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Stephen King wrote one of his most successful novels, Gerald’s Game in 1992. The novel, much like many of his others, quickly became a New York Times #1 Best Seller. The book has recently been adapted into a very popular Netflix original movie.
Gerald’s Game revolves around a woman named Jessie Burlingame. Jessie and her husband Gerald take off on a romantic weekend trip to try to revive what we soon find out is a dying (no pun intended) marriage. Gerald is a wealthy lawyer with a clandestine hunger for power and dominance. Jessie is a meek and dutiful wife, with some secrets of her own, willing to do almost anything to rekindle her marriage, until Gerald takes things a little too far. In a last desperate attempt to revive their passion Gerald handcuffs both of Jessie’s wrists to the bed posts and asks her to play the part of a rape victim, screaming for help. Jessie half-heartedly plays along but quickly becomes uncomfortable and when Gerald doesn’t listen to her genuine pleas to stop she kicks him off of her which ensues a heated argument.
In the middle of the argument Gerald dies of a heart attack and falls onto the floor at the foot of the bed. Jessie is left in the handcuffs, alone, except for a stray dog that comes in to feed on Gerald’s body, in a home conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. As Jessie, realizes there is little hope of her surviving, her mind begins to slip. As Jessie becomes dehydrated, starving, and scared, she loses her grip on reality. She is haunted by Gerald, a version of herself, her traumatic past, and a tall deformed figure she believes to be Death waiting to take her. Gerald’s Game plays on the fragile state of someone’s mind in a time with so little hope or will to survive, and a journey to rediscovery and acceptance.
Psychological horror is a sub-genre that relies on cognitive, emotional, and subconscious aspects to unnerve or frighten the reader. In this genre writers typically create characters with unstable or fragile psychological states. A writer like Stephen King writes a psychological horror novel aiming to create fear by exposing common psychological and emotional vulnerabilities and bringing to light the darker parts of the human psyche that most people choose to repress or deny.
When you think about a book/movie that is about a woman being trapped on a bed in the same room the whole entire time you think, how can they keep this going? Stephen King has never been one to tread lightly on any subject, he is not a subtle writer in any way. If there is a message King is trying to get across, you will see it by the end of the book, maybe after a little traumatization. But, he means well. Gerald’s Game is a story about sexual assault, a story about a woman trapped in a cycle of victimization since she was just a child.
In Gerald’s Game there’s no typical monster with sharp fangs, glowing eyes or big hairy claws. But, much more palpable villains; the wild mangy dog, the stalking serial killer, all mirror the impalpable demons in her mind. The external gruesomeness of watching the dog come in and out of the room, clicking its nails covered in Gerald’s blood on the hardwood floor, tearing off pieces of his flesh and sitting down in the doorway to eat them like a gourmet meal is horrifying enough. But the internal monsters Jessie faces are much worse. Unable to escape the room her mind takes over and reanimates a version of Gerald and a more empowered, determined version of herself. The two entities begin a moral inquisition about the difficulties of their marriage and how past trauma can familiarize with your present choice of partner. All while taunting Jessie, forcing her to come to terms with and overcome her circumstances, and throwing her back into the memories of her childhood. Memories that should be felt with nostalgia but for Jessie are felt with horror and pain. Jessie’s coming of age story is defined by survival and repression rather than empowerment. We see this in the movie adaption of Gerald’s Game by being shown these memories through the hellish red of a solar eclipse. A day on the lake with her family turns into a “…window into a world that has been darkened by broken trust and a darkened sun…” at the hands of her own father. For the rest of her life up until this point Jessie has blamed herself, the typical mindset of a victim of sexual assault. Jessie’s inward justifications are critical to the storyline and her progression as a character. King uses the gory details of the incident to make the reader/watcher feel uncomfortable, sympathize with Jessie, and come to understand the reasons behind her hidden secret. We are exalted when she comes to face the truth and we feel liberated, with her, when she finally accepts her father’s role. While Jessie is facing this liberation in her mind she is also “coming back to life” in the real world. She is able to cut her wrist and free herself from the handcuffs just as she has freed herself from her past. A weight is lifted off of the reader/watcher’s chest as we see hope for Jessie’s future.
Gerald’s Game is not the typical horror story. But, that is the beauty of the psychological horror genre. There are scenes in Gerald’s Game that do strike fear into the physical senses; the mangy dog eating Gerald’s corpse, the all-too-real man who watches Jessie at night, the gut-wrenching visual of the skin of her hand sliding off to come through the handcuff. All enough to make anyone squirm. But it’s the much more tangible horrors Jessie must face within her own psyche. The “voices in her head” help the reader/watcher to understand the deep-rooted repression of a traumatic memory, therefore providing insight into the world of a sexual-assault victim. Gerald’s Game works as an pathway towards providing viewers with the realities of sexual misconduct. Gerald’s Game is a story about confronting pain and abuse, and drawing strength from the psychic wounds you are left with, a story about hope that is still attainable in a society rooted deep with destructive male sexuality. Jessie is a representation of today’s woman, for the reclamation of feminine self, and the abdication of forced silence in the name of “love” and devotion.
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