Ode to The Innkeepers: Favoring people over ghosts in Ti West’s hotel horror

When a horror movie character succumbs to their death at the gnarled hands of a bloodthirsty, hacksaw-wielding lunatic, who drives his unwieldy weapon of choice into the gallbladder of whichever unsuspecting Chad, or Amanda, or Stacy had the misfortune of making a wrong turn at the dirt road about two miles back, it is vital, nay, imperative, that the audiences gives a shit about Chad in the first place, no matter how quickly, or how gruesomely he befalls his fate. This is a simple, polite, perhaps obvious request, but one which seems to endure neglect from many horror directors and writers working today, and which director Ti West seems to appreciate far better. His filmography, which includes selections such as The House of the Devil, The Sacrament, and the segment “Second Honeymoon” from the horror anthology film V/H/S, want you to understand that people, their relationships between one another and with themselves, are fundamental to the foundation of horror and to creating lasting effects on an audience, even when the end product isn’t always a home run (no offense, The Sacrament).

Thus, The Innkeepers, West’s 2011 film about a haunted hotel and its inhabitants both walking amongst the living and the dead, wants you to understand that there is more to it than what you’d expect, like the fact that the film spends an hour and forty-one minutes focusing the bulk of its time on its two lead characters and the minor characters that surround them, rather than the ghosts that one might have come to expect in a modern horror. The film, a stripped-down tale of muted hospitality terror surrounding Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, respectively), the neophyte ghostbusters slash hotel employees awaiting proof of supernatural marvels as the hotel comes to its final close, wants you to understand that there are things about the Yankee Pedlar Inn that can never be fully explained, and that the ghost-hunting front desk duo are more important to us as an audience than the ghosts that they are seeking. The Innkeepers finds its main source of strength in its embracing of an ambiguous haze and elevated characters, a pairing of narrative assets that many modern horror films tend to be lacking in and are subsequently weakened by.

Claire and Luke are spending their weekend tending to the Yankee Pedlar Inn; a worn establishment that has seen much grander days, while their boss is vacationing during the hotel’s final hours of operation. The two of them have decided to utilize the small amount of time they’ve been given to do one last sweep of the place for paranormal activity, as the hotel has been bequeathed with somewhat of a reputation by way of one Madeleine O’Malley. According to legend, Ms. O’Malley was a scorned bride from the 1800s left at the altar, who hanged herself in the basement of the Yankee Pedlar Inn and never left. Luke, a snarky, middle-aged white man who was probably cool in his younger days but who now uses sarcasm as a cover for his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, runs an amateur blog dedicated to the allegedly haunted standing of the hotel and has even claimed to have experienced some phenomena himself. He has relayed these otherworldly occurrences to his eager and bright-eyed coworker Claire, a tomboyish twenty-something equipped with the outward idealism shuttering feelings of uncertainty that plagues any modern young person, and is the focal point of Luke’s youthful, unrequited affections.

Accompanying the duo are the only three other occupants of the hotel; an ill-tempered mom and her young son seeking refuge from a fight with her husband, and celebrity of yesteryear Leanne Rease-Jones, a former actress whom Claire quite admires. After a cold encounter between the two of them in which Leanne makes Claire feel quite small for working in a failing hotel and being unsure about her future, Leanne apologizes and reveals that she’s staying at the hotel for a psychics’ convention nearby. She explains that since leaving the acting profession she has dedicated her time to comprehending the incomprehensibles of our world as a medium, and attempts to make contact with the spirit of Madeleine on behalf of Claire’s inquisitiveness.

It is during this moment that we learn two things: there are three ghosts in this hotel, not just one, and to never, ever, go into the basement. Of course, this warning only amplifies Claire’s natural curiosity and eagerness to prove herself as more than just a hotel concierge, of whose quality would cause Mr. Gustave of the Grand Budapest to shed a tear. Hot off the heals of witnessing a piano play all by itself and awakening to a spectral someone sleeping in her bed, Claire urges Luke to dig deeper into their explorations and is met with a suspicious amount of pushback. In the meantime, a mysterious fourth guest arrives to book a room; an elderly gentleman who is insistent upon staying in the suite where he and his wife shared their honeymoon, and who hints at a history he shared with the Yankee Pedlar that only he will ever know.

That’s the thing with the Yankee Pedlar Inn; there is a lot that we still don’t know about it even when it seems like we’ve been graciously gifted the answers that we sought, because these answers can just as easily be left to the endless and impenetrable void. You see, there are no definitive to solutions to the problem of the Yankee Pedlar Inn because we’re not necessarily supposed to solve it. At a point, you come to understand that there is something darker at play in the hotel than what Claire and Luke previously thought, and whether or not a cryptic response from Leanne Rease-Jones acts as the sealant to that is entirely up to you. The power of the hotel and the intentions of the film will remain incomprehensible, just like the powers that Ms. Rease-Jones now dedicates her life to. Sometimes, not knowing is better, and our fear is further cultivated through this given ambiguity and through our kinship with the lead characters.

In the end, Claire and Luke are us, and the relationship we build with them in symbiosis with the relationship that they build with each other creates more lasting scares through simple, underappreciated empathy. When we see ourselves in these characters and plausible scenarios, we are laid witness to the paranormal investigation of our nightmares, the one that could surely never happen to those who find it safer not to believe, and the one that lingers in the back of our minds for those of us who do. By framing the film so heavily on the characters rather than the supernatural, we not only find ourselves genuinely concerned for their outcomes, making the situations they are put all that much scarier, but we are kept a good few steps away at all other times from the Things-Going-Bump-In-The-Night. It feels all that more unnerving when that distance is then violated, and the safety net that was created by our acquaintanceship with these characters suddenly snaps, releasing us into the same coliseum of fear that they too are forced to battle in. The accessibility of The Innkeepers’ intimate, claustrophobic atmosphere and characters that feel tangible enough to reach out and touch create a horror film that is both tender and terrifying at the same time, with an ending that is as heartbreaking as it is cruel, and those questions that the film leaves up for audience interpretation only add to the inherent uncanniness of it all.

The final few seconds of The Innkeepers, which begin with a Shining­-esque slow dolly forward, inching us closer towards a set of mysterious, black-and-white photographs framed and hanging on the paint-chipped wall of the hotel, followed by the camera pivoting smoothly, yet suddenly to the right, to the open door of an empty room as it lingers there for longer than what feels earthly comfortable, seem to be telling us that there is more to that now-empty hotel room than what we can see; that there is more to the story of The Innkeepers, just like there was always more to the Yankee Pedlar Inn than that what the employees ever knew. And that is how it is going to stay.

We only ever know as much as Claire and Luke because they are what truly matter in this story, and what should matter in every horror story. People create ghosts, and people are what make them effective. It doesn’t matter what happens to a Chad, or an Amanda, or a Stacy, if none of them exist in real life. We don’t want to feel safe in the confines of reality. After all, what’s scary about that?


by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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