2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ (John Carpenter, 1994)


In John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, the delicate reality in which we live exists only as far we as believe it. As obvious as it may be, the film articulates that moral standards are representative of a dominant system of beliefs rather than an ingrained sense of righteousness, and that the fabric of our experience with the natural world itself can be altered through the power of an infectious idea. Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, In the Mouth of Madness follows an insurance investigator, Trent (Sam Neill), as he tries to get to the bottom of a missing fantasy novelist whose writing has pierced into the collective unconsciousness and begins to threaten reality as we know it. 

For all of H.P. Lovecraft’s contributions to the world of fiction, his depiction of the sublime was unmatched. With a stringently scientific tone, he builds up fantastical world through the eyes of skeptics and unveils untold horrors through the allusion to the incomprehensible. In Judeo-Christian traditions, the sublime expressed the immensity of God’s power through his creations: any being that could create an ocean or a mountain range was one who could inspire terror and awe. Lovecraft carried over this feeling of being overwhelmed by God’s power to creatures that were not divine and threatened humanity’s future. Rather than representing these otherworldly forces, however, he suggests them and leaves it to readers to fill in the gaps with their most horrific imaginings.


As an interpretation of Lovecraft’s writing, In the Mouth of Madness carries over and develops this idea by transforming our image of God into something perverted. A reality, not unlike our own, has started to crack at the edges by the time Trent has begun his investigation into the disappearance of fantasy writer Sutter Cane. Unbeknownst to him, the saturation of Cane’s stories on the collective unconscious has already begun to change reality. More popular than the Bible, it seems that monstrous ideas have changed the way his readers think and has already begun to change the world. Under the influence of some perverted divinity, our personal stories have been set (or reset) on a predestined path set out by an author whose work has transcended the page. Where we go, what we think and who we love has left our control through the power of overwhelming suggestion.


The focus of In the Mouth of Madness lies far from personal dramas, as it explores the fragility of our collective reality. The idea of the sublime works to eclipse all sense of individuality and exposes our wants and desires as insignificant. While this may be a column about love and sex, the absence of such themes within this story is telling, as erotic desire exists only so far as we fear death. So, sex for pleasure or procreation loses all meaning in the face of human extinction. In the wake of humanity rendered obsolete by an otherworldly divinity, desire loses footing to the endless void of a future where humanity is not only gone but forgotten. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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