The film adaptation of Stephen King short story 1408 revisits common horror tropes of death, grief … and bad room service.
Paranormal writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack) checks into room 1408 of New York’s Dolphin Hotel. He intends to debunk its reputation for terror and tragedy but finds himself haunted by his own grief and regret.
Grief and ghosts in 1408
Many horror films are about grief, loss and regret – but is that so surprising? Grief is an obvious response to death, but so is fear and speculation about the afterlife – i.e., the basis of the horror genre.
In Håfström’s adaptation of Stephen King short story 1408, embittered author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) checks into a cursed hotel room.
Enslin writes guide books about haunted locations yet, somewhat disingenuously, doesn’t believe in ghosts. Room 1408 is his wake-up call – and the source of its scares is his own grief and guilt.
After daughter Katie dies of cancer, Enslin’s life is a meaningless nightmare.
And like The Grey’s protagonist, he finds it hard to tell reality from hallucination. The protagonists of both films not-so-secretly long for death, their grief manifesting in – and masked by – hyper-masculine behaviours.
The hotel is a motif in King’s work. In his short story, 1922, the protagonist retreats to a hotel and awaits a supernatural death. And of course there’s the demonic Overlook hotel in The Shining, with its cursed room 217 (room 237 in the film).
Like 1408, The Shining links psychological horror with creativity and addiction. Both see male writers embrace the dark side.
Before the Overlook, there was the Bates Motel, from which proprietor Norman Bates spied on and murdered unsuspecting guests. But paranormal and paradoxical hotels pre-date even Psycho, with tales of guests checking in then vanishing from rooms. 2011 Liam Neeson thriller Unknown plays with a variation of the urban legend.
The hotel has obvious appeal for horror. It’s a confined, often remote, location far from home. There are limited escape routes, while identical doors, corridors and blind corners invite disorientation and paranoia.
Hotels, then, are a place of reckoning – just ask The Eagles about the Hotel California.
Checking into New York’s Dolphin Hotel forces Enslin to confront his past. In fact, the room may be a paranormal hot spot, but it also offers an aggressive take on tough love therapy and psychological resolution.
The film doesn’t reveal who invites Enslin. Instead, he gets an anonymous postcard (supposedly the 13th such invitation) telling him not to enter room 1408.
Given similarities with The Shining, it’s possible the hotel itself has somehow arranged this ghostly mailing. Either way, the postcard is a MacGuffin, a device that exists simply to get Enslin inside room 1408.
Hotel manager Mr Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) also ambiguously plays a hand in this. His reverse psychology entices Enslin to stay overnight … with shades of The Shining’s devilish caretaker Watson.
Olin tells him 56 guests have died in room 1408 – and no one survives the first hour. Of course Enslin wants in.
What 1408 represents
Enslin’s trial begins before he even gets to the room. The 14th floor winds round on itself in a loop, meaning he passes the same floor sign twice, foreshadowing what’s to come.
Once inside the room, time and reality distorts out of all recognition. As the map on the door spells out, the room is a Kafkaesque cell.
But the implication is that Enslin mentally constructs this prison for himself. He can’t leave, the same way he won’t allow himself to move on from grief.
Just as in life, Enslin goes round in circles (literally, moving from room to room). He also repeatedly replays past events as a way of atoning for his sins.
There’s the pain of his daughter’s death, but also his guilt at abandoning his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) and dad (Len Cariou).
In King’s novel The Shining, room 217 offers a spin on Orwell’s room 101, in which everyone’s worst fears manifest. Similarly, room 1408 houses all of Enslin’s worst fears and memories – all his vulnerabilities, in fact.
Enslin also has visions of other guests who have died there, making it a kind of ghostly waiting room.
The hotel room offers those in pain an end to anguish by inciting suicide. The other possibility is that the room creates so much mental anguish that guests simply prefer death.
Rather than a one-way ticket to terror and death, room 1408 represents a choice: embrace living, or join the afterlife.
Does Enslin die?
In some versions of the film, Mike gets out of the room alive.
In the director’s cut, Enslin dies after starting a fire. This destroys the cursed room, causing Olin to later tell Lily that Enslin didn’t die in vain.
Death isn’t the end, however. Enslin appears to live on in the burned shell of room 1408, just like the hotel’s other ghostly guests. He’s also reunited with daughter Katie.
But the story is a simile for spiritual death because Enslin isn’t really alive to begin with.
Once a gifted writer, Enslin has nothing but contempt for his job. He doesn’t believe in ghosts but cynically goes through the motions to sell shoddy books about haunted hotels. He lives on auto-pilot, taking no joy in birthdays, friendships or travel.
The time loops that Enslin experiences inside room 1408 are no different from his joyless limbo outside the hotel.
The room shows Enslin the soulless reality of his life, but is reflecting his own existence back at him. For instance, when he calls for help out of the window only to realise he’s looking at himself.
There are plenty of similarities between Enslin and The Shining’s Jack Torrance. Both men are bitter writers. They have young children: Enslin loses his to cancer, Torrance tries to lose his … to a mallet.
Both stories take place in a hotel, with each writer first seduced by its gory history. Unable to leave, each then dies in a spectacular blaze that destroys the source of the evil.
There’s also an aspect of cruelly reversed wish fulfilment.
The cynical Enslin finally hits on a story worth writing after his tortures in room 1408. Tragically, he hallucinates typing up an entire manuscript detailing his experiences, but never actually leaves the room.
Similarly, Torrance is looking for his big break as an author. He thinks he’s struck gold when he discovers a scrapbook about the hotel’s nefarious past, but it’s a story he’ll never get to tell.
We’ve only just begun
In Inception, the song Je Ne Regrette Rien serves as both motif and tool throughout the film. The Carpenter’s song We’ve Only Just Begun has a similar purpose in 1408.
When the room’s timer begins, the song – about a young couple just starting married life – is a mocking reference to the fun in store. It also marks the start of the countdown, with the film then running down Enslin’s 60 minutes in real time.
The song is also a commentary on Katie’s death, because her life was only just beginning. Thus the room plays the song when Enslin cradles her ghost as she dies in his arms all over again.
Finally, the song serves as an elegy for Enslin’s exit. Like all the other guests, and exactly as Olin predicted, he doesn’t make it past an hour in the room.
When his time is up, his reflection disappears and he sees his grave next to Katie’s. The counter then resets, and Enslin is given the choice to give up or relive this hour all over again.
Room 1408 may hold a terrifying descent into madness and mental anguish, yet it also holds the key to escape. Enslin either must defeat the room, defeat his past, or succumb to death. He opts for the latter.
His choice is styled as defiant sacrifice: “I’ve lived the life of a selfish man, but I don’t have to die that way”. He chooses to die rather than see Lily get hurt.
And yet, this is what the room had planned for him all along. The prediction is scratched on the wall that blocks the window: burn me alive. And that’s the way he goes.
1408 (2007), directed by Mikael Håfström
What to read or watch next
- The Shining (Stephen King, horror, hotels, writers)
- Don’t Look Now (horror, grief)
- Secret Window (horror, writers, hallucination)
- Unknown (the vanishing hotel room)
- How horror movies kill off their villains
- Hereditary, The Mothman Prophecies (horror, grief)
Picture credit: Peter Herrmann