Inside No. 9

Written By Kirstyn Smith

Kirstyn Smith is a writer and editor of horror, erotica and horrotica based in Edinburgh. Her work has been featured in Extra Teeth, Aurore, OhCleo and afterglow. She's also the host of There's Not Always a Twist, a podcast about Inside No. 9. You can find her on Twitter @iiitskirstyn.

Grief and madness are tough subjects to get right in media. British horror-comedy anthology show Inside No. 9, though, has never shied away from portraying the most horrifying parts of human existence, with thoughtfulness, uncanniness and humor. The first ever episode, after all, is a claustrophobic, chaotic (and comedic, to a point) examination of the fallout from childhood sexual assault decades later. Since then, the show has broached subjects like the trauma of losing a child; mass hysteria in 17th-century witch trials; obsessive, powerful fandoms; the horror of not adhering to societal expectations as a woman. Each story takes place “inside” a number 9: a house, a hotel room, a shoe. A period of time.

Loss is a theme that has permeated the last ten years of Inside No. 9—in a way that isn’t wholly restricted to death. In “The Twelve Days of Christine” (series 2, episode 2), the title character grieves the life she anticipated living, mirroring it against the one she has ended up in. One scene depicts her talking with a vision of her late father. “I didn’t think it would turn out like this,” she says. This episode is a fan favorite, and there’s a lot to glean from it: It’s a meditation on memory, and how it relates to relationships, expectations, reality, and surreality. It also says a lot about the pressures of womanhood: the overwhelming sense of “Is this it?” that can come from failing to follow the route society lays out for us—education, job, marriage, children, keeping yourself together whatever the cost. I know there are other women out there for whom the concept of having to explain to a late parent that you’ve grieving a life you didn’t quite manage to live rings achingly true.

In “Love is a Stranger” (series 8, episode 4), the unlikely villain, Vicky, is a perfectly pitched characterization of a woman who has lost her way in life. She’s video dating after the death of her mother, explaining her situation to a potential partner.

“I’m footloose and fancy-free,” she says, later in the conversation amending this sentiment to the heart-wrenching, “It untethers you, doesn’t it?”

Vicky is open-minded, flirty, sweet—and denigrated by everyone she meets online. She also followed a different route in life, eschewing becoming a wife, becoming a mother, to look after her own parent. “You lose your bearings,” she says, reflecting on what happens when it all ends. Nonetheless, there’s a spark in her that’s so compelling, her quashed zest for life finally allowed to blossom again, but she’s an older woman who is constantly negged, cheated, lied to and judged—no wonder the episode takes the turn it does.

When I think about Inside No. 9, I think about my dad. He died in 2014, the year the show first aired. He got ten months with the show; I’ve had ten years of both Inside No.9 and grief: the two are forever connected. I don’t know if he ever watched it; these days I can’t even remember whether it’s something he would have enjoyed. Madness and loss are, of course, inextricably linked, but I was mad before my dad died—his death just finally gave me a solid excuse to be unwell. I think about David from “Diddle Diddle Dumpling” (series 3, episode 5), and how the loss of one of his twins is such an unfathomable concept that he cannot fight a descent into madness. I think about the way humans sometimes make strange links when dealing with bereavement, guilt, mental illness, and wonder whether that’s why I, like David, needed something to concentrate on.  Previously, my grief was raw and my madness as on-the-surface as David’s, but over the years both have significantly dulled. The show, for me, became a vessel that has helped me make more sense of the world.

Trauma, too, is a frequent bedfellow with grief and madness. While Inside No.9 has broached traumatic subjects from the start, there’s a growing sense of thoughtfulness and care with which later episodes have touched on trauma. Series seven’s “Wise Owl” (episode 6) blends 1970’s public information films with the day-to-day of a man who has survived sexual abuse in an episode that is unsettling and nightmarish throughout. The combination of freakish sound design, ominously lit scenes, a haunting score, and jerky, uncanny animation made me sick with dread when I first watched it. In one scene, which will never leave my psyche, protagonist Ronnie reluctantly opens a bedroom door after hearing a noise behind it. No monster is revealed, just an unholy sound that is part-scream, part-roar, part-nails on a blackboard—utterly unspeakable. It is the best non-physical representation I’ve ever encountered of what it feels like, in both body and mind, to be a child who knows something bad is happening, but doesn’t know exactly what or exactly why. When you’re living with a grief for part of you that was lost or taken, or for a childhood irrevocably changed, it’s important to be seen, and this episode is fluorescent.

But after everything, hope, too, is crucial, and sometimes in Inside No. 9, as in the real world, there is hope for a way through and out. Occasionally, this takes the form of a confirmed happy ending, a character like Ronnie figuratively and literally walking away from his past. Sometimes the opposite is true: victims exact their revenge through fire, through tetrodotoxin, through scaphism—but in both the show and the real world, it is hard to say, really, whether one form of closure is more human than the other. Grief is morally grey; so is its aftermath.

Inside No. 9 has been soothing and terrifying for me. Seeing familiar situations played out with deliciously gallows humor and realizing it’s okay to find the grotesque laughter among the horror is validating; so too is feeling the gut-punch of recognition and being allowed to sit with that for half an hour. There are strange little days where I feel like a mixture of Christine, David, Vicky and Ronnie: more or less doing it wrong, more or less irrevocably changed, more or less melancholic. But these are fewer and fewer—and with that comes its own sense of grief for the person I once was. Of course, no TV show can have any hand in medicating a complex mental health diagnosis—that’s psychotherapy and being med-compliant—but the show has been an oddly comforting constant for years. The ninth and final series ends this month. Its ability to disturb, charm, terrify and validate its viewers will be grieved.

Categories TV