s big reveal; it was Merricat that poisoned the family. Constance doesn’t take sugar, for she is already too sweet. She metaphorically dispenses it.
Their release from old fears has shifted their reality away from the negative self-judgment and inner disconnection the townspeople represented. Old Ned is no longer poisonously hateful; he apologizes for breaking a chair, and he has a chicken his wife cooked, for the feminine has done away with male dominance. “I gotta chicken here”, he says, his hatred subdued. It’s a wry reference to the rooster symbolism, for roosters are much more prone to being eaten than hens. The flock needs only one rooster, thus the animal’s hypercompetitive nature. Folks keep coming with food, signifying that the sisters will no longer need to hide behind gates and walls. But whoopsie- here comes Charles again.
Stan’s lines are great here, running through a typical abuser’s gamut. The script moves from begging, wheedling promises and references to the good old times, to claims of being unappreciated and abused by the other, and violent demands for what is “owed” them. It’s abuser on fast forward and in a nutshell, and many of the lines will be “familiar” to us, using Keetley’s word. The personality does whatever it can to feel safe and happy, and some people have quite an array of weapons meant to insure they get their way. Unfortunately, wresting love and support from other people, aggression, is counterproductive to safety and happiness. Our own anger poisons us, and everyone around us hates and fears us for it, as in the townspeople.
Charles’ poetic death behind them, the women are soaked in his blood. They need some new attire, and it appears that Constance makes them some clothing from white linens, bed or table linens. White is the color of purification, and it signifies cleansing of the hold their traumatic, fear-bound past had upon them. They found the power to “kill” or otherwise disarm the trauma imposed by toxic masculine conditioning.
We get a few more cameos of the change as represented by townsfolk. The Clarkes come to the door and Helen, representing the patriarchal status quo, bosses, cajoles, badgers, and shames- a little like Charles. She tries to boss her husband, too, but he is not of his wife’s aggressive ilk. He is actually the one who drove off the angry townsfolk. And he tells his wife to leave the sisters alone; they are adults, they will come out when they wish. He represents the strong but heart centered protective masculine that knows how to connect with kindness, that’s not riddled with toxic control issues.
The other cameo is that of the boys taunting the sisters from outside the house. Back in the pre-transformation day, these two nitwits were part of what made Tuesday the worst day of the week for Merricat. This time, though, she stops what she’s doing, walks to the door, and opens it. They freak out just seeing her. They had been taunting her with eating babies. Since she does not fear them but faces them, their taunts are now revealed to be their own fears. Which is a good point, I think.
What Merricat had been interrupted in by the hecklers was the activity that began the film. Her hair unbraided (the braids made her appear immature), standing tall, Merricat moves to a desk and pulls Julian’s “papers” out of their strongbox. And proceeds to write her story; her new version of her trauma, her family, her life. This is the “new book” that her spectral father referred to.
She is writing a more self empowered narrative to replace the poisonous past Julian was obsessed by. She is now the writer of her/their own story. This new story is not experienced through the eyes of a man, through the dysfunctional patriarchy. Though Julian seemed a gentle and relatively nonaggressive character, he was seemingly somewhat misogynist, with his whole thing about “women’s squabbles” and “You lose stature, John, you lose stature”. More Tower of Pisa conditioning.
The women meet in the hallway after Merricat closes the door on the little bullies, a nice metaphor for leaving behind the stress of toxic masculinity. It’s also time to close out the film’s circular narrative- circular perhaps for deliberate symbolic reasons, the linear being archetypally masculine. “What will we have for lunch today?” asks Merricat, the adult form of her former childish “Can I have my lunch now?” queries. Constance replies “Rhubarb pie.” As I said before, jam or rhubarb pie being a strong combination of sour and sweet, we can interpret this pie as indicating what alchemy calls an inner hieros gamos event, a sacred marriage.
Inner or sacred marriage is the big alchemical term for when we integrate or balance opposites within our being. The inner masculine meets and values the feminine, and both skill sets are more available to us now. This inner valuation is the meaning behind “forever after” marriages in popular fairy tales, “forever after” referring to the soul’s Kairos. Such marriages are one thing the soul loves to do for us, for love and compassion are the result of truly appreciating and embodying both sides of any story.
The soul in the form of Constance began the healing crisis with its desire for rhubarb pie, and the baking of the pie shall signal the project’s completion. Merricat muses, “I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance?” What with the high level symbolic content in the film, I must assume this final question is metaphorical as well. Does it refer to the breakdown or assimilation, the digestion, of old childhood ways on her part, including the disempowering inner heckling that used to fuel her fear and anger?
Constance considers, but isn’t sure she could cook one. The soul is always connected to the inner child, for both innocence and personal development are in the soul’s provenance. The soul’s unguarded heart rejoices in living on the moon, though, where the old fears no longer loom, for Constance comments compassionately, “It must be terrible to be so afraid.” That’s the line that clues us into the sisters’ having moved out of fear themselves.
They have reached a more soul-and-spirit connected life, very different from that of their social conditioning, where fear is used to manipulate others to one’s advantage. To add frosting to the happiness cake, Constance, the light side of the moon, stops and faces Merricat, delivering a simple but glorious “I love you, Merricat.” And the film ends with Merricat’s smile breaking through the former worried gloom of her face, like the full moon coming out from behind a cloud. Our moon goddess has come through the developmental crisis with flying colors; the change she knew was coming is now a dream fulfilled.
There’s more symbolism in the film, but time to quit. WHALC illustrates the increasingly popular self help philosophy of self love, so that’s awesome. It also points out that most trauma inflicted by family members is not ultimately personal. It’s the result of a society founded on damaging core values and beliefs. Unhappy people make others unhappy, in short; for both love and fear are contagious.
For those willing to buck the system, the solution is more love of the inner variety, which will naturally be reflected in our outer relationships. The solution to trauma and abuse rests within each one of us, particularly those with eyes to see. Like Merricat, we can have a new book; one that’s written by ourselves rather than our traumas, our parents, and an abusive society.
If you enjoyed the focus on the moon, my all time favorite symbolic moon film is Far Side of the Moon (2003). It’s a Canadian French language film by Robert LaPage, featuring two contrasting brothers, just as WHALC features two sisters.