The Room and the Horrors of Confinement, Home Ownership, and Child-rearing
As the Coronavirus leads to increased shut-downs, now is the perfect time to stream movies. If you have Shudder, I recommend checking out The Room (no, not the 2003 Tommy Wiseau flick). The 2019 film follows a couple who moves into a house and finds a mysterious room that grants them anything they wish. The catch is that once they leave the house, anything they wished for disintegrates. The film taps into several relevant anxieties, including confinement, male control over the reproductive process, homeownership, and the challenges of child-rearing. These same anxieties exist in countless other horror films, perhaps most notably The Amityville Horror, but The Room’s basic premise offers a unique twist on some well-trodden ground.
Directed by Christian Volckman, the film begins when a young couple, Kate (Olga Kurylenko) and Matt (Kevin Janssens), purchase a fixer-upper. The inside of the house is barren, with paint-flaked walls and rooms that feel drafty just by looking at them. You get a sense that the couple doesn’t have much money, and the house’s need for TLC and the all-consuming role it eventually plays is reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, namely the financial burdens that husband and wife George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) face. George, at one point, complains about the house “nickle and diming” him. Meanwhile, he has to deal with toilets that spew black goo, a faulty heating system, and windows that slam shut.
At least temporarily, Matt and Kate’s problems are solved when they discover a secret room in the back of the house accessed solely with a special key. They wish for fancy food, piles of cash, and whatever else their hearts desire. Temporarily, the room is a balm for their financial and relationship woes.
Yet, as the narrative unfolds, primarily within the home’s walls, you learn that the couple had two failed pregnancies and Matt wants to try again, to the point that he creates a nursery, complete with a crib and freshly painted blue walls. This infuriates Kate, who doesn’t want to go through the turmoil of trying to have another child. The power dynamic in this scene starts to shift.
Initially, the couple wishes for everything together, and for a brief time, they’re happy with material goods. Yet, once Matt insists that they have another child, that’s when the relationship problems worsen. He uses the room for his own desires, without consulting his partner, and by doing so, he forces Kate to reconcile with a past she wanted to forget. In fact, the home, via the room, forces her to confront her past trauma.
Male Ownership of Female Reproduction
Eventually, Kate wishes for a child, and lo and behold, the room gives her one without the pain of pregnancy and the fear she’ll lose another baby. The room essentially removed the man from the process. As soon as Matt sees the child, Shane, he demands that Kate get rid of the baby because they didn’t have the boy in a natural way. He wants to control the reproductive process.
One scene in particular, when Matt stands over the bed, pointing and leering at the baby, is quite powerful and poignant. Matt wants to dictate the choices that Kate makes, including the decision to essentially abort a child they didn’t have together. Matt never sees the child as his own, while Kate increasingly becomes like a natural mother to him, even breastfeeding him. It should be noted, however, that the baby initially cries all day and all night, causing the couple to bark at each other in the middle of the night about who will take care of him during the late, late hours.
Like anything else, the room creates, however, Shane can’t go outside. If he does, he ages quickly, so the film features Shane as a child (Joshua Wilson) and Shane as a teenager (Francis Chapman). Raising a child only further strains Matt and Kate’s relationship, and again, there are echoes of The Amityville Horror. As George Lutz’s financial woes increase, he takes it out on the kids, especially the kids that were Kathy’s prior to their marriage. He frequently snaps at them. The house forces them to confront their past, including Kathy’s previous relationship and the children that aren’t George’s.
Matt has a similar reaction the longer he’s trapped by the house. He even refers to Shane as a figment, totally disowning him. At one point, Matt questions what he and Kate are going to do since they don’t have jobs and can’t escape the house. Like the Lutz family, Matt and Kate are trapped by homeownership, financial needs, and child-rearing responsibilities.
Homeownership is Murder
The film also features a subplot about a killer named John Doe (John Flanders), driven mad by the room and the material goods it fed him that were intangible once he walked through the front door. Matt is increasingly faced with the potential that he or Kate will end up like John Doe, driven mad by confinement and the stress of material goods that can never really materialize once they step outside. What good is a pile of cash if you can’t actually spend it on anything because it will turn to dust in your hands?
This subplot draws another comparison to The Amityville Horror. George increasingly becomes more like Ronald DeFeo, Jr., who murdered inside the home. Matt, meanwhile, frets that increased confinement will turn him into John Doe, and as the movie progresses, he becomes more and more unwound.
The Fear of Confinement
The sense of confinement increases in the film’s wild final act. Ultimately, the challenges of raising a kid who can’t go outside exacerbate the relationship problems already at stake, and the end scenes grow more surreal as Shane harnesses the room’s power to create maze-like corridors and staircases to trap Matt and Kate in the home. He especially doesn’t want Kate to leave. Even as a teenager, he frequently refers to her as Mommy. He’ a child trapped in an older body.
The Room treads some familiar grounds within the genre, including both the horrors of raising a child and the pains of homeownership, while also exploring the effects of a man trying to control a woman’s reproductive process. None of these themes are new, but the film explores them in a creative and interesting way via the concept of a room having the power to grant wishes that evaporate once outside. It’s also a clever take on the child as a monster trope, but Shane evokes some sympathy because Matt never wanted him, since he had no say in the process. He views Shane as a monster destroying his relationship with Kate. In the time of mass quarantines and confinement, The Room feels relevant. Give it a stream.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his fiancé, or curling up on the couch and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.