By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Motel Architecture’ is not one of the best-known short stories of the British author J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), but it’s one of his most prescient. And this is an author who anticipated everything from Ronald Reagan becoming US President (in the late 1960s) to videocalls and virtual socialising via a TV/computer screen (see his ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ for the latter).
‘Motel Architecture’ is from 1978, but was included in Ballard’s 1982 collection Myths of the Near Future. A brief summary of the story’s plot (containing spoilers) might be helpful.
At some point in the near future, Pangborn, the protagonist, lives alone in a ‘solarium’, moving himself around in a wheelchair and never leaving the safety of his home. One day, he becomes aware of an intruder in the solarium, who eats his food and breathes heavily near him, but who never reveals himself.
This awareness of some other person in the solarium coincides with the arrival of his new cleaning lady, a young blonde woman named Vera Tilley whose provocative manner seems to arouse something within Pangborn’s shell of a body.
It turns out that many people spend their lives isolated from one another in these ‘solariums’ (solaria?), in Ballard’s near-future vision of the world. Pangborn’s job – a TV critic – is one of the few means of employment still available, as is the job of cleaning lady, as Vera Tilley attests.
Many other jobs have become surplus to requirements, one assumes: an idea that Ballard also plays around with in another story from 1978, ‘Having a Wonderful Time’, in which the managerial classes are flown out to the Canaries to live there in holiday camps which double up as concentration camps, all because the jobs they do are no longer required.
Here, by the way, I’d say Ballard’s usually prescient mind missed the mark: when most jobs became surplus to requirements, people didn’t stop working, but instead governments and companies around the world created scores of meaningless and otiose job roles, what the late David Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs’. But I digress …
Pangborn spends his days watching the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho over and over again on the complex of television screens in his solarium. He meticulously analyses the scene to an obsessive degree. This scene, set in the Bates Motel, provides Ballard’s story with its title.
At the end of ‘Motel Architecture’, it emerges that Pangborn has become so isolated from the outside world that he has externalised his own being, attributing his own breathing and behaviour to some other self.
Ballard’s story reads like a modern take on the ghost story where the ghost turns out to be nothing but a product of Pangborn’s ‘fear’ (of himself and his own bodily reality). The twist is somewhat similar to the one we find at the end of H. G. Wells’s 1896 ‘ghost story’, ‘The Red Room’: in both cases, the ‘ghost’ inhabiting the same room as the protagonist turns out to be nobody but themselves.
But the Psycho allusion is woven into the story in numerous ways which reach beyond the shower scene. At the end of ‘Motel Architecture’, Pangborn discovers the bloodied body of Vera Tilley in the shower of his solarium: like Norman Bates’s schizoid adoption of his mother’s personality when ‘she’ murders Marion Crane in the shower (and the private investigator who goes to find out what happened), Pangborn and his alter ego, who are both physically the same person, seem to be only dimly aware of each other.
When Pangborn becomes his murderous other self, it is as if he is possessed by a demon or spirit, unaware of what he is doing.
The story remains open to interpretation: is Pangborn’s extreme isolation from other people the root cause of his mental breakdown and violent behaviour? Vera Tilley’s comments to him indicate that it is still fairly normal for other people to go out and socialise in this near-future world he inhabits. Or is it his obsession with Psycho which leads to life imitating art?
Or is it both? Was he already mad, hence his decision to cordon himself off from his fellow human beings lest he act upon his strange and destructive impulses?
Ballard doesn’t fill in the gaps here, thankfully. It leaves the story as a symbolic rather than narrowly allegorical tale where Pangborn’s plight represents ‘the dangers of watching violent films’ or ‘the dangers of social isolation’ and so on. All of these may have been contributing factors. Or perhaps the mental problems preceded his life in the solarium and his fixation with Psycho.
In the last analysis, we have a short story which updates the horror tale, or even the ghost story, for the modern, virtual age. Some people have been made into hermits by lockdowns, others by Covid, and others were already fairly self-enclosed beings and now they have the perfect excuse for continuing their solitary existence indefinitely.
This is one reason why ‘Motel Architecture’ remains one of Ballard’s more prophetic and relevant stories.