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.

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