One of the scariest films I have ever seen is the 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and it’s the story of a paranormal investigator, Dr Markway, who persuades Mrs Sanderson, the owner of the empty Hill House, to allow him to rent it for a while to investigate its strange happenings and history of unusual phenomena. He invites several observers to accompany him, but only two actually arrive – the psychologically fragile Eleanor, who feels acute guilt at the recent loss of her mother (the death may have been due to Eleanor’s negligence), and who experienced poltergeist activity as a child; and Theodora, a self-regarding young lady who is apparently a psychic. The fourth member of the party is Luke, the nephew of the owner and at the house to keep at eye on things at her request.
Ettington Hall Hotel, the exterior of Hill House
The four settle into the house and begin to experience mysterious and disquieting events. But although the film is called The Haunting, there are no ‘ghosts’ to be seen. Instead, it works by the power of suggestion and our fear of the unknown. Continue reading
If you type “uncanny” into Google, the top results will be several references to the “Uncanny Valley”. This is an idea put forward in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori concerning the appearance of robots, and how the more human they look, the more we accept them, but only up to a certain point. When the robot looks too much like a personal, and yet seems different on a fundamental level, our reaction becomes negative. It suggests that the distortion of the familiar can be more disturbing than the unknown. Continue reading
Thomas Ligotti is an American writer of strange, disturbing fictions, which linger in the mind long after you’ve finished reading. He has been compared to the horror writers H P Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and since 1982 he’s been winning nominations and awards for his work.
His 2008 collection of short stories Teatro Grottesco is an unsettling one. Although they appear at first sight to be about the routines and rituals of “normal” life, details soon accumulate that twist our perception of the world he is conjuring into existence. Several of the stories share a very similar environment – a remote “northern border town” which inhabits a post-industrial landscape, semi-derelict and decaying. Very little can be seen – the stories are usually set at twilight, or during the night, or in a miasma of permanent fog. The street lights, when working, are dim. The inhabitants work at pointless and repetitive jobs – processing endless forms or constructing strange metal artifacts with no understanding why they are doing so. They are overseen by managers and foremen, who may or may not be human, and who mysteriously appear and disappear, possibly at the behest of the Quine Organisation, a company that also controls the medication upon which everyone relies. Continue reading
The haunted house is a motif which occurs frequently in discussions about the uncanny – indeed, Freud himself calls it “perhaps the most striking of all” examples of uncanniness. So I thought it would be useful to draw out what he says about how the two ideas are connected.
In The Uncanny, he sets out to define what it is that “allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.” He sets out two approaches: firstly, to explore “what meaning has come to be attached to the word ‘uncanny’ “; and secondly to collect examples of situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness and “then infer the unknown nature of the uncanny from what all these examples have in common.” Continue reading