Book vs. Movie: Stir of Echoes

Stir of Echoes is one of those horror movies I always bring up when someone asks me what I think some of the most underrated horror films of all time are; directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, the 1999 movie is based pretty loosely on Richard Matheson’s short novel, which came out in 1958.

Its plot is pretty standard horror movie fare—a creepy psychic kid, hypnosis, disturbing visions of a violent crime—but its execution is deft and chilling, and it still pains me to this day that the film tends to fly a bit under the radar when the best scary movies are discussed, even in fairly well-informed company. I’ve talked to many horror fans who have never even heard of it, and this is a great shame, though I do feel that it seems to be getting more of its due nowadays, as knowledge of it slowly seeps into the horror zeitgeist.

Stir of Echoes’s disappearing act from the public consciousness has very little to do with the quality of the film (which is very, very good), and almost everything to do with timing. You see, Stir of Echoes had the misfortune of coming out—not only a couple of months after the phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project—but also within weeks of that 1999 supernatural juggernaut, The Sixth Sense (in fact, I seem to recall seeing both films in the theater within a couple days of each other, as The Sixth Sense was still on theater screens by the time Stir of Echoes came out). Since movie audiences can evidently only handle one ghostly spookfest per release cycle, Stir of Echoes was left in the dust, making less than $22 million on a $12 million budget, while The Sixth Sense went on to become a monster hit, the second highest-grossing film of 1999, to be precise (The Phantom Menace was number one, in case you wondered).

While Stir of Echoes is certainly a much more intimate, low-key film than The Sixth Sense, it is also darker and much, much creepier than its more-successful rival, at least in my opinion. As a matter of fact, I saw a late-night showing of Stir of Echoes with my friend Jen, who often took me along to scary movies back in the day because she loved them but was usually unbearably terrified by them at the same time. I was there as the “tough” girl, the horror aficionado who was rarely fazed by anything and could talk her out of her fear if necessary. And yet, ironically, even I absolutely did NOT want to walk across the darkened parking lot after the movie let out after midnight. Not after seeing that; the movie really got under my skin, in other words.

After I saw the film, I was interested to read the novella it was based on; at that point in my life, I had already read a handful of Richard Matheson’s works—I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Hell House, and a compilation of his short stories and screenplays, which included the famous “Duel,” which of course was turned into a TV movie directed by Steven Spielberg in 1971—but I had never read A Stir of Echoes.

Although I like the book quite a bit, it’s much, much different than the film, and I’ll even go a bit out on a limb and say that I thought the movie was significantly better, simply because the story was tighter and more focused, and had fewer extraneous details and storylines. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film adaptation of Stir of Echoes was in name only, as the bones of both versions of the story are the same, but pretty much everything else about it is different, including the setting, some of the characters, and even the details, motives, and resolution of the central mystery. I’ll lay out the key differences as I go along. This should probably go without saying in a post like this (though, as always, I’m going to say it anyway), but there will be spoilers for both movie and book if you choose to forge ahead from this point.

The film version of Stir of Echoes tells the story of a down-to-earth, working-class family living in a close-knit neighborhood in Chicago: Tom Witzky is a phone lineman and aspiring musician, his wife Maggie is pregnant with their second child, and the couple have a son named Jake, who is about six years old or so. It’s established almost immediately that Jake is psychic, and can talk to ghosts, though his parents don’t seem to be all too aware of the extent of his powers.

In the book, the family’s last name is Wallace, not Witzky; the son is named Richard and is about three years old, and the wife is named Anne, although she is pregnant at the beginning, like in the movie. The son is only implied to have some kind of paranormal sensitivity, though it becomes much clearer later on.

Tom Wallace works at some kind of plant across the street from their house, though he has more of an upper-management type of job. The Wallaces actually live in a very stereotypical, 50s-era, middle-class suburb in California, where everyone has perfect lawns and all the women are housewives, and you spend your weekends going next door to play bridge with the neighbors. The entire book is in the first person, told from Tom Wallace’s point of view.

Less than ten minutes into the film adaptation, the Witzkys go to a house party in their neighborhood, and Tom’s new-agey sister-in-law Lisa hypnotizes him, just for shits and giggles. I honestly love the hypnosis scenes in the movie; they’re part of what makes the film so eerie to me, with their unsettling movie theater imagery and Lisa’s creepy voice-over.

Anyway, Tom goes WAY deep into hypnosis, and wakes up confused, not remembering anything he did or said while he was under. Everyone else at the party is amazed at the weird shit that happened, including Tom talking about a school bully he hadn’t thought of for ages, and having Lisa stick a pin through his hand and bleed only out of one side of the wound. Tom is disturbed, and goes home with Maggie shortly afterward, but all through the night, he keeps seeing flashes of disturbing shit, like something that appears to be a violent fight involving a girl, and a vision of himself in the mirror pulling one of his own front teeth out. Later, he goes downstairs to watch TV because he can’t get back to sleep, and very suddenly sees what seems to be the ghost of a teenage girl who looks to be trying to tell him something. Tom’s son Jake then appears at the top of the stairs, smiling, and tells his father that he’s awake now, and that he shouldn’t be afraid of it.

In the book, Tom and his wife go to the neighbors’ for a small get-together, but Tom is actually hypnotized by his young brother-in-law Phil, a psychology major at UC Berkeley who is visiting from out of town. The neighbors whose house they’re at are named Elsie and Ron, and Elsie in particular becomes a bit of an important character as the story goes on; she’s kind of disliked in the neighborhood overall, as she’s overly flirtatious and constantly trying to get attention, believing she’s way more irresistible than she actually is.

Other than that, the hypnosis goes pretty similarly to how it went in the movie, with Tom dredging up a bunch of forgotten memories from his childhood. In the book, Phil also gives Tom a post-hypnotic suggestion to take off his left shoe and put it in the refrigerator after he wakes up, which he does without knowing why it’s particularly strange until everyone else at the party starts to laugh at him. In the movie, the only post-hypnotic suggestion that Lisa gave Tom was that he be more “open-minded,” which is apparently what caused Tom’s latent psychic abilities to be unleashed.

In the novel, Tom doesn’t see visions of any one particular thing at first after he gets home from the party; he just feels as though his brain is lit up with activity. Information and emotions are pouring in on him from all sides, exactly as though a floodgate has been opened. As in the film, Tom can’t sleep and goes down into the living room, where he sees a ghost; but in the novel, the ghost isn’t a teenage girl, but rather an older woman wearing a black dress who is staring at him sadly.

A large portion of the book, too, is actually less concerned with the one ghost story portrayed in the film, and more focused on all the other things Tom is seeing, and all the secrets that are being revealed through his new and very much unwanted talent. While the movie concentrates entirely on the mystery of who the ghost is and how she died, with all of Tom’s visions serving as partial pieces of this one enormous puzzle, the book is broader in scope, with the murder mystery aspect only being one small part of the overarching narrative, and some of Tom’s psychic impressions having nothing at all to do with the ghost’s identity or the circumstances surrounding her death. That’s what I meant when I said that the film was much more focused, and I personally think this was a wise decision, because even in the book, I felt as though some of the plot threads uncovered by Tom’s abilities weren’t as interesting or necessary to the plot as a whole as some of the others were. The book, though, to be fair, is less about being a straightforward murder mystery and more an examination of the sinister underbelly of “perfect” 1950s suburbia; in other words, before he was hypnotized, Tom perceived his friends and neighbors as being just as they appeared on the surface, but when his psychic powers were switched on, he realized that everyone he knew was harboring all kinds of hidden darknesses, some quite horrible, that were being subsumed beneath their masks of normality.

In the book, Tom is very tortured by his new abilities, as every time he passes someone he gets an overwhelming impression of random thoughts and emotions from them, and he can’t turn any of this stuff off; this begins to affect his relationship with his wife Anne. The film version is only slightly similar in that regard, but Tom seems to be able to have more of a normal life, because most of his impressions relate to the murder of the girl at the center of the story, and he doesn’t seem to be as inundated as book-Tom was.

In the movie, Tom and Maggie are going to a big sporting event one night and need a sitter for Jake. Lisa can’t do it, but Jake himself suggests a girl named Debbie Kozac, after a supposed ghost named Samantha gives him the name. When Debbie comes to the door, Tom keeps seeing her image flashing red as though something is wrong, but he can’t quite figure out what the problem is. He and Maggie go ahead to the game, but Tom can’t shake the feeling that something bad is going to happen, and sprints home when the feelings become overpowering. Once there, he discovers that Debbie has apparently kidnapped Jake, but utilizing his abilities, he is able to track them to a train station. Once there, Debbie explains that she wasn’t going anywhere with the kid; she just brought Jake there to talk to her mother (who worked there), because she was certain that Jake knows something about her sister Samantha, a seventeen-year-old girl with a learning disability who had vanished six months before. After Debbie shows Tom a photo of Samantha and he recognizes her as the ghost, Tom becomes obsessed with the disappearance and starts asking about Samantha all around the neighborhood.

A sort of analogous thing occurs in the book, though in that case, Tom and Anne go out to dinner and leave Richard with a sitter, and Tom gets the feeling something is wrong, so they rush home, only to find that the sitter actually is trying to kidnap their son, and has taken him halfway down the street. The kidnapping, however, doesn’t tie in with the larger murder mystery, as it does in the film; I admit I found this to be a little odd, as it seemed so random.

There’s also another time when Tom is at work and has a similar terrible feeling of dread and an unexplained pain in his head, and when he gets home, he finds that a huge can of tomatoes fell out of a cupboard and beaned his wife on the noggin, knocking her out for a minute. This event also, obviously, has nothing to do with the murder or the ghost story. Incidentally, Tom also has the ability to know the gender of the baby his wife is pregnant with, and knows exactly when one of Anne’s relatives has died. This former event does happen in the movie, sort of, though it’s actually Maggie’s sister Lisa who psychically “knows” that Maggie is pregnant before she herself does (though she doesn’t specify the gender). The latter event also occurs in the film, and actually sets up a situation where both Maggie and Jake are out of the house (at the relative’s funeral) when Tom goes full-on into digging up the yard of their house looking for the body of the murdered girl.

In addition, in the novel, there’s a whole scenario concerning Elsie, the next-door neighbor, and Tom being able to probe into her mind, and discovering what a desperate and horrible person she is. He starts to despise her and can barely tolerate her presence after being privy to her deepest thoughts, some of which concern how much she’d like to fuck him.

Now, some of the visions Tom sees in the book do end up tying in the with murder mystery; these involve his friend Frank and Frank’s wife Elizabeth, and also his landlords, a couple named Harry and Mildred. Before the Wallaces moved to the house, you see, Harry and Mildred were renting it to Mildred’s sister, Helen Driscoll, who just up and left one day, leaving only a note. No one has seen hide nor hair of her since.

In the movie, Tom also has a friend and neighbor named Frank, though Frank’s wife’s name is Sheila, and the couple have a son in his late teens named Adam. Tom’s landlord is a guy named Harry who lives across the street, who also has a college-age son named Kurt. Movie-Tom has a vision one day that he’s in Frank’s house and that Adam is pointing a gun at him, but at the last second, Adam actually turns the gun on himself and fires. Tom rushes to Frank’s house, but it’s already too late. Adam survives, but is left in critical condition.

Book-Tom also has a vision involving a gun, but in that case, Elizabeth has actually shot her husband Frank, and then passed out. Frank survives, but tells the authorities the shooting was an accident and that he isn’t going to press charges.

In the novel, Tom has been getting more and more convinced that Helen Driscoll, his landlord’s sister who previously lived in his house, didn’t skip town, but was actually murdered, and appears to him as the ghost in the black dress. At first Tom suspects Harry, believing that Harry and Helen were having an affair and that Harry killed her to keep his wife Mildred from finding out. Figuring that the body might be buried on the premises, he starts digging in the crawlspace and eventually finds Helen’s remains.

The resolution of the murder mystery in the movie plays out similar in some ways, but completely different in others. As I mentioned earlier, Tom is certain that teenager Samantha Kozac didn’t just run away, but was actually murdered and appears to him as the ghost in his house. While his wife and son are away, acting on an overwhelming impulse to “dig,” he tears up the yard looking for her remains, but doesn’t actually find them until later, when he accidentally knocks down a hastily assembled brick wall in his basement, behind which he finds Samantha’s body wrapped in plastic.

Movie-Tom’s psychic abilities clue him in to the fact that Adam and Kurt­—the college-age sons of Frank and Harry—had actually lured the intellectually challenged Samantha into the then-empty house, where they attempted to rape her. She was killed during the course of the attack, and rather than face the music, the boys’ fathers helped them cover up the crime and hide the body, telling anyone who asked that Samantha had simply run away.

Frank admits to all this after Tom confronts him; he trains a gun on Tom and tells him to beat cheeks, after which Tom hears a single gunshot and assumes that Frank shot himself. Kurt and Harry, though, aren’t about to go down for their deeds, and threaten to kill Tom, taking Maggie hostage when she attempts to intervene. The not-dead Frank, though, saves the day, emerging just in time to kill both Harry and Kurt, after which Samantha’s ghost briefly appears and smiles, apparently mollified that her murder has been solved and her mother and sister now have closure about what happened to her. The Witzkys move out of the house.

In the novel, it’s actually Elizabeth who threatens Tom with a gun, and that’s because she’s actually the one who murdered Helen. Tom was correct that Harry and Helen were having an affair, but Elizabeth’s husband Frank was banging her as well, and Elizabeth killed her in a jealous rage, beating her to death with a fireplace poker and stashing her body in the crawlspace. In the ensuing struggle, the Wallaces get away just fine, and Elizabeth is carted off to a mental health facility.

So as you can see, there are loads of differences between the book and the film, though the rough outline of the stories in both media remain the same. I actually like both versions, and I think it’s great that you can actually read the book and see the movie without worrying that one will spoil the other, because they’re very dissimilar in their focus and their outcomes. That said, though, I think I slightly prefer the movie overall, not just because I find the more modern, earthy characters more likeable and relatable than the buttoned up, disingenuous suburbanites of the novel (and I’m not going to lie, I’m never going to NOT love Kevin Bacon), but also because everything in the film is directly or indirectly linked to Samantha Kozac’s murder, whereas the book has a number of loose threads that perhaps speak to the larger theme of the story, but seem superfluous in relation to the murder of Helen Driscoll. They’re two very different experiences, though, and I would definitely recommend both.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

One thought on “Book vs. Movie: Stir of Echoes

  1. I absolutely love this movie! “Paint it Black” was the perfect song–so creepy. I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know it was based on a book. I’ll have to add it to my already unrealistic list.


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