The Uncanny Suite

Hotel Corridor Uncanny smaller

“Recollection’s love is the only happy love.” —Kierkegaard

The night before Hurricane Sandy was due to roll into New York City, my husband’s employer offered to put him up in a hotel near the office, as the subway system was going to be shut down at midnight. In the event of disaster, we didn’t want to be separated by the river, so I went with him to the gigantic hotel in Midtown, which they assured us was equipped with enough generators in the event of infrastructure collapse. The entire enterprise reminded me of a time when I was young and my parents renovated our kitchen: we had to stay in a hotel while they finished the floors. The whole idea of being in “at home” with my family — but not at home — was exciting.

It’s exactly this feeling of liminal space, of “not being at home,” that makes hotels so thrilling: in a hotel, you are not quite yourself. You can engage in secret or illicit behavior. The “not being at home” feeling, which Wayne Kostenbaum explains in his 2007 book Hotel Theory, is a method of “not staying.” In other words, “hotel existence, because socially unattached, is silent, even amid noise,” he writes. “Nothing gets accomplished in a hotel room.”

As Hurricane Sandy rolled in, we walked to the cheesy Irish pub around the corner. After a whiskey or two, my husband took a photo of me standing in Times Square completely alone. The wind speed was ominous, but even more unheimlich, or “uncanny,” as Freud would say, was the complete absence of other people. It was terrifying.

As my husband had to go to work, I stayed in the hotel under the pretense that I was working on my book project. I had brought my laptop, and there it sat, on the hotel desk, its cursor blindly blinking into the dimly lit room. I peered out the window. It was eerily quiet. No taxis there to honk, no giant off-brand Sesame Street characters terrorizing tourists. Disturbed, I found myself unable to write anything except the epigraph to a book I would never write. They reopened the subway system. I went to work.

Writer Joanna Walsh, after the collapse of her marriage, became a hotel reviewer. She recounts the experience of staying in and reviewing hotels in Hotel, published by Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. But even in hotels, Walsh finds herself perturbed by “unheimlich longing.” “A hotel’s secret,” she writes, “is that it’s only a seeming mini-break from the rights and wrongs of home. We expect our desires to be addressed and dispensed with. Instead, they are put on ice.”

As both Walsh and Kostenbaum point out in their respective hotel studies, “hotels are for those who understand performance,” Walsh writes, “ghosts, actors, women.” Kostenbaum, for his part, devotes an entire section to figures he calls “hotel women,” and both writers obsess over the 1932 pre-Code movie Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford. “There is no privacy in the Grand Hotel,” Walsh writes. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining makes the implicit unsettling qualities of the setting monstrously explicit: Jack and his family may think they are going to pass the winter in a quiet hotel-sit, but there are already more permanent guests (ghosts) who have other ideas.

And it’s not just the “ghosts” of a hotel that make for the experience of the uncanny. It’s the objects as well — the desk, the bed, the lamp, the robe — that aren’t quite right. They are standing in for something real. Kostenbaum, describing the “finite set” of a hotel could also be describing the little world of Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel: “A hotel is a temporarily finite set — hence, a laboratory, a culture demanding dumb waiters and thieves, bellhops and prostitutes, duchesses and switchboard operators, complaints and licentiousness, stairs and red leather armchairs, bathrobes and old-time hospitality, automatons and B-girl routines, a “colored couple,” and a sari, drapes and credit cards, turbans and ashtrays, Presidential suites and oyster bars.”

You’ll find this “finite set” in nearly all of Wes Anderson’s films, from Margot’s cigarettes to Richie’s sweatbands, or Miss Cross’s book on Jacques Cousteau. In Anderson muse J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Lane’s desire for Franny is wrapped in an object that stands in, albeit awkwardly, for Franny herself. “Lane, walking toward her quickly but with a slow face, reasoned to himself, with suppressed excitement, that he was the only one on the platform who really knew Franny’s coat. He remembered that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic expression of the person herself.”

These objects and signifiers become “uncanny” when they cease to carry the meaning behind them. When my parents divorced when I was in high school, my father moved into a nearby apartment. Though I had my own room, this apartment never felt like anything other than a temporary lodging to me. Even when he moved into a gigantic house and filled it with furniture and family pictures, his home, for me, always had the same hollow vibe of a hotel room. Whatever its comforts, it could never be “at home” – perhaps the only thing more disturbing than a strange place masquerading as home is when home, or the person who represents that home, becomes a stranger.

Unlike at home, “to be in a hotel,” Walsh writes, “is to have a complaint, or to feel the tension of being about to complain, or to have the possibility of complaining, which is not possible at home.” We have even made hotels out of state-of-the-art birthing suites. “Perhaps hotels are not for the really rich,” Walsh writes. “Is a hotel an inconvenience, in the end?” This question had me thinking about the popularity of Airbnb, or VRBO, of renting an entire house or apartment in lieu of a hotel. Renting is oftentimes less expensive, particularly if you’re traveling with a group — or one could splurge for the luxury vacation rental, which comes complete with staff and amenities, and live like a Kardashian. Is it possible to have the same feeling of escapism, the same freedom to complain, as Walsh points out, in an Airbnb?

In the run-down version of the Grand Budapest Hotel, there are directive signs everywhere — signs to the elevator, to the baths, to the concierge, etc. Gone are the days when someone would be there at your beck and call, to cater to your every whim. At the end of the film, the writer assumes that the hotel will have become “common property,” and wonders why Zero would’ve kept the hotel after it had fallen from grandeur — because it reminds him of his beloved concierge M. Gustave? No, he tells him simply, “I kept it for Agatha,” his wife. “We were happy here.”

Agatha’s absence, is much like the absence of “home.” The hotel stands in for what should be, or simply what was, but is no longer. “A hotel sets itself apart from home and, in doing so, proves rather than denies home’s existence,” Walsh writes. Ruminating on what went wrong in her marriage, she realizes at its center is the idea of what makes something — or someone — a home. “We went into marriage to fulfill our individual desires (as we had been told we were individuals),” she writes, “but we found ourselves required to be fulfilled by what we found there, which is no more than what other people have found. The marriage problem is the same as the hotel problem. I have a second guessed your desires, and those of others. I have made myself into a hotel.”

Image via Flickr user Chris under Creative Commons license.