Feature

Shudder Secrets: The Strings Explained: Writer’s Block, Ghosts, and Parallel Dimensions

As days get shorter and we slip into the coldest months of the year, it’s time to turn to winter horror movies. The Strings is a good candidate. Set in snow-covered Prince Edward Island, the film chills. It’s the perfect movie to watch in January or February, post-holidays, as we await the thaw.

The Strings is the type of film where you can feel its atmosphere. So many shots feature icy blue tones that mirror the protagonist’s isolation and mental health struggles. Director Ryan Glover co-wrote the film with Krista Dzialosynski, and it’s a minimal feature. Canadian musician Teagan Johnston plays Catherine, a songwriter struggling to summon the muse. She seeks refuge in her aunt’s isolated cabin, where something may or may not go bump in the night, after her friend and photographer, Grace (Jenna Schaefer), tells her eerie ghost stories about a nearby farmhouse.

The film is incredibly slow getting to its second half, where the ghost story really ramps up. Meanwhile, the plot eventually delves into physics and string theory and leaves the viewer guessing whether what Catherine sees and hears is real or not. There’s plenty of ambiguity and much to unpack. For creatives, the struggle of writer’s block will feel all too real, while the concept of parallel universes and ghosts is clever.

Spoilers below.

Courtesy of Shudder

Catherine’s Artistic Struggles

Reeling from a bad breakup and band hiatus, Catherine drives to the cabin to get away from everything. She hopes that solitude will serve as a reset, a chance to record music that matters to her. She desperately needs a break from the past, so she sets up a makeshift recording studio on the living room floor. The first 30 minutes or so feature long interludes of Catherine tinkering on the electronic keyboards, struggling to come up with words, let alone a song she’s proud of. These tortured artist scenes may be tedious for the average viewer, but to anyone who’s tried to create anything, they’re highly relatable. The constant stop and start is all part of the process.

Catherine, however, has deeper problems. In one of the early shots, driftwood floats on the icy ocean. Talk about a metaphor for Catherine’s life. She’s unsure of her direction, especially artistically. Venturing out as a solo artist can be terrifying, and at times, it proves paralyzing to the protagonist. Early on, when she’s not hitting a few keys or scribbling in a notebook, she lays on the couch or downs drink after drink. She self-medicates to cope with the bad parts of her past, and if I have one major complaint with this film, it’s that her past is left too shadowed. We don’t have enough narrative detail to understand the real source of her struggles, other than the breakups.

Yet, even in isolation, she has other distractions, like interviews, checking emails, and scrolling through her phone instead of making new music. This, too, is relatable. I can’t even count the number of times I sat down to write but wandered to my inbox or fell down the YouTube hole.

Haunted History

Grace is the only real human connection Catherine has for most of the film. Besides her role as a romantic interest, Grace shares some haunted history and triggers the rest of the narrative. She explains to Catherine that at a nearby farmhouse, in the 19th Century, a husband drowned in the bathtub. Police arrested his wife for homicide, and she claimed that she heard voices. She asked for the death penalty. When she didn’t get it, she slit her wrists in jail. Years later, another family moved into the house. While working on the roof, the husband threw his toolbox down, hit his wife in the head, and killed her. So much of this film relies on more is less, and Grace’s narrative is effectively hair-raising, leaving the viewer to imagine the gory details.

This explains the tense opening shot of someone holding a bloody toolbox. In the next scene, a man raises his arms towards the gloomy sky, while standing before the ocean, perhaps to kill himself. This may or may not be the husband, totally guilt-ridden after he killed his wife with the toolbox. He apparently disappeared, according to Grace.

After Catherine partakes in a photoshoot at the farmhouse, the creepy stuff starts. She sees a shadowy figure in the photos and in the house. Something wakes her in the middle of the night, as objects seemingly move on their own and she hears strange noises. The figure torments her.

Courtesy of Shudder

String Theory and the Idea of Multiple Universes

When Catherine isn’t self-medicating or writing music, she watches videos on physics, specifically string theory. She even tells one of her PR reps that she’s done writing songs about love, and instead wants to focus on greater questions about the universe. The string theory sets up the rest of the film, specifically the hauntings. To paraphrase an article from New Scientist, in short, string theory reimagines what reality is made of. Instead of treating subatomic particles as the building blocks of matter, the theory proposes that everything is made of tiny strings, whose vibrations produce effects that we interpret as atoms, electrons, and quarks.

For this to make sense, the theory makes another radical assumption, that instead of living in a universe with three dimensions of space and time, we instead live in one with multiple dimensions of space. Because the extra dimensions are curled up so tightly, we don’t notice them. For the sake of the movie, if you keep the idea of multiple dimensions in mind, then maybe multiple versions of ourselves exist. Maybe Catherine catches glimpses of what the rest of us can’t see. This includes figures, ghosts if you want to call them that, that move through time and haunt her present. She even sees Grace in photos, but can’t remember her being present when the photos were taken. Maybe there’s another version of Grace running around.

Perhaps the ghosts Catherine sees are part of another universe. She tapped into them because she got close enough to see the strings, thanks to Grace’s storytelling. At one point, when Grace stays over, the women have a conversation about string theory. Catherine says that waking up in the middle of the night is like being in a universe with no context. Perhaps she somehow stepped into another dimension. Grace theorizes that it’s like seeing the one pulling the strings. Perhaps the ghost Catherine always sees is the one pulling the strings.

This theory becomes more possible in the closing minutes. MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. When Grace stays over, Catherine sees her talking to someone in the middle of the night, most likely the ghost who may or may not be the man shown at the beginning of the film, ready to toss himself into a watery and frigid tomb. Eventually, Catherine finds Grace in the basement, about to hang herself. She tries to save her, but when she lowers her, Grace bumps her head and dies. The ghostly, figure, meanwhile, watches nearby, as if orchestrating the entire thing. No matter what, Catherine couldn’t stop what the string master intended. Grace was going to die in that dimension either way.

A Song Complete

One highlight of The Strings is that we finally see Catherine’s artistic struggles come to fruition. During the credits, she performs the song that she toyed with for the entirety of the film, and its lyrics lean into string theory and acknowledge Grace’s death. Near the end of the track, Catherine repeats, “I saw the end. I saw the strings. They took my friends.” Cloaked in shadow, the keyboardist may or may not be one of the ghosts.

If you consider string theory, then the film’s non-narrative features, especially the opening shots, make a lot of sense. The dimensions blur together, including different figures from different time periods and dimensions. Maybe that explains the ghosts that torment Catherine in the middle of the night, during the dead of winter.

The Strings isn’t for everyone. It’s incredibly slow for the first half and extremely minimal. Yet, it has an interesting theory at its core and a bone-chilling atmosphere. If you’re patient and want something to stream during the middle of winter, then pull this up and turn off the lights. Be careful about figures hiding out in corners. They may or may not be from another universe.

The film comes to Shudder on November 23. For more on the streaming service’s latest and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.