This editorial is being republished for The Invisible Man‘s VOD release.
Warning: Triggering material and major spoilers ahead.
The Invisible Man has appeared on the horror scene like a visible breath of fresh air dressed in a suit of tension and terror. The film tells the story of Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), a woman leaving her abusive boyfriend, only to be stalked by an invisible force. As a survivor of an abusive marriage, I’ve rarely felt so seen by a film. While on the surface, director Leigh Whannell is telling a story of a mysterious villain, the underlying allegory is a powerful depiction of the struggle to leave an abusive relationship. By showing the full scope of this untangling, the initial escape, the effects of the trauma, and the temptation to go back, I see a story that feels achingly like my own.
A friend recently told me that ending an abusive relationship is easy. “You just leave,” he said. While overly simplified, this is the way a large portion of society views intimate partner violence. But it’s more than simply walking out the door and almost always looks different from the inside. Ten years after my first marriage ended, I’m still trying to understand what happened and why I stayed, and those feelings are all over Whannell’s unnerving re-imagining.
By beginning the movie with Cecilia’s late-night escape and focusing almost solely on her, Whannell allows the audience to side with the victim and opens the door for much-needed empathy. This tense scene plays out in a darkened house as she desperately tries to avoid waking up her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). And her fear is justified: The most dangerous time for a survivor is right after leaving. They have taken back the control their abusers need most, and some will go to dangerous lengths to reclaim it. Adrien is no exception, which is why, despite her careful planning, Cecilia just barely gets away. Adrien punches through the window of the car as Cecelia escapes, but it’s already in motion. The look of terror coupled with relief as she is driven away by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), shows the stakes of her decision.
Two weeks later, while technically safe, Cecilia is still suffering. She’s staying with a friend, James (Aldis Hodge), to keep Adrian from finding her in a moment of respite that hit home. One of my major obstacles to leaving my first husband was the knowledge that he knew where I would go. He knew where my parents and friends lived, and he knew where I worked. In order to fully leave him, I would have had to rip apart my life and leave everything behind. I would also be exposing my friends, family, and coworkers to his violence. Adrian knows where Emily lives, so any contact with Cecilia puts her in danger as well — and it most certainly does.
As Cecilia adjusts to life outside of the relationship, we begin to see the PTSD symptoms appear. A tentative trip to the mailbox ends as she is startled by a jogger, a trigger I have experienced many times. When I see someone with a particular haircut or style of dress, my brain sometimes sees my first husband instead. My head may know that I’m safe, but my body perceives him as a threat and triggers a fight or flight response. I’m not being overly sensitive; my body is overriding logic and shifting into survival mode.
When Emily delivers the news that Adrian is dead, we want Cecilia to feel relieved. But the effects of trauma are long lasting. I haven’t seen or heard from my first husband in years, but I think about him often, and I feel his impact on my life every day. Cecilia does, too. While there is no logical reason for her to be afraid, she still senses Adrian around every corner. Yes, by the movie’s logic, he probably is there and the threat is real, but PTSD is real, too. Cecilia would arguable have the same fears were Adrian not to torture her from inside his invisibility suit.
Throughout the film, Cecilia stares suspiciously at open doorways and empty corners. This is meant to imply that Adrian is lurking there, invisible, and it’s effective. But it’s also common among survivors. After moving to a new office, I noticed that my eyes kept creeping back to the doorway with a sense of unease. I finally realized it was because there was nothing physically between me and the open door; or rather, nothing I could hide behind. Life in a controlling and violent home had trained me to keep my guard up at all times, and empty space meant I had left myself vulnerable. Ten years after my husband left, I still find myself staring at doors and windows. Or looking at scissors wondering if I could use them as a makeshift weapon. My brain knows this is an overreaction, but my hand still reaches.
Cecilia attempts to talk about what happened, but we never see her say it outright. James does when he asks if Adrian hit her, but she softens the truth for herself by saying, “among other things.” My go-to deflection was “it’ll be a Lifetime movie someday” to keep from actually having to describe some painful truths. Because when I say them out loud to someone else, they become real. Part of my brain’s defense mechanism is to tell me that none of this happened. That I’m overreacting. Or flat-out lying. Once I say out loud that my husband hit me, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen anymore.
The Invisible Man is rightly being praised for presenting a tangible depiction of gaslighting: a form of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse intended to make the victim doubt their sanity. We see intentional gaslighting when Adrian turns up the stove and empties her portfolio, but we also see unintended gaslighting from her loved ones. While supportive, they tell her “Don’t let him win by bringing him back to life.” and “He will haunt you if you let him.” While I’m sure these statements are well-intentioned, they imply that Cecilia is choosing to be triggered. This language can lead to minimization because it encourages Cecilia to deny her pain, just like she had to hide it while in the relationship. To this day, I constantly ask myself if it was really that bad because everything in me wants to believe that the abuse wasn’t real.
Because admitting that I am a survivor is traumatic in and of itself. My brain spirals with questions: Will they think I’m weak? Will they ask why I didn’t leave? Can they see my scar? And the big one: Will they believe me? This “believing” doesn’t just mean thinking what I’m saying is accurate. It means believing that it really does hurt that much. The pain is real and I need help controlling it. Whannell shows that it’s not just in Cecilia’s head. By making his antagonist real but invisible, he directs focus to Cecilia’s experience and validates her suffering in a way that society often does not. We cannot identify with an attacker we can’t see forcing us to identify with the victim. Eventually, Cecilia becomes aware that Adrian is targeting her, and her reaction is the closest approximation to my own panic attacks that I’ve ever seen on screen. She knows she is in danger, she just doesn’t know what it is or where it’s coming from, so she can’t find safety anywhere. She frantically swings around pointing a knife and trying to find the direction of the threat to no avail.
I would give almost anything to avoid these kinds of triggered panic attacks that feel like an invisible threat with an impossible defense. And sometimes the way to do that is to pretend the abuse didn’t happen. I constantly find myself asking my therapist if what I’m describing actually sounds like abuse. Because if it doesn’t, I don’t have a problem. I can go back to pretending I’m okay, too, rather than doing the extremely hard work of sorting through the trauma. It’s hard enough to believe it myself. Which is why I, and survivors like me, need allies who will listen and believe us.
The process of leaving always revolves around the continuous decision to stay and the temptation to return. And these are usually the hardest choices to explain. There’s always a reason to go back and a rationalization to be found. He needs me. He promises it’ll be different this time. I told myself that since he never punched me in the face, or sent me to the hospital, he couldn’t have been abusive. Years of gaslighting had taken its toll and I found myself not believing my own lived experience. Cecilia has an opportunity to return after learning that she is pregnant. She’s told us that Adrien wanted her to have a baby because then she would be tied to him forever, and we find out that by sabotaging her secret birth control, he was successful. Adrian’s brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), offers her the chance to end the harassment if she will agree to have Adrian’s baby and go back to him. She chooses not to, but I wonder if she was tempted.
I was with my first husband for three years, but we’d been together for two before we decided to get married. Some of the worst abuse had already happened and I knew what I was committing to. But I married him anyways because I got pregnant. I was afraid to have the baby by myself and afraid to tell my father without ending the sentence with news of a wedding. I justified this choice by telling myself that a baby would fix him. Three weeks before the wedding, I lost the baby. While this was devastating, I console myself with the knowledge that I never have to see the father again. Children are the justification many battered women use to stay. And I will not judge them for it, but I greatly appreciated seeing this reality reflected in the film.
After Adrien is revealed to be alive, having set up his brother as a scapegoat, Cecilia has another opportunity to go back. This time, she takes it, but with an ulterior motive. Over a tense dinner, she attempts to record Adrian’s confession. She asks him to just tell her the truth. That he did it. That she’s not crazy. But he will not. He clings to the lies and manipulations even seeming to rub it in her face at one point. While I don’t think she expects him to admit his guilt (she knows him too well), her tears show that part of her desperately wants to hear it from him. Not only for her own peace of mind, but as proof to the world. And like so many survivors before her, she has to let go of that desire for justice and atonement in order to move on.
Notably, this is the first time we clearly see Adrian’s face. Until the last scene, he is either invisible, blurry, or wearing the malfunctioning suit. Now, we finally get to see the other side of his manipulation. He is kind. He is caring. He is thoughtful. Because they all are when they’re not mad. I excused three years of abuse because my first husband painted my classroom purple. I clung to that act every time he ignored, insulted, or hit me. Eventually, I learned that the apologies and gestures meant nothing. They were just more of his tools. But it’s tempting to believe. We want to sympathize with Adrian because we have been conditioned to believe men first and view women who leave as liars. We want to deny their pain because then we will have to admit that it happened under our noses. If Whannell had shown us Adrian’s face earlier, before we experienced all the consequences of his malicious acts, we may have been tempted to empathize with him.
The concluding scene is an empowered version of the first and bookends the film. After a series of harrowing, climactic events, Cecilia calmly and confidently walks out the door and away from her house, actions in sharp contrast to the frantic running, climbing, and tiptoeing we see in her initial escape. She now knows for sure that Adrian can no longer hurt her, and she has taken her power back. She will likely have a long road to recovery, but now she knows she can survive it. She is beginning to heal. The final moment shows her pausing at the top of the walk, closing her eyes, and breathing free air. She’s out. It’s admittedly a tough scene to watch, though: My abusive relationship is over, but I’m still finding my way out of the recovery. It’s hard, but it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. I’m hopeful that one day soon I’ll also be able to take that deep free breath.