athieu Kassovitz’s 2003 film Gothika is a powerful illustration of how science, and in particular, psychiatry, has become the new religion. It is also a warning of how science is subject to the same problems and excesses that religion faced earlier.
Organized religion has arguably always been an easy way for ordinary people to explain the world, or rather, have the world explained for them. But for most in the West, science now plays this role. It explains the world and allows us to rest in the assurance that it all makes sense. It provides the same kind of cognitive prism that religion once did. Science is the answer to modern-day questions. Everything is complicated, but the experts—once priests, now scientists—have the answers. You don’t need to understand it yourself. So don’t worry.
Most observers would agree that religion historically has caused its fair share of problems for humanity. Some argue that it has brought more problems than benefits. Will science be similarly accused as its domination continues? It’s not out of the question, for as Gothika suggests, it is well within the potential of science to follow in lockstep in the steps of its religious predecessor.
Abuses of a worldview, of course, are independent of its claims to truth. The ideas at the core of Christianity are not rendered false because its practitioners (as well documented) have so often been unaware of their limitations. Similarly, the reprehensible potential to clone human beings for organ harvesting does not affect the truth of aeronautical calculations that keep planes and spacecraft (more often than not) airborne. But Gothika does not make this distinction, with good reason. While we should not give science in its entirety a pass just yet, Gothika focuses more on its nasty side-effects than the heart of its worldview.
Humanity has always had a tendency to see more clearly in hindsight, usually long after the fact. Apart from a few prophets (and victims), we practitioners and subjects of science cannot yet see the problems caused by its cult. Gothika, in its attempt to warn us, takes on the narrative form of historical precedent to show us what can go wrong with science—particularly its distinctive denomination of psychiatry. In showing us what went wrong with religion and grafting science onto that framework, it becomes a modern-day illustration of the insight of social theorist Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky that “each generation comes back to the same problems as the former, but at a deeper level.”
In this reading, Gothika shows a modern variant of the Burning Times, the witch craze of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was the era of trials at the hands of the Inquisition for those accused of maleficium (witchcraft) and being in league with the devil. If we examine Gothika using this conceptual framework, its messages become clear.
When the film begins, heroine Miranda Grey (played by Halle Berry) is an Inquisitor, a brilliant and renowned psychiatrist. She is interrogating Chloe (Penelope Cruz), a young woman accused of witchcraft. For murdering her rapist stepfather, Chloe is incarcerated in what is not quite a mental institution and not quite a prison, but what seems to be a combination of the two. Her real reason for being there, and the film’s fixation, is her apparent insanity. She is kept locked up tight for perceiving reality in a way that runs counter to standard scientific explanation—a true heresy.
Her sessions with Miranda do not seem to be helping to cure Chloe of her insanity. Chloe continues to claim to be raped nightly by none other than the Devil himself— an idea that the psychiatrist Miranda, naturally, cannot accept. In the beginning, in fact, Miranda is comfortably ignorant of any non-scientific explanations of the world.
Miranda is married to an even more renowned psychiatrist, Douglas Grey (played by Charles Dutton), “the Boss”—who is representative of the higher-ranking clergy. When Chloe’s heretical understanding of the world disturbs Miranda, her bishop-husband reassures her that she is doing God’s work. Miranda is portrayed having a stable, comfortable life as part of the forces of good, light, and reason.
All this changes with her car accident on the way home. Here Miranda and the audience first encounter a mysterious blonde woman (Kathleen Mackey). Miranda, sensing the woman is in trouble, reassures her that she is a “doctor,” on which the woman bursts into flames and touches Miranda. Cut to black. This is Miranda’s life-changing experience, her first encounter with the non-scientific divine.
When next we join our zealous young Inquisitor, she is awake in a cell of her own. Confused and disoriented, Miranda is confronted by a fellow cleric, psychiatrist Pete Graham (played by Robert Downey, Jr.). Their relationship is complex, with sexual tension evoking that of the young inquisitor and the witch he falls in love with from Jeanne Kalogridis’s novel The Burning Times.
In an ironic twist worthy of the book of Job, the tables are now turned entirely on Miranda. She has lost everything in her former life and sits accused of insanity and murdering her husband, a crime she does not remember committing. No one will listen to her testimony. For the first time, Miranda begins to understand the witch’s lot, to feel the pain of those considered crazy. And then things begin to get strange.
Still convinced that she has not taken leave of her senses, Miranda begins to see visions and hear odd sounds in her cell. The blonde girl returns and appears to be telling Miranda something. The film’s tagline, “Not Alone,” appears in the glass of her cell. But Miranda is unwilling to accept what she sees. “I’m a rational person,” she says out loud to no one in particular, “I believe in science. I don’t believe in the paranormal, and I don’t believe in ghosts.”
And yet, as a psychiatrist, Miranda’s denomination crosses into the realm of the social sciences. Has psychiatry ever come up with a theory as defensible as, say, some of the laws of thermodynamics? Consider how resistant the human mind (that most inconvenient of variables) is to the application of the scientific method. Despite the mixed success of her discipline, Miranda’s intellectual personality is committed to the ideology of “rationality” and “science.” By following the scientific method at the expense of the human variable, practitioners of this worldview become unaware of its limitations and—just like their less secular predecessors—they can and do run amok.
We’ve seen similar warnings, of course, in dozens of earlier films. Consider all those science fiction films in which the villain is an evil (or “mad”) scientist. The common theme is that all of these deranged characters want to follow their own schemes in spite of any inconvenient humans who get in the way.
It is this same dogmatic attachment to theory that put so many of Miranda’s former charges—who, we learn, are more sane than previously thought—behind bars. Now it is Miranda herself. Only now, finally forced to confront the limitations of her worldview, does Miranda begin to question her understanding of orthodoxy. In what may be considered Miranda’s first conscious use of maleficium, she tricks the blonde ghost into opening her cell and letting her out.
Now follows Miranda’s first open-minded search for the truth. In her old life a true believer, a member of the clerical caste, Miranda must discover why she has been denounced as a witch and what it is her seemingly devilish visions are trying to tell her. At this point she is unaware of the links between her own fate and that of this blonde ghost.
In a sequence of cat-and-mouse scenes, Miranda escapes, is caught, and escapes again, finally making it out of the prison via a sympathetic security guard. In one striking scene, Miranda hides from pursuing security guards in the building’s pool. She manages to hold her breath for an unrealistic amount of time while the men prowl the outside of the pool looking for her. The symbolism here is obvious. If the witch surfaces, she will be condemned. If she stays under, she will find salvation.
Miranda eventually learns the identity of the blonde ghost. Her name is Rachel Parsons and she was the daughter of Phil Parsons (Bernard Hill), a former and more senior colleague of Miranda’s, and thus another high priest at the institute. Rachel died years before she confronts Miranda with the fiery vision on the bridge.
Eventually the visions of Rachel lead Miranda back to her own home, where she suffers the most powerful vision of all—she sees herself take an ordinary peasant’s woodcutting axe to her husband’s pleading face, the act for which she was institutionalized. We see again the words “Not Alone” splashed in blood against a wall. In despair, Miranda can only cry over the loss of her husband, “The Boss.”
While crying over one photo in particular, Miranda is struck with divine inspiration and realizes that the last place her bishop-husband was before his death was a town named Willow Creek where the couple have a country house. Miranda sets off for it. There, in an underground cellar/dungeon, Miranda discovers the shocking truth. Her husband was not a God-fearing man of the cloth (er, rational and benevolent psychiatrist) but a sadist who abused his position of trust to perform acts of unspeakable depravity: kidnapping, raping, torturing, and ultimately killing a series of young women. Like so many Inquisitorial interrogation records, the Boss has left the videotaped documentary evidence for the future historian to uncover. Miranda saves the life of another young victim of abused religious authority.
On returning to Inquisition Central she is confronted by high priest Phil Parsons in another interrogation room. In despair, Miranda tries to comprehend how a system she so fervently believed in could be so susceptible to abuse, to discover exactly what these ghosts of the past are still trying to tell her. Parsons answers her questions according to psychiatric dogma: “I wouldn’t look for a real world explanation. It’s a dream, a delusion.” Science cannot explain it, he suggests, so it deserves no further consideration.
But new heretic Miranda responds, “A delusion that we both share?” Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (the “how-to” textbook for Inquisitors everywhere, first published in the late fifteenth century, still in print now as an historical curiosity) contains references on how a potential witch should be tried: “she is to be presented to her judge with her back turned,” to prevent any attempt to bewitch him with her gaze. The audience can see that Miranda’s bewitching logic obviously resonates with Parsons—he actually confesses to the witch Miranda that he too has seen visions, that he has been softening and succumbing to the dark side.
Nevertheless, Miranda is taken back to her cell for more contemplation time. In a final moment of divine inspiration, she asks to see the policeman who found her villainous husband’s dismembered corpse. This is Sheriff Ryan (John Carrol Lynch), who was also—interestingly—the psychiatrist-bishop’s best friend. They are hunting buddies from way back.
Ryan probes Miranda, trying to see if she knows who Doug’s partner in crime was and how to get the potential criminal to admit they did it. “You’re a psychiatrist. There’s a lot of ways to confess,” he reminds her. But the inspiration that has visited Miranda is the true meaning of the phrase “Not Alone.” She comes to recognize that her husband was not alone when he committed these acts, that indeed he had to work with another to get away with it, to cover each other’s tracks. As she and the audience soon realize, the other culprit is Sheriff Ryan himself, Doug’s old friend and hunting partner. Bishop and lawman. Church and state.
It is here that the film’s deepest moral imperative emerges, in its exposure of the corruption inherent when church and state work together. Science and psychiatry are our new religion. Bishop Doug Grey caused horrific abuse, but to do so he enlisted an “apprentice” (Miranda’s own term), the seemingly legitimate Sheriff Ryan. Indeed, it was perhaps this union that caused the explanatory scheme to deviate so terribly from its goals, just as many claim Christianity did when it became the state religion of Rome. When this is revealed, Miranda is horrified that her belief system, working in which she undoubtedly had noble intentions, has been twisted so horribly against her.
Of course, science need not combine with the state to be susceptible to such abuse—consider any form of thought control: state-sponsored, “independent” media, corporate, even political correctness. But the state is perhaps the most dangerous, and the message of Gothika is a fresh warning based on previous human experience of the state as cohort in such terror.
A brief struggle ensues. During this, the audience is given a clear shot of Ryan’s tattoo—the word “salvation” adorning his back. We hear how much Ryan enjoyed working with the good doctor Grey, dispensing their own form of inquisitorial justice: “we were their God.” The blonde makes a final appearance, and this time Ryan sees her too. He is horrified as he is forced to confront his past and is distracted long enough for Miranda to ignite the gas filling the room. Ryan is immolated in a fiery death that mirrors the blonde’s own demise.
It is here that we recognize the blonde’s real identity. The Burning Times took place circa the sixteenth century at the hands of the Inquisition. But the Inquisition was borne of another equally distressing event: the Albigensian Crusade of the twelfth century. The blonde ghost, representing previous victims of the horror unleashed when church and state combine, is a Cathar.
So, arguably, is Chloe—perhaps one of the heretics who lingered on in mountain villages like Montaillou. She is raped by Ryan and calls him the Devil. The Cathari, like most Gnostics, believed that the world was divided into the spiritual and the material, good and evil. God’s was the spiritual realm; the devil (who they called “Rex Mundi,” Latin for “King of the World”) controlled the earthly, carnal realm. Thus Chloe’s devil. When Miranda confesses she now believes Chloe, the latter says, “I’ll tell you this: he can have my body, but he’ll never have my soul.”
In a scene that never actually played out historically, the blonde, a Cathar Perfecti, a representative of the earlier victims of church and state, now helps Miranda the witch, their newest victim, to destroy Ryan, representative of the corrupt state. This scene plays in an “if only” mode, for church and state, of course, exterminated the Cathari and effectively repressed “witchcraft.” It is a type of catharsis for the losers.
It’s a happy ending for our heroine as Miranda and Chloe survive, are released, and regain their reputations as sane, healthy, normal, God-fearing folk—their excommunications overturned on appeal. The film’s closing shot is a final ghost, a young boy who could easily be a victim of the Albigensian atrocities (from the village of Béziers to the siege of Monteségur) indicating gratitude to Miranda for what she has done. It is a gratitude mixed with sadness, as it is really centuries too late for him.
So ends a modern retelling of the consequences of an elitist and overreaching explanatory schema working with the state to achieve thought control, discarding any superficial checks and balances by the wayside. We are reminded again how all such schemas—schemes—are ultimately naïve in expecting that such unconstrained power would not corrupt its wielders. But of course, it always does. Hobbes knew it. Dostoyevsky knew it. Orwell knew it. Tolkien knew it. Solzhenitsyn knows it. We’ve just been through an century of totalitarian examples. By now, we should definitely know it.
One question is, how will we look back on our current stage of human history? Will our faith in modern science seem as ridiculous and incomprehensibly simple-minded as we consider earlier people’s unwavering faith in religion? Will some other cognitive system replace faith in science as science “replaced” religion? (It’s worth considering in this context the final of Gothika’s three taglines: “Because Someone Is Dead Doesn’t Mean They’re Gone.”)
This is, again, not to say that the nasty byproducts of an explanatory system necessarily invalidate the ideas at its core. Whether and to what extent atrocities taint the worldviews that produce them is a different debate altogether. Gothika’s main reminder—despite the implicit questions raised about the scientific worldview’s ability to account for all the evidence (the revenge of the ghosts)—is of the potential for such abuse in any system that tries to explain life, the universe, and everything. Particularly when it gets conflated too closely with the political power structures. Particularly when it overreaches its own boundaries.
Despite our self-satisfaction in having evolved past an Inquisitorial religion to a seemingly more rational faith in science, nothing today actually prevents two determined individuals in similar positions as Sheriff Ryan and Douglas Grey from emulating their depravity. That faith in science even allows for this type of corruption suggests that science, our default worldview, is ripe for its own humbling reformation.
Ultimately, the lesson of Gothika is that for all our progress, our modernization, our evolution, we are still, still not nearly as smart as we think we are. And we never have been. Only now are we slowly learning this fact.