A Room as an Identity Experiment
For this week’s exercise, we were asked to create a fantasy object. I choose the adjective, exciting, and decided to probe my love of Gothic novels in fifteen minutes of sketching.
During my final year of undergraduate study at Sarah Lawrence College, I wrote a thesis on female friendships in the Gothic novel from the past to the present and traced several threads about what made the Gothic novel so compelling.
When it comes to defining a Gothic novel, the setting is as much a character as any human in the novel. It holds secrets, history, and lies, and often plays a type of psychological mind-game with its heroine.
This got me thinking about the things we carry or place in boxes, and what might we learn from both ourselves and others if all we have is artifacts from different points of our lives.
Keeping that in mind I started to think about this idea as something like an escape room meets an art exhibit, and I specifically drew from one particular book to frame my idea: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
The book details two sisters, Merricat and Constance, who live alone after the rest of the family was poisoned at breakfast. The story is told from the perspective of the younger sister, who is childlike and erratic. There is a lot held in the home they live in and one of the scenes that stuck with me was a wall of jars where they keep pickled and canned foods in their basement.
Merricat describes the process of adding to this wall of food as adding to some grand ancestry with a collage of contributions.
All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women. — Shirley Jackson
Using this wall of preserves as an anchor I decided that I would think about ways in which the jars could either trigger events or hold clues for broader mysteries. Keeping in mind that a large part of the Gothic novel are themes like trapped doors, and mistaken identities, I thought what if the jars were sitting on triggers? What is removing them made certain things happen in the room.
As I started thinking about this, I tried to imagine an occupant of the room being given some kind of mystery. Not as straight forward as a dinner party, but not as high adrenaline as an escape room. In this space, they have to draw conclusions about someone who has lived there. They have to piece together the detritus of their life into something meaningful.
That’s when the room became something of a social experiment. I started to remember something a psychology professor once told me about an experiment when you put all the sides of your life into one space and had people you know solve it, and how the results would be disastrous because as human being we naturally put on masks depending on who we are with.
With that in mind, I started to envision an escape room-type setup where technology should be seamless, and almost undetectable, and indistinguishable from the artifacts the person is working with.
What the objective is, I am not sure, but I think that overall this setup could prove enlightening in putting the self and and the uncanny on display. As I started to populate the room I started to imagine what other bits could inhabit it. A briefcase. A coat. A hat. Some unopened mail. All of these would build a narrative for a person, and what the user would have to uncover would be open to interpretation and reveal as much about the user as themselves.
When thinking about development for this idea, I started to draw on the basis of identity theory as well.
For the last five years, I reviewed the NBC show Blindspot. This hour-long drama premiered in 2015 and followed the life of a woman who had come out of a bag in Times Square covered in tattoos that predicted things that were going to happen.
Over years of reviews, and particularly in early seasons, I argued that Jane Doe was the best representation of identity theory there could be. Jane was a “blank slate.” She didn’t have any influence from her prior life to inform her actions and thus was free to make her own choices. However, I also argued that the choices that Jane made were never her own, because she was being influenced by the idea that she must be a good guy and was filling the societal expectation.
I wrote in one of my Tell-Tale TV reviews in 2016:
We know so little about Jane and what led to choose to take the drugs that wiped her memory that we can’t even deduce if it really was her choice.
Watching Jane go through bits and pieces of her life and trying to pick out the significant memories and distinguish what was real from what wasn’t was a fascinating story to watch, and I wonder if, without context what someone would decide about the person inhabiting the space.
Moving forward, I would need to create a user flow with what I wanted them to find. Since this would be a self-guided game or experience, the “clues” would need to be interconnected but at the same time lose enough that they would.
Busser, Lauren. “Blindspot Review: Cease Forcing Enemy (Season 1 Episode 11).” Tell-Tale TV, 1 Mar. 2016, telltaletv.com/2016/03/blindspot-review-cease-forcing-enemy-season-1-episode-11/.
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Deluxe). Penguin Books, 2006.