Ghost Stories: On Honey Boy and Doctor Sleep

Honey Boy | Amazon Studios

“Do you know what a container is?” Susan said a few weeks into our sessions together. My prior therapist, Nancy, had referred me to Susan before retiring earlier in the fall.

“No,” I said. “Nancy and I used the ‘calm place’ after EMDR sessions, but containers didn’t come up in our work. Sometimes I joked about putting something in the drawer.”

“Well,” Susan laughed. “That’s not too far off. It’s a technique meant to help you put away difficult or disturbing thoughts so you can come back to them when you’re ready.” 

The calm place and container are essentially inverted exercises within EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a type of therapy well-suited to treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A therapist can help a client engage a traumatic memory with bilateral stimulation—the use of rhythmic, side-to-side auditory, visual, or tactile sensations that prompts the brain to physically process what it suppressed at the moment of trauma. The client then has the opportunity to reset. They can recover as the therapist recites a description of their calm place, sometimes while also providing bilateral stimulation, and/or they can place the traumatic memory in an imagined box or other receptacle, where it stays until revisited in a later session. In the brain-as-mansion metaphor, the calm place is a safe room with comfortable furniture, the container a vault with no emergency release lever inside. 

In the absence of processing, containers, and calm places, trauma reemerges when you see its shadow, a wisp or slant rhyme of the original event later in life. These rhymes are more commonly called “triggers.” They can make everyday life a haunted house, where reminders of pain lurk in a sound, a smell, a patterned carpet or silhouette. 

It can be grueling to process any trauma, to fear phantoms waiting in the banal. But 2019 films Doctor Sleep and Honey Boy ponder a more specific and shame-inducing quandary: How do you contain the ghosts when the haunted house is your home? 

Through horror genre images and dreamlike flashbacks, Stephen King’s sequel adaptation and Shia LaBeouf’s fictionalized autobiography grapple with the pain of cyclical violence and addiction. They bleed from the same heart, an intimate diptych about abused boys who grow into men haunted by and reaching for their fathers, worried they’ll be destroyed by or continue their respective legacies of harm. They offer confrontation and creation as synonymous responses to trauma. And they reveal with tenderness and honesty that the path to healing is rarely linear. 

Fittingly, both Doctor Sleep and Honey Boy find their respective traumatized sons rapidly skittering to rock bottom. More than 30 years after the events of The Shining, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) struggles with alcoholism like Jack before him. As a child, Doctor Sleep’s prologue reveals, Danny learned to trap the ghosts that followed him from the Overlook Hotel within imagined lockboxes in his mind; but he grows up without a healthy way to cope with the supernatural and familial horror of his past. He leaves a booze and cocaine-fueled one-night stand with Deenie, a single mother, offering her toddler a guilty look as he pockets the sleeping woman’s cash. Realizing his low point, Dan travels north to the small New Hampshire town of Frazier, where he begins AA with help from Billy (Cliff Curtis, hearth-warm), a friend who “knows his look.” McGregor’s careful performance here and throughout Doctor Sleep renders adult Dan forlorn and gentle but simmering—a demeanor one might expect from someone with evil spirits locked in his mind alongside unresolved childhood trauma. 

As a grown-up version of Otis Lort, Honey Boy’s Shia LaBeouf proxy, Lucas Hedges channels the explosive behavior of a young man struggling to understand—or simply admit—that the source of his anguish is his own father. After his umpteenth drunken episode ends in a car crash and fight with police, Otis is sent to rehab, where his counselor Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo giving a firm push) suggests he has PTSD. At her urging, he begins imaginal exposure therapy, prompting the film to jump from 2005 to Otis’ childhood in 1995 with the snap of a stylized clapperboard. What emerges is a narrative that complements the Torrances’ in mournfully robust fashion. 

It’s a strange accident the fathers in these stories look so similar. James Lort (Shia LaBeouf, playing a character based on his own father) could be a rodeo clown Jack Torrance. His Vietnam veteran leather in Honey Boy replaces Jack’s iconic red corduroy jacket, but his stringy brown mullet extends from the same receding hairline. James’ drawl is also far from Jack’s rasp, but their voices each create immediate tension—their words cruel and intimidating in almost every scene they share with their sons. James also shares Jack’s penchant for violence, whether exacerbated by alcohol or not. When young Otis (Noah Jupe) demands James be a better father to him—in what’s contextualized as the first of many inherited angry outbursts—it’s devastating to see James’ feigned earnest agreement vanish in two brutal blows to his son’s face. As Honey Boy reveals more of James’ behavior, his mere presence becomes as intimidating as Jack’s on-screen. 

In tandem with immense fear, shame, and resentment, child abuse engenders a howling loneliness. Whether physical or emotional, this violence is one of the earliest and most profound betrayals a child can experience. It poisons both the fundamental role of parent as protector and a child’s innate trust in that role. When the people who are supposed to love you the most are the ones who hurt you, what does that mean for the rest of your relationships? The pain can become an alienating force, a wall between a wounded person and a world they don’t believe will understand them, let alone love them. They might struggle with intimacy, destroy friendly or romantic love before it flowers, lest they risk spreading that trauma like an infectious goo. 

Doctor Sleep and Honey Boy sublimely demonstrate that sometimes the one person who most understands the isolation of the abused is the abuser. Hurt people hurt people, and as these films illuminate in deeply affecting moments, embracing that simple truth can be an immense step forward toward catharsis. 

When Dan receives his eight-year sobriety chip in Frazier, he stands humbly and reflects on his father: 

I’m thinking about my dad. He died when I was 5, so the only way I got to know him, I really got to know him, was when I went dark. When I drank. ’Cause the drinking and the temper and the anger. Those things in me were his. And they were all I could know of him. 

But now. Well, now I get to know him a little different, ’cause he also stood in a room like this once. Wanting to get well for me, my mom. And he had a chip in his hand, and the chip said “five months.” And on that day he…Well, on that day all he wanted in the world was to stand where I’m standing now. And here I am, so…So, thank you for us both, I guess. This is for Jack Torrance. 

In a dream sequence, adult Otis bluntly tells his father, “When I drink it’s like you take over.” In a later scene at the rehabilitation center, Otis and Dr. Moreno exchange additional abrupt and resonant remarks: 

Otis: The only thing my father gave me that was of any value to me is pain. And you want to take that away? 

Dr. Moreno: Can I?

A flashback of James at his own AA meeting provides further clarity. In a scene that mirrors Dan’s reflection, James explains that he grew up with alcoholic parents himself, then suffered brutal physical abuse at the hands of his mother’s girlfriend, herself “a mean-ass woman and an outrageous alcoholic.” James describes his struggles with drinking, drugs, violent behavior, and his attempt to find solace in the army. He finally admits: “I’m trying my best. For that kid. But I’m in pain like a motherfucker, man.” 

I told Susan I feel there are three fears one confronts when processing trauma: 

  1. You will become numb to the world. 
  2. You will become what (or who) traumatized you. 
  3. You will be destroyed in your attempt to heal your wounds. 

Dan, Otis, Jack, and James wander paths that intersect with all of these fears. They each drink and rage in an attempt to mend the pain inflicted on them by the drinking and raging of their forebears, and as an intentional way to numb themselves—James, Otis, and Jack from the violence they endured, Dan from the violence he endured and from the supernatural ability that further reminds him of his past. 

The three fears stem from a deeper one: that you will only be defined by your traumatic experiences. In their attempts to avoid pain, each of these men causes themselves or others pain. Doctor Sleep and Honey Boy ultimately present two paths to navigate the cycle of violence in search of resolution. 

Honey Boy channels traumatic energy inward to create. As Otis finally begins to understand how desperately he needs help, he accepts his counselor’s advice to write about his childhood. By exposing himself to the traumatic memories he’s been running from, he succeeds in crafting an autobiographical story that, in a metafictional twist, becomes the screenplay for the film we’re watching. In its studied, unflinching nature, this screenplay also becomes a means to process and contain Otis and Shia’s difficult memories. 

This is clearest in the film’s final sequence, which cross cuts two moments of tenderness between Otis and his father. In 1995, Otis clutches James tightly as they drive down the freeway to James’ hidden cannabis crop. James lovingly holds his son as he helps him take a puff from a joint. In 2005, Otis returns to the motel complex where he endured most of the childhood abuse shown in the film to find James waiting in full rodeo clown regalia. They hug, their touch as gentle and loving here as it is in the parallel 1995 flashback. James’ voiceover carries Otis and the audience between the two timelines; he tells Otis about their family tree of hurt people and offers some wisdom: 

Every single one of us got a grudge. Every single one of us got somebody that fucked us over. I know you got one. You gotta lay the grudge down. Or it’s going to fucking kill you.

As the younger Otis coughs through the start of his first cannabis high in the protection of his father’s embrace, the older Otis experiences (or at least depicts) a corresponding euphoria. After he tells his father he’s making a movie about him (“Well, make me look good, Honey Boy,” James calmly asks in the film’s last line of dialogue) they speed down the freeway on James’ motorcycle. This time James clutches Otis, resting his head snugly against his son’s shoulder as the highway lights fly by overhead. A final cut reveals Otis is actually alone, his cathartic moment with his father no less powerful when we learn it’s only imagined. As Honey Boy fades to black, Otis smiles like someone finally healed, his expression as bright and ethereal as the final notes in composer Alex Somers’ score.

Doctor Sleep takes a thornier path toward relief, one that tries to reconcile the dread seeping from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining with the redemptive warmth in both of King’s source novels. Through the twists of a plot that blends continuity between King and Kubrick’s material, Dan ends up paired with a young girl with a shine even stronger than his own and journeys with her to the one place hungry enough to overcome both of their ghosts: The Overlook Hotel.

Here, writer-director Mike Flanagan steps into Kubrick’s looming shadow, recreating the opening helicopter sweep of The Shining in foreboding nighttime blues as composers The Newton Brothers quote Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s unforgettable main title theme. Dan enters the hotel “to wake it up” clad in a color translated version of his father’s final outfit: blue corduroy jacket over green plaid. 

So begins Dan’s own exposure therapy, with glances at the abandoned ax-mutilated doors of his family’s Overlook apartment (still bearing the “redruM” he scrawled in a nearly-unheeded warning) leading to a wrenching stop at the Gold Room bar. Also compositionally indebted to The Shining, this sequence gives Dan the chance to confront his father—now calling himself Lloyd—with a denial that recalls Delbert Grady and Jack’s confrontation in a certain red-and-white bathroom. “Lloyd” (Henry Thomas styled like Jack Nicholson) delivers a monologue that’s the bitter opposite of the painful plea for salvation James asks for in AA: 

Man takes a drink. A drink takes the drink. And then the drink takes a man. Medicine. Medicine is what it is. Bona fide cure-all. The mind is a blackboard, and this is the eraser. A man tries. He provides. But he’s surrounded by mouths. And has family. A wife, a kid. Those mouths eat time. They eat your days on Earth. Gobble them up. It’s enough to make a man sick. And this is the medicine. So tell me, pup. Are you gonna take your medicine? 

Dan stares into the eyes of a man too far gone even to be his brutal father and refuses. 

Dan leaves the Gold Room wounded, weary, but determined to trade his cycle of violence for a cycle of guidance. He realizes the way to find peace and salvation is to unlock his ghosts. When they turn to possess him, Dan teeters toward losing himself to each of the great fears in traumatic healing. His soul is suppressed, numbed, as his body mirrors his father under the Overlook’s influence. 

In a heartbreaking sequence—quoted and remixed from King’s original ending for The Shining—Dan regains control of himself and finishes his mission, descending to the boiler room he’s already rigged to blow. As a conflagration consumes the dusky chamber, Dan becomes Danny once more and sees Wendy. His reunion with his mother transforms a haunted house into the place that finally frees his spirit.

In EMDR, a therapist helps a client identify a negative belief about themselves that a particular traumatic memory provokes (e.g: “I am trapped” or “I deserved my suffering”). The therapist bookends sessions of reprocessing the memory by asking how true the negative belief feels and how disturbing the memory itself feels, inviting the client to rate each on corresponding numerical scales. 

“Graduation” from a traumatic memory (as Nancy occasionally phrased it to me before she retired) arrives when the memory no longer feels disturbing and the negative belief associated with it no longer feels true. Using bilateral stimulation, the therapist can reinforce a positive belief the client identifies to keep instead. That’s not to say the client stomps out the trauma for good, but rather reduces its power by understanding it more fully. Like any course of study, they can then investigate the connections between this memory and others, gradually lighting a safer path through the mind’s emotional maze. The sons of Honey Boy and Doctor Sleep reach their own graduations — not unscathed, but more fully themselves, closer to a deeper truth rather than afraid of it, no longer held hostage by their history.

Of course, trauma can’t simply be scrubbed from the past. It will always be something that happened, no matter how much the mind retains. But processing turns once-overpowering triggers into stimuli that might instead provoke a melancholy peacefulness. The wound heals even if it scars. Whether or not you can forgive who or what traumatized you, you can forgive yourself for feeling hurt or small. You can put the memories away with acceptance instead of shame.

“I always tell people to remember to add a spoonful of compassion as you place the memory back in the container,” Susan said. I held my eyes closed and breathed deeply. 

Like James, Jack, Otis, and Dan, I was hurting. I still am. But I’ve taken strides out of the shadows looming over my life. I’ve learned to paint with more useful brushes than pain. I don’t feel as alone. 

And I stopped running from ghosts.