As Claire thinks through -- and the film shows -- her subjective, isolating, and increasingly frightening experience, you're left to guess if it's "just a story."
"Never skimp on bread. You always regret it." Sensible Claire (Sara Paxton) and dweeby Luke (Pat Healy) are eating sandwiches he's made for them, and she's right, he should never have "bought that cheap bread." They're taking a dinner break during their last weekend working at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is about to close down after a century of servicing tourists to a small New Englandy town. The camera cuts from their faces, earnest as they agree on the bread question, to a long, angled shot from the ceiling, to show they're surrounded by empty tables, a few set with silverware, water goblets, and red cloth napkins, the large dining hall lit by a chandelier.
As they eat, they turn back to the subject at hand, the ghost. "What do you think she wants?" Claire asks. Luke is dismissive: "I don't know," he says, "I don't spend my time trying to figure out what women want, especially dead ones."
This much is clear already in The Innkeepers, Ti West's latest scary house movie. If Claire is interested in the people and spirits around her, Luke believes he isn't ("I'm not negative," he explains, "I'm a realist"). And so he's enlisted her to do the work in his project, namely, recording the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, who killed herself in the hotel and then suffered indignity when the innkeeper hid her body in the basement for three days. They divide the last weekend into 12 -hour shifts: Claire spends hers walking the hallways with Luke's EV mic and a de rigueurish flashlight, and he... we don't know what he does, but he seems to sit at the front desk and "troll paranormal forums," occasionally finding videos he can use to make Claire jump.
When she does jump, Claire inevitably reaches for her inhaler, a sign of her vulnerability as the designated girl-in-a-haunted-house as well as her frankly charming particulars. A recent high school grad without plans for a future, she's happy enough to indulge Luke, some 10 years older, if there's an adventure in it. But as he recounts his own purported interactions with the ghost ("The thing about physical encounters is you don’t really remember the details. It's weird, you think you would, but you don’t"), you realize he's talking about real girls and his personal fantasies as much as Madeline O'Malley. Claire misses that part, focused instead on the possibility of recording a spirit: "I can't believe you never had your camera with you!" Yeah, well, he hangs his head.
If Claire doesn't quite see what's in front of her, she is, of course, the conduit for the haunted house's business. And so she helps to bring together Luke's desires, however false, with some others, not quite articulated by a couple of guests for that last weekend. The first is an alcoholic former actor named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), now working as a medium, and the other a nameless, very sad old man (George Riddle), who requests the suite where he long ago spent his honeymoon. A fan of Leanne's long-since canceled TV series (Like Mother, Like Son), Claire accepts right away her assertion that "There are no endings, there are no ghosts," and that she need only "ignore what your conscious mind tells you and open yourself up" to make contact with Madeline O'Malley. At the same time, when Luke insists the old man can't stay in the room he wants because it's already been stripped, she makes the empathic case: what can it hurt if he gets his wish?
Claire's good sense and kindness make her an obvious victim in this sort of movie. So does her tomboyish cheek (when a mother guest finds Claire has scared her young son with a ghost story, she checks out: "What is the matter with you? He's just a child," she complains, just before she turns to her kid to reassure, "It's not real, it's just a story"). And so does her unawareness of how great she is. Claire wonders when Luke seems "grouchy," not seeing what's at stake for him in their last weekend together. Neither does she get how Leanne might appreciate her enthusiasm, her authenticity, and, especially, her youth. "What do you do?" Leanne asks, wondering whether she might be "an aspiring actress," since she's such "an astute fan of my work." But no, Claire's just "working at the inn."
This by way of explaining how Claire is obliged to "imagine how [Madeline] feels being stuck here." As she insists to Luke, "We've got to get something on tape. It's like a moral imperative." Her pronouncement is goofy and generic, just as Claire's sincerity is both naïve and fateful. And so, when Luke finally makes his awkward-nerd-boy pitch -- "I really like you, Claire, I would do anything for you" -- her response combines what she imagines for him, what Leanne has suggested to her, and also what she feels for Madeline: "Let's go to the basement and find out what that fucking ghost's problem is!"
It's a terrible idea, to go to the basement, a point underlined when they find the lights don't work. This darkness is not only clichéd (and one more opportunity for Luke to impress with his cleverness: "That's a good omen"). It's also thematic and functional. For as no one else in the movie sees what Claire sees, The Innkeepers leaves you uncertain of what you see as well.
As Claire thinks through -- and the film shows -- her subjective, isolating, and increasingly frightening experience, you're left to guess if it's "just a story." Because she's so sympathetic, you're inclined to share that experience, to jump when she jumps, to fear what she fears, to share her sense of what's real. But that very question, what's real, is after all, unanswerable, as well as at the center of most every horror film. This one explores it more subtly than most.