Grief, Emptiness, and The Changeling

It’s cold, weather conditions are poor, your car is broken down. But you’re with the people that bring you the most joy which makes the unpleasantness bearable if not laughable. You push your car off to the side of the road, run across the street to the payphone, and when you look up, there amongst the would-be misery are the two people you love the most in the world, laughing and smiling. This is love. Then it’s all taken away from you in an instant. The joy of your life – gone.

This is how Peter Medak’s 1980 ghost story, The Changeling, opens. George C. Scott plays John Russell, a composer who’s life was shattered right before his eyes on that dreary day. He moves to Seattle to start over, start writing again, and lecture at the local university. Trish Van Devere, plays realtor Claire Norman who sets John up with an old mansion as a rental house – a place where he can seclude himself to grieve and write. As time passes, John starts to notice odd occurrences in the old house – strange noises, broken windows, balls rolling down stairs. Upon further investigation he finds an old, boarded-up stairway leading to an attic room where he discovers a child’s wheelchair, a music box, medical records, and your standard creepy flotsam and jetsam. The movie makes its way down strange, unsettling, sometimes out-of-the-ordinary paths to make for a very entertaining movie.


The performances by Scott and Van Devere sell the story beyond anything I could have hoped for. Medak’s direction is exactly what a multilayered story like The Changeling deserved and needed. And if you want to hear a more in-depth review I encourage you to listen to this week’s episode. Because this isn’t going to be a review, per se.

In the past three weeks I have experienced loss. My aunt Deb passed away recently. She had been battling Alzheimer’s for several years, and was finally released from that awful disease. I was asked to officiate her funeral, and I took that opportunity to try and bring some sort of comfort to the many, many people she touched in her life by sharing stories, and applying one of my favorite scriptures to the grief we were feeling.

The other loss I experienced more recently was felt indirectly. A man I only knew by his remarkable reputation passed away two weeks ago, sending a wave of shock through the community. I had never met Juan Felix, but so many people I love loved him. Reading the different Facebook posts, seeing the pictures on Instagram, and texting and talking with people about Juan took me to a place of grief I’d never experienced. Even though I’d never known Juan, I was still heartbroken. It wasn’t grief the way you experience grief when you see tragedy on the news. I could see the heartbreak – the immense pain – in my friends. That’s the grief I experienced.

I mention these two instances along with The Changeling not to exploit them in any way. I bring all this up because there’s nothing like the horror genre that can tap into these exact feelings. To make a great horror film you must first create a great dramatic story. Russell Hunter did just that with The Changeling. Daphne Du Maurier did it with Don’t Look Now. Stephen King does is in nearly every story he writes. Drama first – horror second.

Movies like The Changeling and Don’t Look Now are ultimately stories about loss. In each, our protagonists experience the loss of a child. I can’t – nor do I want to – imagine what losing a child feels like. No matter how old, children aren’t supposed to go before their parents. Yet it happens all the time. In real life and in cinema. But loss is a great (albeit depressing) inciting incident, especially in horror. From slashers to the paranormal, someone dying is frequently the reason for the plot. But what movies like The Changeling and Don’t Look Now do is elevating that plot by taking it to another level. Enter grief.

Dont Look Now-Donald Sutherland

Grief is such an adult concept. Everyone experiences grief. From little children to the elderly, grief is a human concept, yes, but to understand it, it helps to have some years under your belt. When little kids experience grief they say they feel really sad. And then in the afternoon they’re laughing and having a good time. And then an hour later they’re angry. And then they’re happy again. And then sad. And so on and so forth. As adults – and not necessarily while we’re in it – we realize grief is all of those things. Grief is the ultimate high and the ultimate low and everything in between. I don’t believe we’ll every FULLY understand grief because the body is such a complex system, but we can grasp the basic concept of grief.

As I was preparing my sermon for my aunt’s funeral, I decided I would base it around Matthew 5:1-12 – Jesus’ opening to the “Sermon On the Mount.” You know, the “blessed be’s.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all preachy, but it’s an interesting piece of scripture when talking about grief because Jesus is talking about being completely empty. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, I think the concept of grief, emptiness, and healing applies to us all. When we experience total loss we feel empty inside. If we can (and I know it’s one of the hardest things to do) we must allow ourselves to feel that loss, that grief, all those feelings. We must allow ourselves to be empty. And only in that emptiness can we start to be healed.

I only bring this idea up because I experienced it when I lost my father to ALS four years ago. It wasn’t until I let go of my pride (and that’s what it ultimately is) that I allowed myself to be emptied. And it was only then that I actually started to feel better. Slowly, yes. But over time I started to become whole again. I believe God had a hand in that. You don’t have to. It very well could be these incredible machines we operate on a daily basis – our bodies – that do the emotional healing for us. Whatever it is, you have to get to that place of emptiness.

Back to the movies. John Russell experiences that grief and allows himself to become that vulnerable after the loss of his wife and daughter in The Changeling. John and Laura Baxter go down the same path after their daughter drowns in Don’t Look Now. It is then when they’re in they’re most vulnerable states that they experience the supernatural. When you look at movies dealing in the paranormal the spooky stuff doesn’t happen until after a big change in the protagonists’ lives. Moving to a new house. A death. Near death. Some sort of trauma becomes the impetus in which our ghosts are born. But it’s not until the filmmaker involves an adult concept such as grief that the movie is elevated nearly out of the horror genre.

We all grieve. We all grieve differently. For instance, I use humor in my grief. Many don’t understand that (which makes it even funnier to me). Some of you may lock yourselves up in your bedroom and hide for days. Some of you may be furious. Some of you may seem like nothing is wrong. Grief is not one single thing. Movies – although fictional and entertaining – tell us that. Feel whatever you need to feel. Allow yourselves to get to that place of emptiness because I promise you, it’ll get better.

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