Generally we prefer the inside to the outside. Unframed by walls and drapes, outside space is endless, and being endless invokes the despair of the void. In in-cludes, out ex-cludes, in en-frames, out ex-poses, in renders space finite, out leaves space infinite. Is this what Pascal feared – “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces”? There is a panic centred on the lack of centre. In housing ourselves this panic is domesticated. Strange then, to encounter an empty house, in which the infinite is brought into the enclosure of the finite. This is a paradox that resists analysis. Has the house been cultivated by the outside or has outside been delimited by the inside?
Against this possible collapse, there is a tendency to think of a shelter inside of a shelter. Most of our doors are double locked, as though to emphasize the contingent nature of dwelling. Failing that, inside the house there is always at least one space we turn to by way of retreat. Often, however, it is not enough. Things slither inwards. An element of secrecy would be involved in order to vouchsafe the implicit security (if not paranoia) of the double retreat. Housed up, blocked out – the world disbanded as a sheathed environment takes precedence.
Panic rooms: a history of such a space would prove that it is more than a fear of domestic invasion that is at stake. Rather, architecture must necessarily be hidden if it is to preserve its identity and so not be undermined by the outside. At the same time, every hidden retreat relies upon knowledge of what exists outside of the space in order for the sense of centeredness to transpire. Panic Room (the film) affirms this dynamic. Recall the passage from Bachelard in which he talks about the house in winter, peering behind the curtains at the snow, securing intimacy through establishing a distance between inside and outside. It is a dangerous warmth, precarious in its foundation, vulnerable in what it reveals.
In Panic Room there is an analogous warmth; only where there exist drapes to peer into the nothingness from the wooden house, in the panic room there are a dozen surveillance cameras monitoring a house invasion take place. The disjunction of the observable intrusion vis-à-vis the enclosure of the panic room heightens the inner claustrophobia of the shell in such a way that its fullness is recognized. Violence itself becomes a means of reassurance, a fortuitous opportunity through which the strength of re-enforced steel is tested.
At the same time, when a centre is displaced before transported elsewhere then we have a tendency to take with us images of the old centre even though the new centre is incapable of accommodating these images. Thus, a panic room is imbued with the normative shelter from where it now hides. In the film, there is a sense of aggressive pleasure depicted by Jodie Foster as she stands before the monitors exhibiting the violation of her house. Pleasure, intrusion and the fact of being hidden hence form an intimate trinity where each aspect relies upon the other for their collected identities.
But in the panic there is more to the outside than its lack of definition. Isn’t this what Dickens’s Miss Havisham conceals herself from: a past which will disprove her present? This is the age of trembling under drapes, of no longer trusting in window frames, door knobs, and steel locks. Often the inside can become a way of preserving what was lost on the outside by simultaneously inverting the secluded aspect of the interior. Thus, black curtains pertain to an event that has now vanished, and in turn a home can be constructed in the negative image of what originally defined it.