by David Templeton
“I can think of many real-life visits that were more pleasant than M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit,” says author Nicole Cushing, referring to the notoriously inconsistent horror director’s latest cinematic effort. “The last visit I got from the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she goes on, “was more pleasant than M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. My last visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles was more pleasant than M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. My last visit to the dentist was more pleasant than M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit.”
“I think I can infer from this that you did not enjoy The Visit,” I reply.
“You’d be right,” she says with a laugh, adding, “I think it pretty much blowed.”
Cushing is the author of several short story collections and novellas, and the critically acclaimed new novel Mr. Suicide. A master of creep-your-skin-off horror, Cushing knows her way around scary scenarios, and isn’t afraid to take readers into dark corners of their own pattered psyches. In Mr. Suicide, she takes them a bit further than usual in the tale of a damaged child who does very bad things. It has been called one of those most disturbing horror novels to arrive in years.
As for The Visit, which some critics have actually liked, the story of a teenage brother and sister who finally get to visit their grandparents at a remote farm in Pennsylvania—and for some reason videotape everything even when things go a little bit crazy—the occasionally jarring moments of shock and horror are frequently softened by some ridiculous plotting and some characters who are less than convincingly real.
“Maybe I’m just jaded,” Cushing says, “but I kept waiting for something to happen that I thought was actually disturbing or creepy. At the very least, I wanted a payoff of some kind. If you are going to give me a second act that is filled with a lot of jump scares and fake outs, then at least give me a powerful payoff in the end.”
“This one did scare me, in places,” I confess. “But there were too many moments where I thought it was going to get really good—and then it didn’t.”
“I was reading a book by Ray Bradbury yesterday,” Cushing says. “It’s called Zen in the Art of Writing. In it, Bradbury says you really shouldn’t incite a reader’s sentiment toward any emotion without being willing to have that sentiment fulfilled. You shouldn’t tap into your audience’s sense of dread or sadness unless you are prepared to follow through and give them something to be frightened of, or a really good reason to cry. I think, in The Visit, the big plot twist at the end didn’t do it for me. There were suggestions of something far more interesting going on, but M. Night Shyamalan didn’t follow through and take us there, after dangling some interesting possibilities.
“As someone who loves disturbing stories,” she says, “it just didn’t work for me.”
“Was there anything about it that you did think worked?” I ask.
“There were a couple of moments that hinted at the possibility that something really special might be going on,” Cushing says. “As the film progresses, and as the situation becomes more and more clear, the actual setting of the story becomes literally more clear. When we first come onto the farm, it’s covered in snow, and there’s a thick mist all around. Then, as the story progresses, the mist gradually dissipates and the snow begins to melt—which is, I think, a kind of interesting metaphor for the truth of the situation being revealed.”
Cushing also thought that there were interesting things being done with mirror imagery.
“When the girl, who we learn does not like to look at herself in the mirror, becomes involved in an act of violence in which a mirror plays a part, I thought that was maybe building toward something kind of profound. I would have liked that, but it didn’t pay off. Instead, we just had these endlessly annoying kids, who I would have wanted to kill myself if I were locked in a farmhouse with them.”
“M. Night clearly thought that scenes filled with old people acting weird would incite some sort of primal fear of old people, or the inevitability of aging and death, or the unpredictability of Alzheimer’s,” I point out. “Is that a bad idea for a horror film?”
“Old people acting weird isn’t really that terrifying,” Cushing says. “I live in Southern Indiana. I see that on my sidewalk every day.”
“But there is a kind of fear of old folks that some people have,” I point out, mentioning the convalescent home across from my elementary school, where kids coming and going would cross the street to avoid encountering any of the elderly patients parked near the sidewalk in front of the facility. “I think Shyamalan was counting on tapping into that kind of nervous fear we sometimes have of elderly strangers. I think he believed he was doing for old people what Jaws did for sharks.”
“I only have my own experience,” Cushing says. “I remember my own grandparents, when I was little, and … grandparents are grandparents. Most people aren’t that scared of their own grandparents.”
Not that there isn’t a kind of natural fear of aging that some of us experience. Cushing allows that our culture often makes the physical decline of the human body into something to be repulsed by.
“I think a good horror movie could do something with that,” she says. “There’s something very freeing about addressing those kinds of fears in our art. It is a very normal, instinctive fear that some people have, especially children. My mother-in-law had a very severe case of arthritis, and I can remember her talking about going to the doctor, and having some little kid there in the office say that she must be a witch, because of her gnarled hands. It hurt her feelings when that happened.”
“Do you really think the fear of the old is an instinctive fear?” I ask.
“In a lot of cases, yes,” she says. “Some fears are taught. Racism—the fear of other kinds of people—that has to be taught. It’s not natural. It’s not instinctive. But a fear of the elderly is there in human nature. We don’t like seeing the human form changing and appearing to alter itself. By exploring that in our stories, we can find a way to talk about it and understand it.
“But not in this case,” she says with a laugh. “This movie is one visit that doesn’t do any good for anyone.”