Arsenic and Old Lace (Not Rated)

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I.

“What’s your favorite film?” It’s the question every cinephile delights to hear, yet also dreads. Delights, because finally someone made this social function less awkward — and besides, who doesn’t want to extol their loves before others? Dreads, because who can pick just one movie? Asking a film-lover to choose only one favorite out of dozens is like a landlord telling the lady in Apartment 108 she can only keep one of her 36 cats — and must decide in seconds.

When I am asked this question, I may haggle with my interrogator to expand the field the five films. But this evasion only works half the time, because most people aren’t asking for an article, just one recommendation for their watchlist. (They may also be trying to size up your taste and sort you into a group. You aren’t one of those people that liked Green Book, are you?) So sometime in middle or high school, realizing I’d be dogged by the question (and awkward social functions) for the rest of my life, I decided on a standby: Frank Capra’s 1944 adaptation of the Joseph Kesselring play, Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant.

It was an unusual choice, and that was part of the appeal. I could have chosen The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (that still only counts as one!), but I prided myself for going with something unpredictable and atypical for a teenage boy. With Arsenic and Old Lace, I could show off my reverse chronological snobbery: the film was in black and white (gasp!), was about as old as my grandparents, and yes, I knew who Cary Grant was. But the choice wasn’t entirely pretentious. I was genuinely drawn to the film ever since I first saw it in early grade school (too early?) and would return to it often.

But identifying Arsenic and Old Lace as my favorite film solved one problem only to create another. Sometimes, either at the very mention of the title or after I explained the plot, I would get strange looks. Sometimes I would have to answer a second question: “Why is that your favorite?”

If you are in the majority of people who have not seen the film, let alone heard of it, here is a synopsis. Arsenic and Old Lace is a dark screwball comedy about Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a famous theater critic and infamous marriage critic. Following his impromptu marriage to minister’s daughter Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) on Halloween, Mortimer visits the Brooklyn home of his elderly aunts, Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), to break the news before the newlyweds go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. During his visit, Mortimer discovers the body of an old widower, Mr. Hoskins, lying in a chest that doubles as a window seat. Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha cheerfully inform their nephew that they poisoned Mr. Hoskins with homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic to free him from his loneliness — and furthermore, they have done this to other lonely old men several times before. There are already eleven other men buried in the cellar, interred there by Mortimer’s brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who thinks that he is President Theodore Roosevelt, that the men died of yellow fever, and that their graves are locks for the Panama Canal. Forgetting all about his wife and honeymoon, Mortimer spends Halloween night scrambling to stop his aunts’ deadly charity work by getting Teddy committed to Happydale Sanitarium. But while Mortimer is out preparing Teddy’s transfer to Happydale, his other brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) — a serial killer who looks like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster thanks to sidekick plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) — returns to Brooklyn after a long absence, intending to turn his aunts’ house into a longterm hideout and kill Mortimer. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Depending on your temperament, that synopsis could be either amusing or downright disturbing. Honestly, if the same story had been told in a different genre— if, for example, Arsenic and Old Lace had been a gory slasher film — I wouldn’t watch it, either. But having grown up with the film, it didn’t occur to me that certain aspects of the plot — you know, all the stuff about two kind old ladies and one sociopath murdering people — could be unsettling, until I showed it to friends in college. My friends didn’t find the film as riotously funny as I did; increasingly, neither did I. I began to question why I loved the film so much. But this wasn’t only because I was starting to see it through my friends’ eyes. I was also starting to see it through the lens of parallels between Mortimer’s topsy-turvy world and my own, parallels I’ll draw out later. I began to ponder, Is this humor in good taste? What does it say about me if I laugh at such things? Is this storytelling morally responsible? Given that we are shaped by the stories we dwell on most, is watching this film healthy for me, and commending it to others healthy for them?

I have spent the past few years mulling over these questions about Arsenic and Old Lace, and I have concluded that, while the humor of the film is often transgressive, that transgression has a responsible purpose and stays within appropriate boundaries. For the most part, the film has a clear moral vision, and it uses the humor of grotesque people bumbling about with planks in their eyes to help us self-proclaimed respectable people notice the specks in our own. When we laugh at the absurd characters and situations in the film, I think we are really laughing at ourselves and our own circumstances. If we are not laughing, perhaps we have no sense of humor, or we anticipated the punchline and recognized it as our indictment. For this reason, I want to argue, this is a story worth dwelling on. Like a medicine that tastes sweet on the tongue but turns bitter in the stomach, this is a film that lures us with comedy to confront us with truth, truth that could help heal our disordered souls.

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II.

When evaluating any film adapted from the stage, critics tend to ask, Is this film sufficiently cinematic? Is it too stagey? Is this truly a film, or is it just a recording? (For example, I enjoyed the recorded version of Hamilton now on Disney+ and thought it was well shot and edited, but I still wouldn’t call it a film.) These questions are relevant here, because I am appraising the merits of Arsenic and Old Lace the Frank Capra film, not Arsenic and Old Lace the Joseph Kesselring play. (Actually, I can’t say anything about the play apart from the film; I have never read the play, never seen it performed on stage, never had any interaction with the story except through the mediation of Capra and screenwriters Julius J. and Phillip G. Epstein.) I believe Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace to be one of the greatest films ever made, but for me to make that claim and put the film in league with the likes of Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, The Tree of Life, or Capra’s own It’s a Wonderful Life, I need to account for its comparative lack of credentials as a masterwork of visual art.

To be sure, Capra and cinematographer Sol Polito were limited by the constraints of the material. The film takes place almost entirely in the Brewsters’ living room. Stuffed as it is with dialogue and action, there isn’t much space for grace notes and painterly flourishes. But Capra expertly uses blocking and editing to keep the film from going stale without fresh locations, and Polito employs close-ups, pans, zooms, and, most of all, light and shadows to accentuate the emotional contours of the plot. The film never fully sheds the theatricality of its source material, but that material is translated to the screen with a cinematic vocabulary. Moreover, the theatricality is a part of the film’s charm, since one of the many things it satirizes is the New York theater scene: the critics, the flops, and the wannabe playwrights. This is a meta-play-turned-meta-film that deliberately calls attention to the missing fourth wall. (The joke about Jonathan looking like Boris Karloff was even funnier on Broadway because, there, the actor was Karloff.)

But I raise the question of whether the film is too stagey mainly because that is what helped me discover a key to unlocking the themes of the film. As I considered what it might signify that much of the film is confined to a house, I was reminded of the works of two authors.

In his book The Poetics of Space, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes about the symbolism of the floors of a house in dreams, particularly “the polarity of cellar and attic.” Drawing upon Jung’s theories of psychoanalysis, he contrasts “the rationality of the roof [with] the irrationality of the cellar.” “Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear,” and while residents will try to impose reason and order upon the cellar and “find uses for it,” “it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces.”

If the attic represents rationality and the cellar irrationality, then the ground floor must be an intermediary between the two. Bachelard doesn’t say what the ground floor represents, but if we switch the architectural metaphor for an anthropomorphic one, substituting attic for mind and cellar for stomach, we can find the missing third element in this passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man:   

As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat … of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest — Magnanimity — Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

If the attic is the rational head of the house and the cellar is the irrational belly, the ground floor is the spirited chest that keeps the other two in balance. It is the heart of the house. This three-part blueprint or taxonomy, courtesy of Bachelard and Lewis, provides a useful interpretive grid for understanding Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Brewster home has four levels, but since the camera takes us no further than the second-floor landing, essentially there are only three. Combined, the second floor and the attic represent the mind of the Brewster family. The only characters who live up there — Teddy and his aunts — are insane. But the problem with the Brewsters isn’t merely that they’ve gone mad. Teddy is insane, but he is an unwitting accomplice to his aunts crimes. The greater problem resides in the lower levels of the home. It is on the ground floor and in their hearts that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha conceived of their murderous mercy mission when the first lonely old man suddenly expired at the dining table. It is to the cellar and to their bellies that their victims go to be buried and devoured. The Brewster sisters aren’t just mentally unstable; they have seared their consciences and given themselves over to their appetites. “The head rules the belly through the chest,” but the attic is home to the mad, the cellar is home to the dead, and the ground floor is home to no one — except for the body of poor Mr. Hoskins, lying in the window seat, temporarily concealed but impossible to hide. It is on the ground floor that Mr. Hoskins bears witness against the sisters — a coup of the conscience against the hardened heart — and when Mortimer finds the body, he will put that witness into words, making a moral appeal to his aunts. So it is appropriate that the ground floor should be the setting for much of the film, because it is a battleground for the soul of the Brewsters, the site of a spiritual war between three parties: Mortimer, his aunts, and Jonathan.

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III.

Before the film begins, Mortimer is almost all mind and no heart or body. He makes a living reviewing plays and pronouncing judgments upon them from a back row, and this reflects his worldview: he is a detached and rational spectator watching and ridiculing a superstitious and irrational world from his lofty perch. As a militant bachelor, he takes aim at the institution of marriage in particular, scoffing at the notion of a lifelong one-flesh union. It is telling that the title of his forthcoming book on the subject is Mind Over Matrimony. He is Lewis’s “cerebral man,” a “mere spirit,” a ghost. True to the literal meaning of his name, Mortimer is dead to the physical and spiritual world, and the film depicts his resurrection as an embodied and moral being.

When Mortimer marries Elaine in the prologue, he casts aside his opposition to marriage just as he casts aside the sunglasses that make him look standoffish and stern. Perhaps he realizes what Lewis writes later in The Abolition of Man: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever.” The professional debunker will eventually run out of bunks. Mortimer’s spirituality, suppressed by his overweening rationality, is finally asserting itself. (It can’t be an accident that his bride grew up in the church.) But his belly is also asserting itself, and it is fair to ask how much of Mortimer’s love for Elaine is merely lust. As they frolic in the cemetery in between her father’s house and his aunts’ — linger over those juxtapositions for a moment — she has to remind him to “love me for my mind, too!” Although Mortimer’s chest is gaining strength, it is not yet strong enough keep both head and belly from overstepping their bounds. But if the realization that marriage is a good thing was one defibrillator jolt to Mortimer’s flatlining heart, he is about to receive another.

When he parts with Elaine to visit his aunts, finding Mr. Hoskins in the window seat is a second blow to Mortimer’s enlightened condescension toward traditional beliefs. There are some eternal, universal truths from which we cannot and should not be liberated. “The two shall become one flesh” is one of them; “Thou shall not kill” is another. Both commandments are planks in a natural law that Lewis calls the Tao, “the reality beyond all predicates.” Mortimer appeals to this Tao when he tells his aunts that what they are doing is “not only against the law, it’s wrong!” Laws against murder aren’t arbitrary. Like the institution of marriage, they are grounded in the moral realities of the created order and the imago Dei. Ironically, the progressive and agnostic man who once discarded marriage now has to reason with two conservative and religious women who have discarded the belief that murder by any other name is still murder. Yet Mortimer cannot reason with his aunts, not so much because they are irrational as because they are no longer living, as Lewis puts it, “from within the Tao.” The aunts have created their own morality. They even apply it consistently. Aunt Abby has no problem saying she’s poisoned people, but she becomes indignant when Mortimer accuses her of lying. Seeing they can’t be reasoned with, Mortimer is compelled to delay his honeymoon and stay with them until the house is put back in order. But although he should be the character that lives on the second floor, he only ascends the stairs once (and that is when he plays the fool). Instead, Mortimer stays on the ground floor, where he is most needed. He declares he will sleep on the window seat, of all places.

Alas, although Mortimer is having a moral awakening, he is far from a moral paragon, and he does a terrible job being the heart the Brewsters need. He isn’t much good as a surrogate mind for the Brewsters, either. He is so lost in his own head trying to solve his problems he is oblivious that Elaine is mad at him, that the cab driver is still waiting for him, that Dr. Einstein is warning him about Jonathan’s plan to murder him, and that his solutions only make matters worse. In a lapse in both moral and rational judgment, he makes the unconscionable decision to call, not the police to report his aunts, but the sanitarium to commit Teddy. Again, Teddy is an unwitting accomplice. While sending him away would make it harder if not impossible for the aunts to continue their killing spree, making Teddy the scapegoat and letting the aunts go free will not satisfy the demands of justice. Mortimer could have set things right in minutes: call the police, show them the bodies, roll credits. Instead he spends the rest of the film chasing after signatures. Instead of staying to guard the hearth, his absence becomes Jonathan’s opportunity to move in. In one of the film’s most striking images, Capra and Polito frame Grant through the vertical rails of the staircase when Mortimer sits down the make the first phone call about Teddy. Instead of heading for the hills when he had the chance, Mortimer has locked himself in with his crazy family. It is going to be a long night.

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IV.

When he arrives, Jonathan quickly occupies all three levels of the house: the chest, breaking in at the front door and putting one of his own victims in the window seat; the head, claiming the attic for himself and barking orders from the second floor landing; and the belly, plotting evil in the cellar. The aunts can do nothing to stop him because they have ceded all moral authority. They have killed just as many people as he has (minus one), and Jonathan uses this knowledge to blackmail Mortimer not to call the police. Jonathan compares himself to the prodigal son in Luke 15, but he is much more like the unclean spirit in Luke 11. He has returned to the home that once exorcised him, yet did nothing to keep him out and everything to bring him back, this time with company. Abby and Martha presume to kill from the heart, and this demonic notion summons a demon incarnate: Jonathan, who kills from the stomach without pretense. If Mortimer is the “cerebral man,” Jonathan is the “visceral man.” He may have cunning, but it is the cunning of a “mere animal.” He is so ruled by his belly that he has to be assisted by a henchman he calls Dr. Einstein.

This Dr. Einstein may be the most sensible and sensitive person in the house. He seems to regret his association with Jonathan, criticizes him for killing Mr. Spinaizo, discourages him from killing Mortimer, and tries to save Mortimer’s life. What is more, he sees better than anyone that the line separating Jonathan from his aunts is arbitrary. The aunts murder out of compassion and Jonathan out of spite, but Einstein sees no difference in the results: “You got twelve, they got twelve.” (The aunts catch themselves grinning at this comment as if it were a compliment.) Neither does Einstein see any meaningful distinctions between means of murder. When Jonathan decides to kill Mortimer using the sadistic “Melbourne method,” Einstein protests that the man they tortured in Melbourne is no more dead than any of their other victims. He would understand that while the aunts’ elderberry wine method may be more civil than Jonathan’s Melbourne method, their victims would not thank them for the courtesy.    

Some might think that if Jonathan is of the cellar (mindless and heartless), and if Mortimer is of the attic (heartless and gutless), then the aunts are of the ground level (mindless and gutless). Their intentions for their “gentlemen,” as they call them, are without a doubt inappropriate and illogical, but at least they seem guileless and sincere. Perhaps someone would object to my saying earlier that the aunts have seared their consciences and given themselves over to their appetites. Isn’t that a bit harsh? Isn’t it possible to believe the best of them when they say, “we felt so sorry for [them],” and that they wanted to “help other lonely old men to find… peace”? But the film won’t let us say that the aunts’ motives in any way excuse them. Jonathan is in the film, not so that his aunts can be graded on a curve and get a lighter sentence than him, but to call their bluff when they equate murder with mercy.

Besides, on further reflection, Abby and Martha’s motives turn out be awful. They fall into what Samuel D. James calls “the empathy trap.” “Empathic individuals,” Patricia Snow writes, can be “easily persuaded that the sufferings of others are worse than they are.” The aunts are driven to thoughtless action by their strong emotional response to their perception, not the reality, of the old men’s misery in life and of their “looking so peaceful” in death. To use Joe Rigney’s distinction, rather than sympathetically “suffer with others,” the aunts “suffer in them.”  They so feel — or think they feel — others’ pain that they go the furthest length to ease that pain—not the men’s, but theirs. They kill not because it makes the men feel better (how could they know?) but because it makes them feel better about the men. And it makes them feel better about themselves: see how they revel in thinking themselves so benevolent toward the least of these.

I should pause to remark that Mortimer falls into the empathy trap as well when he decides not to turn in his aunts. He doesn’t want them to be publicly shamed — and he doesn’t want to be publicly shamed for being related to them — and so he takes a path that is expedient rather than just.

The aunts also fall into the traps of presumption and despair, two close cousins of excessive empathy. These world-weary wanderers came to the Brewster home seeking a room to rent, and the aunts had the wonderful opportunity to offer them company and comfort. But the aunts had no hope for their futures, and no imagination for ways to love them that didn’t involve murder. They concluded on the men’s behalf — no need to consult them — that there was no more good for them to enjoy in this life and that they were better off dead. This is the same presumption and despair we find in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life when Mr. Potter tells George Bailey he is worth more dead than alive and George believes him. If Abby and Martha had been the ones sitting across the desk from George at that moment, they would have spiked his drink. “The two nicest aunts in the world” are really no better than mean old Potter.

This is one reason why I find the film unsettling. I am horrified by what Abby and Martha have done, and yet, like Mortimer, I hesitate to consign them to the same category as a Mr. Potter or a Jonathan. But while it may seem incongruous to call the aunts wicked, to call them anything less would be irresponsible.

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V.

Please excuse my boldness as I press the issue further. Let me put into words the things that should unnerve us if we take this film seriously. From here on I will not be vague about the present-day parallels I alluded to earlier.

Our contemporary American culture grows ever more comfortable with the notion that it is acceptable, even noble, to end people’s lives without their consent if that appears to shield them from suffering. A notion that would have been horrifying and nonsensical to most viewers in 1944 is now commonplace in 2020. The presumption, despair, and parasitic empathy that led Abby and Martha to poison old men are now valorized. These vices-turned-virtues determine that certain children should not be born because they will live with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses, or grow up in poverty, or be a hindrance to their mothers or a burden to the system. They are the powers that one woman recently encountered when her disabled and brain-injured husband contracted COVID-19 and the hospital left him to die, Wesley J. Smith reports, “because his doctors did not believe he had a sufficient ‘quality of life’ to justify curative treatment, and that because of his disabilities, saving his life was ‘futile.’” To be sure, the Brewsters’ covert operation would still be illegal today; but it wouldn’t be hard for them to find places and occupations from which they could offer their services openly and be praised for it.

But lest readers think that the film confronts only one side of our political and ideological spectrum, let me suggest that the film’s moral and social critique implicates all Americans: those on the right as much as those on the left, the heirs of the Reformation as much as the heirs of the Enlightenment, and the nation’s forebears as much as their descendants.

First, we should remember that Abby and Martha are very religious. They are well-to-do Pharisees, not debauched pagans. They have the minister over for tea. They donate Teddy’s toys to a charity. They are interested in the denominations of their gentlemen. (“Oh, he’s a Baptist? That’s nice!”) They conduct funeral services for them, insisting on giving each of them a “decent Christian burial.” They ought to know better than anyone else the preciousness of the life that God has breathed into every person made in His image. Instead they use their piety as a cover for iniquity, both in the sense that they believe they are doing the Lord’s work and in the sense that no one suspects them of unspeakable sins because of their saintly reputations. They should be a reminder to us that being exceedingly nice, doing good works, and knowing right theology may only be marks of cultural Christianity, not fruits of the Spirit.

Second, the film traces the roots of today’s culture of death back to sins that have beset America from the beginning. The Brewsters live in a historic neighborhood — someone jokes about George Washington having done some sleeping there — but its history is sordid. According to Mortimer, the first American Brewsters arrived on the Mayflower and had a reputation for scalping Indians. Maybe he made that story up, but his point is that his aunts’ penchant for killing had to come from somewhere. Their refusal to bury Mr. Spinaizo with Mr. Hoskins also has historic precedents. The cemetery beside the house was founded in 1654. According to Martin Kelly, that was the year “The first Jewish immigrants arrive[d] from Brazil and settle[d] in New Amsterdam” (present-day New York City); it was also the year the “governor of Maryland . . . nullifie[d] the 1649 Toleration Act which gave Catholics the right to practice their religion.” Three hundred years later, the Brewsters still won’t let a “foreigner” of an unknown faith share their ancestral resting ground. These details are subtle, but they imply that America has always been a place where people have presumed to judge who is worthy of life and dignity and who is not.

Third, the film challenges us to consider the hidden conditions that enable headline sins. Stanley Hauerwas has written that “Humans never kill more readily than when we kill in the name of mercy.” This we have noticed already. But Hauerwas follows up that statement with one that is just as damning: “We must be careful that the mercy we dispense, especially when it takes the form of ending life, is not necessary because of our original uncare.” Euthanasia is not an isolated evil for which only a few are accountable. It is the most extreme consequence that can arise when the whole community repeatedly fails to care for its most vulnerable members. The Brewster sisters alone are responsible for the poisonings, but they aren’t the only ones responsible for the dissolution of social ties that brought their victims to their doorstep. It is revealing that twelve men needed to go to the home of total strangers to find a place to stay; that the neighbors didn’t see them going in and never coming out; and that no one ever missed or went looking for them. In Bedford Falls, George Bailey disappears into the night and the neighbors get down on their knees and pray for God’s mercy; then they give up their life savings to cancel his debts. Meanwhile, in the Brewsters’ version of Brooklyn, the elderly fall through the cracks of atomizing individualism and collective indifference. No wonder the old Judge Cullman tells Mortimer he’s been feeling lonely.

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VI.

For all the insight the film gives us into the state of the American soul — predatory,  hopeless, prejudiced, hypocritical, alone — I must qualify my appreciation for it with some closing critiques. At the beginning I had said that for the most part the film has a clear moral vision. Now I must address the lesser part, which is that I find the ending unsatisfying and problematic. In the final minutes, Jonathan is arrested, Dr. Einstein escapes, the aunts decide to go with Teddy to Happydale, and Mortimer silences Elaine with kisses and carries her out of the house so she can’t show the police the graves in the cellar. The exhausted police lieutenant, concluding that everyone in this family has lost touch with reality, elects to leave the cellar undisturbed. It is as if Kesselring, Capra, and the Epsteins were so busy making the plot as twisted as possible that they ran out of time to tie off all the loose ends. Rather like the lieutenant, they threw up their hands and left the audience with the mess.

The first problem with this ending is that justice is never given to the men the aunts poisoned. There is still a double standard. Jonathan killed twelve men and goes to prison, while Abby and Martha killed eleven and go to a “rest home.” Then again, perhaps this is part of the point. Perhaps the audience is meant to leave the film feeling queasy about this. But the other two problems are such because they let viewers off the hook.

The second problem is that Mortimer has an easy way out, and with him so does the viewer. Mortimer, seeing how all his relatives are psychotic and starting to suspect he isn’t entirely sane either, wonders out loud if he and his children are destined for the same follies and vices. He is reckoning with the possibility of generational sins haunting him and his posterity. But then his aunts tell him he isn’t really a Brewster; he’s adopted. So much for soul-searching. The fear of heredity isn’t dismissed, but it is sidestepped, and that empties it of its terror. Unlike Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Mortimer can wake up from this nightmare and never again have to wonder if the darkness he saw in others also lurks within. The audience can similarly distance themselves from the people “out there” who are beyond the pale.

Finally, even as I have argued that the film supports my reading that the Brewsters’ disorder is ultimately spiritual, the filmmakers fall back on psychological and materialistic explanations for the murders. It is all in Abby and Martha’s heads, not their hearts. They belong in a sanitarium, not a prison. Mortimer is worried that insanity runs in the Brewster family, not immorality. But he is not a Brewster by blood, so he is fine, and so are we. Arsenic and Old Lace, often at odds with the spirit of this age, imbibes it on this point. As James K. A. Smith and Charles Taylor have observed, in this age we have moved “from talking about sin to talking about sickness. … The moral is transferred to a therapeutic register.” The pre-modern age of religion and the modern age of science have both been supplanted by the post-modern age of the therapeutic. The passions are no longer submitted to God or even Reason to be rightly ordered for their proper enjoyment. Whatever feels right, is right, whatever the resulting carnage. The Brewsters have all left the house, vacating the middle and upper floors. But there are still thirteen bodies in the cellar.

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Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon, 1994.

Hauerwas, Stanley, with Richard Bondi and David B. Burrell. Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

James, Samuel D. “The Empathy Trap.” Letter & Liturgy, 7 June 2019, https://letterandliturgy.com/2019/06/07/the-empathy-trap/.

Kelly, Martin. “American History Timeline: 1651–1675.” ThoughtCo., 2 Oct. 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/american-history-timeline-1651-1675-104299.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. Oxford University Press, 1943.

Rigney, Joe. “Do You Feel My Pain?: Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues.” Desiring God, 2 May 2020, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/do-you-feel-my-pain.

Smith, James K. A. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Eerdmans, 2014.

Smith, Wesley J. “The Deadly ‘Quality of Life’ Ethic.” First Things, July 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/07/the-deadly-quality-of-life-ethic.

Snow, Patricia. “Empathy Is Not Charity.” First Things, Oct. 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/10/empathy-is-not-charity.

Robert Brown is a writer and teacher living in Southern California. He has a B.A. in English from Biola University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Fullerton. His current or most recent endeavors include teaching college composition, co-hosting the In the Margin podcast, composing music, and writing for FilmFisher. Explore his online portfolio at www.robertbrownpresents.com.

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