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  • Writer's pictureSam Stoeltje

Cognitive difference in Horse Girl and elsewhere: The Cassandra Complex Pt. 1

“For God sakes, Owen, listen to me – he knew about the boy in Fresno and he says three billion people are going to die!”

“Kathryn, you know he can’t possibly know that. You’re a rational person. You’re a trained psychiatrist. You know the difference between what’s real and what’s not.”

“And what we believe is what’s accepted as “truth” now, isn’t it Owen? Psychiatry – it’s the latest religion. And we’re the priests – we decide what’s right and what’s wrong – we decide who’s crazy and who isn’t… I’m in trouble, Owen. I’m losing my faith.”

(From 12 Monkeys, the 1995 film)

I want to think about cognitive difference in popular culture, how it is represented and what some of the possible implications might be of those representations. By “cognitive difference,” I mean to suggest all of the endlessly different modes of thinking, of being, of living and feeling that are called “crazy” or “mad” or “insane.” Specifically here, though, I want to talk about those kinds of cognitive difference that are, currently, described by the techno/scientific psycho/pharmacological institutional assemblage as “schizophrenia,” “schizoaffective disorder,” and other genres of disease which can produce the hazily defined state called “psychosis”; and I want to talk about seeing, hearing, experiencing things which a certain consensus reality agrees are not there.

I also want to talk about a couple of movies, not the least reason for which being that movies are those opportunities we all have to see things that aren’t really there.

If you’re like me, you’ve been watching more movies lately. I took a recommendation from Tim, my fellow paraculturalist, and watched Horse Girl, a recent film that depicts a person’s dramatic involvement in a set of experiences that we recognize as being (stereo)typically delusional. The protagonist Sarah works at a fabric store in an anonymous town, spends her time crafting lanyards and watching a goofy paranormal-themed cop show. One of the inspirations of the film seems to be to want to explore the social type of the “horse girl,” and the question of what happens when “horse girls” grow up. I feel like I have only a vague sense of the “horse girl”; the label seems to signify an introverted, somewhat asexual type of adolescent, obsessed with horses, a girl who, in her way, refuses to grow up.

The film has bigger ambitions though. Sarah is not merely awkward, though she is that, and painfully; like her grandmother before her, she begins to be drawn into a non-consensus reality of some kind. She hears voices and finds herself “missing time.” She begins to piece together a narrative that involves aliens, cloning, and something she calls “Satico satellite,” almost certainly a reference to the VALIS of Phillip K. Dick’s own personal cosmology. This culminates in a plot to dig up her grandmother’s body and confirm, through DNA testing, that she herself is a clone of the woman.

(Here we could note that this affiliation of the weird or misfit adolescent with full-scale psychopathological “dysfunction” may be as old as the concept of adolescence itself; the “teen” as a social type and a new socioeconomic stage of life is emergent in the postwar period; Catcher in the Rye appears in the fifties, describes the experience of a misfit teen, and by the end turns out to have been composed from a mental hospital.)

At the center of Sarah’s experience is her recurring dream, in which she lies on a white field with two other people, while shadowy figures hover in the margins. This is an important center for the film, because one day Sarah encounters one of the people from her dream in real life. The sequence of events is significant: she spots a man from her dream walking by the fabric store, and attempts to run out and follow him, but is blocked at the entrance by an apparently psychotic homeless person. It is as if “reality itself” (borrowing from Toni Morrison’s reading of Hemingway here) has reached out and cautioned Sarah, saying, Don’t go down this rabbit hole unless you want to end up like this guy.

Extreme cognitive difference of the kind resulting in hallucination is, of course, deeply linked in modern cultures (“modern” which I mean in a cultural and not a temporal sense) to homelessness, specifically, as it is imagined as a state of abjection. The chain of signifiers is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible. If you become crazy, you will end up on the street, where you will live in fear, starving and unclean. The chain depends upon our awareness of “the street” as a place of horror, and simultaneously, our creation of “the street” as such a place (through, for example, our callous disregard for its inhabitants, our refusal to protect them through mutual aid or policy). It also of course depends upon the social construction of “madness” via institutions, both the ones that Foucault describes in Madness and Civilization and – following the erosion, in a U.S. context at least, of public spending even upon the minimal care provided in confinement-based treatment – their increasingly chemical successors (prescribed to those with the questionable privilege of being able to obtain them).

The presence of the man from Sarah’s dream introduces a rift in our experience of the film. On the one hand, we see the same actor in both contexts, confirming that something weird or, yes, paranormal is afoot, that is, if we can trust what we are seeing; on the other hand, the visual information constituting “the film” may itself have been corrupted by Sarah’s delusion. We may be experiencing, not an objective reality, but rather Sarah’s reality, which our preexisting extra-filmic knowledge flags as untrustworthy (for example, most people are aware that “missing time” is a “symptom” of schizophrenia). The suspense of the film then becomes being pulled back and forth between “is this real” and “is this not real,” a technique and trope that is incredibly common in horror, given the potency of our abjection of the cognitively different and, more than that, the monstrousness of our treatment of the cognitively different. In other words, films manipulate our sense of what is real in order to make use of our inbuilt fear of “going-crazy,” both our preconceptions of what that experience is like and our understanding of how society treats such people. I myself, for complicated reasons, am particularly susceptible to this technique, which is why I kept getting goosebumps while watching Horse Girl, and why I remain, after all these years, lowkey traumatized by A Beautiful Mind.

(But “going-crazy” surely is necessarily an unpleasant, even horrifying experience, isn’t it? It is difficult or perhaps impossible to address this question exterior to the social construction of cognitive difference within what calls itself modernity.)

(Spoiler alert)

The final, brilliant and satisfying turn of Horse Girl, though, is when the film seems to at last validate all of Sarah’s delusions – she meets another person from her dream, who remembers the dreams as well, including a glowing monolith hovering over the ocean that vaguely recalls that workhorse of the cinematic imagination, Space Odyssey 2001. She realizes that all her suspicions were correct: about the satellite, the aliens, and about being a clone of her grandmother. Intuiting what she must do, she puts on her grandmother’s dress, steals her old horse from a stable and takes it to a meadow, where she is promptly abducted(?) by a light in the sky. It's a weird movie.

Now, while some ambiguity about what is or is not happening has already been well established, this final shot, of Sarah’s levitation into the sky, at least seems to confirm to the viewer that this is all not merely in Sarah’s head. She was right all along.

I thought it made an interesting point of contrast to the final shot of another film I have looked at on this blog, The Lighthouse. That film concludes with Robert Pattinson’s character finally witnessing the supernatural glory of the lighthouse hardware, which responds to him in an apparently sentient way and spills out some kind of rapturous light-energy upon his manic visage. Like the horse girl, he seems, in this moment, to have been right all along: there is in fact some kind of obscure deity residing in the lighthouse.

But then he falls down the stairs, all the way down. And then we have the detached final shot, of a naked Pattinson pecked away at by seagulls, eyes gone, entrails spilling out. He is still alive, suggesting an allusion to the Prometheus myth, which, hey, why not, The Lighthouse takes a real kitchen sink approach to maritime allusion.

What I am getting at is that, in my reading, The Lighthouse ends with a much more disenchanted, not to mention horrific, pessimistic final shot, one that brings its cognitively non-normative subject “back down to earth,” whereas Horse Girl leaves us with nothing less than an ascension (a deification?). I’ve talked with people about this, and some feel that the conclusion of The Lighthouse is more ambiguous – maybe there is something supernatural-seeming about the sailor’s last moments. Seagulls, for example, are usually too intimidated by humans to, you know, eat them. Perhaps the final shot of The Lighthouse suggests a validation of the more folkloric dimension of the film, brought to life by Willem Defoe’s character’s litany of nautical superstitions. It is, however, a fundamentally different affective statement than we find in Horse Girl, which pivots from horror to something much less generically stable.

(Relevant here also is the final shot of a film I haven’t looked at yet, The Witch. I also meant to talk about 12 Monkeys, along with a bunch of other things, but this is getting too long as it is. At some point I’ll be back with: 12 Monkeys, La Jetée, the Cassandra Complex, Men in Black III, some recurring dreams I’ve had, maybe a little Foucault, a little Deleuze, the concept of “alternative knowledge,” “mad pride,” “mad studies,” the hearing voices movement…)

Until then!

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