The Uncanny and the Real

womaninblackIn her book Culture and the Real, Catherine Belsey suggests that the source of uncanny unease in horror films is the incursion of patently non-real/supernatural objects into the real world. Now, Belsey draws her examples from film and in that media context I can see how this works. When a supernatural creature or event penetrates a naturalistic film world that bears strong similarity to my own world, I feel that chilling anxiety. I know at some level that this thing is “not real” and yet mimesis of the world allows me to build a bridge from the world within the film to my real world and to respond in my imagination, and in my body with a thrill of horror. This is the stuff of nightmares. (Personally, I can’t watch for this exact reason. I have trouble separating the real world of the film and my own world, such that these thrills are not ‘fun’ for me.)

Belsey invokes the word ‘uncanny’ to talk about this mixing of the supernatural fiction with an ostensibly real world within the film. She doesn’t provide any theoretical context for the uncanny, but Freud’s uncanny as reconfigured by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori is worth revisiting here in connection to the real.

uncanny valley The core idea of this diagram is that, in general, as an object becomes progressively more like a human we find it more “familiar” or appealing — and the curve rises. But, at a certain point approaching a perfect human likeness (an actual live healthy human) the curve plummets and we are repulsed by the not-quite-human. If a thing is not really very human, that is fine. If that thing approaches the human but does not fully attain likeness–corpses, zombies, Tom Hanks in The Polar Express–we are deeply bothered by this. Where this connects with the real is in through uncertainty. Part of the problem with objects that fall into the uncanny valley is that they are ambiguous; they seem human but are clearly not and it is this gap or lack that we find upsetting. We want a clear determination — human or not human. It is not really here about real/not real, but it is a core perceptual uncertainty about where we ‘stand’ in relation to an ontologically ambiguous object that triggers the uncanny and the associated affect of being creeped out or horrified.

Now, how does this work on the stage? Curiously, I really struggled to think of examples of horror plays. Horror films abound by the dozens if not hundreds, but not plays. Only two come to mind: the perennial standby The Woman in Black adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the book by Susan Hill and the recent West End production of Ghost Stories by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. In The Woman in Black, like Ghost Stories, the play is set in a theatre, ostensibly the actual theatre where we are currently sitting. This is seems to be the key for the generation of horror in live performance. (And perhaps explains the rarity of the form.) By blending world so strongly with worlda, both plays are able, at the end, to bring the supernatural into our world. At the end of The Woman in Black, the intimation is that the ghost now haunts our storyteller and is here now. Maybe the ghost that we have been seeing as part of the nested storytelling is not a hired actress but the ghost herself (!!).

Horror as a genre is a mode where we explore the limits of what we know, where the ground of certainty about the way the world works is profoundly destabilized. Things that we thought were surely unreal suddenly seem to be. Epistemology wars with ontology. As with so much reality-based theatre, we know that the object or event is rendered impotent within the fictional frame, and yet… We are compelled to consider alternate rules and this is radically disruptive. This is upsetting.

I can see that this understanding of horror in live performance (rare as it is) may be useful in understanding the panicked experience of some immersive theatre. See my earlier post on immersive theatre as haunted house. I didn’t mean really ‘haunted’ when I wrote that but now…??


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