No writers were harmed and no eels were present in the making of this article.
There are a couple of images from A Cure for Wellness that have persisted despite how impenetrable its posters and trailers proved to be. The first is a girl, Mia Goth, suspended in mid-air as if floating in water, posed in front of (or rather, inside) a blue bottle. The second is of Dane Dehaan submerged in a tank and, in the trailers, just moments away from being swarmed by eels. The movie itself, directed by Gore Verbinski, leans hard into the unsettling and strange, mixing corporate intrigue and then gothic horror and romance at a sanitarium, and as such maybe it’s only fitting that the promo for its DVD/Blu-ray release went in the same direction: in celebration, I was invited to go a round in a flotation tank at a “wellness spa” in New York City.
While Chill Space NYC isn’t quite a secluded estate in the Swiss Alps (it’s a little facility in the shadow of Grand Central Station), once you’re in the tank, there’s no telling either way. The tank is filled with water and 1,200 pounds of Epsom salt, which I opted to experience with the lights off and the music on — in this case, the entirety of the A Cure for Wellness score, composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. The salts make floating effortless, and they have health benefits as well, ranging from easing stress to removing toxins from the body (which is wording ripped almost directly from the movie’s dialogue, or I guess the other way around).
The tank is behind two soundproof doors in a room that’s equipped with a shower for a pre- and post-float wash (you float in the nude) and the water is lit in an eerie green-blue until you actually begin floating, at which point all of the lights turn off. The darkness is total to the point that it’s impossible to tell whether your eyes are closed or open, at least if you aren’t focusing on your muscles. But that’s difficult, too — there’s nothing like trying to relax completely that will make you aware of exactly how your body fits together, for instance, how your arms will fold in if you just let them go, or how your head lolls back when there’s nothing to support it. It helps (or doesn’t, depending on how you look at it) that the water’s at a temperature where you can’t distinguish where the water line is on your body. It lends to the idea of utter relaxation; the darkness eliminates any awareness of space (more than once, I felt like I was moving, but never felt the limits of the tank, and at one point even felt like I was upright), and the water eliminates any sensation besides awareness of oneself.
It’s a dreamy experience where the sequence in A Cure for Wellness is nightmarish. Doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) describes the tank as a womb, a return to a natural state. For a while, it seems appropriate, as even under the watchful eye of the rather forbidding staff, Lockhart (Dehaan) begins to drift off after he’s submerged in the water. But all is not well — why would it be? — and the dark colors and smooth shapes of the tank and of Lockhart’s breathing tube give way to the eels that infest the entire film. It’s unclear in the moment whether or not Lockhart’s hallucinating the eels, as there’s nothing there when they re-inspect the tank. Though the flotation tank I tried (obviously) didn’t leave me completely submerged, it still had the effect of lulling me into a state of relaxation to the point that I, too, nearly fall asleep. The effects of the tank are not limited to physical senses; apart from the soundtrack being pumped into the tank, I began to lose track of the passage of time, as well.
When the lights came up to signal the end of the session, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that it was already (“already,” an hour later) over. I felt more relaxed, my skin felt softer, and my head was clear to the point that the preceding week might as well not have happened at all. But as great as my experience was, it’s easy to see how quickly it could tip over into horror. The womb metaphor is apt in that you’re essentially helpless while in the tank — I’m just glad I didn’t think of that while I was floating.