The monster within us: chemical paranoia in Todd Hayne's 1995 masterpiece, Safe
By Evelio Zavala
By all accounts, Safe directed by Todd Haynes in his second feature is a horror film. After all, most horror movies aim to scare us. What’s scarier than a woman plagued by an unknown illness she can never stop, and worse can’t understand? She doesn’t even know what triggers these intense reactions.
She can be fine, one second, but then struggles to even breathe, whether in a confined space or out in the open. It can come from anywhere, and it is so unpredictable, you begin to lose yourself, not to the illness, but madness.
Paranoia becomes second nature, questioning and accusing anything and everything for making you sick.
But, by audience’s perception, it is not a horror in the veins of its contemporaries at the time of its release, like the meta-horror slasher Wes Craven’s New Nightmare or Guillermo del Toro’s stylized vampire film Cronos.
We are, however, afraid of the inevitable: dying. That’s what’s at stake for these movies. Whether our heroes will survive the monster and beat it. Sometimes, the monster is within us, and in order to stop it we must stop ourselves, and death is usually the final nail in one’s coffin.
Safe offers a far worse fate than death.
Carol White, played by Julianne Moore, is a suburban housewife who begins to show symptoms when exposed to certain chemicals. The problem doesn’t come when she has difficulties breathing, throwing up, or experiencing a nosebleed, but how her doctors can’t find anything wrong with her. Worse, the root cause of her illness is unidentifiable because these chemicals are ingrained in everything we use. She coughs from truck fumes, pukes from her husband’s deodorant, bleeds when receiving a perm. And yet, Carol is no closer to finding out what’s wrong with her.
And she tries. By God, she does! Carol stops wearing lavish outfits, no longer wears makeup, is forced to carry an oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, and she still collapses at her dry cleaners when it, too, is being fumigated. Convulsing and bleeding through her face mask.
All this escalates to the second half of the film where Carol leaves everything behind and begins living at Wrenwood, a supposed safe haven, away from any chemicals. A redundancy, and yet Carol buys into it. People who share similar illnesses as her, dubbed as an “environmental illness”.
But it becomes clear that Wrenwood is no better. She becomes more and more isolated from people, separated from her husband and stepson, and we see people aren’t free from death, as a person is hauled away by an ambulance. Peter Dunning, played by Peter Friedman, the founder of Wrenwood, virtually denies that this incident is a sign that the facility doesn’t work. All of this is just a holistic exercise of new-age medicine, with Dunning stating it clearly: “We are one with the power that created us. We're safe and all is well in our world.”
This breaks Carol down further, when her husband and stepson help move her into a smaller room (an isolated igloo-shaped space) and she can’t even handle being too close to him, thinking it’s his cologne that’s possibly making her feel ill. Her husband Greg, played by Xander Berkeley, denies this as he isn’t wearing any before Carol claims maybe it’s in his shirt. It’s unclear if there’s truly some kind of chemical that might be triggering a reaction, or if the paranoia that has been developing over time has now made her afraid of being close to anyone.
The film comes to an end when the community surprises her with a birthday cake, and while she is surrounded by people with whom she shares more in common, because of Wrenwood’s shared purpose, Carol still ends up alone in her igloo home. Nobody is around her, and all she has is a small room that looks sterile, and a mirror. All she has is herself, and Carol says to herself, from words of encouragement by Claire, played by Kate McGregor-Stewart, “I love you” over and over again.
It’s no longer about hoping that she’ll be cured, but accepting her condition. A condition that the film may not explicitly state, but is multiple chemical sensitivity. This is, however, unrecognized as a chemical-caused illness by any professional medical organization.
Regardless, it doesn’t negate the horrifying implications at the end. Carol can no longer go back to her old life. She can’t be with her husband, her friends, and is now confined in a small space, alone, all so she can’t be attacked by something she doesn’t see. And yet, it is everywhere, and the possibility of death is so real, she can’t risk it.
So I say this again, what’s scarier than a woman plagued by an unknown illness she can’t stop, and worse can’t even understand? Sadly, there are fates far worse than death, and that is horrifying. A true horror film in every sense of the word.
About the writer
Evelio Zavala is an aspiring filmmaker, writer, editor, and playwright. An avid reader, fellow film aficionado, D&D enthusiast, and podcast junkie. He lives in Chicago with his two cats. His one regret in life is he wasn’t born rich. He is studying Media Arts at Chicago State University.