This post contains mild spoilers for The Invisible Man.
The guy in the row behind me was talking. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was loud enough to distract me from the film. This was a screening for both press and the public, which meant that he likely didn’t know I was there working. Not that it would have made a difference.
After a moment, I turned around and said quietly, “I can hear you, you know.”
“I’m talking to my girlfriend,” he replied, locking eyes on me.
“Could you whisper, please?” I asked.
He leaned in closer. “Shut the fuck up and turn around, or I’ll beat your ass.”
I did what he said. It might have been cowardice. Or maybe it was the professional duties, as I couldn’t very well review the movie if I was busy getting my ass kicked. I also sensed I had already accomplished what I set out to, and I was proved right: He stopped talking immediately and didn’t utter more than a word or two for the rest of the movie. But my body didn’t care for reasons. I spent the next few minutes trying to lower my heart rate and remind myself that the guy behind me was not my father.
That’s how I feel every time I have a confrontation with another man. Like my father is berating me again. I endured years of it as a child: verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse. My parents were divorced, and my father didn’t like that. He stalked us across the country for the first few weeks, as my mother went from motel to motel, with me and my sister in tow. Most of those nights, I slept in a dresser. As his behavior deteriorated, his visitation rights became more and more restricted, and he really didn’t like that. He terrorized our family, showing up unannounced at our house and threatening to kidnap me and my sister. He followed us to public events and initiated screaming matches with my mother, threatening to kill her. I grew up in a constant state of fear, afraid of a real-life boogeyman who could actually be waiting behind every corner. It has taken me a long time to recover from these traumas, and I’m still not there. Sometimes I think I’m past it, and then he shows up behind me in a movie theater. I can’t escape him, even though he’s dead.
The film I saw that night was The Invisible Man, which, quite conveniently, is about this very topic. Officially, it’s based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, but writer and director Leigh Whannell spins the story into an allegory of domestic abuse. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is a battered wife who narrowly escapes from her husband Adrian in the opening scenes. She is in process of recovering from her trauma at a safe house when she receives surprising news: Adrian is dead, and he has left her millions in his will. She’s free, everyone tells her. She doesn’t think so.
Then weird stuff starts happening. She wakes up in the middle of the night to find the covers thrown off her bed. A burner on the stove is turned up by itself, nearly setting the kitchen ablaze. She senses her abuser’s presence everywhere, even though her friends and family attribute it all to her grief. “He’s not dead,” she tells them. “I just can’t see him.”
My father died on October 3, 2017. I was by his side when it happened. As a young adult, I had decided it was important for me to have a relationship with him, so I buried my pain, fear, and anger, and embarked on a tentative friendship, while always keeping him at an emotional distance. It was fine, I thought. I got to talk baseball and politics with him, just like I had always imagined it would be with a normal father. When my friends talk about their fathers, I could finally relate.
After he died, the rage started pouring out of me. I was always fighting with someone. I found myself in constant conflict with my bosses and my friends. I abruptly cut off contact with my sister, for reasons I still don’t quite understand. Still, my wife bore the brunt of it. She was forced to tiptoe through our marriage, afraid of setting off my rage. Any disagreement had the potential to turn into a high-stakes confrontation. Any perceived slight was an all-out assault. Looking back, I am amazed and grateful she didn’t leave me. I was hell to live with.
My father was dead. Burnt into ashes. But he was living inside me now, treating my loved ones like enemies. The Invisible Man gets this. Having perfected invisibility through his nefarious tech-bro ways, Adrian starts to torture Cecilia. He hacks into her email and sends a hateful letter to her sister, the only person she could count on for emotional support. Her sister disowns her. There’s also a teenage girl that Cecilia has become close with during her recovery. In a harrowing moment, he punches her in the face, and since she and Cecilia were in close conversation at the time, she assumes it was Cecilia who hit her. I understood Cecilia’s pain. It wasn’t me, making trouble with my friends, colleagues, and family. It was the invisible man.
The film balances on a thin line between literalism and symbolism. We know that her husband is actually messing with her, but the film hews so close to Cecilia’s perspective that there seems a chance it’s all in her head. We see Cecilia’s hands shake, her voice tremble, and her eyes dart around the room, so we wonder: Is she right, or is she doing all these horrible things herself and blaming it on him? Is it possible the Invisible Man is inside her? Is the ongoing abuse real or is it a metaphor for the long arm of trauma?
This is how it works. When my abuser was alive, I was numb. In a protective state. After he was gone, I suddenly became hyper-sensitive to my own emotional pain. I pushed people away for fear of being hurt again. That’s when I became him. “Don’t let him win by bringing him back to life,” a friend tells Cecilia, trying to counsel her through what he assumes is a delusion of grief. It was too late for me. When I found myself screaming at my wife, threatening to harm myself if I didn’t get what I wanted from her, I realized I had become my own abuser.
In the theater that night, with my pulse already on overdrive from the guy behind me, I was locked into the realities of trauma depicted onscreen. Whannell has a neat trick in which he often keeps Moss in the corner of the frame, encouraging us to focus on the empty space, imagining what could be lurking just beyond our perception. The camera pans to empty hallways. There’s nothing there, is there? Throughout the film, we live in that uncertainty. It effectively builds tension, but it also represents the terror that continues on after a trauma is over. It gets in your head. Your perpetrator is still out there. Dead and alive. Invisible but omnipresent.
The film is at its most harrowing when it lives in this duality, when we’re uncertain whether it’s science fiction, horror (there seems a very real chance for a while that Adrian is haunting her as a ghost), or domestic drama. For a time, we don’t know what world we’re living in. Eventually, it devolves into something closer to straight horror. replete with jump scares, surprise throat-slashings, and a tangible villain that turns a rich metaphor into cheap prose. Invisibility starts to feel more like a parlor trick – we find out that Adrian’s method is a high-tech invisibility suit – than a manifestation of psychological terror. Maybe that’s progress. For once, you can see the strings being pulled. You’re beginning to deconstruct your fears.
Things start to turn for Cecilia when she forces the Invisible Man to show himself. He reveals himself first to her, then to the guards at a mental hospital where she has been incarcerated, and then to her friends. The action intensifies and the body count rises, but because other people are recognizing that Cecilia’s trauma is real, the momentum swings in her favor. She’s not to blame, and she’s not crazy. The thing about trauma is that you often end up getting it from two sides, from your perpetrator himself and from the people who don’t understand how trauma work. They think you’re just being an asshole. When the Invisible Man makes himself seen, Cecilia has already won half the battle.
For those of us without an actual Invisible Man, we have to make him seen in other ways. We have to talk about him to our friends and family. Apologize to our partners and own the hurt we have caused. We need to go to therapy and support groups. Some of us need to write articles about him so that the next time a stranger casually threatens us with violence, we’re not on the verge of crumbling into nothingness. We have to fight with the tenacity of a horror movie heroine to make the invisible seen. That’s the only way to defeat it.