Strong Female Characters Ground ‘A Stir of Echoes’

     I would like to start off this blog post by saying that if you haven’t seen the 1999 film A Stir of Echoes, based on the story by Richard Matheson, please do so immediately.

     This underseen film is about a construction worker named Tom (Kevin Bacon), who lives with his family in a quaint little house in a very friendly neighbourhood.  He loves his family, but aspires to move on to bigger and better things, feeling like he isn’t providing enough or accomplishing enough for himself.  This neighbourhood has block parties, love football, and everyone knows each other.  While they are at a party, Tom’s whacky sister-in-law starts talking to the group about hypnosis, and Tom, being exceedingly closeminded, challenges her to hypnotize him, asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”

     Kiss of death in a horror movie, right?  From that point on, Tom begins seeing things, his wife’s sister having inadvertently opened the door for him to communicate with spirits.  In particular, a ghost in his house is desperately asking for help, and she is becoming more and more insistent.

     This movie is interesting in that it depicts a working class neighbourhood in a highly traditional community, but has a wide variety of representations of women in the home.

The Single Woman

     First up is Tom’s sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas).  She is a single woman, and very much a free spirit.  She and Tom don’t get along, but in an almost playful way.  She seems to feel like it is her duty as Maggie’s sister to not get along with her husband.  Almost all of her objections to Tom typically stem from a reaction to something that he has said or done.  She is a new-age loving, spiritual person, and as a hardcore skeptic they butt heads regularly.

     At first glance, this makes Lisa a stereotype, the kooky aunt who is single and carefree, living it up in a super bohemian apartment on her own, smoking pot and meditating.  What is interesting about Lisa is that she is clearly a character who is there to provide a little comic relief, as well as be deliberately overbearing in order to get Tom to face his feelings and admit what is happening to him.  However, on multiple occasions, the writers flip the script, making it clear that she loves her sister, and that she cares about Tom and acknowledges that despite his pigheadedness, he does the best for his family.  She also recognizes when she has gone too far, and doesn’t hesitate to admit it or apologize.  I love her character for this reason, as it makes her so much more realistic, and doesn’t imply that single equals selfish.

The Working Mom

     While Tom is the main character in the story, on re-watch it became apparent to me how big a role his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) actually has in this whole story.  She is a mother first and foremost, and has just found out that she is pregnant again.  Because of their financial situation, she works, and doesn’t seem to have a problem with that fact, even though Tom clearly does.  She feels lost in the shuffle, as their son, Jake, also has the ability to communicate with the ghost.  Because they are afraid of scaring her, Maggie is generally left in the dark about what is happening, which naturally makes her assume the worst and worry more.

     When she tells her sister about what is happening, she also shares the fact that Tom has stopped going to work, and that the financial burden will be falling on her once he uses up all of his sick days.  She is resentful of Tom’s desire for a “better life,” not because it takes his attention from her, but because she feels that he is telling her that their life together isn’t what he wants.  At this moment her sister advises her to be patient, and that she can be the glue for her family while Tom figures this out.

     As with many women who work and have children, this is one more task that she accepts, no questions asked.  What I loved about her, though, was that she makes her feelings about what is happening clear from the jump.  While at first she confides only in her sister, she then makes it very clear to Tom when she is unhappy, or when she needs him to step up.  He just chooses not to listen.

     I loved this change of pace in the communication dynamic of a married couple on screen.  Typically both parties keep their issues with each other bottled up until it all comes to a head and one or the other, or both, explode and all of the petty issues that seemed small suddenly seem huge.  While their marriage is at a constant simmer during this period, she is very open about how she is feeling about all of this.  It is stand by your man, but be honest, and I loved it.

     The females characters in A Stir of Echoes are strong, opinionated, and fiercely loyal.  The relationships in this film feel genuine which makes them feel empowering.  Had Maggie been mousy, or accepted her role as “Tom’s wife” without making her feelings known, she wouldn’t have felt like someone the audience could relate to as much as they had.

     The entire cast really knocked it out of the park with this one.  It’s a scary movie, great ghost story and a hell of a mystery that will keep you guessing.  The fact that all of the characters felt like individuals and were not defined solely by their relationship to Tom was icing on the dark, scary cake.

     Have you seen A Stir of Echoes?  What do you think?

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