avatarFrances A. Chiu, Ph.D. | writing coach | editor

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“Help! Help! Help!”

Let’s rescue Peter Medak’s long-forgotten film, “The Changeling” (1980), from oblivion

Not THE mansion, but in the general neck of the woods! Photo by Joseph Reece on Unsplash

When Stephen King tells us that any horror film “scared the daylights out of me,” you’d better believe it. And that film is none other than The Changeling, directed by Peter Medak. As King puts it, “there are no monsters bursting from chests; just a child’s ball bouncing down a flight of stairs.” Having watched it at least three times, this horror professor and scholar can vouch for it! I’d like to add, however, this film is not just an ordinary haunted house flick, but also a horror movie about humanity — or rather, inhumanity. Especially when the victim is a young, abused, and disabled child in a corrupt and materialistic world.

But let’s start with the more obvious aspects, beginning with its background and plot for those unfamiliar with it. For many years, this cult fave from 1980 has remained somewhat hidden from the pantheon of great horror films despite winning eight Genie Awards (annual awards from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television). Today, it’s been eclipsed by other horror flicks of its time, such as The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Shining (1979), to say nothing of more recent films like Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and Get Out (2017).

The Changeling, in other words, has suffered a fate not unlike its ghost of a young boy, hidden and secluded from the world. To add insult to injury, it’s been confused at times with another movie bearing the same title from 2008 starring Angelina Jolie.

Based in part on the experiences of music arranger Russell Hunter who lived in an allegedly haunted mansion in Chessman Park, Denver, this film borrows aspects of Hunter’s name and profession. George C. Scott plays John Russell, a rational, determined yet sensitive composer and music professor. The script also plays homage to Chessman Park by mentioning it as the location of the house.

The opening shots show a happy family of three pushing their station wagon on a wintry day in the mountains – they are a seemingly ideal family, and a contrast to the dysfunctional one of the ghost. Tragedy quickly ensues as the wife and daughter are hit by a truck while playing in the snow. After their deaths, the protagonist moves across the country from New York to Seattle, taking up a teaching position at his alma mater. He then decides to rent a splendid Victorian mansion from the historical preservation society with the assistance of the elegant Claire Norman, played by Scott’s real-life wife, Trish van Devere.

Strange things begin to happen not long after John moves in. When playing a Mozart rondo on the piano, a key becomes stuck — before being mysteriously released. Sometime later, he hears a loud, repeated clanging at 6am for several mornings in a row. A door begins to open as he plays the piano — but there is no one there. Later on, after a rehearsal with his students, he begins to hear water running in various parts of the house. All of these inexplicable incidents indicate that the problems are far from being the ordinary sort associated with old houses. (Today, hearing strange noises in a near-century old house alarms me…with the prospect of costly repair bills! But I digress.)

More and more bizarre incidents pile up. John discovers a secret room in the attic hidden up a flight of stairs from a third-floor closet. It is dark and filled with cobwebs – as well as an old-fashioned wheelchair and a music box: one that happens to play the very tune that John has been composing, in the same key and tempo no less.

A close enough resemblance — but see stills from the movie. Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

Eventually, after a false lead (one that could have been easily dispensed with), he discovers through a seance and further sleuthing that the hidden room shut off from the rest of the house once belonged to a crippled boy, Joseph Carmichael, who lost his mother after birth.

In other words, the room served as a “disappointments room,” a room designed to hide the mentally and physically handicapped children of wealthy American parents who wished to feign perfection in every aspect of their lives. (In fact, there is another more recent horror film from 2017 titled The Disappointments Room.) At the age of three, Joseph is shuttled into a dark room in the attic after succumbing to atopic arthritis and becoming crippled for life.

Craving the child’s sizable inheritance from his maternal grandfather — which is stipulated to pass to charity in the event of the child’s death — the father, Richard, drowns the son in the bathtub before replacing him with a boy from the orphanage: the titular changeling. As such, the father stands to accrue even greater wealth. The changeling becomes a senator, philanthropist, and benefactor of the historical preservation society from which John rents the house.

If the film were little more than a general theme of injustice, it would probably be like any other ghost story. What makes this film remarkable is the suspenseful way in which the plot unfolds, gathering weight and momentum along the way as this particularly heinous crime from seventy years ago is exposed.

We know something is wrong, for instance, when the grim head of the preservation society frowns, telling John, “You know there is a question about your lease. That house shouldn’t have been rented.” More ominously, she adds, “That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

Photo by Megan Stallings on Unsplash

In fact, apart from the false lead of a girl’s death, the gradual revelation of the crime is almost as frightening as the mysterious incidents when the medium tells the small audience at John’s house: “The presence is very strong here. It is a child’s presence; a child who is not at peace; a child who cannot rest.” Asking the ghost, “Did you die in this house,” the desperate answer dictated to the medium, who is scribbling as fast as she can, is: “Help! Help! Help!”

As secrets are revealed, spectral disturbances begin to multiply in frequency and scale. The ghost becomes increasingly violent, slamming doors throughout the house — as if angered by the senator’s attempts to conceal the story of the crime. An especially frightening point involves Claire being chased down by the wheelchair. The house is eventually burned down in a spectacular conflagration as the entire truth is revealed to the senator: he was indeed “a beneficiary of the cruelest kind of murder — murder for profit.” The fiery demise of the house is fitting as John glances around the senator’s lavish office, lashing out with “None of this belongs to you. It should have gone to the dead child.”

Not least effective are the wide-angle shots of a Victorian mansion with its numerous doors, rooms, and hallways, as if suggesting other secrets withheld from the world by its affluent owners. Or the otherworldly shots taken from above, hinting at the ghost’s perspective from the attic. Apart from a few initial whooshes and whispers, climaxing into poundings and slammings, this mostly silent and mysterious entity adds to our sense of the uncanny by confirming our suspicions that the house is haunted — even if John is still initially skeptical.

But The Changeling is not just a film revolving around a haunted house with a vengeful ghost. It is also a tragedy of the human condition — a profoundly sad tale of a forgotten, forlorn, and handicapped boy who never enjoys either maternal or paternal love.

He is a boy suffering from painful immobility whose discomfort is worsened by being confined by his father to a dark attic for at least half of his six years – before being drowned by him and replaced with another boy. In short, a child who never experiences light or warmth, literally and figuratively speaking. Seen from this angle, his growing rage as the changeling senator attempts to conceal or obliterate all traces of his existence becomes understandable, even if terrifying. The ghost wants nothing more than to have the ghastly crime revealed to the world.

The subject of this 1980 film is unsurprising when viewed in the contexts of its time. The Changeling was made, after all, during a period when the awareness of child abuse and the rights of the disabled were beginning to attract a great deal of attention in both the US and UK from the early 1960s.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

This was a period that unearthed numerous accounts of abused children, particularly as feminists presented child abuse as a subset of wider patterns of male violence towards women and children. One easily sees this in such novels as Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), where Jack Torrance, the alcoholic father, and his son, Danny, are both witnesses to and victims of child abuse. Here, in The Changeling, Joseph’s increased violence towards the conclusion of the film leads us to wonder if he is also perpetuating the violence he endured as an abused child — even if he is justifiably angry at his circumstances. (It is worth adding that October is not only the month of Halloween, but also Domestic Violence Awareness month. This was established in 1981, only a year after the movie debut.)

Given the extreme contempt for the disabled through much of the 18th-, 19th, and the 20th centuries, there is indeed a grim reality to the ghostly story of Joseph Carmichael. In fact, the segregation of the disabled dates back to colonial times when they were prohibited from settling in towns and villages unless they could show an ability to support themselves. Families with disabled children often hid them (e.g., locking them in “disappointments rooms”), disowning or even withholding them from life-support — all of which more or less happens to Joseph.

The early 20th century (not coincidentally, the Gilded Age)— the very setting of the story — was a particularly bad time for the disabled as discrimination intensified. A New York ordinance of 1911, for instance, stipulated that:

No person who is diseased, maimed….or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object….shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view.

This ordinance remained in effect until 1974, only five years prior to the making of the movie.

But by the 1950s and 60s, a new trend towards de-institutionalization took place as persons with severe physical disabilities were allowed to enter the mainstream. A decade later, different disability groups began to realize that working together was more beneficial than working apart. The idea of disability as a social and political force emerged. In 1970, Judith E. Heumann organized a Disabled in Action protest in New York City, while in 1973, demonstrations were held in Washington D.C. by disability activists protesting Nixon’s veto of what would eventually become the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Two years later in 1975, Congress would pass the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94–142), to support and improve the education of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their families.

The awakening of the ghost in the mansion would thus appear to have words of the quadriplegic wheelchair user, Tom Clancy, in mind. In 1977, he declared:

Look out, America, because I’m coming…I have tried and failed, cried and raged in silence. I have sat and watched because I could not keep in step with you, but I never gave up….You have not heard the last of me….Until recent times, you kept me out of sight and sound as you begin the search for a moral answer to the materialistic chaos which you now vested, my voice will rise. It is the inner fire that will not accept the “impossible.”

And so the noises in the mansion amplify until the fires consume the walls that once confined the boy. In short, the “Help! Help Help!” cried out by the ghost during the seance would appear to be a clarion call from the disabled everywhere. It is perhaps fitting that a year after the release of The Changeling, the United Nations would designate 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons.

At the same time, whether consciously or not, this film also captures a distinct awareness of political corruption following the resignation of President Nixon for his complicity in Watergate and his pardoning by his successor, Gerald Ford in 1974. As Stephen King mentions fleetingly in Danse Macabre, The Changeling is an “odd combination of ghosts and Watergate.” (Waterghost would not have been an inapt title since the boy is drowned in his bathtub and buried in a well!) What happens when the putative father of the nation is a criminal, bent on furthering his own desire for power and wealth? Even if the action takes place in the state of Washington, rather than in Washington D.C.? Let’s explore this further.

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

To many, the fallout that resulted from the discovery of the Republican- concocted Watergate gave the impression of a dysfunctional political system, one rigged to help those at the top of the political family/nation when they “inherit an empire,” to use John’s words to the senator.

For just as Nixon and his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, plotted to have the CIA ask the FBI to terminate their investigation of Watergate by pretending that the break-in was a national security operation, Medak’s changeling senator — also a Republican — makes every effort to prevent others from discovering the truth of his origins. Dispatching Police Captain DeWitt to John’s home in order to intimidate him and retrieve the medal that John dangled in front of him earlier, he also arranges to have his lease terminated and Claire resign from the historical preservation society. At another point, when John exposes the truth of the senator’s origins to his face, the latter tries to bribe John into silence.

Nor is it altogether accidental that just as a tape (a true ’70s relic) provides the “smoking gun” evidence of the collusion between Nixon and Haldeman in the orchestration of his plans for reelection, John’s tape recorder captures Joseph’s voice, providing further clues to the solving of the mystery.

But even with Republicans ousted from the White House in 1976, general discontent simmered — best captured by President Carter in his famous “malaise” speech of 1979. Like Tom Clancy who deplored “materialistic chaos” in 1977, Carter noted that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” There were only two paths, with the unfortunate one being a path leading to “fragmentation and self-interest,” especially a “mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.” It is this very selfishness and desire for splendor that drives Richard Carmichael to lose patience with his son’s disability before murdering him. And for the changeling himself to hide any incriminating evidence. One might say that his astral projection at the conclusion of the film richly conveys the idea of self-fragmentation.

Not least, with the rising awareness of inequality and child poverty at the end of the 1970s with stagflation raging between 1973 and 1982, one wonders if the dramatic difference between the fates of the murdered Joseph Carmichael, and his advantaged replacement also illustrates the widening gap between poor and rich during the late 1970s. The contrast between squalor and splendor could not be more distinct: an awareness that already present in King’s Shining where the ghosts of the jetset, royalty, and other wealthy people prove insidious while Jack Torrance fears impending poverty and homelessness.

Although it is difficult to determine the extent to which Peter Medak was aware of these contemporary concerns with child abuse, the disabled, political corruption, and wealth inequality, The Changeling itself serves as a recording of these national murmurings at the beginning of the 1980s. A warning that something was wrong in the house that is America. Perhaps more than forty years later, the desperate call for help resonates as loudly as ever.

© Frances A. Chiu, October 22, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Recommended viewings and readings:

This film may be watched on Tubi (free of charge) and Youtube.

For a history of disability, see: Doris Zames Fleischer and Frieda Zames, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

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