Birds in the Cage: A Study of Capitalism and Schizophrenia in the film, ‘Bird Box’
By Rituparna Sengupta
Fear forms the core of civil society and perhaps is crucial to the preservation of the social structure. It is at once the cause of man’s urgent crisis and recluse in escape. As Kristeva aptly puts it, “[O]n close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse” (207), irrespective of its socio-political context where identities move towards being increasingly heterogeneous, borderless, abject, and at times when there are no fixed identities. It is at this incomprehensible juncture when logic, reason, and coherence are defied; fear becomes a reality. Horror has a seduction of its own it feeds on, consumes, or rather devours the body it exerts its impact. In horror, there is no redemption nor a happy place to return to, no reconciliation with normalcy is impossible. Speculating on the consequence of horror we may question the nature and impact of horror, or in other words, how does it become catastrophic? How do we sense fear and how do we react to it? Is fear a bodily conceivable phenomenon? How do we deal with death, mass hysteria, and schizophrenia in cultural productions including literature, film, painting, and so on?
This paper intends to explore the schizophrenic self in the wake of the capitalist society and its inescapable chain of the consumerist machine through the 2018 post-apocalyptic horror film, Bird Box directed by Susanne Bier. The film is based on a novel by Josh Malerman which unfolds a downriver boat journey of Malorie with two young children, intercut with flashbacks revealing a world of mass suicide for ‘an invisible thing’. The ‘thing’ enjoys a radical necropolitical power and control over its subject, delimiting the able living condition, and disenfranchising them into non-productive death-task-followers. Here horror comes in the form of an absolute gaze objectifying the victims like a manipulative capitalist agent who thrives on manufactured consent. It is almost like the transcendental signified in and outside the symbolic structure of language. It induces frenzy and insanity into each person beholding it. It is only through death, the ‘thing’ can be experienced. Thus, it remains inexplicable. Taking off the blindfold, or even choosing protection is a manipulation of surrendering one’s agency to a power-driven world order.
The most subjective action that the characters can perform is to die, or rather be allowed to do so. Here madness and paranoia are constructions and the only choice left. The desiring body becomes a machine produced through social selection enforced by the thing which metaphorically refers to capitalism. The agents of chaos forcing the victims to see are the puppets of the absolute, carrying forward its crusade of cleansing the atmosphere of the foul play of revolution. The film Bird Box, I would argue, visualizes this precarious, postmodern capitalist society and its schizophrenic subject formulation vis-à-vis a Marxist critique of it. Nature, human instincts, ableism, disability, and dark imagery function in the production of mass hysteria, and fear also play a significant part in this.
The movie introduces us to a sense of denial and isolation in the very first scene when we see a heavily pregnant artist – Malorie engrossed in her unfinished masterpiece. She is painting a collage of people on a canvas, the figures are closely knit together but it is evident that each figure is emotionally distant from the other and isolated. In her conversation with her sister, we realise that Malorie is trying to vent out her repressed trauma through her art. She is in denial of her pregnancy, a possible coping mechanism for dealing with a dysfunctional relationship with her former partner. Her journey from denial to acceptance of motherhood raising two children in a hostile situation and protecting them, explains the mechanism of horror in the movie. Fear of the shadow lurking outside transforms Malorie. She takes active participation in hoarding resources from the nearest supermarket, bonding with the fellow survivors sheltered with her. Faced with a catastrophe Malorie empathises with strangers, she feels for them, adopts Olimpia’s daughter when she is orphaned, and finally embarks on a boat journey with the two children and a perforated box where she carefully keeps the birds. The bird box aids in survival as the birds sense the presence of the shadows and alert the visually abled when a threat is nearby.
It should be noted that Malorie and her sister inhabit the urban space before hell breaks loose is inherently dysfunctional. While industrialism, growth, progress, and economic stability of a first-world country are apparent on the surface level, living is claustrophobic there. Malorie would readily consider giving up her baby for adoption rather than raising the baby on her own. Each death in the movie is an explosion or as released, there are instances of blood gushing out, spilling all over the floor, standing in front of a moving truck, or jumping off a glass window and stabbing one’s neck. Every victim is a ticking bomb waiting to explode, seeking a sense of relief in death.
The social structure that Malorie belongs to promotes dysfunctional relationships. The inmates of the house hiding from the ‘invisible thing’ are inherently selfish, they would potentially betray each other in a crisis. The owner of the house rants over the diminishing ration of food due to the frequent meals of two expecting mothers – Malorie and Olympia. During their trip to the supermarket, some of them proposed to stay back as there was abundant ration, potentially starving the rest of the inmates back in the shelter. Each character that meets death by suicide, has a realisation of guilt or a trauma of the past that they were trying to escape. Similarly, Malorie experiences a release through childbirth however traumatic it might have been. Thus looking at the creature does not initiate chaos, but rather releases the repressed chaos within each beholder and the society at large. However, there are a bunch of anarchists who can bear the sight of the creature. They are the lunatics who have escaped from the mental asylum. Somehow, they have assimilated madness and terror within themselves, thus the sight of the creature does not terrorise them, contrarily it liberates them. Insanity has immune them from the impact of the ‘thing’. They believe that a sight of the ‘thing’ would cleanse the world, it would acquaint one with the sublime – death. Thus, they terrorise every corner of the town looking for survivors and forcing them to look.
It is interesting how nature is employed in relation to death and terror in the film. Here nature and man are not at war with each other, neither is nature a vindictive force annihilating life. When the shadows move, we hear a rustling of leaves and a bunch of dead leaves swirling in a vortex. Here terror does not find agency in nature, it rather makes its presence felt through the rustling and swirling of wind and a few dried leaves. Malorie survives with the two children as she decides to escape from culture to nature, traveling through the river rapids and finally arriving at the school for the blind. The school too has numerous birds that protect the visually abled like the birds in Malorie’s bird box.
The movie presents the desire for death as a necessity. The production of death is necessary to run the mechanism of society. Desire, anxiety, depression, pain, trauma, and death are products of this mechanism. A new social order is being superimposed on the old structure where schizophrenia is a desirable outcome. As Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze put it in Anti- Oedipus, “[S]chizophrenia is like love: there is no specifically schizophrenic phenomenon or entity, schizophrenia is the universe of productive and reproductive desiring-machines” (7). It induces action into the plot, there is a constant flow of energy from the stagnancy of existence to active participation in horrid deaths. Perceiving something terrible, assimilating the terror and the resulting suicide connects one mode of production to the other. With death, life pauses for a moment and the terror propagates into the fellow victims further inducing a death drive. As the terror in the movie unleashes with one’s sight, corrupting the sense of self with remorse and grief making life unbearable the only mode of survival is giving up one’s identity. Living without a cultural context, or a name, experiencing life through social relations would immune the sane and visually able to survive the predicament provided they have their eyes covered.
Malorie is intentionally heavy-handed with the kids; she is more of an instructor than an affectionate mother. Naming the kids ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl’, teaching them to follow instructions, following sounds when they are blindfolded, self-preservation, and negating the possibility of emotionally bonding with the kids helps them survive. The kids grow up witnessing death, loss, and violence yet we do not see them breaking down into tears or crying for help. They carry the bird box around for safety and the bicycle ring when they need help from Malorie. They do not take their blindfolds off even when they are separated from Malorie neither do they fall for the manipulative efforts of the ‘thing’ trying to lure them into impersonating Malorie’s voice. They recognise Malorie through her touch and speech and finally unite with her following her desperate monologue. Whatever lurks behind the blindfold in the forest is a form of pure evil, but it is limited in its impact. It fails to harm without manipulating someone into beholding its form. It cannot have a bodily impact unless someone falls into its manipulation, it knows about the past and the present of its victims impersonating voices making them vulnerable to self-harm. The ‘thing’ fails to manipulate the kids as they have grown up without a history and without any familial bonds. The kids do not understand that Malorie is their mother, they address her by her name. Malorie is their fellow survivor, guide, and protector; they must follow her instructions. Thus, when the ‘thing’ tries to manipulate the children by impersonating Malorie’s voice the children can distinguish between the real voice and that of the impersonator. The ‘thing’ makes false promises, lures them into taking off the blindfold and looking at the beautiful world outside where birds sing and children play with each other. Malorie had meticulously painted the world outside as grim, scary, and full of false promises, and taking the blindfold off would cause death. Thus, making the right choice between reality and falsification saved the children from evil.
While talking about fear, Jan H. Blits points out the Hobbesian idea of fear where everything around us is a part of a universal body, and nothing exists beyond it. Everything exists in constant acceleration, thus there is little difference between cause and effect, “[As] nothing has a natural tendency, no particular effect is an end in itself. Every effect is merely a link in an endless chain of events – one moment in a continuing process of cause and effect” (422). Things that we produce or aid in production are meaningful to us but the chaos we are put into remains as a perpetually unexplored mystery. We can never know, make sense of or control every action that takes place beyond our power and knowledge. While we are confronted with an opposing world order pushing us into darkness, we are exposed to the unknown. Placed within uncertainty, looking for meaning and coherence the basic form of fear that creeps into us is that of the unknown, an objectless phenomenon that we conceptualise as horror.
Bird Box. Directed by Susan Bier, Bluegrass Films, 2018.
Blits, Jan H. “Hobbesian fear.” Political Theory, vol 17, no.3, 1989, pp. 417-431.
Holland, Eugene W. Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis. Routledge, 2002.
Kremmel, Laura R. “Blind Survival: Disability and Horror in Josh Malerman’s Bird
Box.” Studies in Gothic Fiction, vol 6, no.1, 2018, pp. 43-52.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton, 1982.
Malerman, Josh. Bird Box. Harper Voyager, 2014.
Mrs. Rituparna Sengupta has recently submitted her M.Phil. thesis at Visva-Bharati in the Department of English. She is presently working as SACT-1 at Sushil Kar College, Champahati. She is interested in Post-colonial literature, Food Studies, and Critical theory. She has published in international journals and presented papers in both national and international seminars.
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