the uncanny is still with us

Well, it’s the twilight of another semester of “Studies in the Gothic” (Twilight. Caught that, didja?). The course ended on a high note with the eerily talented author David Nickle paying a visit to the classroom.

Yesterday the benevolent forces of procrastination led me to this so-called cinemagraph from a Tumblr blog:

I wish I’d found this in time to show my students, because it so perfectly demonstrates the uncanny, a concept we discussed specificially in relation to Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining.

The uncanny produces a special kind of fright. It works through a sudden transformation of something familiar into something radically unfamiliar. The mundane becomes strange, the domestic becomes alien, the warm and cozy becomes cold and threatening. The example I always use in class is catching your reflection in a mirror where you didn’t realize there was a mirror, or when the mirror is turned at an unexpected angle. What could be more familiar to you than your own face? Yet you jump and break out in goosebumps.

Kubrick loves mirrors in The Shining. Every shot is deliberately set up to create an impression of unnameable strangeness (a door standing open in the background, a panel of bright lights, a room with no apparent ceiling), or to defamiliarize banal conversation through repetition (“for ever, and ever, and ever!”). Sometimes Kubrick simply holds the shot a moment too long after a character speaks, just long enough for us to second-guess the meaning of the words.

In the photo above, the uncanny is beautifully straightforward. We’re familiar with photography; it’s mundane to us. We expect a still photo to remain still, is all. When it moves, yet doesn’t become a film clip (with which we’re also familiar), the image remains trapped in that in-between space of uncanniness: familiar yet unfamiliar. Creepy!

When photography was invented people found it scary. Cameras were used to take pictures of ghosts, fairies, dead relatives. We may be media-weary by comparison, but we can still cop a thrill when something new and weird comes along.

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