I love this film. Admittedly, I am somewhat biased by a sense of nostalgia. The first time I saw The Skeleton Key, eight or nine years ago, I was a teenager living in Montreal, QC., and had never been outside of it. I was quite overwhelmed by a sense of stasis and bothered by the familiarity of home, which explains my Anne Rice phase. I was immediately swayed by the (romanticized) imagery of New Orleans in her books. The aesthetics came to life for me when I watched Interview With the Vampire, and I simply could never get enough of that atmosphere. Unfortunately, although I am no longer in Montreal, I have yet to make it to New Orleans. And so I remain fascinated by stories of the locale. But there are other reasons I am so drawn to this film in particular. Significantly, the New Orleans backdrop works here to explore the challenging concepts of Belief, Displacement, and Difference.
When Caroline takes a job as a home-care nurse in New Orleans, her curiosity is instantly aroused by the mysterious situation of her patient. Unable to discuss it with him (a stroke has left him silenced and bed-ridden), she decides to brush up on her investigative skills, only to stumble upon the world of hoodoo. Right away she learns a respected rule: if you don’t believe, it can’t hurt you. But as the plot unfolds, she learns that Belief is a tricky thing. How can one acknowledge but not believe? The complexity of this question contributes to the film’s creepy tone.
Completely out of her element, there is an interesting affinity between Caroline and the hoodoo practitioners she meets - that of Displacement. As she is informed, “the slaves brought voodoo with them”, eventually making New Orleans the birthplace of hoodoo (black magic). Thus, in order for Caroline to get the answers she seeks, she must overstep her boundaries, entering an essentially diasporic space. Her ability to do this, however, signals her own “migrant” position in an unexpected way. The indication is that she has never been able to define home, and has therefore become accustom to not belonging. This is evident in how comfortable she is with intrusion.
Lastly, there is the concept of Difference. A staple of the horror genre is to play on people’s fear of the unknown, of the Other. The Skeleton Key is no exception. Much of the suspense comes from the attempts to understand hoodoo in order to reverse its effects. The practitioners are pointed to as different. They are dark-skinned, french-speaking, and hidden-away in laundromats. This is meant to intimidate the audience, to make them uncomfortable. This form of Othering has often been discussed as problematic, however effective. But here, Caroline’s own sense of Otherness complicates this.
No spoilers, but I will say that with all of this in mind, the final twist can be read as either progressive, or reactionary (meaning, conformist/conservative). I find this refreshing.