The Uncanny -cont.-

It Follows

“I can stay over tonight if it makes you feel better.”

The horror of It Follows, like The Babadook, is also constructed from a network of nightmare associations, conventions of the horror genre with which we are familiar. However, It Follows, employs these conventions differently. Rather than conflating them to build the monster, the film uses them to construct its form. A series of recognizable shots, scenes, and sequences are the units from which the screen time is built.  Examples of these conventions are the college-kid milieu, the present absence of parents, the student seeing the monster while in class, haunting electronic music ala John Carpenter, a television that seems perpetually tuned to horror films, the heroine trapped in her hospital bed, and so on.

This playing with form, using a semiotic code of shots and scenes, not just narrative situations, is the territory of David Lynch in his Mulholland Drive (2001), which he constructs primarily from a code derived from noir conventions. We might identify the code being emphasized in film form of this kind as the “gnomic” flavor of Barthes’ Cultural (REF.) code. This should not be taken to mean that It Follows is only a series of horror movie clichés; there are certainly images and narrative turns we haven’t seen before. I only hope to indicate that the conventions are used predominately at the level of form, which, in a sense subverts them. At the same time, the conventions knit us firmly into the genre as we watch the film, and help to facilitate identification with the ostensible protagonist, Jay.

The story seems to be Jay’s, but the camera does not follow her entirely. In fact, the beginning of the film introduces us to Annie, whose frantic high heels clicking on concrete is another of the gnomic units I’m talking about. The camera does stick with Jay long enough and prominently enough for me to feel sutured to her perspective, though. Familiar cinematic techniques, like the snorricam attached to her when Hugh has tied her into the wheelchair and use of subjective camera in that same scene, help to create this suture. But, the identification we are asked to create with Jay is a calculated distraction from what really follows.

What truly haunts the film, what follows throughout, is Paul’s desire: his lingering looks on Jay, his listening presence, his hanging on. Before we are even introduced to Jay, before we first see her getting into the pool in her backyard, the mobile camera introduces us to Paul, knocking repeatedly, unheard, at her front door. Paul, and the inescapable childhood memory of Jay being his first kiss, is what sticks. What won’t go away. It follows.

Paul’s desire signals the uncanny for me in the film. The narrative, for the most part, is explicable in terms of psychosexual symptoms and repressions: rape, incest, loss of innocence. I can comfortably assimilate these into the Symbolic order, come to terms with them. What I can’t explain away is the feeling that the horror of It Follows persists in the fact that Paul and Jay are coupled by the end of the film. I just can’t shake the feeling that the blurry figure following them in the penultimate shot of the film, as Paul and Jay hold hands and walk down the sidewalk facing the camera, might just also be Paul.

It Follows on IMDb

The uncanny is precipitated by an encounter with the Real, an irruption of the Real into our Symbolic and Imaginary orders. An encounter with the Real is always horrific, so we must guard against overvaluing the horror film context through which so much literature on the uncanny has been generated. A central convention of the horror genre has always been an attempt to represent the horrific unrepresentable, that which is Real. However, an encounter with the Real can occur in any context. The Real is that irresoluble void, an open wound in our recognizable reality– unrepresentable, un-signifiable, but experienceable. It is that which extrudes, in excess of reality, something awry with what we believe to be true, and real. The Real is a point of opposition to, and within the real. Noticing this point, recognizing its quality of derealization, is what precipitates the uncanny. The uncanny feeling reflects our inability to reconcile the experience of the Real with reality. Since the Real can never be symbolized, never be explained away, never be successfully integrated with the Symbolic order, the uncanny is evoked and sustained. It sticks with us. It follows.

My initial investigation of the uncanny from a Lacanian perspective only prompts more questions: Is it caused by a sudden rupture, or a slow leak of the Real into the Imaginary and Symbolic orders?  Does it involve a sudden recognition, or a slow realization over time? What’s the rate of falloff between the Real and Symbolic? Since the Real is unrepresentable, in relation to film studies, what we see on the screen and hear on the speaker can never be Real, so does the Real “accompany” screen representations? Is it a quality of them? Are there certain traumas, certain conditions, for the experience with the Real to produce an uncanny effect? Or, does the unrepresentable nature of the Real, its irreducible definition as that which defies symbolization, thus defy taxonomy?

The Uncanny

The screening and discussion at the last meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytical Thought (APT) prompted a debate between a professor of Greek philosophy and a psychoanalytic literary theorist, the central question of which, distilled, was:

Is the uncanny a cathartic moment, a recognition and release, or

Does the uncanny defy release, stick with you?

This APT meeting involved a screening of an Indian horror film released in 1984, Purana Mandir (“The Old Temple,” dir. The Ramsay Brothers), which prompted laughs and groans from the group of psychotherapists, psychiatrists, academes, clinicians, and theoreticians gathered there. A Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions delivered a paper drawing an analogy between the narrative of the film and the historico-political context of Indira Gandhi’s government. This was followed by insights by the professor of Greek philosophy on Freud’s oft-quoted essay from 1919, “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”), and then discussion ensued.

In order to help me come to terms with Lacanian ideas of subjectivity and the Real, to satisfy my own egoistic drive, I have recast the question as: What is the relation of the uncanny to the Real? And, what can an understanding of this relation add to the debate?

If, as according to Žižek via Lacan, the irreducible definition of the Real is that which resists symbolization, and if the uncanny is a result of our encounter with the wound of the Real opening up in the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, perhaps the uncanny reflects the feeling of our inability to explain what we have just experienced. Our attempts to negotiate the experience, to explain away to ourselves in thought and language that which prompted the uncanny feeling are all met with failure. The Real is irresoluble, and so when we try to cope with what prompted the uncanny feeling, we can only find that nothing explains it. Nothing can knit it comfortably into our Imaginary and Symbolic orders, our known reality. It remains unabsorbed in our psyche, extrudes, sticks.

The Babadook
“I am the parent and you are the child, so take the pill.”

The film starts in kid-as-monster territory, from Amelia’s narrative perspective. The camera primarily follows her.

We know from the beginning that it’s her story, her shifting constellation of relationships: with Sam, with her sister, with her neighbor, with her dead husband. So, it should come as no surprise that the monster emerges not from Sam’s psyche, but from his mother’s.

The film’s eponymous, standard-return-of-repressed monster, is a condensation of nightmare associations that someone in her subjective position might have formed– conventions absorbed from films of the horror genre we might assume belong to her generation and social class. These include elongated, blade-talons ala Freddy Kruger and a tall tophat like that of Dr. Caligari and so many evil heads to follow. We are visually reminded of other horror movie conventions by the shots and clips popping up repeatedly on the television in the family house.

Amelia’s narration becomes exponentially unreliable, and the audience becomes increasingly detached from her perspective. The film then movies-on deep into mother-as-psychological-monster territory.  While the film never fully mirrors Sam’s subjective position, it comes closest when he employs his own probable heroic associations to contain his mother: Home Alone and Jonathan Swift. Yet, I don’t think the film ever strays too far from Amelia’s narration. Indeed, if the film’s diegesis is tied to her narrative position, then the film’s varying narrative reliability is correlative of the character’s psychological state. This variation is presented so overtly in the movie that the reliability of the entire narration is called into question.

My inability to identify too closely with Amelia, tied to narrative unreliability, puts me at bay as a spectator on the story world and holds me there, prevents me from suturing myself to her perspective, and keeps me from going away from The Babadook with any feeling of the uncanny.  The suspension of disbelief I have negotiated with the movie is strong enough to allow me entertainment, but not the uncanny.

The Babadook on IMDb

NEXT: It Follows.