Before discussing Argento’s film, it might be illuminating to put it in the context of its source material. It is a widely known fact that Argento drew inspiration for his films (the so-called “Three Mothers” series) from the writings of Thomas De Quincey, in particular his 1845 work Suspiria de Profundis, which contains “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” – a prose poem describing De Quincey’s opium-fuelled vision of the “Three Mothers” – Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Tenebrarum and Mater Suspiriorum, about whom De Quincey has this to say: “The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum – Our Lady of Sighs…[H]er eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium…She is humble to abjectness. Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless.”
This quotation opens up a field of possibilities for reading Argento’s film. First, there is the incomprehensibility of narrative, especially for the viewer attempting to meet a gaze withheld (“no man could read their story”). Why should this be so? Presumably because the tale told by this gaze would be “neither sweet nor subtle” and “filled with perishing dreams” – a semantically ambivalent phrase. Does it refer to dying dreams or dreams of dying? The “wrecks of forgotten delirium” point to De Quincey’s habitual use of opium and, within Argento’s film, to the nameless drug given to the protagonist, Suzy. Our Lady presents a threat to the viewer, offering visions of death, the wrack and ruin of madness and hopelessness, because she is abject.
The Mother in Argento’s film, Helena Markos, is referred to as a “black queen” and a malefic witch by a psychiatric authority (the “last word” on the subject), Dr. Milius. This association with a queen bee is made overt when, near the end of the film, Suzy wanders down a hidden tunnel festooned with flower and vine imagery and marked with inscriptions in Latin, German and Hebrew. Among the words made noticeable by Argento’s framing, we find “Interiora Occultum” (hidden interior), “Metamorphosis,” and in capitals “Apibus” (bees) next to a large red rose.
The hidden interior – the center of the labyrinth found via the assistance of Ariadne’s thread (mentioned earlier by Sarah) – is the red rose of the female genitalia, the sweet honey provided by the queen bee, the black witch, Helena Markos. At the end of the tunnel, Suzy witnesses a Black Mass, a parody or inversion of the Eucharist, and discovers her friend’s dead body with pins stuck into her eyes. When Suzy intrudes into Helena Markos’ sanctum, there is a large “eye in the triangle” on the wall. And it is not until Suzy disturbs her from her restive sleep that Helena Markos brings back the dead. This sequence establishes a series of equivalences between sleep, death, being hidden or invisible, and blindness.
It is not coincidental that the witch, the abject Mother, is invisible. For, residing in the center of the labyrinth, she must be considered a monster, a prime example of what Barbara Creed terms “the monstrous-feminine.” It is only when Suzy defeats her by stabbing her through the throat with a peacock’s tail feather/needle emblazoned with the traditional eye that she becomes visible and all her handiwork undone.
It is also notable that, in this film, most of the male characters are side-lined and secondary. The female protagonist defeats the source of evil without the traditional assistance of the active, forceful male presence. In fact, the only male character not almost incidental to the storyline – apart from exposition engines like Frank Mandel and Dr. Milius – is the blind pianist, Daniel. He must be eliminated precisely because he cannot see, and so does not take the illusion of normalcy at face value. Ironically, he is dispatched by his seeing-eye dog, possessed (the viewer is led to believe) by the maleficent force of the witches.
A final word should be said about the presence throughout the film of water imagery – from the heavy rainfall that opens and closes the film to the sequence featuring Suzy and Sarah in the middle of a large pool. The association of water with the unconscious ties these images into the theme of sleep and death that runs throughout the film. The entire body of the film thus becomes a “perishing dream.” The question remains: Does Suzy wake up at its end? What is the precise relation between the falling rain (the unconscious) and the consuming fire (reason or intellect)? Appropriately, Argento does not foreclose any reading. The ending, like the film, remains open and oneiric.