(CAUTION: This essay is spoiler-heavy. Also, please note the film version discussed in this essay is the Theatrical Cut.)
In spite of The Dark Tower’s cold reception, it’s no secret that It and Gerald’s Game have solidified 2017 as the year of “good” Stephen King adaptations. Those two films are great and resonate because they’re made by people who want to do right by the stories they come from; both adaptations were handled with such care, given a loving touch by filmmakers who owe a great creative debt to King. These guys grew up on King; his stories ingrained on them in an everlasting way, and that really shines through on how those films turned out. Previous King adaptations in the 1970s and 1980s (no matter how subjectively “good” they may be) didn’t have that – couldn’t possibly have that. The new crop of filmmakers want these films to be just as much a part of King’s vision as their own (looking at you, Kubrick). If the trajectory continues, it’s a really exciting time to be both a King fan and a film lover.
All that said, however, let’s rewind ten years and talk about a King adaptation that often doesn’t get much love: the quintessential haunted hotel story, 1408. The short story “1408” appeared first in an audiobook collection (Blood and Smoke), but later was released in written form in a volume called Everything’s Eventual. King also included “1408” in his nonfiction book On Writing to illustrate how a story goes from one draft to the next. Basically, “1408” was King’s not-so-subtle way of saying “This is how you write good short horror fiction.” The 2007 film version directed by Mikael Håfström, and starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, was a moderate success, with critics divided and home video sales making up for its losses at the box office. While some critics thought the film was predictable, others thought it restored what it means to be scared in a theater. And with its psychological tension-building and brazen take on traditional paranormal scares as opposed to banal gore, many filmgoers agreed with the latter opinion. 1408 really plays on a plethora of our most basic fears, even though the film isn’t exactly about that. What it is about is an author coming to grips with heavy trauma and emotional loss in his life: not only is he perpetually coping with a vague reference to daddy issues, his marriage is, let’s just say, less than stellar after the unfortunate death of his young daughter. This man, Mike Enslin (Cusack), pays his bills as an accomplished author of such paperback store fodder as Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Houses, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Graveyards, and Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Lighthouses (his newest: Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotels), the content of which should be self-explanatory. Enslin himself is a skeptic when it comes to actual encounters with the paranormal (but understands how lucrative they can be), and after receiving a strange postcard from a fan suggesting he stay at New York’s most haunted of hotels, The Dolphin, he hits the road up to the Big Apple. Once he reaches the hotel, he is met with resistance from the manager, Mr. Olin (Jackson), who pleads with him not to stay in the notorious Room 1408. Enslin insists, and the rest of the film documents the dreadful, jarring, and hallucinatory events he experiences throughout his one-night stay in the Room (which possesses so much evil it should be a character unto itself). 1408 is a real thrill to watch, and is highly effective in showing us things we are afraid of and how those things wear us down – all of which we may not even catch while watching it. And therein lies the film’s success: taking the convention out of those conventional fears.
Foremost, there’s a reason why so many stories take place in a haunted hotel. Aside from worrying about germs, staying in a hotel can be a very strange experience: you’re in a world that’s familiar, yet different. The room has a bed, a TV, curtains – all the furnishings that are expected, but they’re not yours. Think about that too much, and hotel rooms can easily transform into a portal to the surreal. Additionally, you have no idea what happened in a room before staying in it. As Enslin puts it, “Hotel rooms are a naturally creepy place, don’t you think? How many people slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick? How many of them lost their minds? How many of them…died?” We have trouble sleeping even in luxury hotels because our brains succumb to what studies have shown to be the “first night effect,” where even though we do fall asleep eventually, one hemisphere of our brains stays on watch, ready to spring us into action if a threat is detected. This could be a side effect of scelerophobia (fear of crime), harpaxophobia (fear of being robbed), nyctophobia (fear of the night or darkness), scopophobia (fear of being watched), or even something as broad as anthropophobia (fear of people or society). Some of us fear people coming into our rooms, while others give way to autophobia (fear of being alone or isolated). There’s even an unofficial name for the fear of being out of mobile range: nomophobia. One of the wackiest fears, however, is furniturephobia; yes, that’s an informal name for a fear of furniture. It’s slightly more common than one might think, and usually pertains to antiques (admittedly, some of the old baroque style is kind of scary – just ask Billy Bob Thornton). So, all of these things, along with a spooky atmosphere already present in some hotels, can make traveling a total nightmare for any, some, or hell, even all of us.
Right away, the story is set within the familiar. Enslin is lost driving on a dark, lonely country road in the middle of a thunderstorm (already we have vehophobia, nyctophobia, astraphobia, and mazeophobia) looking for the haunted bed and breakfast where he holds a reservation. When he reaches his destination, the owners greet him with spirited small talk about the B&B’s history that’s probably met with more enthusiasm from the general public, but Enslin is only interested in going up to his room. Enslin differs from most paranormal investigators in that he’s not excited about the possibility of any occurrences; he genuinely believes nothing is going to happen. Later, at a book-signing, he tells his fans, “Nothing would make me happier than to experience a paranormal event, to get a glimpse of that elusive light at the end of the tunnel…I’m saying I’ve never seen [a ghost], but they’re awfully convenient for desperate hotels when the interstate moves away.” In just the first ten minutes, 1408 goes against the curve – thanks to an inundation of Ghost Hunters-type programs we’ve grown accustomed to, Enslin’s characterization here is a welcome departure from what’s generally expected in this kind of story. Further, what’s great about this is the film, using psychological forces and fear, perfectly outlines the transition from skeptic to believer, giving those of us who have always stood by the possibility of real paranormal events a sweet vindication.
Things are going peacefully for Enslin until he receives the Dolphin Hotel postcard. Written on it in an old-style cursive is the phrase “Don’t enter 1408.” Enslin briefly ponders the number sequence, and after some quick math, realizes those single digits add up to 13. “That’s cute,” Enslin chuckles to himself, but for many people, the number 13 isn’t cute at all. Fear of the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia), with its long tradition, is just a superstition to most of us, but to some, it’s a crippling phobia. There’s a selection of the world’s population who refuse to travel, marry, or conduct business on dates that include 13, and the phobia causes revenue loss in the hundreds of millions each Friday the 13th in particular (by the way, the name for that one is paraskevidekatriaphobia).
“Why don’t the owners just close the room?” Enslin asks Mr. Olin as they enter the Dolphin’s elevator. Olin responds with, “The Yasuko Corporation prefers to pretend there’s no problem. Just as they pretend there’s no 13th floor.” Indeed that’s true: most tall buildings purposely bypass naming a 13th floor (91 percent of buildings in New York City do not have them), which is mainly due to how chicken we humans can be. Of course, there are stories like the infamous Warwick Hotel in Huntington, Indiana, and New York’s own Algonquin Hotel that feed the superstition. But the idea for 1408 is that it’s the 13th room on the hotel’s physical 13th floor (after all, even if you omit a number, that doesn’t mean the building is actually missing a story), which gives the room an even spookier reputation. Undoubtedly, Enslin is game for this.
Early during Enslin’s stay in 1408, we are treated to a frightening exercise in dementophobia, the fear of going insane. The idea of losing one’s mind can be debilitating, as it’s probably the most dehumanizing thing anyone can face. The Room uses this fear as the first step in breaking Enslin’s will, slowly revealing its sinister nature. The clock radio by the bed suddenly sounds (a blast of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a sickeningly smarmy choice by the Room), which startles Enslin, and a little later, the clock’s digital display changes into a foreboding 60-minute countdown. Other small things start inexplicably happening in the room, like bed turndown service complete with pillow chocolates, and toilegami in the restroom. Enslin does question those things, but concludes it must be a hoax put on by Mr. Olin. But, as events turn weirder, Enslin begins to doubt his own sanity. He goes to the window to cry for help, and sees someone standing in the window of the neighboring building. What follows is just one in a slew of WTF-moments: he shouts and waves emphatically to this man, but we see his enthusiasm drop as he realizes the man is mirroring his gestures. Enslin is then shocked when the trick the Room is playing here is fully revealed. He panics after the window slams down on his hand causing a heinously bloody injury, and further unravels after hearing his deceased daughter’s voice calling to him (at one point, he tells himself, “You’re losing the plot! You’re losing the whole god damn structure!”). He thinks he’s having a nightmare, but then considers he may be hallucinating (assuming Olin spiked his drink). The events that continue through the course of the film, however, ensure that Enslin realizes he most definitely is not.
There are sequences featuring fears we have regarding our relationships with certain environmental situations, most notably batophobia, thermophobia, and frigophobia. All of these fears directly correlate to our survival instincts. First, batophobia: Enslin decides to try to shimmy across the outside of the building to get to the next room’s window. We’re afraid of heights because they throw us physically off balance – we have a harder time judging our body-in-space orientation, making us feel insecure and disturbed. The film shows this phobia effectively with camera angles, making the dread-inducing trek seem longer than it is. The Room manipulates the physicality of the building’s outside wall, making all the other rooms’ windows disappear, and giving Enslin no other choice but to turn back to 1408. He reaches the window and falls, grabbing the ledge. As he’s trying to pull himself back in, the window starts to close, giving us a very real sense that he’s not going to make it. The sequence has a clever intensity, also playing on our fear of falling (basophobia).
Next, is the temperature of the room. Enslin calls the front desk to ask for a maintenance engineer to fix his thermostat. At the time, his room is sweltering (thermophobia), a quick foreshadowing of ensuing trouble with a fluctuating room temperature. Later, possibly since we tend to associate cold temperatures with sickness (a symptom of frigophobia), one of the Room’s intimidation tactics is to make itself incredibly cold. As the thermostat is shown to be in the negative digit range, every bit of the room is frosted over, with Enslin’s feet crunching on a thin layer of snow. Soon afterward, huddled in a blanket on the floor, he begins to recite Dante’s Inferno, remarking that he could be in the 9th layer of Hell “removed from all light and warmth.” By the end, Enslin reasons the only way to destroy the Room and its evil is to burn it down (a scene to surely avoid for folks with pyrophobia).
Enslin endures phasmophobia (fear of ghosts) as he’s subjected to both intelligent and residual hauntings (the former: a dangerous, brutish woman with a pickaxe, and the latter: multiple people jumping to their deaths), both meant to push Enslin to the edge of suicide. One hallucinatory scene has a tiny version of Olin standing inside the room’s mini fridge offering some important insight into human psyche. Olin asks, “Why do you think people believe in ghosts? For fun? No, it’s the prospect of something after death.” The existence of ghosts is contrary to science and reason, yet we still believe in them (and are afraid of them) because they represent the unknown. No matter how strongly a person may believe in some kind of afterlife (or lack of an afterlife, for that matter), no proof has ever been produced, and so the question remains. Ghosts can be scary because they may be signifying that our long-held belief structures are possibly wrong. They’re also sometimes considered an omen for death, triggering our natural death anxieties.
Many of us may experience phonophobia, the fear of voices, or telephonophobia, the fear of telephones. We may have anxiety over making and taking telephone calls or having to confront people over the phone. The film versions of these phobias are elevated because the voice on the other side of the phone is literally evil. As Enslin initially calls the front desk to report his wonky thermostat, the voice of the woman who answers is polite, and nothing seems out of the ordinary. But after the initial pleasantries, she asks him “Are you ready to check out?” What a distressing and ominous question! He realizes he’s not speaking to anyone actually working in the reality of the Dolphin, and this scare is utilized a few more times. The most disturbing instance is when Enslin lays down the receiver after he’s just decided to burn the place to the ground, and a distorted voice comes on the line saying incoherent phrases like, “Five. This is five. Ignore the siren. Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room. Eight. This is eight. We have killed your friends. Every friend is now dead.” This exchange proves to be one of the freakier elements of the film, followed immediately by the phone receiver melting, exposing a wiry telephonic skeleton.
Other notable phobias used are scopophobia, technophobia, claustrophobia, and cleithrophobia. Scopophobia is a fear of being watched, which is exemplified when Enslin finds what he believes to be a spycam in the air conditioning vent. This fear has some real world validity as high profile court cases have awarded victims of unlawful recording millions of dollars (such as the case of TV host Erin Andrews, who was recorded without her knowledge in a Nashville hotel). The technophobia used isn’t just an example of someone directly afraid of technology, but as a sort of cautionary tale of it turning against us. Besides the possession of the clock radio, the Room’s television randomly turns on, showing Enslin a personal home video of a happy time he had with his family. Enslin’s laptop also begins to act weirdly, and, as he tries to contact his wife Lily via a Skype-like application, the Room seems to possess it as well. Lastly, claustrophobia is the fear of being in small spaces, and cleithrophobia is the fear of feeling trapped. Enslin tries to escape 1408 by climbing into the air conditioning duct (small space), but again, the Room manipulates his surroundings so that he’s forced to retreat (trapped). The duct becomes elongated and menacing, he runs into some cockroaches (katsaridaphobia), and by the end of the sequence, he’s got a ghoul chasing after him (kinemortophobia). The feeling of being trapped, though, is used probably most often throughout the film as Enslin’s attempts at escape are repeatedly thwarted by the Room.
But all of these fears exhibited in 1408 don’t even scratch the surface of what the story is truly about: the fear we have of dealing with grief and loss, and how we cope with those things. First, the Room invades Enslin’s psyche by showing him his wheelchair-bound father, an apparition in the bathroom. The story is never too specific about Enslin’s feelings about his father, but the remnants of a broken father/son relationship come through when the story references Enslin’s first novel, The Long Road Home. On more than one occasion, Enslin is asked if the story in the book is real (including once by Olin). He denies it, but it’s when his father appears – seemingly confused about being left in a nursing home – the novel emerges as obviously autobiographical. Enslin’s regret over his crumbled paternal relationship and the guilt of possible neglect manifests as his father tells him, “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be.” But, the main grief Enslin is dealing with is the loss of his daughter, Katie. Katie had been battling an illness (presumably some form of cancer) for quite some time, and he thinks he and Lily shouldn’t have “filled her head” with stories about how peaceful the afterlife is, or the idea that she’d be surrounded by all her friends. He thinks they comforted her too much, leading her to give up the fight against her illness. This guilt over his daughter dying causes him to lose faith in the Almighty, and is most likely the catalyst for his overt cynicism (“You know why I can stay in your spooky old room, Mr. Olin? Because I know that ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties don’t exist. And even if they did, there’s no God to protect us from them, is there?”). However, his ordeal in Room 1408 and his survival thereof sets him on a course of emotional freedom, in which he finally comes to terms with his grief over the loss of two very important family members. In a happy turn of events, Enslin overcomes everything in the best way an author can: by writing about it (something Stephen King most assuredly knows). Everything that happens to Enslin in this story, everything he’s put through, proves that the only way to overcome your fears is to power through them. Maybe Enslin’s horrifying experiences in 1408 were the best things to possibly have happened to him.
So, even though it’s a small blip on the map of heralded King adaptations, 1408 is a much better movie than most people probably remember. The film uses basic human fears and emotional insecurities to penetrate its audience and make a lasting impression. Performances are great: Jackson is skillful as the unbudging Mr. Olin, managing to squeeze sincerity into the otherwise stoic role. And Cusack’s portrayal of Mike Enslin captures the character’s hopeless and cynical nature perfectly. Even though the film was released ten years ago, 1408 doesn’t seem at all dated, not even in the special effects used. So, don’t be afraid to revisit this film, because you likely won’t be sorry you did.