Spider

We all have psychological conflicts to deal with. It is only for the unfortunate few, however, the psychological matter bursts through their sense of reality, and the boundaries between the inner and the outer are no longer intact. Persons outside may be seen to have characteristics of persons from our past, or worse, from our fantasies. Outer reality may acquire the character of our inner world, with all its gloom and anxiety. This is the beginning of psychosis, or in more medical terms, schizophrenia.

Throughout history, schizophrenia has stood as a reminder of the human destiny gone terribly wrong. A human being, meant to love and to work, is reduced to a mess of a being, unable to take care of himself, and potentially harmful to himself and others. Where dedication, affection, and hard work were to exist, what exists is a stream of hallucinations, delusions, paranoias.

David Cronenberg’s film Spider is gives us dark glimpse into the mind of a schizophrenic man and the origins of his illness. In his 30s, Mr. Cleg arrives at a half-way home, where he is to stay with 8-10 others suffering from psychosis. The manager shows him what will be his room for the next several years – possibly for the rest of his life. When Mr. Cleg smells gas in the fireplace in his room, a stream of memories from his childhood is let through.

We see Mr. Cleg as a boy, perhaps of about 10, lovingly called ‘Spider’ by his mother for his habit of weaving a web out of a thread in his hands. His mother and father do not get along, and the father is tyrannical to the boy. We presume that Spider’s father often hits him. The boy has to call his father home from a pub every night, a strange place for 10-year old Spider, where he has to witness odd characters, including a prostitute who bears her breast to shock him.

One night, when the father doesn’t return home and is not to be found in the pub, Spider’s mother goes to another little house, seemingly owned by Spider’s father, to look for him. Spider follows. As the mother enters the house, she sees the father having sex with Yvonne, the prostitute. The father is so angry that he hits his wife with a shovel and she dies. He and the prostitute bury her outside the house, while Spider – perhaps, since we do not see him in the frame – watches in secret. Soon, the father marries the prostitute and brings him home, where Spider has to live with her and his father, both murderers of the only person who loved him.



Much has been said about the origins of schizophrenia, and consensus holds that it is an illness that is physiological in nature, often genetically passed on. However, episodes of psychological stress are likely to make the seeds of schizophrenia bear bitter fruit, while a relatively stress-free atmosphere may, if not prevent the illness, keep it under control.

Cronenberg’s film shows us the psychological circumstances that may lead to the outbreak of a psychosis, the roots of a damaged psyche that is unable to function in the world, except in secure, isolated places – a human destiny gone awfully wrong. The film is dark and disturbing, taking one into the mind of a young boy who is too young to be able to stand either the aggression or the sexuality he is forced to helplessly acknowledge day in and day out. With little care, such a psyche is likely to explode, which is precisely what happens to Spider, and he ends up as the psychotic Mr. Cleg.

One is left wondering why such a film would be made, for its chief contribution to one’s emotional life seems to be a sense of disturbance, reminding one of the amoral cruelty of life, where its ugliness may be forced upon minds too young and weak to accept it. Nevertheless, all of us have had moments of darkness that have scarred us, even though we may be unconscious of them now. For that reason, one is left in admiration for the empathy and skill with which the development of a schizophrenic is portrayed in the film.

24 million people in the world today suffer from schizophrenia. For a large proportion of them, their early life would have looked something like Spider’s. Cronenberg’s film is of value for bringing such a life to cinema, helping us understand the cruel misfortunes of this kind of person, who we may often tend to think of as odd and deserving of our jokes, our dislike, or our shame – if he happens to be a family member.

I am unsure if I would recommend such a film. While one cannot but have a sense of repulsion towards the circumstances of Spider’s childhood, there is an ambivalence one leaves the movie with – enriched, appreciative, yet disturbed. Watch it if you find such an experience appealing.

“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontations. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face. Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film.” – David Cronenberg

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~ by tdcatss on June 4, 2012.

2 Responses to “Spider”

  1. Thanks Kaif, for such a good review! I haven’t seen it, but I appreciate what you are saying about schizophrenia. Have you ever watched ” A Beautiful Mind”? And , is Spider based on a true story?

  2. hi debbie! yes, i have watched ‘a beautiful mind’. it is a nice film, and perhaps more positive and forward looking than spider, as far as i remember. it spoke of the coexistence of madness and genius, while here there is just the former. also, spider is more an art film than a beautiful mind, whose sensibility i remember to be more palatable to the mainstream audience.

    spider is not based on a real story but on a novel by patrick mcgrath

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