The Madness of Appeasement: Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

SeanceonaWetAfternoon1964spaIn Brian Forbes’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) persuades her husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) to commit a “savage” act: He kidnaps a young girl, and then by revealing knowledge about the girl’s whereabouts to the parents, Myra hopes to achieve fame and fortune as a medium. Billy becomes a criminal due to a long-standing habit of appeasement in his marriage.

Appeasement is giving in to the unjust demands of another person to avoid a conflict. Ayn Rand defines appeasement as “the consideration for and compliance with the unjust, irrational and evil feelings of others. It is a policy of exempting the emotions of others from moral judgment, and of willingness to sacrifice innocent, virtuous victims to the evil malice of such emotions.”1 To stop being an appeaser requires strength—the ability to say no. Billy is a weak husband, giving in to Myra’s unjust demands. He risks the physical and emotional well-being of an innocent girl to make his wife happy.

One reason Billy appeases Myra is because he is financially dependent on her. Due to his asthma, he is unable to work, making it easier for Myra to manipulate him. She tells him, “you’re weak” and “you need me.” He obeys her like a willing servant, his eyes often averted from her gaze. Myra is a bully who has her unemployed husband “whipped.”

Myra manipulates Billy so she can achieve her dream of becoming a famous medium. Because her plan involves a crime, she engages in rationalization to justify it: “the most commonly used defense mechanism, in which an individual justifies ideas, actions, or feelings with seemingly acceptable reasons or explanations.”2 Myra reasons that “what we are doing is not wrong” because “the child won’t be hurt in any way.” In Myra’s mind, the only kind of harm she can cause a child is physical, not emotional. She even convinces herself that they have not kidnapped the girl: “We’ve borrowed a child, Billy. Borrowed, borrowed. Just keep saying that.” Through rationalization, Myra convinces herself that they have not committed a crime.

Myra’s reasoning is that the ends justify the means. She tells Billy, “What we are doing is a means to an end. You agree with the end, don’t you?” She then argues, “Well, you must agree with the means.” Myra believes that if Billy agrees with her desire to become famous (the ends) then he should agree with kidnapping a girl (the means). Later, she orders Billy to kill the child: “Do it for me, Billy, so we both can be safe.” To believe that the ends justify the means is to reject any absolute standard of right and wrong. This relativistic “reasoning” allows Myra to feel no guilt for her crime.

The largest gap in Myra’s reasoning is the kidnapping plot itself. If she is a real medium, then she wouldn’t need to prove her abilities by faking them. For Myra, the truth is the opposite of truth. This is seen when Mrs. Clayton (Nanette Newman) unexpectedly arrives at the Savage’s house, and Myra becomes ecstatic saying, “She can share my truth.” Her so-called “truth” involves telling Mrs. Clayton knowledge about her daughter that she gained by abducting her. Myra engages in doublespeak, calling things the opposite of what they are.

Myra manipulates Billy to kidnap a young girl because she is insane. A woman who suffered “too much sorrow”, the death of her unborn baby shattered her mind, and became delusional—believing that she was in contact with the spirit of her dead son. Billy’s actions show how madness can be contagious. He tells Myra, “We’re mad, you and me. We’re both mad.” Billy is not mentally-ill, but appeasing his wife—submitting to her irrational demands—was an act of madness.

Notes

  1. “Appeasement,” Ayn Rand Lexicon, accessed August 15, 2013, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/appeasement.html
  2. Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition, s.v. “Rationalization,” accessed April 27, 2015, http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/rationalization
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3 thoughts on “The Madness of Appeasement: Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

  1. Just double checked the film on the money issue. “Mommy left me this house” as Myra points to the chair where the solicitor from her mothers will sat. There is no mention of any money from the will. We don’t even know if the house is paid off or not. Technically, Myra is an UNRELIABLE NARRATOR as she tells this flashback “story”. Her mental instability is brilliantly in question throughout the entire film. This is obviously indicated by Richard Attenborough’s excellent non-verbal performance as he listen’s to her reminisce about this “event”. Also later on, (at the 49:00 minute mark) when Myra first confronts the father of the abducted little girl, he question’s her sanity directly to her, as she relay’s her BS story of her psychic dream/visions about his daughter abductors! Myra’s “logic” isn’t based in reality anywhere in the film! Billy definitely goes through great lengths to appease Myra’s & keep her psychotic dream (Pun intended) alive! The real question is who is more unstable… Myra or Billy who is following her delusional instructions? CRAZY IN LOVE…as they say! 🙂

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  2. Myra & Billy have a classic emotional co-dependent relationship with a touch of self delusion on Myra’s part! Billy is definitely placating/precipitating in Myra’s mental aberrations of being a “successful” medium for the dead. If you think about it… the entire film is an metaphor for her emotional disconnection & her inability to deal with the death of her unborn baby. Death does make people act in strange ways indeed. I find it interesting… that you critically find Billy’s only form of personal identity is by his lack of a job. Are we solely defined by our profession/job that we do in this life!?! Granted in the early 1960’s, the prevailing social norm, was for men to be the bread winners of the family. Anyway, I don’t think the script itself, ever identify’s if Myra has a “real” job in society or not. Is Billy really financially dependent on Myra? If they are in business, it’s for themselves, the seance business, which obviously isn’t going that well for them, to go to such drastic measures as kidnapping a child to conduct a successful seance. In the end, as always, you have some really excellent points here on Billy’s appeasement to the emotionally dominating character of Myra in this underrated classic film “SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON” 1964. I give you definite props for covering/analyzing this classic film! KEEP THE EXCELLENT INSIGHTS COMING… SO NEUROTIC FOOLS LIKE ME CAN CRITICIZE YOUR EFFORTS! LOL!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great psychological assessment of Myra’s fragile psyche. Her mental deterioration is almost parallel to Blanche Dubois.

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