Many thanks to my friend, Dr. William Hamilton, Neumann University (near Philadelphia, PA), and Dave Bullis of BullWitt Media for inviting, hosting and producing the video for this lecture last October. It turned out fantastic! You can watch the entire event above or full-screen it directly on youtube.
The video is almost an hour-and-a-half long, but you might find it entertaining. In short, my talk raises the question whether or not icons of the uncanny (the double, the living dead, deja vu, etc.) in popular culture (particularly TV advertising) still have the capacity to frighten, or if they are achieving some other ends? I provide an overview of the theory of the uncanny, an analysis of some quirky advertisements (several of which first appeared here on this blog), and engage in an open conversation with the good students and faculty at Neumann U, during my visit last Halloween season. You can visit my original coverage about this trip or see my photolog for copious weird images captured during my enjoyable visit.
Thanks again to the fabulous folks at Neumann for allowing me to talk about these issues and share them now here in a streaming video. Your comments and shares are certainly most welcome!
Boing Boing recently posted a great link to another vampire oddity that not only appropriates the popular uncanny icon of the vampire, but also that subgenre of “dolls” that for some are beautiful little darlings and for others are just too disturbingly close to real living babies — those uncanny valley dolls known as ‘reborns’. See Spooky’s article, “Vampire and Zombie Reborn Babies” at Oddity Central for coverage, or head directly to the source: The Twisted Bean Stalk Nursery, where artist Bean Shanine’s “Babies Grow on Their own Twisted Little Vines”.
This may be uncanny or creepy, but I really admire Shanine’s art!
While such matters might be termed “uncanny” in the most orthodox sense of that term, one of the interesting elements of these particular reborns is the artistic inspiration drawn from the Twilight series of books. Vampire kids are not an invention of the 21st century — we’ve had them in The Vampire Lestat, and in cinema one is reminded of creatures like the infant monsters from Cohen’s film, It’s Alive! and even Rosemary’s Baby. In the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, there is a classic scene where Lucy herself consumes infants for their blood, in a dark reversal of maternal symbolism. Here we have something of a re-reversal of this anxiety in a representation related to the child that must be nurtured by literally feeding off its mother — here made safe — and inorganic — both dead and yet newly born — through reassuring plastic.
I think this one — a photo of “Gummy Vampires” candy that I took at the grocery store the other day — speaks for itself. I don’t associate gushing or oozing or even “gumminess” with vampires…but with their victims. Indeed, the first thing I think of when I think of vampirism is “teeth” not gums. Although this product is clearly targeting children, it still reflects the typical transference we see in uncanny packaging, where the act of consumerism is projected into the product, fraught with contradictions and fantasy.
This has been in the back of my mind lately. Inspired a creepy twitter poem, even:
“Vampire Gums”: he looked down with strange relief and terror — / a loose tooth left behind / weirdly twitching / still gnawing in her neck
— Michael Arnzen (@MikeArnzen) January 20, 2013
The Onion’s AV Club ran a great list of “23 Ridiculous Horror Movies” called “Night of the Killer Lamp” back in 2007. It’s actually a great list of films that would make for a fun marathon night of creepy-kookie horror films. What it proves, too, is that a) the horror genre is rife with “uncanny” objects at the center of their narratives (e.g. possessed dolls, plants and animals that have human agency, inanimate objects that move of their own accord, etc.), and that, b) the uncanny is often funny…especially when it fails.
One of many on the list is Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, which is hilarious but in my view also a very important film in the pantheon of the uncanny (see my essay in the book, The Films of Stephen King). For a quick example, here’s the soda machine scene, from youtube.
So how does it fail? Is a killer soda machine not scary? If not, what makes it inherently goofy?
I won’t go into a close reading of this particular scene. It’s easy enough to understand through the theory of the uncanny itself. One answer might be that the uncanny — like all fiction — requires a willing suspension of disbelief…but that the ideas here are so ludicrous that we are unwilling to do so. If our mental mastery remains in charge of our experience, keeping the “belief” in animistic actions at bay, then we invest no autonomous power or agency into the object.
In other words, we know they are puppets on a string. We must genuinely believe that the string has been cut when the puppet starts to dance in order to truly experience the uncanny.
Special effects are always attempting to cut that string. The low budget nature of these films (or simply their datedness, as effects have evolved) may prevent us from believing in their magic.
Even so, it may not be fair to entirely dismiss all the “killer lamp” films as simply “ridiculous.” There are moments in each of them — some more than others — where the uncanny can be experienced due mostly to the power of cinema technology to animate inanimate objects and thereby bring them to life. Hardcore realists might be too steeled up against the ludicrous to really suspend disbelief, but there remains something regressive about these films that might account for their sense of being ludicrous in the first place. They are aggressively regressive. They force us to engage in a childlike belief in the worlds they project. They work hard to resurrect our childish (or as Freud put it, “surmounted”) beliefs in a world where anything can potentially hold life and move on its own. Our laughter may very well be a defense mechanism against this return to our earlier beliefs — an attempt to affirm that our adult selves have surmounted them, in collective laughter.
Freud: “…a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and…there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.”
Last year I wrote about the uncanny aura of “Cinemagraphs” — a.k.a. “animated GIFs” in a posting called “Eternal Moments and Smoking Billboards”. I made the point that these images are “an uncanny artform, because it literally “brings to life” still frames — and while this may in some ways be more apparent in stop-motion techniques (where, I would argue, the jitter produced by editing has as much to do with the uncanny affect as the conceptual “animation” of inanimate objects we see), digital art is offering numerous new ways to trick the eye in uncanny way.”
I was reminded of this phenomena when I came across an article in the current issue of Wired magazine (Jan 2013;
not yet online now available at Wired) called “The Everlasting GIF” by Clive Thompson. Thompson interestingly makes the case that these animated GIFs are claiming a resurgence in popularity, and that it’s the “ancient vintage” of the format — the grainy ‘old school’/nostalgic look of them — that may be responsible for their appeal.
One point he makes that struck a real chord with me was his comparison of this form to the “zoopraxiscope” of the 1880s — that pre-cinematic device that was made famous by Muybridge’s classic “galloping horse” moving picture, among many other shots of animal locomotion and beyond. They “capture evanescence,” Thompson writes, “replaying tiny moments of everyday life so we [can] see them in a new way….The animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream [of image inundation].”
Definitely. And also definitely uncanny, in the same way that all cinema is, in the way it can bring to life the “still life” (aka dead) photograph. We all recognize this, especially if we’re on a website with an image or avatar on it that delays the movement… and just when you move your attention to something else, it gravbs you with sudden movement in the periphery of your vision.
But this is nowhere more apparent than in animated EARLY photography, where the aura of something long gone is long behind us. New media like these cinemagraphs are reanimating dead photos with a new animation that is stunningly uncanny. Here’s an example from a past Wired feature, Hugh Hart’s “Vintage Photos Enter Spooky Afterlife as Animated Gifs” — which brought my attention to the New Media artistry of Kevin Weir. It takes some surprising liberties with history, but that’s the fun of it — but the “fun” is often uncanny in the most orthodox of ways, using tropes of eyes, monsters, dismembered limbs and more. The whole article/gallery is worth a review, but here’s an example of Kevin Weir’s Flux Machine:
When I first saw this twisted comedic film, I laughed at its outrageousness. You might be horrified or you might guffaw. It speaks for itself in a mere five seconds. Here’s it is: 5SecondFilms’ “Magic Show Volunteer” (2009):
After I recoiled from the unexpected in this “magic show,” I immediately wanted to share it with others. I had the “you’ve gotta see this” reaction that compels so many of us to share these sorts of things online in social media. I copied the link and was ready to press “send” on my twitter account. But then I realized something. It was a magic show skit. Hadn’t I seen something like this before?
And I had. Many of us have. These kinds of films, which are everywhere on the internet because so many people have access to the technology to make them now, are identical to the very first movies ever made. Here, for example, is a famous example from about 115 years ago, when the early “one reelers” were being exhibited to public amazement: George Melies’ “The Magician” (1898):
Just as early film makers were exploring the creative capacity of the medium, today millions are doing the same thing — with a range of success and failure — using the ubiquitous capacities of phone apps, tablets, webcams, camcorders and similar devices which can point, shoot, edit and share with an audience in a matter of minutes. I have one myself, and I’m playing around with it quite a bit, which is also leading me to start researching this stuff on youtube (subscribe to my channel) more and more. What I’m finding is that the most successful of them exploit editing and sound in order to trick the eye and confound expectations, which give them a foot in the cinema of the uncanny.
In writing about early cinema, film critic Tom Gunning termed this genre the “cinema of attractions” — film’s equivalent to the circus sideshow, where the spectacle is everything and the narrative is scant or completely unnecessary. Before roughly 1906, film had not yet converted over to the dominant narrative format that we know so well in most Hollywood films today, which continues to draw from 19th Century narrative structure. YouTube makes no such pretense (perhaps because when it got started, YouTube would limit postings to 5 minutes in length, which led to widespread sharing of quirky videos akin to America’s Funniest Home Videos — which, incidentally, just aired it’s 500th episode — more than anything else). The bulk of the experience of such shared videos cues its viewers in much the same way as the early cinema of attractions, especially in its reference to the “magic” of what we are shown.
In her essay, “You Tube: The New Cinema of Attractions,” critic Theresa Rizzo does a masterful job both situating such videos into the tradition of this genre, but also exploring what marks online video sharing as unique: “although YouTube clips arrest our attention and encourage us to gawk similarly through novelty and curiosity throughout the course of a day, they also invite us to respond and participate in a variety of ways.” Thus, instead of turning to your neighbor in the theater seats and saying “wow,” we can say “wow” (and much more) right back to the filmmakers in an online comment or foment our own viral marketing campaign through an international form of “word of mouth” advertising on facebook, twitter, and elsewhere. Such shared videos can also be remediated — transported into different media or even remixed. “The cinema of attractions is ultimately about acts of display, or exhibitionism rather than storytelling in a similar way remediation is all about showing off by being clever and creative. It is a self-conscious practice that points to the producer, itself and to the power of the medium.”
I am, of course, fascinated and enthralled by short cinema and all the online activity we see with such texts. I think there is a grand democratization of art happening right now, which is wonderful (despite my skepticism about much of it — see my essay “Mock Band: The Simulation of Artistic Processes” for more on that). But the main interest for me is the role of the uncanny in communicating “the power of the medium”…which often is figured as a technology with autonomous, supernatural agency. This power is interesting to read as a symptom of social or personal anxiety, and often deifies technology in ways intended to either disavow agency or sell products through commodity fetishism (e.g. consumer technology IS a commodity). Melies wasn’t selling anything but himself. His “camera” was a magic wand. Today, magic wands are camcorders in the hands of the masses, available to all — for a price — and if we want, we can “magically” edit our stories, our personal history, our record of events. This is a manifestation of the popular uncanny.
In the Five Second Film about “The Magic Show Volunteer” our spectacular laughter relies on the taboos that are encroached here, regarding violence against pregnant women. It is not so difficult to give a feminist critique to something so clearly gendered in its representation of power. The male magician, a staging of authority, literally appropriates the “uncanny” nature of organic childbirth (“popping” the belly in a horrific way (clearly a balloon is pricked) — almost as if the woman’s body was something artificial, like a doll — before ‘birthing’ the child from his mouth). This topsy-turvy figuration of “male birth” is a common trope in uncanny horror film (and reaches all the way back to Shelley’s Frankenstein). It is an aggressive fantasy that a Freudian might read as an Oedipal nightmare as much as a gross-out joke, with the “father figure” of the fanciful magician responsible for “disappearing” the child, swallowing it off screen and “magically” pulling the newborn from his throat on its umbilical tourniquet. All of this “magic” — the taboo male fantasy of the text — is performed by cinematic technology, and its placement in the cinema of attractions renders it safe, domestic…and perhaps far too easily reproduced and reinforced as a social message.
Or maybe it’s just funny, and we’re invited to laugh at the male fantasy it presents. Perhaps the gimmicky magic it offers up is mocked, and this is a parody of itself. I’m uncertain. That, too, is inherent to the uncanny.
So…with this post I share it.