Zdzisław Beksiński grew up in Sanok, a town near Poland’s present border with Ukraine that lies about 200 kilometres south east of the country’s medieval capital, Kraków. In the 1960s, more than a decade after the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the Polish People’s Republic—the one-party communist satellite state that emerged following the Red Army’s defeat of the country’s Nazi occupiers— Beksiński gained notoriety as a painter. His work, like that of the German expressionists who captured the chaos, misery, and terror of the First World War through abstracted, operatically dreadful imagery, depicted a surreal world constructed entirely from despair, horror, helplessness, and, above all, a sense that reality itself is a malevolent force. Not surprisingly, given Beksiński’s 1929 birthdate, the nightmares he channeled were filled with tragically posed corpses, wartime wraiths, charnel house landscapes, and dramatic depictions of a life dictated by unknowable forces of immense power.
Beksiński’s work is an example of how (and almost a confrontational demand to) grapple with the enormity of what, to twist Adorno’s famous quote, kind of barbaric poetry a post-war world demanded. The creation then subsequent occupation of a nation that would be home to many of the most vile concentration and extermination camps in Europe; the failed dreams of sovereignty that would appear and disappear during the final years of the Second World War; the end of communist control and entry into a frequently chaotic new economic, political, and cultural landscape—Beksiński’s life was defined by his being a citizen of a country that endured some of the most disorienting and frightening events of the 20th century.
Marianne is a young woman, extensively scarred from burns suffered in childhood, who can communicate with ghosts. She’s The Medium’s namesake, and someone whose existence, like Beksiński’s, seems dominated by tragedy. As the game opens, Marianne prepares her adopted father, Jack’s body for burial. She moves from room to room of their Kraków apartment, sifting through keepsakes that remind her of the only family she’s ever known. It’s late October 1999 and Jack’s most important possessions provide a summary of a man whose battles against foreign occupation and influence have defined his life. There’s a wall covered in items denoting his work with the Solidarity movement alongside Catholic paintings and crosses—he was, as Marianne says, “a religious man.” A newspaper article open on a table discusses Poland’s entry to NATO, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic. The last item she needs to prepare his body for burial is a Polish flag tie clip, the red and white symbol attached to his suit apparently significant enough to serve as the only ornament his body requires in the hereafter, aside from his clothes.
Even before she’s arrived at The Medium’s primary setting, a rundown Soviet-era vacation and meeting spot called the Niwa Workers’ Resort modelled on the real-world Hotel Cracovia, Poland’s history is established as the game’s main interest. In the final months of a 20th century that saw the nation broken, occupied, and reforged multiple times, its characters have a difficult time looking toward a new millennium when the past clings so tightly to everything they think and do. It’s impossible to ignore this theme as Marianne first begins to explore Niwa. She finds old letters and documents describing the resort’s heyday as a centre for visiting dignitaries and the nearby fortress’ use in the Second World War, but even aside from these explicit mentions of the setting’s history, the very act of moving through The Medium’s mouldering spaces drives home the sense that its mysteries can only be understood within the context of decades past.
At various times throughout the game, the screen splits to show Marianne traversing both the physical and ghost-filled “spiritual” world at once. One is rendered in the drab greys of the Niwa’s decaying concrete hallways and the other as a sandy desert haze where tortured skeletal faces peer from the unnaturally bent walls or hills of hellscapes explicitly cited by the game's creators as inspired by Beksiński's work. It’s as neat a bit of thematic design as has been seen since Life is Strange’s time-warping high school insecurity metaphor and goes a long way toward amplifying The Medium’s main concern: the continued influence of historical tragedy on the shape of the present day.
While sifting through a room filled with overturned furniture and peeling wallpaper, Marianne may touch an object and hear snippets of conversation from those long-since dead. She may look into a mirror and find herself in an alien version of the same place—a distorted, funhouse depiction of the space where the dead still reside as animate beings or as static shades, forever pinned to the location. Or, Marianne might suddenly be shown walking or climbing through both places at once in the split screen mentioned above. In any of these cases, the effect is to keep the dead—the people of the past—in close proximity.
“Some things don’t just go away,” Marianne says after hearing the memory of a man being forced by his superior to cover up the details of a horrific event at the resort. “They stick. They echo.” She’s describing a haunting, which can’t only be defined as glimpsing an eerie shadow, hearing a strange noise, or feeling an unnatural presence. A haunting, The Medium knows, is a manifestation of the idea that the past can reach into the present, defying biology and chronology to maintain relevance in the modern day.
This is why we associate hauntings with trauma. Surely, only someone who died a particularly horrible death would linger on, screaming through reality itself in order to make their torments known long after they occurred. For The Medium, those horrors are varied, echoing through the unimaginable brutality of the Holocaust and the subjugation of nations under totalitarian powers.
In one of Beksiński’s many untitled paintings, a mass of emaciated figures blend together in a strange kind of arrested motion. The room around them shows only a single door, and it’s been blocked off with a brick wall. Stuck together with what looks like a film of spider web, the people’s limbs step all over one another as if they’re trying in vain to find a way out of their predicament but can’t move far enough to get anywhere. Spectral faces—a sad or appalled woman, an angry man, a death mask, and a horrified demon—surround them, melting into the corner that seems to bring them forth. Though they resemble deities, they look helpless to guide the human figures beneath them as they clump together in misery, some scratching at the brick while dissolving back into the same filmy substance that holds them in place. Looking at it for any length of time communicates a century’s worth of disgust, helplessness, anger, confusion, and sadness.
The horrors of 20th century Polish history are captured everywhere in Beksiński’s work, from paintings of scuttling, faceless masses crowding desperately from somewhere in a bombed out cityscape and into the shrieking mouth of a hungry giant head to a desiccated, impassive face staring eyeless from beneath a stahlhelm and the deathly bureaucratic shapes of religious figures, diseased churches, and near-vacant crosses, religion abandoning its subjects when it's needed most. In another, a semi-humanoid figure, face wrapped in bloody bandages, hunches down on all four skeletal limbs as if scavenging for prey while an old European city burns behind it. This creature is as pitiable as it is wretched. Looking at it inspires revulsion and sadness in equal measure. It’s clearly a victim, but it looks poised to victimize, too.
On a forest path just outside the Niwa, Marianne encounters dead deer, their fur marked with dark stains and webs of inky veins. Crows squawk in the distance and the soundtrack groans to the sound of far-off industrial winds and the scraping together of strange metals. It’s as if the very ground of the landscape is tired, so diseased that it infects the innocent creatures trying to live within it. A faint air raid siren calls an alarm, nearly buried beneath the rustle of leaves in the wind and the patter of a light rain.
Before long, Marianne will leave this forest to uncover the truth of the so-called Niwa Massacre—an event shrouded in mystery that led to the death of many of the resort’s residents and its subsequent closure—which has poisoned the land she inhabits. As she learns from the ghosts who continue to haunt the Niwa’s halls and grounds, the Massacre was the result of evils visited upon generations of children. A Jewish girl named Rose is betrayed to the Nazis during World War II by the stepfather of a young Christian Pole named Richard, a boy whose father died earlier in the war. Richard’s mother tells the Polish underground about her husband’s betrayal and he’s lynched in turn, hanged in the family’s attic with a “collaborator” sign around his neck. The death of his friend Rose and the killings of both his father and stepfather, an abusive man, haunt Richard and leave him suffering lifelong trauma.+ A child named Lily (who appears as a ghost named Sadness) is molested by Richard decades later, leaving her psychologically fractured and creating a monstrous collection of stitched together leathery skin and wet, exposed organs called “The Maw.” This creature—a collection of base instinct; of a hatred that resounds across time and space—is the one responsible for the Massacre. It’s murderous, desperate rage made manifest.
There are additional, significantly more convoluted wrinkles. There’s a Polish secret police agent named Henry, raised in an environment where he’s willing to inform on his father in an act of revenge for his youthful mistreatment. This man gleefully tortures Marianne and Lily’s father Thomas just before the long-ago Massacre, re-enacting his pain again and again, torching their home and splintering their family by leaving Marianne comatose, amnesic, and estranged from her blood father and sister.
What’s notable in all of this is the way The Medium situates its characters’ reaction to the pain of their pasts as the most important path forward. Though its attempt to dramatize historical tragedy on an intimate scale has troubling implications—the idea that someone subject to abuse will necessarily grow up to inflict it on others excuses personal predation, casts suspicion on survivors, and can encourage a kind of unhelpful moral relativism—the game’s larger, national focus works, at its best, to overshadow these failings. And, read that way, it suggests a surprising optimism that the future can be a brighter place if the past’s darkness is channeled into a drive to move forward.
There are two mediums in the game: Marianne and her father, Thomas. Both speak to ghosts, living as much in bygone times as their present day, but their understanding of their world’s haunting is fundamentally opposed. Marianne meets the Niwa’s shades with empathy, attempting to resolve the horror that created the spectres around her so that they can move on and free the resort of the residual grief and rage that coats it like a layer of asbestos dust. Thomas, though, relishes in breaking the ghosts he meets—obliterating them with a psychic violence that manifests in sneering brutality. Both of these characters grew up in horrible circumstances. Marianne’s childhood and blood family were taken from her, just as Thomas’ childhood and daughters were taken from him first by his youth as a Nazi captive, subsequent abduction by the postwar government, then the loss of his daughters at the hands of a deranged Secret Police agent. Marianne, raised by an adoptive father who fought for change as a member of Solidarity, grew to understand the importance of looking forward. Thomas, remaining in a bunker beneath the Niwa Resort along with the ghosts of decades past, can only conceive of the future as a grim continuation of the chain of evils that form his life. The Medium ends by suggesting that either of their outlooks may win out over the other after the credits roll. It’s still 1999 when the game ends and then, as now, nobody can say for sure where the decades to come will take them and their country.
The last years of Beksiński’s life were nearly as cruel as the worlds portrayed in his work. His wife Zofia died of cancer in 1998 and on Christmas Eve, 1999, he discovered the body of his son, Tomasz, who had killed himself. Six years later, in late February 2005, Beksiński was found dead in his Warsaw apartment. The teenaged son of his friend and home cleaner had asked to borrow money and, after Beksiński turned him down, he and another young man stabbed the artist seventeen times.
Beksiński’s life ended abruptly and senselessly, but he left behind a visual chronicle of the nightmare he and so many others had endured that will continue to impact anyone who studies it. Looking at his paintings is primarily a sense experience—an emotional reaction to the extraordinarily vivid figures and spaces he painted. But there might be something instructive to take from all the horror, too. Beksiński died before Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party took power in the country, prompting a constitutional crisis and introducing environmentally, politically, and socially regressive reforms aimed at strictly limiting abortion access, immigration, and freedom of the press. Within this political environment, “LGBT-free zones” have been declared across the country and peaceful protesters resisting discrimination and their country’s slide into authoritarianism, have been arrested as part of a broader crackdown on political dissent.
With the benefit of historical example, we can see the country’s current trajectory as clearly as The Medium does, knowing that horrors as extreme as those Poland experienced throughout the 20th century can, and must not, resurface in the 21st. The Medium shows how much the past affects the present++ and its evocation of Beksiński powerfully demonstrates just how awful that past has been. Together, they form a warning of how time overlaps itself—and how essential it is to stop the evils that inform the modern world from replicating themselves and continuing on into the future in new, but all too familiar form.
+ This trauma is addressed, unfortunately, as the latter character growing up to molest young girls.
++ Nobody needs to look far to find examples of the ways in which the shadows of Poland’s authoritarian history linger over modern cultural and political discourse.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.