“Chapter 23. You can call me Fingerling. My real name is Walter. Walter Paul Sparrow. What you’ve read so far is not the whole truth.”
–Walter Sparrow, “The Number 23”
The Number 23 is not…a great film. But it is an interesting film.
Directed by the late Joel Schumacher—who also directed 1995’s Batman Forever, which I explored in “The Holographic Fantasies Of Edward Nygma” —the 2007 film is often overblown, murky, sleazy, and just damn mediocre in places.
But it also is woven with a thread of truly unsettling esotericism that makes it a must-see for lovers of the bizarre and uncanny.
I’m going to put it as plainly as I can: I think this is the movie that broke Jim Carrey. I think The Number 23 stood at the crossroads of a huge career and a continuing slide towards Chapel Perilous for the actor. While he had done many films which had aspects of this one, this was the one that most concretely esoteric.
In a sense, The Number 23 “flirted” with a phenomenon known as The 23 Enigma in a similar fashion as The Exorcist flirted with demonic possession—and that’s powerful stuff, regardless of whether the director of Batman and Robin was helming it.
I. THE FILM
Spoilers to follow.
The film opens with Carrey as “normal guy” Walter Sparrow, an animal control worker. He goes after an errant dog (dogs seem to feature in his films a lot), gets bit, and ends up receiving a strange book from his wife at the “Clever Foreshadowing Bookstore” (not its actual name).
Now Sparrow is obsessed with the book—called (of course) The Number 23. And the way it looks in the movie, with its spare, red cover reminded me of Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law (or, Jung’s The Red Book, take your pick). The Number 23 is written by a Topsy Kretts (and the fact that I didn’t realize the pun in that name until it was revealed in the film is pretty sad to admit), who claims to be a Mr. “Fingerling,” and is admitting to murder.
Sparrow’s life starts to be intercut by these strange, smoke-filled, Sin City type noir interludes with detective and saxophone player Fingerling, who has passionate sex with a mysterious Italian brunette who looks just like Walter’s wife. Fingerling is called to investigate a woman called “The Suicide Blonde” who is obsessed with the number 23 and associated coincidences, and later actually commits suicide.
So far, don’t expect a lot of the plot to make any sense at all.
But though Carrey was nominated for a Razzie for his performance here, I don’t really see the movie’s failings as his fault. The actor excels best in movies that allow him to have a range of characterization other than just bug-fuck crazy, and we certainly see that in this flick. As I said, Sparrow is a regular sort of likable guy, who would have fit right in with The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Truman Show, or what have you.
His “alter ego” Fingerling, on the other hand, is kind of weird—a stone-faced, grim, even “Gothic” figure minus the charm of “normal” Carrey or any of the humor of his other characters. It’s like seeing Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. It’s sort of creepy and disturbing, and weirdly makes you feel bad for Carrey.
As the plot—such as it is—proceeds, we see Sparrow and his son fall down the 23 Enigma rabbit hole, the obligatory scene with a psychologist-type explaining the obsession with the number, and so on. It rarely feels intellectually or esoterically satisfying; instead, giving one the impression that the Enigma was just a gimmick to sell the film as just another horror/thriller…as if the phenomenon was a Oujia Board or a certain colorful urban legend.
By the time we get to the ending, the plot holes really begin to show, and the resolution—featuring an unbelievable Laura Palmer rip-off “Laura Tollins” (!) and Mark Pellegrino from Mulholland Drive, just to really ape Lynch good—has little emotional impact.
Esoterically, this is a fucked-up movie nonetheless.
II. THE 23 ENIGMA
You may say that The 23 Enigma “started” with William S. Burroughs, the author of such books as Naked Lunch. Burroughs knew a Captain Clark back in the early 1960s, in Tangier. Captain Clark ran a ferry, and one day he boasted to Burroughs that he had been running the ferry for 23 years without accident.
That day—that very day Captain Clark proudly recited his safety record—his ferry sank. Clark and everybody on board perished.
This tragic occurrence remained on Burroughs’ mind that evening, as he turned on the radio to perhaps distract himself. The first news item on the program? An Eastern Airlines plane crash, piloted by a one Captain Clark.
And the flight number? 23.
And so William S. Burroughs was like: ohhhhh shit, the Universe has some stuff it wants to him to pay attention to! Burroughs began to record strange coincidences revolving around the number 23 in a scrapbook, and used some of the material in his books and audio recordings.
Thus we have The 23 Enigma, the belief that all incidents and events—if one tries hard enough—are eventually connected to the number 23 (or some permeation of said number).
Philosopher and Illuminatus! trilogy co-author Robert Anton Wilson discusses the 23 Enigma at length in his book Cosmic Trigger, providing some 23 coincidences of his own:
“I soon noticed the 23 axioms that open Euclid’s Geometry; the fact that the mad bomber in the film, Airport, has Seat 23; that in the old stage productions of A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton is the 23rd man guillotined in the gory climax (some lexicographers believe this is the origin of the inscrutable slang expression “23 Skiddoo!”); 23, in telegrapher’s code, means “bust” or “break the line,” while Hexagram 23 in the I Ching means “Break Apart.” I was even thrilled by noting that in conception Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fertilized egg…”
Another person quite taken with The 23 Enigma was young German hacker Karl Koch, who encountered it while reading Wilson’s Illuminatus! science-fiction books. Inspired by revolutionary ideas within the trilogy, the talented and precocious Koch decided that “information must be free”—and so, in the 1980s, he set about hacking United States military databases, and then selling the information to the KGB.
In fact, a movie based on Koch’s life, 23, was made in 1998, with Wilson playing himself.
Karl Koch was found burned to death in a forest in Germany on May 23, 1989. It was officially ruled a suicide, but there were many elements concerning the grim scene in the forest that have led to suspicions of foul play.
And how old was Koch when he died?
III. THE ROBERT ANTON WILSON CONNECTION
The Number 23 features a character with a minor—yet crucial, especially for our inquiry—role originally called “The Old Man.” This character later is revealed to be one “Dr. Sirius Leary,” who I immediately felt resonated Wilson.
This is the dude, played by Bud Cort, who also became obsessed with The 23 Enigma and published/transcribed “Fingerling’s” story regarding it. So Leary, in a way, “wrote the book” on 23, thus perpetuating the “curse.” Then he later dies in the film—Wilson passed away one month before the release of The Number 23.
And so you have Leary as in Timothy Leary, associate of Wilson, and “Sirius” which was the star Wilson claimed to have possibly channeled extraterrestrial information from. (Though to be fair, Dr. Leary also claimed to have channeled from Sirius.) Sirius is “The Dog Star,” which leads back to the dog who functions like the “white rabbit” in the movie’s narrative.
And the guy just sort of physically looks like Wilson a bit too. Doing a deep dive on research, it turns out that the screenwriter, Fernley Phillips, knew of the Enigma and cited Wilson as an inspiration. From an archived Sacramento Bee article on the day of the film’s release:
If there’s an unofficial patron saint of the 23 set, it’s novelist Robert Anton Wilson, whose 1977 book “Cosmic Trigger” explored the number in Burroughs’ works as an attempt to connect the digits to the universe on a larger scale.
It was Wilson, who died in January, who inspired screenwriter Fernley Phillips to pen “The Number 23” script.
“I’d always been interested in numbers and math, and how they work together,” Phillips says on the phone from L.A. “We all know about (the significance) of seven and 13 — but we don’t know about 23 and how it blends the weird with the scientific.”
That’s when 23 started popping up all over Phillips’ world.
“I’d see it in newspaper headlines, clocks, license plates and street addresses,” he says.
The mystery of the 23 seemed tailor-made for the big screen.
“I knew it’d be great to get this into a movie,” Phillips says.
The resulting film, he says, raises an important 23rdian question: Is the number a blessing or a curse?
“That’s part of the interest — for some it’s a good thing, but for others, it’s not.”
IV. THE SCREENWRITER
The Number 23 was Phillips’ first screenwriting credit. Despite being in the running to pen an ultimately never-produced American Werewolf in London remake in 2010, his only other film credit is for the “teens getting in trouble on the Internet” thriller U Want Me To Kill Him? in 2013 (shades of Karl Koch, subject of the original “23” movie that Wilson cameoed in).
I have done a long Internet search on Phillips, and outside of a wedding notice, the American Werewolf rumors, some minor press mentions for U Want Me To Kill Him?, and a Twitter account seemingly abandoned in 2013, I can find no other mention of him—other than that in 2003 he incorporated a business entity called Fingerling Films Inc., which seems to still be active.
So here you had a guy who had this “hot” screenplay, and was slated for all this Hollywood glory and future projects. And then The Number 23 comes out, and boom! it’s gone. And there’s hardly any trace of the man on the Internet outside of The Number 23.
But there is an even far, far weirder thing about The Number 23 that, in retrospect, gives the flick an extra-eerie aura…
V. THE SUICIDE
On September 28, 2015, Carrey’s ex-girlfriend Cathriona White was found dead of a drug overdose—ruled a suicide. As in The Number 23, we have the death of a brunette—a former lover—hanging over Carrey’s head…
And as is prominent in The Number 23, we also have a suicidal woman…
Simply put: plot-points from his film became his reality.
Carrey would later be sued by both White’s mother and estranged husband, the two making a number of allegations that the actor denied. There has been an extra dose of grief and tragedy shadowing over Carrey’s life because of this incident…and the number of movies in his filmography start to become a lot more spotty in number after White’s death.
In fact, Carrey’s overall trend after The Number 23 seems to be less films on a regular basis.
VI. THE OBSESSION
It should be here that I add, Carrey has admitted to have been obsessed with the number 23 even before he received the script for the movie:
A friend of mine said one day, maybe 15 years ago, I see 23 everywhere. When I said ‘what?’ he started pointing it out to me – license plates added up to it, people’s birthdays and significant dates in history all added up to 23.
The Hiroshima bomb was dropped at 8.15. So I immediately started seeing it too. It was like a disease that caught on in me and I became obsessed with it. Like there’s 46 chromosomes in each human body – 23 from each parent and so on…
It finished up with me talking to a friend who was a minister and he had a book in his pocket that he pulled out and handed to me; it was the 23rd Psalm. That’s ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd and I shall not want’. It’s all about living without fear and knowing that you’re taken care of. So that became my motto and I go to it all the time.
Indeed, he apparently created a production company called “JC23.” (There’s a whole line of thought in synchromysticism in which Carrey’s initials, J.C., are connected to Jesus Christ…that’s a whole other post.)
The question must be asked: is there an actual “curse” or weird energy surrounding the number 23—or does simply belief make it so? And does multiplied belief make it even stronger? And do movies like The Number 23 make it even stronger?
Did this all start as an observation by William Burroughs of a coincidence…then picked up and spotlighted by Robert Anton Wilson as a curiosity…then turned into a “cult,” and finally retroactively imbued with a type of mystical power?
Or is it just another old flick to Netflix and chill to?