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The homely nature of the unheimlich
I have recently been listening to the TV show, The Last of Us. The Last of Us, based on a video game, is a sci-fi drama set in an United States in the aftermath of a fungal epidemic that has turned most of the population into zombies controlled by cordyceps mushrooms. Now one grizzled survivor (Pedro Pascal) is tasked with shepherding to safety the child who may be a living cure to the infection (Bella Ramsey). The Last of Us is perfectly enjoyable TV. All the performances are excellent, the special effects are splendid, the adventures diverting. The reason I say that I have been ‘listening’ to it rather than ‘watching’, is that there are large parts of it I haven’t seen.
The moment our heroes enter a dark and long abandoned building, the foley effects of their footsteps and breathing amplified on the soundtrack, the camera deliberately framing them off to the edge of our vision, I start examining the screen for clues. The music has faded down, they are leaving a silence in which we and the characters strain for the sound of approaching fungoid zombies. They are framed to the left, in shallow focus, the right background in distinct dimness. Where something could lurk? Or is the filmmaker wrong footing me? Will the threat therefore come from the left? Or am I being duped entirely? Is there no threat at all?
At some point it will all become too much and I will have to leave the room. I pace in the hall, listening to sound from the sitting room so I know when the scare has happened and I can go and watch TV again, like a normal.
I should emphasise, I am not scared of the mushroom-men. I am scared of the scare.
I am scared of the scare in the same way I am scared of Cousin Greg. I missed long sequences of Succession in precisely the same way. Pacing in the hall, waiting for Tom Wambsgans to stop embarrassing himself. I have never seen all of The Office (UK) or I’m Alan Partridge. I can no longer watch Fawlty Towers.
I find cringe comedy unbearable in exactly the same way as I hate jump scares. It is precisely the same physical experience: a rising of stress, an increasing jumpiness and anticipation of the horror. I find both entirely unbearable.
Both, after all, are about the expectation of harm, physical or psychic. Indeed, comedy and horror work largely in the same way, by the creation and release of tension. They do this largely by introducing the unexpected or unfamiliar into the familiar.
“Why did the baby mushroom laugh?” A weird, unsettling little vignette: a giggling mushroom, like one of the clicking zombies from Last of Us. A hideous noise in a dark place.
“Because he was a fun guy.” Punchline, resolution of conceptual conflict, release of tension. Boo! Jump, release of adrenaline; but it's only fictional, everything is ok, release of tension.
The irony here is that I love both. Loving comedy is hardly surprising; everyone loves comedy. But I also love horror. I adore Halloween, with all its ghosts and goblins and ghastliness, a full moon above a misty pumpkin patch, a wheezing carnival cavalcade of creatures marching through the graveyard.
On the other hand, there is a whole load of horror that I actively avoid. There is a whole slew of 21st century ‘elevated horror’ movies that I am convinced I would love but which I dare not watch for fear of scares. Much as I adored Robert Wise’s classic horror movie The Haunting (1963), I doubt I shall ever watch it again as I am far too frightened of it. Even some of my favourite films, like Alien, I approach with trepidation (and a flamethrower), although I know every scene, every line of dialogue, every framing by heart.
Folks round here say that if you subscribe to The Metropolitan they send you essays for free every Saturday morning. I know it sounds like some old wives’ tale, but there’s many here will swear to it.
Eliza Brooke wrote an excellent essay for The Dirt on the contradiction between this aesthetic of what she calls ‘spookiness’ and the scariness of horror stories. She points out that the otherworldly decoration of Halloween has little to do with the terror of the scare. On the other hand Freud, in his essay on The Unheimlich, distinguishes between the uncanny and that which is ‘purely gruesome’: psychological horror, versus the jump scare and Kensington Gore of the slasher movie.
This suggests that there are, in fact, three modes of horror. On one side there is Eliza Brooke’s ‘spookiness’: the folkloric, vernacular symbolism of the unreal, which is trotted out for kid’s parties and Tim Burton films. On the other we have the fear of the catastrophe: the unexpected assault, the unreasoning monster, the serial killer, the exigencies of an uncaring world. But between them (or more properly behind them, looming) is the Uncanny. The unknown and unsuspected; the dread of which Freud writes.
As well as ‘spookiness’, I love the uncanny. I love E. T. A. Hoffman and Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen, M. R. James and Ray Bradbury, that long tradition of weird and unsettling storytelling that runs from Gawain and the Green Knight and The Tempest to Kafka and Borges.
Uncanniness and spookiness frequently overlap. Take H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, which - in addition to being astonishingly racist and hidebound - are often hilariously overwritten. His visions of fungoid, cephalopodan monsters are frequently ridiculous; they are ooky and spooky, slimy and smiley, hilarious hyperboles, ready to be made fun (of). I have bought, as a birthday present for a friend, a pint glass adorned with the writhing tentacles of the ghastly elder god Cthulhu as a genial lark. But he is also uncanny: I have also been frozen in horror at the sound of wind whistling through a keyhole in an old Victorian house that reminded me of the eerie piping of the amoebic Shoggoths in At The Mountains Of Madness. Like the Roger Corman adaptations of Poe stories, the unsettling can easily be ludicrous. In the cold light of day, the weird, humped figure lurking at the end of the bed is revealed to be a cardigan draped over a chair.
The uncanny is about the unknown. Once something is known, it ceases to be frightening. The title of Freud’s essay, Das Unheimlich, translates as ‘unhomely’. For something to be unhomely, we must first have a home; the weird depends on the mundane. Freud says that the uncanny lies not so much outside the home, but more often - and more effectively - on the revelation that the home is full of terrors; that what is known is, in fact, merely the facade for a greater unknown.
This is, for example, the mechanism for H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. His stories often hinge on some discovery that the world is not as it appears, and that mankind is surrounded by alien terrors that constantly threaten to overwhelm our world and our rational selves. His characters, like Poe’s, are driven mad by the horror they uncover, seeking refuge from the truth of reality in an escape from it.
Freud sees the explanation for the terror of the unknown in the repression of childhood trauma. Because of course he does. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like his father’s penis. Nail. I meant ‘nail’. Everything looks like a nail. Anyway, Freud does at least admit that he’s not qualified to make aesthetic judgements. But at least some of the horror of the unknown stems, if not from any specific repression, then from the awareness of repression itself; from the awareness that there are vast, cosmic gulfs of ourselves that are unknown, that our conscious, rational mind is merely a facade for a warring parliament of impulses. That our actions are often unexpected and merely post-rationalised into a sense of self; the mental equivalent of a branch knocking against the window, the pipes settling in the walls. Beneath, beyond ourselves is our uncanny subconscious, an unsettling force that actually runs our world.
This could also give us a clue to the appeal of the ‘spooky’, too. The haunted world of Halloween is, after all, simply a version of the animist world of spirits of genii loci. The elves of Northern European myth are often identified with the dead, their palaces under the hill with the long-barrows of long forgotten cultures. It is a vision of the world that is full of magic, an enchanted existence going on out of the corner of our eye.
It is no mistake that the spiritualist movement of the turn of the twentieth century coincided with a growing interest in folklore and faeries. As well as the reassurance of a life beyond this one, it offers wonder in this world too. It reassures us that this life is not meaningless and random, but full of unguessed cause and effect. This is the spookiness of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, a world in which humans are surrounded by spirits who pursue their own independent existence, and who can help us realise the true interconnectedness of the world and our place in it.
This appeals, again, to our sense of the world, which we perceive not as a set of discrete inputs but as a gestalt of experience. Pattern-making creatures that we are, we cannot help but seek connections of cause and effect in the random events of our lives. This is the appeal of story: it relieves us of the cognitive work of reconciling the meaninglessness of existence with the meaningfulness of our sense of self. The demon-haunted world offers a respite from the effort of ratiocination, appealing to our cognitive biases for easy comprehension, resolving the mysteries of the world with delightful explanations.
It is tempting, like Freud, to also see an explanation in the experience of childhood. We live, as infants, in a world that is entirely unexplained and entirely magical. Everywhere we go, the world smiles at us, but then unexpected horror intervenes. The beaming stranger on the bus hides their face in their hands. They have quite gone, been snatched away. Boo! They are back. Delightful, spellbinding.
The world of the child is entirely egocentric and yet ruled by vast, unknowable alien powers. You are at the mercy of parents, adults, the world, full of unspoken rules and inscrutable mysteries. The world of the horror story but also of the comedy, the struggling of a Buster Keaton against the fates, the befuddlement of a Monsieur Hulot in the face of the grown-up bureaucracies of the world.
But I am tempted to see another aspect of my childhood as an influence on my horrific predilections.
I was not a good little boy. By which I do not mean I was naughty; in fact, quite the opposite. What I mean is that I was not good at being a little boy. I was not sporty or naughty, I was not adventurous or belligerent. I was not out on the football pitch or fighting in the playground. I was in the library reading ghost stories. I was not being normal. I was being a little weirdo.
Slasher movies and cringe comedy are both normalising forms: they reinforce the mainstream. Cringe comedy relies on the transgressing of conventional rules of etiquette. The humiliation of the transgressor is the reassertion of the normal. The monsters of the slasher horror are forces from outside of the normal, threatening it, and must be destroyed in order to preserve order. We are not asked to identify with Freddie or Jason, we are asked to identify with their victims.
The monsters of the ‘spooky’, on the other hand, ask for our identification. Obviously we identify with Gomez and Morticia Addams, with Jack Skellington and Sally the rag doll from Nightmare Before Christmas, because who wouldn’t want to be them. But we also empathise with the existential struggles of Frankenstein’s monster and Dr Jekyll, trying to reconcile their monstrous biological nature with their mental self-image as conscious beings. Somewhere inside us all are the raging toddlers of Godzilla or King Kong, the awkward teenagers of Edward Scissorhands and Larry Talbot, The Wolfman.
I never quite understood how The Wicker Man (1973) was supposed to be a horror movie. It always seemed quite obvious to me that Edward Woodward’s god-fearing policeman Sergeant Howie was the bad guy, the rigid enforcer of normality. The merry bunch of weirdos of Summerisle were far preferable, even if they tended to wear fewer clothes that a Scottish climate might require and were unnecessarily cruel to animals by burning them alongside the Sergeant.
These monsters decontextualise the other as not scary but scared, the mainstream not as normal but as oppressive. ‘Spookiness’ is not something to run from but instead a haven from the mundane reality in which we might not feel we fit. Which is why, instead of hiding behind it, I actively sit on the sofa, choosing to watch spooky movies. Sit? I positively wriggle with delight.
Likewise then uncanny, in purporting to lift the veil of the mundane, might give us the thrill of secret knowledge. We, like Poe’s heroes, might have glimpsed the true reality and become a little cracked as a result. It has the same appeal as conspiracy theory, superstition or religion, a revelation of the workings of the world, only with the safety net of fiction. We can indulge in the idea of secret knowledge without having to encompass its actuality.
It also gives us the reassurance that our everyday fears are founded. Cringe comedy and violent horror are unrelenting depictions of reality; our lives are full of social anxiety and physical danger. To err is human; it is in our nature to fail. The world is largely a series of unfortunate accidents. In fact, fortune has nothing to do with it; the universe is simply implacable. Shit happens, and continues to happen with every beat of the heart. It’s all injury, heartbreak and disaster until the final jump scare of the grim reaper.
If you are a scaredy cat like me, then your days are full of the expectation of horror. The lump under the skin, the unlooked for phone call, the odd silence in the house. All are indications of impending, inescapable doom. This is why I avoid the jump scare and the cringe of embarrassment; these are my mundane experiences. What I want is the comfort of the spooky and the creep of the uncanny. The reassurance of doubt and the cosiness of the unhomely. And as the air chills, the leaves die and the year darkens, we finally enter October Country. It is Halloween, at least, the season of the weird little monster, where us weird little monsters can all be at home.
Only, no going ‘boo!’, ok?
Here’s a little watchlist of 13 spooky and/or uncanny movies to accompany this essay:
For more weirdness, last Halloween we revisited the hauntological classic: The Reader’s Digest “Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain”.