I’m pretty sure that everyone has a category of things that they hate – country music, procedural cop shows, romance novels – but in which there is one specific example which they somewhat irrationally like and will defend as being not like the others. Session 9 is my Chosen Asylum Movie.
Session 9 was recommended to me by a person I no longer speak to (not for that reason) as being an unwatchably bad movie, but with one solitary great moment in it. That great moment, oddly, is David Caruso delivering the line “fuck youuuuuuu” in a very stilted and awkward way. However, 18-year-old me was very starved for entertainment, and Session 9 was on Netflix.
Session 9 is not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie. However, it managed to happen upon two things which I found very creepy, and combined them with acting worthy of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and pacing that would make an editor weep. This was a winning combination for me somehow, and I have seen the subsequent jumble of nonsense probably 6 times.
This masterpiece took a known creepy thing in the form of Danvers State Hospital (the actual one) and a previously unknown creepy thing in the form of asbestos and combined them to make a strangely haunting movie. I am the first person to rail against using asylums as creepy backdrops, but I liked that this movie didn’t make up a fictional asylum and a bunch of fictional atrocities that happened there. Yeah, there were a whole bunch of human rights violations in asylums, largely due to the overcrowding that occurred when the state cut funding and the number of patients quickly overtook the number of beds and available staff. Yeah, the transorbital lobotomy was a thing that happened (even though it was an attempt to legitimately help.) Are those not atrocities enough? Why do you have to invent some massacre or weird surgical trauma? That was the first thing I liked, was that they used the actual Danvers and its actual history – they shot it there, too. It’s a very creepy building, even without knowing its history. The whole thing is bat-shaped, extending outward from a central building into wings on the sides where the patients lived.
(Quick history lesson – Danvers, and many asylums just like it, were built in America in the late 1800s as part of the ‘moral care’ movement. They were designed around the idea that patients would live as a family, contributing to the everyday operation of the facility (helping garden, launder, cook and clean in exchange for compensation or reward) and keeping themselves busy, while building relationships with their doctor and the staff. There was very little emphasis on surgical intervention or medication – these would largely come later. Only when the government realized that comparatively few patients were being served for the money that was being invested did they defund the hospitals, and overpopulation skyrocketed, leading to the horrifying conditions often depicted in movies. In my personal opinion, the height of the moral care movement was the closest the West has ever come to humane and beneficial mental health care. )
The second cool thing is asbestos-as-antagonist. I’ve seen a whole lot of viruses and plagues and other weird invisible villains in horror movies, but none of them latched onto me the way that asbestos did. The thought of those tiny shards, floating through the air, waiting to be breathed into my lungs to puncture the individual cells…eurch. Asbestos is the perfect villain for a movie that crawls along at a snail’s pace while the protagonists bicker aimlessly – they work in the removal industry, and live every day with the knowledge that they will probably die from it. The only question is how quickly.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON
The plot is actually surprisingly complicated, and I didn’t totally understand it until my second or third viewing. I imagine many people never get that far, which is a tragedy. If I had to condense it to bullet points:
- Group of men with various interpersonal conflicts work as an asbestos removal team (this movie doesn’t even live in the post code of the Bechdel test – there are no women on screen at any time)
- They get a contract with the abandoned Danvers State Hospital to remove all the asbestos in the building, which is going to be made into apartments. The boss, Gordon, says they’ll do it in a week, which is just a ludicrously short amount of time. He needs the money because he and his wife have a new baby.
- One guy finds these tapes in the basement labeled “Session 1, Session 2, etc” and starts listening to them. They are therapy sessions with a patient who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (Oh boy oh boy!) She experienced some sort of trauma and will only talk through one of 3 alters. There is a fourth alter they all reference, but it won’t talk.
- Weird stuff starts happening. One guy doesn’t show up for work. Gordon hasn’t slept in weeks because of the baby.
- They find the guy who didn’t show up wandering around the facility basement, with a lobotomy pick through his eye.
- Gordon maybe kills everyone
- The last Session tape plays – Session 9. The last alter finally talks, revealing that it killed the woman’s family, and that it’s been alive forever – it travels
- Gordon remembers that he killed his wife and baby
- Fade to black
So that’s what (probably) happened – Gordon was possessed by the evil personality when he entered the patient’s former room, and compelled to murder his family that night. He then forgot (?) and proceeded as normal, forgetting when he was doing horrible stuff.
Like I said, it’s not the best movie. But there’s something about it that makes me watch it again and again. I justify it to myself that “it’s not a DID movie, the alter is a supernatural thing that possesses people. It’s not perpetuating stigma.” But that’s honestly an excuse. If it looks like DID and quacks like DID… But I will continue to justify this movie as being the least-bad of all the asylum movies because it doesn’t use torture porn of patients and it is actually full of historically accurate information. And asbestos.