Sunday, December 7, 2014

Final Project: Mental Illness and House of Leaves

Zampanò chooses to write an extended film review, as a blind man, on a movie, The Navidson Record, which ultimately does not exist.  The house that he crafts is representative of his skewed vision of life, as he no longer knows what life looks like.  With no family and no connections to anybody in his life besides an excess of cats, Zampanò is stuck in a world of loneliness.  The loneliness and artificial view of life that he has ultimately drives him to insanity.  His struggle to understand life and himself is depicted in the Navidson Record by his inclusion of the complexity of the house.  The ever-changing blackness that Zampanò includes is his perception of life.  The unyielding darkness in Zampanò’s life is one of the factors that ultimately lead him to developing a psychotic disorder. According to the DSM-IV, used due to the publication date of the novel, “The major symptom of these disorders is psychosis, or delusions and hallucinations.  Delusions are false beliefs that significantly hinder a person's ability to function.”  Zampanò spends so much of his time crafting his masterpiece of a review on the Navidson Record that he believes the film truly exists.  The constant editing and researching for this imaginary topic is a constant delusion that Zampanò lives in.  Without his work, his stability as an individual with a mental disorder would be nonexistent.
Within his narration of the Navidson Record, Zampanò chooses what he writes with extreme caution.  If he chooses to write something that he decides he does not like later on, he chooses to remove it from the text and the degree to which he removes it varies.  For example, Zampanò chooses to strike most passages that involve the myth of the Minotaur in his analysis of the film because he realizes that they do play a role in the house, and therefore in his life, but he does not wish to admit that yet. Other removed sections contain ways to make the segment illegible.  On page 354, Johnny places X’s on part of the footnote because the text was, “Crossed out with what looked suspiciously like black crayon and tar” (Danielewski 354).  Zampanò chooses to do this to keep the context of the source relevant, but hides the counterargument, which provides Zampanò with the opportunity to only include, but not address the counter argument.  The final way that Zampanò chooses to remove passages that he dislikes is through the disposal of the page itself.  Page 372 shows the removal of two pages after Dr. O’Geery’s analysis of the samples from the house.  Zampanò chooses to omit these pages due to lack of knowledge to address his previous evidence or perhaps to utter rage.  The variety of ways of disposal of texts shows Zampanò’s uncertainty with himself and what he believes in, hindering his ability to function, like an individual suffering from a psychotic disorder.
Consider the following, “Anatomical abnormalities have been reported in relation to the frontal-striatal-thalamic-cerebellar axis and temporolimbic regions (Keshavan, Kennedy, & Murray, 2004) although abnormalities have been discussed throughout the brain (Harrison, 1999)(The Encyclopedia of Neuropsychological Disorders).  Breaking that down based off of previous class knowledge, the frontal lobe is responsible for consciousness, personality, problem solving, and many other aspects that make us human; the striatum uses motivation to coordinate body movement; the thalamus regulates sleep and alertness; the cerebellum coordinates voluntary muscle movements; the temporal lobe functions in auditory processing; and the limbic system is heavily involved with emotion as well as long-term memory and behavior.  The abnormalities in the frontal lobe and limbic system explain Zampanò’s variety of deletions throughout his narration, as his feelings are constantly changing.
One of the most interesting elements that Zampanò includes in the house is the growl, which ultimately comes from the monster of the house, or Zampanò’s Minotaur.  By including the beast in a very dark, labyrinth-like hallway, Zampanò shows the reader what it is like to be blind.  Johnny states the following in the introduction in regards to Zampanò; “…he hadn’t seen a thing since the mid-fifties” (Danielewski xxi).  Because Johnny describes Zampanò as an old man in his eighties and House of Leaves was published in 2000, it is safe to say that Zampanò lost his sight in the 1950s, perhaps from the Vietnam War.  Due to the fact that 80 years did not pass between the mid 1950s and 2000, it is safe to say the Zampanò was not blind at birth.  After losing one’s sight, the individual loses a sense of security, as they can no longer physically see the dangers of life.  The Minotaur represents the danger that Zampanò feels in his life of darkness.  The use of the color red in reference to the Minotaur has prolonged meaning when Kandinsky is introduced; “The unbounded warmth of red has not the irresponsible appeal of yellow, but rings inwardly with a determined and powerful intensity.  It glows in itself, maturely, and does not distribute its vigor aimlessly…its fundamental tone may be warm or cold” (Kandinsky 40).  This description of power associated with the color of red is important, as the presence of the monster haunting Zampanò’s permanent darkness is enough to drive him into developing a psychotic disorder, as he begins to believe the monster is real.  He continues to scribble and write down on anything and everything he can find so he can finish his masterpiece before the growl of the monster is too close.  The scratches on the floor near Zampanò’s body after his death show the monster has finally gotten to him.  Zampanò’s hallucinations about the monster and it’s growl are symptoms of a psychotic disorder and are associated with the brain’s temporal lobe, striatum, and the limbic system.
Zampanò also heavily uses the colors blue and black in his description of the House.  Kandinsky describes the color of blue used for the word “house” throughout House of Leaves here, “When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human” (Kandinsky 38).  Zampanò’s grief includes loneliness, a broken heart, and the loss of seeing life’s beauty.  The dark color of blue that Zampanò uses whenever he writes the word house shows his own grief.  This draws a major connection between Zampanò and the house itself.  While inside the house, the color black is emphasized.  Kandinsky’s knowledge of color is noted once again, “A totally dead silence, on the other hand, a silence with no possibilities, has the inner harmony of black…The silence of black is the silence of death” (Kandinsky 39).  The never-ending black hallway that Zampanò explains is representative of his mind and mental state.  The frequent changing of the hallway show’s Zampanò’s mental instability with the spiral staircase being the amount of isolation that he feels.  The longer it takes to go down it is representative of the blackness and the silence that comes with it.  Near the end of Zampanò’s work on House of Leaves, he includes the following, “Sure enough the final frames of Navidson’s film capture the upper right-hand corner a tiny fleck of blur light into the void.  Enough to see but not enough to see by” (Danielewski 489).  This blue light that Zampanò sees is the “…typical heavenly colour” (Kandinsky 38).  This shows how Zampanò finally sees and understands that the end of his life is near, as the silence of death is broken with the appearance of heavenly hope of what is to come.   Frequent thoughts of death, loneliness, and the persistent changing of mental state all show Zampanò’s mental illness through the altered function of the frontal lobe, thalamus, and limbic system.
Not all characters involved in a horror story act quite like Zampanò, despite their obvious psychological abnormality.  For example, in Stephen King’s Different Seasons, the novella Apt Pupil in particular, contains some rather drastic examples of characters suffering from psychotic disorder.  One of the main characters, Todd, displays his emotional instability in the following way, “He stabbed the wino thirty-seven times.  He kept count.  Thirty-seven, counting the first strike, which went through the wino’s cheek and then turned his tentative smile into a great grisly grin” (King 224).  After being haunted by constant nightmares resulting from Dussander’s ghastly Holocaust tales, Todd has no other way for the dreams to stop other than killing.  Dussander, after recalling these tales to satisfy Todd’s demand, kills animals and then people to also hide from the dreams that have recently surfaced.  As soon as Dussander’s secret of being a prior Nazi surfaces, he has the following thoughts while awaiting his personal drug-induced death, “He had never felt so much like sleeping, and his sleep would be long.  It would be restful.  Unless there were dreams.  The thought shocked him.  Dreams?  Please, God, no.  Not those dreams.  Not for eternity, nor with all possibility of awakening gone” (King 296).  It is important to note that Zampanò also struggles with dreams as evidenced by, “Why can I sleep no more” (Danielewski 546)?  His lack of sleep along with Todd and Dussander is also most likely related to dreams.  Alterations frontal lobe, thalamus, and limbic system would produce results like these.  Despite sharing a similar psychotic Disorder, these three characters do not behave in a similar fashion.  This happens because, “On a chemical level, the dopaminergic system has long been associated with schizophrenia and psychosis as has the glutaminergic system” The Encyclopedia of Neuropsychological Disoriders).  Chemicals and hormones in the body differ from person to person, so it makes sense that levels of dopamine and glutamate in the body are associated with psychosis.  The amount of each of these neurotransmitters present would therefore vary between individuals.
Johnny also mentions suffering from terrifying dreams and even blames it on Zampanò’s work, but Johnny does not suffer from a psychotic disorder.  Before Johnny stumbled upon House of Leaves he was an alcoholic and drug addict who barely scraped by with a job at a tattoo parlor that he could barely keep.  His best friend, Lude, promoted this behavior.  It turns out that substance abuse of any kind impacts sleep, “Patients' sleep was problematic regardless of the reported major substance of abuse, including alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or opioids” (Sleep in the Substance-using Population).  Johnny’s sleep quality still does not change in withdrawal, and if anything, it could even get worse.  Consider the following, “Specifically, patients who had abstained from substances use for up to one year still scored impaired on their global PSQI sleep scores, indicating poor sleep quality” (Sleep in the Substance-using Population).  Due to the poor sleep quality of addicts and those recovering from addiction, Johnny’s dreams and poor sleep quality can be blamed on his recovery and not on psychosis.  Near the end of the novel, Johnny provides the reader with some insight, “Of course there always will be darkness but I realize now something inhabits it.  Historical or not” (Danielewisky 518).  This statement is not something that one would expect from somebody who is suffering from a psychotic disorder like Zampanò, Todd, or Dussander as they live in a world of nothing but darkness, and inhabit their own darkness.  Johnny realizes that the darkness that is present in his life is not a result of his own self but from some other, larger cause.
It is clear that Zampanò is mentally ill and shows the reader this through his masterpiece of the house and his inclusion of color in House of Leaves.  By understanding the implications of mental illness, readers grasp a firmer understanding that those who are mentally ill are equally capable of creating respectable and high-quality work that should be respected on the same level, if not higher, than an individual not suffering from mental illness.  Zampano teaches readers what it is like to suffer from a mental illness by including the changing halls of darkness.  This is Zampanò’s way of saying that every day is different with a mental disorder.  Some days, the amount of darkness, which can be interpreted as unhappiness, is so great that it consumes the individual and all hope of escape is gone.  Other days, the darkness is so small that it appears that nothing is wrong.  The constant change of quality of life and the way that life appears to be is determined by the dopamine and glutamate levels in the brain.  Zampanò includes the idea of the Minotaur in the text to show his daily fear of the monster, or delusions and hallucinations, which he constantly faces.  Overall, the idea of being trapped in a dark, unknown place, while being surrounded with a growl coming from a creature that can surely kill you, is a scary thought.  That same thought is the closest thing to experiencing a mental disorder that a person can have without actually having the condition.
Looking at House of Leaves as a whole, the sudden disruptions in the text such as on page 432 are proven to be a result of the disorder, and not Zampanò’s blindness.  If anything, Zampanò includes them to demonstrate the movement of the house and therefore instability and lack of confidence that Zampanò faces.  For example, Zampano spends countless days on the Jacob and Esau work with Denise Neiman.  As soon as it is almost complete, he destroys it.  In this case, Zampanò is impacted by the delusion of literary incompetence, as he feels that no matter how hard he tries to get something done and how well it comes out, ultimately it is a failure.  The crumbling text is representative of Zampanò’s crumbling sense of self and it yet another symptom of his disorder that he includes to make the reader understand yet another complication of living with a psychiatric disorder.
The last chapter that Zampanò writes, chapter XXIII is unlike any other chapter in the book in a stylistic, structural, and less-complex way.  Because of this, the reader is skeptical if it is truly work of Zampanò.  In reality, Zampanò writes this chapter in his dying days where absolutely everything has changed.  Consider the following descriptions, “…Navidson’s ravaged face, the patch covering his last eye, the absence of a hand, the crutch under his armpit…“ (Danielewski 526).  For Karen, “Nevertheless hair loss and severe stomach ulceration have left Karen gaunt and grey.  She has lost too much weight and constantly needs to sit down to catch her breath” (Danielewski 527).  By choosing to alter the appearance of Navidson and Karen so drastically, the reader can tell that in his last days, Zampanò’s disorder has taken over his literary perfectionism as well as his appearance.  Zampanò cannot physically see that his appearance has changed but he knows it has as the cold, dark grasp of death is finally on him.  For this reason, he rushes through the final chapter in hope of escaping death’s silence and completing his life’s masterpiece.
From the very beginning of House of Leaves, it is clear to the reader that Zampanò is mentally ill as he spent so much time of his life scribbling down a prolonged and thought-provoking film review, as a blind man, on a film that ultimately does not exist.  However, the book is not really about a film review.  Instead, it is a realistic and personal explanation of what it is like to be mentally ill.  The “leaves,” which is the film review disguise, are responsible for hiding the true meaning of the house, which when it comes down to it, is Zampanò himself.  By including elements such as color, the Minotaur, the changing halls, idisoriented text, and appearance of Karen and Navidson, Zampanò is stating his experiences with his psychotic disorder, as characterized by the DSM-IV, in order to provide the reader with a personal insight about what this illness truly includes.  By doing so, Zampanò creates a realistic horror that is masked with the façade of a film review in order to disguise his receding self-confidence.  It is also important to note that the severity of the illness varies from person to person, as evidenced by Stephen King’s characters of Todd and Dussander, as the abnormalities in the brain and their characteristic roles are all impacted by psychiatric disorder in different ways.  Zampanò lived a life full of distress and unhappiness that ultimately started with his blindness and losing those who he loved.  If he never became blind, a creation like House of Leaves would never exist and the reader would be denied the great knowledge of what it is like to live with a psychiatric disorder.

Works Cited
Casola, Paul G, MD,PhD., F.R.C.P.C., et al. "Sleep in the Substance-using  Population." Psychiatric Annals 36.12 (2006): 841-6.ProQuest. Web. 7 Dec.            2014.
King, Stephen. "Apt Pupil." Different Seasons. London: Warner, 1995. N. pag. Print.
"Psychotic Disorders." ALLPSYCH Online. AllPsych and Heffner Media Group, Inc., 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. <>.
"Psychotic Disorders." The Encyclopedia of Neuropsychological Disorders. Springer Publishing Company, 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. <>.


  1. Obviously it’s far from crazy to suggest that Z. might have been crazy. My question is going to be about what that does for us as readers. How do we read differently, presumably better, with the possibility of Z’s madness firmly in mind? What’s the value of his madness to us?

    The 2nd paragraph seems to be about his uncertainty and his different methods of showing it. What is the relationship you see between uncertainty and psychosis? That doesn’t yet connect for me.

    " The abnormalities in the frontal lobe and limbic system explain Zampanò’s variety of deletions throughout his narration, as his feelings are constantly changing.” — interestingly, that sounds more like a description of Johny or Holloway than of Z, at least to me. Doesn’t Johny mention his frontal lobe? I’m pretty sure he does in one of his rants about Kyrie.

    " Because Johnny describes Zampanò as an old man in his eighties and House of Leaves was published in 2000, it is safe to say that Zampanò lost his sight in the 1950s, perhaps from the Vietnam War.” — that’s probably the wrong war.

    We are explicitly and repeatedly told that the Minotaur is a trope for *repression*. Given that your’e doing a psychological reading, you should be dealing with repression at some level. What is Zampano repressing? What is hidden yet all-important inside him? You spend too much time speculating about psychosis rather than trying to figure out either what that psychosis is or where it originates.

    Although you wander a little, bringing in Zampano’s sleep disorder is productive. I’m not totally convinced that you get much from the Stephen King connection - doing more about what Zampano has to say about sleep probably would have been more productive.

    Why do you assert without argument that Johnny is an addict, but not psychotic? Note that he seems to quite using rather easily - and there is abundant & detailed evidence of mental abnormality. I’m not even sure your’e wrong, but it doesn’t seem to be an argument to be made in passing, at least.

    "Zampano teaches readers what it is like to suffer from a mental illness by including the changing halls of darkness.” — this, like much else in your essay, is speculative. But I wanted to bring it up as an especially interesting speculation.


  2. Overall:

    My main issue here is that a lot of what you say is basically speculation. Z. does many odd things, some of which can be attributed to mental illness. In many cases, your argument that he is showing signs of mental illness seems like a stretch; in many others, it seems perfectly reasonable. Here at the end, I want to think structurally, rather than nitpicking any more details.

    1. If our subject is ultimately Zampano’s madness, what do you make of Johny’s role as editor? I think this was a major missed opportunity for you - if Z. is mentally ill, and Johnny remains deeply traumatized by his mother’s mental illness, shouldn’t you be exploring ways in which Johnny is working with Zampano’s text in order to understand his own mother? After all, we can’t easily stop with Z. - we need to address Johnny in some coherent way.

    2. At the end of the day, how does seeing Z. as insane help us understand the book? "However, the book is not really about a film review. Instead, it is a realistic and personal explanation of what it is like to be mentally ill. The “leaves,” which is the film review disguise, are responsible for hiding the true meaning of the house, which when it comes down to it, is Zampanò himself. By including elements such as color, the Minotaur, the changing halls, idisoriented text, and appearance of Karen and Navidson, Zampanò is stating his experiences with his psychotic disorder, as characterized by the DSM-IV, in order to provide the reader with a personal insight about what this illness truly includes.” You say that the book provides Z’s personal insights into madness. But what are those insights? How do we understand mental illness better or differently now? The danger, in other words, is that you are too focused on finding reasons why we *might* take Z as being insane, rather than addressing the bigger question: what implications does that have for our understanding of the book or, if you prefer, of the world? If it gives us insights, as you claim, what are they?

    This was, at the end of the day, an imaginative approach to the novel, which showed some smart use of Kandinsky and an interesting focus upon Z., but you struggle ultimately to turn an interesting idea into an argument that will influence our understanding.