People say you never forget your first – your first love, your first book…
I find that to be true. Well, about the latter anyways.
I will never forget discovering the Stephen King section in a bookstore I used to go when I was a child. How engrossed I was after reading the synopsis, and how I grabbed a stranger thinking it was my brother to tell him about the story.
I am not going to argue that Gerald’s Game was the best introduction to Stephen King, nor that it is super appropriate for a 13-year-old. But it was my gateway drug into King’s universe, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a Living Tribute about Stephen King in which I talked about three stories of his that were happy surprises. Gerald’s Game was one of them, together with his novel Dolores Claiborne and his short story The Last Rung on the Ladder.
What I would like to do here is dig deeper and offer an exploration of my favourite Stephen King heroine – Jessie Burlingame. I’ll be using the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Mike Flanagan, as the main source, and drawing on the 1992 book when necessary.
Before I continue, I must flag a trigger warning. This article contains topics on sexual abuse and trauma. I must also state ‘spoiler alert’, as I delve into both the film and the book.
So here we go…
The film adaptation was directed by Mike Flanagan and co-written by himself and Jeff Howard. Both Flanagan and Carla Gugino, who plays Jessie, received praised for the film. Flanagan for his direction and care while treating the sensitive themes included in the film, and Gugino for her brilliant performance.
Flanagan and Howard agreed that the film should follow the events of the book, and what we have in the film is indeed a faithful adaptation.
King’s book received due recognition for being non-visual. That is, the story unravels inside Jessie’s mind through the conversations she has with alter egos. So, naturally, when the news came that a film would come out of a non-visual book many, myself included, questioned how it would be done.
Flanagan’s direction is what helps the film here. It is Jessie who holds and drives the film as she, although stationary, is the bearer of the look. Flanagan understands that and places the camera next to her for the majority of the scenes, especially when she is tied to the bedposts.
The camera has limited movements within the bedroom. In the flashback scenes, Flanagan allows for the camera to move around a little bit more. That is when the more visual moments come.
Let me backtrack a little bit.
The story follows Gerald and Jessie, a married couple, who go to their lake house on a romantic getaway to try to ‘save’ their marriage.
In Jessie’s mind, they are ‘trying out new things’ but, for Gerald, this is a chance for him to explore his innermost desires.
He handcuffs Jessie to the bed and, when Jessie changes her mind and asks to be uncuffed, Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies instantly.
Jessie is now handcuffed to a bed, alone in a deserted lake house, with no neighbours or caretakers. There is only the body of her dead husband on the floor and two occasional visitors– a stray dog that takes Gerald as a snack, and the Moonlight Man. This an enormous figure that comes at night and watches her.
This situation in itself is already frightening, however, the true horror in the film is what lies in the depths of Jessie’s unconscious. It is precisely that which she needs to uncover in order to free herself.
Jessie’s unconscious starts to manifest itself through the image of Gerald, who teases her and belittles her. It is also through an image of herself, who guides her into seeing what she has repressed.
In the book, there are two more alter egos; Ruth, a friend from University who was the only person to ever come close to discover Jessie’s truth, and her former psychologist.
Independently of which alter ego it is, they all make Jessie face the abuse she suffered when she was younger, at the hands of her dad during an eclipse. Despite having repressed the memories for so long, she must now delve into them.
In the film we see Jessie being abused by her father and neglected by her mother. A tad of jealousy hovers around her mother as she insists Jessie is ‘daddy’s little girl’. Although, in the book, Jessie mentions other moments in her life in which she was abused, the film only alludes to it.
Jessie states that the abuse wasn’t even the worst thing that had happened to her. We later learn that, on top of abusing his daughter, the dad manipulates Jessie into keeping it a secret.
Now why on Earth am I claiming that Jessie is my favourite Stephen King heroine? Because Jessie faces real dangers.
In Gerald’s Game, the monster is real. It’s human. The wounds it has left are still very much present.
Jessie is triggered the moment Gerald starts calling himself Daddy and forcing himself onto her. The place they’re at and the circumstance they are in are all conducive to Jessie’s memories returning to the surface.
In his essay, Freud explains that the ‘Uncanny’ is a threatening thing which comes back to us from the realm of the unconscious to the conscious through repetition of triggering instances.
Thus, although Jessie has repressed the memories of her abuse, it comes back to her when the present situation reminds her of her past experience. Jessie then has two options; to accept the memories or to shut them down completely.
She chooses the latter and asks Gerald to stop. It is through the exploration of Jessie’s past abuse that the film also explores the arsenal of issues that come with it – trauma, PTSD, repression, etc.
Jessie escaped the day of the eclipse only physically, but mentally she is still trapped in the same memory, reliving and reconstructing that day with different objects. Gerald is a stand-in for her father, however his older presence serves to make her feel secure and warm.
Jessie is numb and still, she doesn’t have any real friends or purpose. It is not until she begins to tell her story that she finds her objective in life – to help others who have suffered like her.
Jessie fights her battles alone. The ‘voices’ in her head guide her, sure, but they are nothing more than manifestations of her unconscious. Here much can be said about Flanagan and King.
In his body of work, Flanagan usually tells female stories and creates rounded characters whose subjectivity is rich enough for the film to be grounded upon. Hush is one example, and his exploration of trauma and mental health in The Haunting of Hill House is another brilliant case study.
King, of course, has penned multiple female characters whose minds can be the topic of multiple discussions – Carrie, Dolores Claiborne, Annie Wilkes, Beverly Marsh, Donna, etc.
But Jessie, for me, strikes a chord. She faces her innermost fears. She is able to get past them to find the answer to her current plight, and she causes a huge amount of physical pain on herself in order to escape.
There’s something so inspiring about a woman who has suffered so much at the hands of men that she is willing to deglove her own hand to escape the traps she’s in. I’m not saying this is the way to handle traumas. Of course not. But, man, is it cathartic to watch.
The ending should be taken into consideration when analysing Jessie’s subjectivity. It is revealed that the Moonlight Man, who appeared at night when she was trapped, was actually a necrophiliac who stole bones and jewellery from buried bodies.
In the epilogue of the film, the Moonlight Man gets arrested and Jessie goes to his trial to face him. One last time, facing her fears.
The Moonlight Man, whose actual name is Raymond Andrew Joubert, suffers from acromegaly, a disease that makes his bones grow much more than normal. He is tall and scary-looking. Nevertheless, Jessie stands tall, faces him, and says: ‘You’re so much smaller than I remember’.
At this moment, the Moonlight Man’s face merges into her dad’s face and then into Gerald’s. He becomes the embodiment of the men who have hurt her, and whose powers are now insignificant to her.
And that is why Jessie is my chosen King heroine. She is a deeply flawed character. But, after years of being numb and living in the shadow of her abuse, even if unconsciously, she annihilates the men who have wronged her. With this, she loses the weight of her traumas, simply by taking control of her own life, as difficult as that was.
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