40 Years Later, 'The Changeling' Has Us Wondering: What if Joseph is Actually a Mythical Changeling Creature?
Horror is no stranger to utilizing an uncomfortable piece of history to play in its haunted houses. To celebrate its 40th year, I figured why not revisit one of horror film’s classic haunted houses featuring both a disappointments room and a disabled central figure upon whom the story depends--Peter Medak’s The Changeling...
...One of the worst trends in historical treatment of disabled children (and adults) in media and the real world has been the designation and use of the “disappointments room”. While I’m unclear as to its technical term, the purpose of this room is always clear: to hide away the family shame of having a disabled or disfigured child. Most commonly located in the attics of old houses, these were rooms where parents would force their disabled children to live, where they would face abuse and/or neglect, simply because the parents were afraid they would be socially scorned for having such a child and/or they just straight up didn’t know how to care for them. A reexamination of The Changeling asks what if the child is the real danger? What if the room is for protection?
This staple of 70’s-80’s haunted house genre tells of a widowed composer, John Russell (George C. Scott) looking for an escape who rents an old mansion and, after a series of mysterious happenings, uncovers a boarded-up child’s room in the attic covered in monstrously thick spider webs and decades of dust. On the desk, a child’s schoolbook. On a nearby table, under a genuinely troubling layer of grime, a music box that plays a tune John had only just played and recorded. In the corner, a small wheelchair. In an effort to find answers, John seeks help and is led to hold a séance, at which little Joseph Carmichael (Voldi Way) makes his appearance. John becomes consumed with finding out what happened to the child and why.
The séance scene is one of the most unsettling and vital parts of the film. Joseph seems only interested in talking to John and, at its close, is begging him for help. Why he’s solely interested in John is never made all that clear, but I think the answer may be obvious. John is the one who uncovered the bedroom, the one who wants to understand what’s going on in the house when it bangs every morning, the one doing the work to find out about Joseph for the first time in decades. There’s nothing mysterious about wanting to be remembered.
Here’s the thing about those disappointment rooms of old: they were places you sent people you wanted forgotten. It wasn’t even altogether uncommon to claim the inhabitant of this domestic prison had died—regardless whether that was true—just so you wouldn’t have to explain more about them. And Changeling takes it to its extreme. Rather than claim he died; Joseph’s father actually carries out the murder. Joseph is killed and replaced so thoroughly his christening medal is buried and gone and any mention of him as he truly was is virtually wiped from record. The only distinguishing thing about him left behind is his wheelchair, gathering dust at the murder site.
When John goes digging for answers, he’s committing an act of remembrance. The further he goes, the more Joseph pushes. After so long as a nameless and silent nonexistence, now he finally has someone who can hear him, who is listening, who can bring back his name and his long sought-after justice. If he has some anger about it, well, he was murdered after all, and even live children hardly have rational emotional responses as adults understand them at six years old. Joseph harbors more than simple, brutal child’s rage, however. Joseph is made of deeper stuff. Stuff so powerful it can control and set fire to an entire mansion in which he lived and lost his whole life. The rage of the disabled, shamed, and forgotten.
Nothing fuels like rage.
Still, righteously angry or not, the only thing Joseph seems to want from John is the discovery of his body and the return of his medal. His body because who should be left alone and discarded in a well? Samara never liked it either, and all she wanted was to continue passing on her story, too. His medal because, well, christening medals were used in naming ceremonies, and to name something is to give it an air of permanence, importance, and worth. You don’t name things you’re ashamed of. You bury them. To retain the medal is to retain the name, and thus the vitality of Joseph’s life.
Even as the rage-fueled mansion fire burns everything to the ground, the things left standing are those most intimately tied to Joseph’s identity: his wheelchair and his music box. These are what we see in the film’s last shot. He’s gotten the final word after all, and insisted on being the final presence.
The prominent image of the antique wheelchair holds a place in the minds of horror fans. The empty chair becomes not only the symbol most synonymous with The Changeling, but also strongly resonates with the idea of loss, as well. If a horror film takes place in a hospital, mental institution, or even an abandoned orphanage, an empty wheelchair will most undoubtedly appear somewhere. In the film in question, the user of the chair, Joseph, never appears in his wheelchair and always remains a separate entity from the device, so can the actions of the chair actually represent the deceased boy? The cries of the grieving child come from the attic, but the chair miraculously makes its way throughout the house regardless of any obstructions. The focus of the film becomes so fixated on solving the murder of Joseph and freeing his spirit, but what if the story goes beyond the surface structure of the plot? A young boy locked away in a hidden room and later murdered by his father obviously could not be more horrible, but what if, in some way, the father killed for a reason other than an inheritance issue? What if the crippled boy in the attic was not actually a boy? What if the titular character of The Changeling is actuallyJoseph?
Even though the film holds the title of The Changeling, the explanation for the name never really actually comes about, so who or what actually is the mythical creature? In legends hailing from the United Kingdom, a changeling would kidnap a child and take their place of the missing youth. However, according to myth, the fairy child held certain characteristics which could distinguish them changeling from a human actual child. First, the fairy child would appear sickly and small, never able to grow like a normal child. The unhealthy appearance and limited physical capabilities of Joseph does not necessarily rule out any chance of him being a human child, but the case holds a little stronger than assuming the senator plays the role of the changeling.
Now, here the analysis gets a little more complicated: what if both the real Joseph and the fairy child appear in the film? It is hard to argue when Joseph would have been abducted by the fairy, but his spirit remains trapped and can only find peace if his christening medal is returned to him. The religious amulet serves two purposes for freeing the young Joseph. First, the necklace exists as a representation of a religious protector. The myths name a few methods for protecting children from the clutches of the changeling, but one such technique requires the child to receive a blessing or become baptized. The christening medal shows Joseph most likely was baptized as a baby, but without the religious artifact, the child remains helpless against the hold of the fairy child. Furthermore, the changeling stole Joseph’s identity, so returning the medal to the kidnapped child would symbolize the return of hisJoseph’s identity. However, despite the fact that the Fae Joseph no longer holds the air of a child, the changeling still holds a presence in the house.
A few years after Joseph died, a new family moved into the house which included the young Cora. The girl died after being hit by a coal cart, which is the story John originally becomes interested in. He assumes the girl’s horrible fate causes her spirit to remain in the house, but perhaps Cora’s death came from other circumstances. The inclusion of the Cora storyline brings confusion to some critics as the placement seems unnecessary and quickly becomes shoved under the rug after the discovery of Joseph. So, why include Cora? With the murder of “Joseph” three years prior, the changeling needed another child and Cora would have been a perfect replacement. At only seven years old, Cora ran from her house and was struck by a coal cart. Possibly chased by the changeling, but regardless of the cause of her death, she stayed free from the fairy child.
So, while the real Joseph becomes represented by the innocent voice calling for his medal, the Fae Joseph embodies the discarded wheelchair. When alone and believed to be unobserved, the changeling could jump around and perform physical capabilities not normally associated with the sickly demeanor it actually portrayed. Possibly the reason Joseph’s father locked away his supposedly invalid son. If the “boy” possessed various powers, even the small stature could prove dangerous. Also, despite needing a wheelchair to move, the only toy found in the upstairs disappointment room was a red ball. Obviously, not an appropriate toy for a child with limited mobility all locked away, but for a changeling with the ability to jump about and play? Have a ball, fairy kid.
The wheelchair also becomes a representation of the unnatural side of Joseph, meaning, the changeling. The chair looms menacingly at the top of staircases and even chases the people who seek justice for the real Joseph. Taking on animalistic qualities, the chair emanates guttural snarls and hunts its prey as it expertly maneuvers down the stairs. As the resolution for the true child unfolds, the senator realizes his life is a lie, Joseph finds peace, and the house and everything inside burns to the ground. Before escaping the burning house, the leads left the chair capsized in the foyer. However, the last shot of the smoking remains shows the wheelchair standing upright. As if the changeling still lives and now surveys the destruction it caused.
While we can all agree on the significance of the wheelchair, what it represents is up for debate. Could its purpose be to symbolize Joseph’s forced remembrance, or could it be the embodiment of a more sinister spirit?
By Katelyn Nelson and Amylou Ahava
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