Claustrophobic Hotel Rooms and Intermedial Horror in 1408

Claustrophobic Hotel Rooms and Intermedial Horror in 1408
© Photograph by Grigoriy Shvets

In his non-fiction book ‘Danse Macabre’, Stephen King discusses how the evolution of the “horror genre” contributes on the discourse regarding the Gothic by stating that “[it] has often been able to find national phobic pressure points” (1980).

His books, graphic novels, and movies are considered by critics and readers alike as the most successful, always seeming to express fears that exist “across a wide spectrum of people” (1980). King’s fiction has been the subject of numerous academic works (see Bloom 2007, Stefoff 2011, Hoppenstand 2011, Anderson 2017); in his non-fiction work scholars can trace terminology which can be used as analytical tools for the Gothic.

1408 is a story that Stephen King initially (and partially) wrote as a case study for his book, ‘Memoir of the Craft’, in an attempt to demonstrate to the readers how his rewriting process works (King 2009, 1). The homonymous film based on the story, released in 2007, built upon the best parts of King’s original work, while adding more layers in the uncanny atmosphere the author created for his textual work.

This article’s main purpose is to examine and demonstrate how, in the film adaptation of King’s “1408”, intermedial techniques are facilitated in recreating a haunting atmosphere through the audiovisual experience the movie creates, as well as how the cinematic adaptation of the story transfers uncanny elements from the text to the silver screen.

Before I continue with the analysis, a note on terminology I use is necessary. Regarding the use of the term “intermedial” I follow Jarkko Toikkanen’s general definition of the intermediality concept as, “acts of ubiquitous sensory stimuli feeding one’s cognitive faculties” (2013, 33).2 For the use of the terms “terror” and “horror”, I follow King’s previous writings.

King makes three separate distinctions of both the techniques and the affective responses evoked from works of (graphic) literature and cinema; terror, horror and gross-out. For the purpose of this essay, I borrow the aforementioned terminology to also include cinema, as I find it helpful to use the vocabulary the author chooses in the past to describe adaptations of his own work.

Terror then “often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking” (King 1980). A commonly referenced example would be that of a person entering their house, and sensing that all their stuff had been displaced and then put back in order. It cannot be explained, and therefore it is unsettling.

Terror is as King brilliantly notices about the mind; what the mind sees is exactly what makes these kinds of stories into “quintessential tales of terror” (King 1980). Horror, on the other hand, is more tangible, retaining though a sense of mystery in its manifestations: it is “that emotion of fear that underlines terror” (1980). King uses as an example of the “horror comics of the fifties” such as those of ‘Weird Tales and Tales’ (1923-1954) from the Crypt (1964). Horror is an emotion “slightly less fine” than terror, as it is not entirely “of the mind”, while at the same time invites a physical reaction by showing something “physically wrong”.

The third level, that of “revulsion” or “gross-out”, a “gag-reflex” (King 1980). A contemporary example of this technique or feeling would be that of the movie franchise Saw. Kings puts on a scale these three emotions, recognising terror as “the finest”, admitting that his primary goal is to “terrorise the reader” (King 1980). Failing to do that, he will attempt “to horrify.” If all else fails, he will go, not “proudly” though as he admits, for the gross-out (King 1980). By using the term “intermedial horror”, I underline the instances in the film where horror manifests through tangible uncanny acts of ubiquitous sensory stimuli feeding the audiences’ cognitive faculties, producing an unsettling sensation.

King’s works are numerous, and their intermedial appeal is noteworthy; his stories, novellas, and novels appear in all media possible in the twenty-first-century. From theatrical adaptations, straight-to-video releases, audio collections, films, and comics (even music), the attempts of recreating the effect King has on his readers are numerous, while not all of them successful. King’s work continuously finds ways to be contemporary and attracts new audiences and readers alike: for example, his movie adaptations start as early as 1976, when Carrie was adapted into the silver screen from the homonymous novel published in 1974, to the 2013 television adaptation of ‘Under the Dome’, and 2017 one of ‘The Mist’, along with the cinematic adaptations of ‘The Dark Tower’ and ‘It’.

The story 1408 is based on first appeared in its final form in the audiobook collection called ‘Blood and Smoke’ released in 1999, while in 2002 it was first included in King’s collection ‘Everything’s Eventual’. Introducing the story in the collection, King writes that “this story scared me while I was working on it”, while the audio version “scared me even more. Scared the hell out of me” (King 2002, 365). The plot of the story, according to King, constitutes a version of ‘The Ghostly Room at the Inn’ (King 2002, 365) with some twists that the author decided to add to complicate the extensively used motif. While the story was initially supposed to be a case study for aspiring writers, the depiction of his protagonist intrigued King; he decided that a story where a “cynical hack churning out books debunking supposedly haunted locations” only to find himself once facing “the real thing” would be worth finishing (King 2009, 1).

The movie adaptation of 1408 entered cinemas in 2007 with John Cusack starring as the writer, Mike Enslin, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Olin, the hotel manager. The movie was a commercial success, being nominated for the Saturn Award for the best horror film and best actor awards (John Cusack) in 2008, while in its opening weekend, the film opened in second place at the box office, grossing US$20.6 million in 2,678 theatres and went on to gross US$132 million, with a production budget of US$25 million.

What is striking about 1408, as regards its written form is the lack of information about the protagonist of the story and his general whereabouts; it is one of the rare occasions that a lack of backstory, an “old Hollywood trick, always dangerous and rarely successful” actually works (King 2009, 2). Attention to similar details in the adapted work are part of what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling, as each bit of information is exclusive to another medium (2006, 96). While the details of how the movie made the backstory functional will be examined.

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