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.

all kinds of awesome

Horace Walpole, man. Now there was a gent who knew how to have fun. In 1746 he moved to the village of Twickenham, bought a villa called Strawberry Hill and decided to turn it into a Gothic castle-slash-themepark. Using drawings of medieval cathedrals as his guide, he knocked together turrets and gargoyles out of plaster and papier mache. He filled the mansion with his vast collection of historical curios (including Henry VIII’s jeweled dagger and an Elizabethan necromancy mirror made of black obsidian) and threw open its doors to daytrippers from London.

Then he wrote a little novel called The Castle of Otranto, claiming to have translated it from a crusades-era Italian text. When it sold well and he finally fessed up to the authorship, he told a friend that the story had come to him in a dream.

“I am writing; I am building. . .My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole said in 1761, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead. If they had not the substantial use of amusing me while I live, they would be worth little indeed.”

I love the fact that Walpole’s prediction was 240 years off. The Strawberry Hill Trust has just finished restoring his house, and his book reappears yearly on Gothic course syllabi worldwide.

There’s a lesson here for us dabblers and dilettantes, hoarders and hobbyists. Even if you make stuff purely to amuse yourself, even if your stuff is insubstantial or fake, even if your stuff doesn’t make you rich and famous–your stuff still counts.

Two and a half centuries from now, it might even be revered.

Heathcliff on the sidewalk

In honor of teaching a graphic novel as my last text of the year, I thought I’d share this little treasure:  One of my Gothic Horror students last term alerted me to the existence of Canadian cartoon-genius Kate Beaton and her snark-elevated comic strip Hark! A Vagrant.  Where else can you find headings like Sexy Tudors, Suffragettes, Stompin’ Tom the Patriot, and Susan B. Anthony for Kids all in one archive?  Browse and enjoy, folks!