As Above, So Below (2013) - Does The Ghost Haunt The House Or Does The House Haunt The Ghost?

As Above, So Below is a post-modernist romp par excellence. The film uses the loose relationship between the signifier and the signified in order to create scenes where physics and reality based mechanics are left in shreds. This engagement with the past by dissociating the past from the past creates a parallel to the experience of trauma, specifically the experience of re-traumatization. Re-traumatization is the moment in therapy where the experience of telling his/her story compels the client to not only relive the narrative but the emotional experience of a horror. Re-traumatization like the post-modern shift works on a displacement of the past by the past. A painful memory recalled and relieved as if it was happening contemporaneously with the originating pain is a psychological mystification where our biology is firing off fight/flight/freeze responses in order to protect us from pain by relocating the divide between the past and the present.

As Above is about an obsessive modern day Lora Croft with comparable daddy issues. Following her suicidal father's quest to locate the mysterious Philosophers Stone, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) enlists, long lost boyfriend (Ben Feldman) and a team of ragamuffin urban explores to descend into the Paris underground. As always happens shit hits the fan and the explorers become trapped, forced to confront their own desire. Immediately, the film establishes it’s primarily rule that breaking the rules is the rule. Upon exiting their first tunnel, which collapses (expectedly) the explorers find that the explorers have exited the tunnel into the room in which they entered the tunnel from. Trapped, they are forced to descend/ascend into the underground structure to find an exit. Along the way they find clues to where the ultimately find the treasure they were seeking. Ahhh, but there is a twist. After retrieving the Philosopher’s Stone and using its healing properties to evaporate the wounds of one of the explorers, when used a third time to heal the boyfriend the stone fails. Scarlett, has an epiphany, realizing the replacing the stone in its slot will reveal the real philosopher’s stone. Reflecting on the hieroglyphics she rubs a metal plate to reveal her reflection. This, of course, reveals that the philosopher’s stone wasn’t a stone, but a fictitious object that has been subjectively materialized. This is the key to the film.

As the explorers descend into the Paris under belly they come to be haunted by ghosts from their pasts. The boyfriend’s brother who had drown in a cave appears, transforming solid ground into water and shifting the acoustical properties of the cave to simulate muffled underwaterness. Rather than some mean spirited ghost using the protagonist’s memories to manipulate fright, the film promotes the concept that mirages and the psychical morphing of the cave is a kind of materialized projection. Rotting with guilt over his brother’s death the memories, thoughts and narcissistic obsession over the trauma have slipped loose from subjectivity and infected reality.

Let us recall the traditional ghost narrative. A frustrated ghost’s gains power by percolating in trauma and causing stress to those in a living reality. The protagonists respond re-actively and start by exploring the nature of the disturbance. A father checks the closet or attic. The ghost hides. Progressively the unexplainable torments reality in direct proportion to the response it receives from the haunted. Escalating to unmanageable proportions the family rolls out, goes to the library, or calls a priest. In this stage the goal is removal and/or understanding. What is revealed is that the ghostie has an unresolved grievance. The ghostie is the trace element of those wrongfully killed, raped, or otherwise disgraced, and like a proper bureaucrat the ghostie seeking to balance out the metaphysical scales of justice. Justice takes the form of outing or killing the wrong doer or seeking basic collective recognition. The ghostie is essentially seeking to escape the subconscious and find a proper place in the collective consciousness.

The materializations in As Above are not ghosties in the traditional sense. On the one hand, the materializations are indistinguishable from visions of psychosis. On the other hand, they reverse the dialectic of a ghostie. Once a physical object, a ghostie has transubstantialized into the un-representable. Evading mirrors and cameras a ghostie is known by its trace elements. The chair moved or vase pushed off a table. The As Above materializations originate in the repressed guilt of a trauma (un-representable) and become material. At the beginning of the journey the materializations take the form of partial objects. Like the underwater sounds I spoke about above, these fragments are functionally the loose edge of a fuller memory. Water sounds are a partial memory which functions to dislocate the trauma from its hidden vault into full consciousness. Like the tip of an iceberg simultaneously making us aware of its base and obfuscating the proportionally between the peak and base.

Unlike the traditional ghostie narrative where the haunted have an opportunity to research the mystery of their uncanny experience, the explores are confronted with their partial trauma and later the full effect of its reality, without doing the analytic work to safely integrate the trauma into a person lived reality. In this sense, the haunting take on the effect of a re-traumatizing. This overlapping of traumas recalls the fight/flight/freeze responses that have been chemically coded into the memories associated with the originating trauma while also overlapping a contemporaneous new trauma caused by re-exposure.

The dialectic that demonstrates post-modern slippage of meaning is the parallel between the firm concreteness of the cave itself and its ability to contradict its own primary qualities. This overlap of the solid and the morph-able is like the Cartesian mind body split. In our heads is this thinking space which produces thoughts. These thoughts are used to understand and identify information gathered by the senses. The senses receive information from a concrete reality. Solid services. Smells. A candle on a desk. In turn, our body and brain qua materiality are objects that exist in a sense outside and inside of its own thought. Descartes, unlike post-modern theorists argued there was a strict wall separating thought from matter. The thought of a table and the table itself were two different things, but were clearly and firmly linked the thought naming of the object as a table. The post-modernist on the other hand, notes the arbitrary relationship between the table (signified) and the word table (signifier) and with nihilistic glee swim’s in their own meaningless.

What is interesting about As Above, So below is its capacity to fragment and associate contradicting elements to create a re-coding of the familiar. The film follows the structure of a Vincent Price ghostie movie where a group wanders thought a haunted house and are surprised by skeletons and other creepers and eventually escape or die. The journey through the haunted house is a montage of iconic simulacra; ghosties, werewolves, Jasons, Freddys and so on, all congeal in one experience without showing their contradictions and overlapping each other’s narrative. Each simulacra isolated to their proper place in the congealment. Freddy is over there with his claws doing his thing, and Jason is in another corner. In a sense the traditional haunted house is a like a cross-less cross over where each icon is brought into the same comic book but we never see two icons sharing the same screen. As Above, So Below on the other hand melting pots the hegemonized themes like a box of action figures on a stove. Melting the ghostie and haunted house in such a way where we cannot tell if the ghostie is a product of the haunted house or vice versa.


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