In Stephen King’s novel, The Institute, twelve-year-old Luke Ellis is kidnapped from his room at night. The next morning, wakes up in a room that looks just like his… except it isn’t. There’s no window, for starters. And the door leads not to the hallway of his home, but into a hallway with other doors to other rooms where other children have likewise woken, to their horror, far away from home.
Their caretakers are steely-eyed guards armed with electric prods, compassionless keepers of children. The children, aged seven to fourteen, undergo gruelling tests designed to extract from the kids all the usefulness of their special skills. The kids wish they could extract themselves from the horrors of this place, but no one has ever escaped The Institute.
My Perspective, and Why It Might Be Different From Others
I’m always amused by the wide eyes and arched eyebrows that appear on someone’s face when my answer to their question “What are you reading?” is, “Stephen King”.
“Oh!” They say, like I’ve just confessed to reading Mein Kampf or The Satanic Bible, and they’ll be immediately startled into silence.
Stephen King gets an unfair reputation, I think. To me, he’s not a writer of gratuitous horror, all screams and splashing blood just for a quick scream from an audience. To me, he crafts psychological thrills, mined from his own and our collective personal nightmares we would barely admit to ourselves. (Evil clowns, rabid dogs, or, my personal recurring childhood nightmare, the possessed car that chases faster than you can run.) It doesn’t mean his stories are absent of blood, violence, or even what appears to be his signature references to genetilia, but these are not the core of his stories.
“King argues that the art of making us terrified about what lies around the corner is all about getting us to identify with the characters who are experiencing the terror. If we don’t care about the characters, then it won’t matter how many jump scares you fling at the audience — we have to be at least a little invested in their fate.” –Vox.com
This is why I read Stephen King’s stories; because of the deeper aspects of his stories and the people in them, and the thrilling way in which they’re delivered (which feels a bit like he’s reading my mind, spreading my fears on a page. If that’s not scary, what is?)
Deep Themes in The Institute
Confession: before admitting what I saw in this book, I skulked around the internet to see if I was the only one who saw it. I discovered two things: first, I’m not the only one who appreciates the depth in a scary story. Second, no one else saw what I saw in the book. This frightens me, but I’ll dare to share it anyway. After all, it’s art, and the beholder may see what they see.
Anyway. Here are the deeper themes others identified:
The New York Times saw the theme of dignity and humanity.
“How do you maintain your dignity and your humanity in an environment designed to strip you of both? That theme, such an urgent one in literature from the 20th century onward, falls well within King’s usual purview.”
The Nerd Daily, pointed out “Although King claims to avoid politics in his writing as much as possible, The Institute does overtly and obscurely address concepts that are at play on the world stage today.”, specifically having to do with “groupthink” or the collective consciousness.
Most concisely, they point out, “As with many of his works, there is an obvious examination of “good” versus “evil.” But perhaps the greatest moral consideration, and certainly the most difficult to grapple with, is this ethical dilemma: Is it justifiable to harm a small number for the greater good?”
The Unspoken Theme of Abortion
It always feels weird to be the only one standing by a viewpoint.
Usually, if I find myself in that situation (which is often enough), I usually I hold that view silently.
Beyond the above mentioned themes, I also enjoyed in The Institute, how the story played at the edges of life’s value. Overtly, the value of life is addressed in the exchange of a child’s life for ‘the many’. The weak for the strong, or the strong for the weak. Obscurely, this mirrored our ongoing real-life societal measuring of life’s value in the arena of abortion, where one life is snuffed out (or experimented on and used up) for the sake of another.
To me, it’s echoed in the methodical removal of children from the safe cocoon of their home. Based on the stories I’ve read of parents who have lived to regret the abortions they requested and endured, I see it also mirrored in the part of the story where the kidnapped child’s parents are murdered in the process.
At The Institute, the removed children are exploited, used up and discarded. This, to my horror, is also mirrored in the abortion process, fetuses harvested for what good they can yield to the masses, and then discarded. The Institute sacrifices children on the altar of ‘the greater good’, and all without the knowledge of ‘the many’. The way this is mirrored in our actual, day-to-day society is for me the most chilling of all.
Did I Love It?
Heck yes! This book has all the psychological thrill I enjoy, with some moments that stepped right close to the dark side of truth just long enough to point out that fear in me, and let me know it's there. And all while building characters I care about and at that classic slow-building pace that draws me in further with each page.
It should go without saying, but just in case, I’ll state it obviously and emphatically: I do not say or believe that Stephen King, his editors, or the publishers intended to communicate this theme. I’m not saying they did or are saying any of this. I’M saying this is what I see. And, as far as I know, having an opinion is still allowed. That is all this is; an opinon, an expressed perspective. You are likewise entitled to yours, or so I hope.