A Space of Death and Madness
Dario Argento’s best-known film, Suspiria, centers itself around a building: the Black Forest Dance Academy in Freiburg. The first film of the Three Mothers trilogy, it sets the formula: three witch-matriarchs, each tied to a magically-powerful building, and each with a coven of thralls around her. These buildings are designed by a man named Varelli, and it is Varelli’s confessions, in the form of a rare book called The Three Mothers, that constitute the primary defense against each witch. Despite this, in Inferno, the second film of the trilogy, we see Varelli — his life unnaturally extended — is now in thrall to his own creation, mute, senile, and unable to resist the will of The Mother of Darkness. Varelli is architect as Faust-figure: contracted by demonic forces to create closed worlds of death and madness, he acts as an unwilling bridge between their mythic realm and the solid world of granite and stained glass, and he is necessarily canny to their nature and plans.
This same theme is present in two other, otherwise very different films: High Rise (2016) and Ghostbusters (1984). In each case, a brilliant architect creates a space of death and madness that perversely bridges previously-separate worlds, which bewitches its inhabitants and corrupts the architect himself. In High Rise, the only uncorrupted person is the psychiatrist Laing — presumably named for R. D. Laing — who takes limited, active, intuitive control of his environment by painting his apartment a dull grey color and regains his sanity from it. He is notable, however, for his emotional disconnection from the environment. In Ghostbusters, similarly, the uncorrupted figures are emotionally distant and have an engineering-focused approach to the world.
The idea that architecture can have an essentially magical effect on the world is, therefore, quite mainstream — any idea that appears in popular films across genres must be considered mainstream. The idea of architect as magician is not unknown to occultists (and has proximity to the idea of the genius loci), and we can also draw connections to psychogeography and the semi-mystical ideas about the power of architecture held by figures like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, but its presence in these stories holds special dimensions and attributes.
The idea of a perverse house, haunted by its own design or history, is essentially a gothic one. But such a building is created by tragedy (Overlook Hotel, Hill House), madness (Chapelwaite, the Winchester Mystery House), or incompetence (anything on McMansion Hell). Even psychogeography suggests that the influences upon the character of a city are typically unconscious and emergent. What we see in these examples instead is a space engineered to be perverse — something that the Situationists, even with their gnostic tendencies, didn’t predict.
Did they need to predict it, though? The imposing totalitarian architecture of Albert Speer certainly represents a precedent for the considered and documented engineering of psychological responses via spaces, although this is still closer to Le Corbusier than to Ivo Shandor.
Instead of trying to compare the Situationists’ unitary urbanism of a nootropic Disneyland to Ruinenwerttheorie, perhaps it’s better to come in from the direction of the occult.
The idea of a genius loci tied to a figure or line is hardly outside the mainstream; it’s common enough in folklore that it was a staple of early Disney films. A corrupted landscape is associated with the rule of a corrupt figure, as in Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King, & Lord of the Rings. The emergence of a divinely-approved ruler reshapes the landscape favorably & his death darkens it, while conflicts related to that ruler create surreal pocket-worlds full of madness & numinous religious imagery (as in Excalibur & Le Mort D’Artur). But the power of an architect is not like the power of a king. The corruption of a land by its king is tied deeply to divine blessing: a righteous king makes decisions in line with the will of god, and so the king acts as a repeater and amplifier for god’s will. On the other hand, an architect, like a corrupt king in this system, is always actively creating changes to the world out of line with nature, whether or not it is in line with a correct idea of a better future world.
It may also be useful to look at alchemy and freemasonry, here. The architect creates a space in the image of his mind and then creates a mind in the image of his space (“we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”), presumably refining the design — smoothing each ashlar, diluting and coagulating. Without invoking the mandate of heaven or some circular justification for calling everything natural, we can hardly say that this careful and mindful practice of self-modification is in line with the mindless and mechanical ‘natural’ flow — it’s a magical act on the spectrum closer to writing a novel than to mowing the lawn, in terms of imposition of will upon the world.
We can see within the perverse spaces of architect-wizards a shallow anti-masonry, and a distrust of magic in general — perhaps this is true of Argento, who claimed he was inspired to write Suspiria by discovering a Steiner school nearby. But we can also see it as a warning about ungrounded introspection: madness can come from looking too closely at the strange loop in our mind and letting the feedback amplify tiny momentary glitches in our thinking into huge permanent distortions. We can build monuments in stone out of the knots in our heads, if we aren’t careful.
Once again, High Rise is the odd duck here. Our architect is not really a pawn or an antagonist. He creates a mad space out of a desire to create any kind of new social relation (most of which will necessarily seem mad). Our protagonist is not working against the madness of the space, but instead is merely immune to it. And, finally, the gateway he created did not connect the mundane with the supernatural but instead connected the upper and lower classes in a pathological way — close enough to eat each other but far enough to breed distrust.
It’s easy to read High Rise as anti-Marxist, anti-utopian, anti-anti-psychiatry, or anti-Spectacle. But in this context, I read it as having two messages, one rare and the other common: social relations, like those created by engineered spaces, are extremely powerful and hard to predict and don’t call up what you can’t put down.