Castle Rock’s Abject Horror of the Mind

Castle Rock, being a pastiche of Stephen King’s oeuvre, deals in several different types of horror, with an explicit interest in how the supernatural intersects with the natural. The titular town of Castle Rock, Maine, is a town haunted by generations of trauma that stems from inexplicable events, from freak “accidents” like train and school bus collisions and mass shootings, to a father and son’s sudden disappearance and reappearance days later, to the discovery of a young man known only as The Kid (Bill Skarsgard) kept as a secret prisoner under the nearby Shawshank Prison. And in the middle of all this horror, there is the intimate, abject terror of losing one’s mind.

When we are introduced to Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek), a longtime resident of Castle Rock, she is living with worsening dementia. For most of the show, Ruth is handled with kid gloves, perceived as a delicate  woman losing her faculties. She’s portrayed as spacey, as if in a permanent daydream. Ruth’s failing mental state is a sore spot between her son Henry (André Holland) and her partner Alan (Scott Glenn), each man questions the other’s motivations regarding her wellbeing.

Our access to Ruth as viewers is limited to that of an observer, watching her strange habits without a clue to her interiority. We are aligned with Henry, seeing Ruth’s mannerisms—suddenly remembering tasks she set out to do as if emerging from a daydream, leaving chess pieces all over the house—as highly esoteric if not preposterous. Occasionally, we see Ruth’s frustration at not being able to discern where she is in time come through, exasperated because the people around her cannot access her experience and cannot see what she is seeing.

Much of Castle Rock’s horror is supernatural, but the horror of “The Queen” is rooted in the human and bodily. In this Ruth-centric episode, we are given a history of her life, including her marriage to her emotionally abusive pastor husband Matthew, her attempts to leave him for Castle Rock policeman Alan, and her attempts to shield Henry from Matthew’s worsening delusion that he can actually hear God speaking to him. Simultaneously, in the present, Ruth is being followed around her house by The Kid, who has taken on the personality of her deceased husband. Ruth is positive that The Kid is Matthew come back to life, intent on killing her for her relationship with Alan and for “turning” Henry against Matthew for his religious fanaticism.

The episode also acts as a visual understanding of how Ruth’s dementia manifests for her specifically. We see her fall into her memories with no warning. One moment she is firmly rooted in the present, but then an object or a phrase will pull her into another moment in time. It’s a kind of Kristevan abjection, a breakdown of borders between the past and the present and between past-self and present-self. Occasionally, she watches the memory unfold while other times she’s living the memory. She watches herself pack a suitcase in attempts to leave her emotionally abusive husband, urging her past-self to finish packing and leave, and watches in horror as her past-self unpacks, placing her clothes back in drawers and putting away the suitcase. But sometimes she is her past-self. She bathes herself, asking trivia questions to a young Henry and is scolded by her husband for allowing their son to watch her bathe, as he is getting too old for their ritual.

This ability to be both the subject and the watcher is a kind of temporal abjection. She is unable to distinguish her current self from her past self every time. The borders between memory and the current are almost unrecognizable, and in result, the border between past-self and present-self breaks down. Abjection leads to disorientation, producing a stomach-churning sense of unease.

In order to work against this constant state of unease that can lead to terror, Ruth devised a system of orientation. She takes hand carved chess pieces (a gift from Alan to help keep her mind active) and hides them in various spots in the house. If she finds herself struggling to determine if she’s in the past or the present, she can try to find one of these chess pieces and work her way out. To her family, it might look like she is absentmindedly leaving chess pieces out, but she is actually devising a method of reorientation.

Her trouble finding the chess pieces becomes a moment of suspense as The Kid picks up on Ruth’s increasing inability to tell past and present apart and uses it to manipulate and terrorize her by acting like Matthew. They play a game of hide-and-seek through time and space as Ruth tries to remember where she has hidden her bullets, attempting to remove “Matthew’s” presence in her life once and for all. But in a heartbreaking twist of disorientation, she shoots and kills Alan, believing that The Kid was chasing her. She realizes her mistake as the man who stood beside her and supported her through her grief and illness dies.

Castle Rock is interested in disorientation as a larger thematic element of horror, and this episode acts as a musing on how interconnected horror and disorientation are. The show folds in on itself, twisting and turning as soon as it seems to offer some sort of clarity, but its central mysteries remain mysteries. It is ironic that in an episode explicitly about disorientation, we are given the most clarity. Ruth’s story is one of the town of Castle Rock more largely; like the cyclical trauma that seems inherent to the town, Ruth relives the horror over and over, unable to stop it or change it, forever watching her past-self pack and unpack her suitcase.


by Mary Bolton

Mary Bolton is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She has written cultural criticism for Reel Honey, Bright Wall Dark Room, and One Week, One Band. She has also seen every Coen Brothers movie and tweets her feelings at @marybolton_.

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