Stuck in a Hotel: A Horror Trope Perfectly Suited to Contemporary Life

In 2002, news broke of a depressed Irish woman who flew assisted suicide activist George Exoo — the Unitarian minister who helped “prepare people for death and stay[ed] with them as they self-deliver[ed]” — and his assistant out to Ireland. She rented a hotel room meant especially for her suicide (she purportedly told her guests she had a brain disease, instead of that she was depressed), and had them ensure that she swallow tablets and suffocate in a bag filled with helium. The experimental opera The Last Hotel — by Enda Walsh (of Once and the David Bowie musical Lazarus), playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through the weekend — draws its story loosely from these events.

Out with vampires and werewolves, in with itchy bedding and soggy buffet items. Hotels, as the just-ended fifth season of American Horror Story — whose titular theme was solely “Hotel” — likewise asserts, are just as worthy a horror trope as witches, ghosts, or clowns, or what have you. Of course, these works recall a small but rich canon of previous creepy hotels: two of the most revered horror films of all time, Psycho and The Shining, are set in them. (Though one could easily make the argument that the hotel and motel as horror motifs are used for different purposes — the hotel signifying generic refinery and the motel signifying the cheap and illicit.)

Recent portrayals of hotels in TV, film, and, yes, experimental opera use them as a way to reflect the isolation and uncertainty of their characters’ conditions. Just as vampires as a trope automatically come with the ontological baggage of confronting mortality and aging, and ghosts mine the stubbornness and unpredictability of memory, hotels — as the quintessential liminal space — are the incubators in which characters undergo transformations that can seem at once like acts of self-destruction and rebirths. Throughout these works, the transitions are often between life and some form of an afterlife. As recent years have proven, the hotel is perhaps one of the best monsters a work of art/entertainment that wants to do some thorough psychological fear-mongering — and/or emotional moving — can offer.

'Key and Peele' — "Continental Breakfast"
‘Key and Peele’ — “Continental Breakfast”

Much like Vegas, hotels lure characters to step outside their comfort zones with the tacit motto that what happens in the hotel can stay in the hotel. (This notion is somewhat false, because — as with Vegas — the characters’ actions in hotels of course follow them, unless they lead them to simply perish.) Because hotels are self-contained, there’s an idea that one can be more self-exploratory, and in the case of many of these stories, more monstrous, within them. Such is illustrated to hilariously exaggerated effect in Key and Peele’s absurdist magnum opus, “Continental Breakfast” — which, in its pithy perfection, seems a good jumping off point.

In this sketch, a man becomes so taken by the nominal worldliness of a beige breakfast buffet that he practically bathes in it, drooling over packaged danish and chomping into an unpeeled banana in ecstasy until it becomes agony. Though this is meant more to tickle than disturb, its final moment references The Shining, jocularly suggesting this character has spent an eternity in this place, a spirit stuck in an endless loop of exalting banality, orgasmically feasting on an infinity of mini muffins. He may not be too dissimilar to the Irish woman in The Last Hotel.

The Last Hotel mines the bland bounty of hotel dining (there’s a memorable mistreated mash…again, Irish) and its other comforts for existential horror and occasional humor, and as mentioned, sets the hotel as the location of a suicide. In the performance, a suburban couple comes to a hotel, where they meet a woman whose death they’re supposed to assist — and the rest of the piece consists of them rehearsing the death, overseen by the one other person in the hotel — a quiet, creepy concierge with a penchant for violent disco dancing. (It should be mentioned, for pure enjoyment, that the opera, though mostly composed by Donnacha Dennehy, also features B*witched’s “C’est la Vie”.) After the inevitable act is assisted, the woman’s spirit remains at the hotel, singing shrill arias forever.

The Guardian praised Enda Walsh for being a “master of loading up innocuous lines – ‘two keys will be fine’; ‘coupons to gain access to the internet’ – with tragic banality,” and indeed, hearing these virtuosic operatic voices swell to emotional overload with repetitions of pleasant, hotel-specific experiences is at once laughable and disquieting. With their antiseptic sparkle, hotels suggest the unknowns of hospitality and care, framing paranoia and distrust — of others, of oneself — within depersonalized comforts. Because people are surrounded by domestic objects that bear no emotional weight for them, the hotel seems the perfect place for letting go.

Similarly, in Flavorwire’s Shane Barnes’ recent appraisal of the just-ended American Horror Story: Hotel, he wrote that “all of the show’s characters are creations of one another.” Half of the characters — including Lady Gaga’s hotel proprietor, the Countess — were non-ghosts with vampiric blood viruses, who made ageless bloodsuckers out of anyone they passed their virus onto. And because the other overarching rule of the season and of the Hotel Cortez was that if you die there, you stay there as a ghost for eternity, ghosts were constantly murdering other guests to keep them company.  As in The Last Hotel, the final episode even included an assisted suicide plot line, with Dennis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor realizing she has untreatable cancer, and enlisting the Countess — now, herself, a ghost — to slit her throat so she can remain in the hotel forever. Because the Countess helped her transition into womanhood (she was formerly a married, male-identifying suburbanite), this murder is seen as similarly generous — not as a means to death but as a transitional rite.

Still from credit sequence of 'American Horror Story: Hotel'
Still from credit sequence of ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’

Each room at the Cortez may look something like a mildewy but generic hotel room (at least until the renovation in the last episode), but we soon learn that that’s only because a skilled ghost maid is especially adept at washing bloodstains from the sheets. In this purgatorial fortress, quotidian objects and decorations — things that in people’s own houses would bear memories and histories — become vast, isolating unknowns. And characters’ dissociation from the objects that normally define and comfort them makes them vulnerable to transition — a process that Ryan Murphy animates with traditional horror and gore, but whose end-product may not be doom, but rather rebirth.

Similarly, the by-far-best episode of The Leftovers last season (which is saying something, as they were pretty stupendous across the board) casts a hotel even more literally as purgatory. When Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey drinks a poison to rid him of a pesky and persistent hallucination of a cult leader (with the most creepily friendly name: Patti), he temporarily dies and finds himself in a hotel, where he can choose to be himself — a suburban cop — or an “international assassin.” Since “International Assassin” is also the title of the episode, this is of course what he chooses. The rest of the episode follows Kevin on his mission to assassinate the nefarious Patti, who in this hotel-enclosed purgatory, is running for President of the United States, but is also sometimes a child — until he rids himself of her, and then is reborn in the “real” world. It goes without saying that the unsettling use of the hotel herein parallels that of AHS and The Last Hotel, with the generic space stripping him of an identity he needed to shake off for a while, and leading him on a grotesque journey of assassination and infanticide — toward a miraculous rebirth!

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But of all the things a stay in a creepy hotel can turn you into, the transitional scenario in The Lobster — Yorgos Lanthimos’ film that made the festival circuit last year and lands in US theaters in March — is perhaps the strangest, and the most sinister. Single people in a romantic dystopia are sent to a hotel, where they’re given 45 days to choose a partner, lest they’re turned — through a surrealistically morbid process vividly described in one scene — into an animal of their choosing. Here, the metamorphosis into a partnered human or an animal is forced, either way. Lanthimos depicts the same cycle of rebirth, but highlights it in his film as something institutionalized. The hotel is more reflective of an oppressive society than a cocoon.

Another specimen of romantic horror set in a hotel is, of course, Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 film, Anomalisawhich, with the precision of its stop-motion animation, is perhaps the most successful at highlighting the oppressive derealization hotel rooms’ sameness and attempted neutrality can lend a situation. This doesn’t lead the protagonist to any physical transformation, per se (though in the solitude of the brightly lit hotel bathroom, he becomes increasingly aware of being a puppet). But it enables a situation that breaks a pattern — until he pretty devastatingly returns to it.

In A Hospitable World?: Organising Work and Workers in Hotels and Tourist Resorts, Anders Underthun calls hotels “important arenas of liminality,” saying that “In temporal terms, liminality usually implies that the liminal subject set usual norms and expectations aside, while in spacial terms the liminal subjects tend to change behavior and expectations according to what spaces the subject is in.” Across The Last Hotel, AHS: Hotel, The Leftovers, The Lobster and Anomalisa we see various physical and existential horror stories unfold within the hotel, casting an alarming air on these locations and the transitions they nurture. The process is similarly horrific throughout these works, but in the cases of American Horror Story and The Leftovers, the result is redemptive and liberating.

The question, then, is why is the hotel now suddenly seeing such an effective surge in popularity as a trope of existential horror. There’s of course no way to be certain about such trends — and it can in part be attributed to the contagion of influence. But without wanting to sound too assured about something so clearly abstract, horror is most successfully approached when it speaks to real, current anxieties, when its tropes are the very manifestations of otherwise more untraceable cultural abstracts.

Sure, every era can seem to be existing on a threshold — every generation thinks theirs will be the last of something. But as technologic advances accelerate the ways we have to reconsider the fundamentals of what we think the human experience is, it seems we’ve entered an age that’s rich in extremes of horror and potential, where apocalypse and miracles seem equally likely, and where no one knows which to anticipate (and then of course, for many of the religious ilk, notions of apocalypse and miracles are intertwined).

We’ve pushed our environment to breaking point, but are closer than ever to discovering deus ex fusion. We have a Trump, and we also have a Bernie Sanders. (The Lobster‘s director of course isn’t American, but his preoccupations could have just as easily been with the similar crossroads Greece just found itself at — facing the unknowns of liberation or further punitive oppression from the EU.) At the same time as America’s having a major feminist movement, planned parenthood is under more threat than ever. Relatedly, gun control is being fought for more vigorously than ever, and so its adversaries sound more extreme than ever — all because gun violence is at an unbearable extreme. 

In a rhapsodically good piece of criticism last year (Flavorwire staffers seem to agree on this point), Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times that “We’re daring to erase the segregating boundaries, to obliterate oppressive institutions, to get over ourselves. The transition should make us stronger — if it doesn’t kill us first.” Notions of self similarly seem to be at a crossroads — in the persistent faces of bigotry, people are reminded of the projected and divisive identities society wants to lay upon them, while at the same time so many social justice movements have amassed — through the speed and amplifying qualities of the Internet — a level of vocality that seems to be the first of their power and reach in decades.  It’s not just about equal treatment across sexual and racial identities (and don’t get me wrong, it’s still very much about this), but also about what right society has to prescribe and project its confining identitarian ideas in the first place. And of course, the people who are eager to impose these things fight back with more vehemence and bigotry, with both sides magnified.

Whether it’s intentional or not, one aspect that gives these liminal hotel-set narratives resonance is their reflection of the sense of tension, uncertainty, and questioning of every facet of oneself and one’s surroundings that occurs before an immense societal shift. Whether the transition out of this global sense of liminality will emancipate us from some of the destructive norms humanity has perpetuated through history — towards the environment, towards other humans — or whether it leads to further, greater destruction, remains to be seen. So, yeah, at this moment, “stuck in the hotel” is a deceptively potent device.