Friday, 29 February 2008

One's own reflection

In his essay, The Uncanny, Freud discusses the uncanny qualities of "the double". In a footnote he writes:

... it is interesting to observe what the effect is of meeting one's own image unbidden and unexpected. Ernst Mach has related two such observations in his Analyse der Empfindungen (1900). On the first occasion he was not a little startled when he realised that the face before him was his own. The second time he formed a very unfavourable opinion about the supposed stranger who entered the omnibus, and thought 'What a shabby-looking school-master that man is who is getting in!' - I can report a similar adventure. I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realised to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance. Instead,
therefore, of being frightened by our 'doubles', both Mach and I simply failed to recognise them as such. Is it not possible, though, that our dislike of them was a vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the 'double' to be something uncanny.
Sylvia Plath describes something similar in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar:

I slid into the self-service elevator and pushed the button for my floor. The doors folded shut like a noiseless accordion. Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.
Later in the The Bell Jar, Plath repeats the motif with a more dramatic effect:

'Why can't I see a mirror?'
'Because you better not.' The nurse shut the lid of the overnight case with a little snap.
'Because you don't look very pretty.'
'Oh, just let me see.'
The nurse sighed and opened the top bureau drawer.
She took out a large mirror in a wooden frame that matched the wood of the bureau and handed it to me.
At first I didn't see what the trouble was. It wasn't a mirror at all, but a picture.
You couldn't tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person's face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. The person's mouth was pale brown, with a rose-coloured sore at either corner.
The most startling thing about the face was its supernatural conglomeration of bright colours.
I smiled.
The mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin.
A minute after the crash another nurse ran in. She took one look at the broken mirror, and at me, standing over the blind, white pieces, and hustled the young nurse out of the room.
There is a similarly disturbing scene in George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984:

'You are the last man,' said O'Brien. 'You are the guardian of the human spirit. You shall see yourself as you are. Take off your clothes.'
Winston undid the bit of string that held his overalls together. The zip fastener had long since been wrenched out of them. He could not remember whether at any time since his arrest he had taken off all his clothes at one time. Beneath the overalls his body was looped with filthy yellowish rags, just recognisable as the remnants of under-clothes. As he slid them to the ground he saw that there was a three-sided mirror at the far end of the room. He approached it, then stopped short. An involuntary cry had broken out of him.
'Go on,' said O'Brien. 'Stand between the wings of the mirror. You shall see the side view as well.'
He had stopped because he was frightened. A bowed, grey-coloured, skeleon-like thig was coming towards him. Its actual appearance was frightening, and not merely the fact that he knew it to be himself. He moved closer to the glass. The creature's face seemed to be protruded, because of its bent carriage. A forlorn, jailbird's face with a nobby forehead running back into a bald scalp, a crooked nose and battered-looking cheekbones above which the eyes were fierce and watchful. The cheeks were seamed, the mouth had a drawn-in look. Certainly it washis own face, but it seemed to him that it had changed more than he had changed inside. The emotions it registered would be different from the ones he felt. He had gone partially bald. For the first moment he had thought that he had gone grey as well, but it was only the scalp that was grey. Except for his hands and a circle of his face, his body was grey
all over with ancient, ingrained dirt. Here and there under the dirt there were the red scars of wounds, and near the ankle the varicose ulcer was an inflamed mass with flakes of skin peeling off it. But the truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs. He saw now what O'Brien had meant about seeing the side view. The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to be bending double under the weight of the skull. At a guess he would have said that it was the body of a man of sixty, suffering from some malignant disease.
There is an eerie scene in Mikael Hafstrom's 2007 horror movie 1408 in which the central character, Mike Enslin, looks out of his window across the street and sees a figure in a room in the opposite building. He attempts to attract this person's attention and signal a message to him, but the figure responds by mirroring his movements and on closer inspection is indeed a reflection, but a supernatural one (the room and clothing do not match up). This realisation is quickly followed by a 'shock'. Click below for a video clip of this scene:

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Night-duty in the radar bunker

My grandfather told a story from his time in national service, which he spent working at RAF Ringstead Radar Station, in Dorset, circa.1950. This is what my mother and I can remember of it:

At Ringstead there was a radar bunker built into a hillock in the middle of a large wooded area. It was manned 24 hours a day by one person at a time working in shifts. The over-night shift was notoriously unpleasant due to the isolation from the rest of the camp and the darkness of the forest.

One night the man on night-duty, who had been working the shift for some months, made a radio-call to the camp. He asked to be collected at once. The job had got to him, and the following day he left the station altogether, taken away for psychiatric treatment.

Others were reluctant to take his place, and it came as a surprise that the only volunteer was a young man who was known for being what my grandad referred to as "effeminate". This man went on to work the night shift for a long time without complaint.

When asked how he endured the nights spent alone in the bunker buried in the woods, he replied, "The only thing that irritates me is that the slightest breeze causes the door to rattle against its frame. So I leave it unlocked and slightly open."

Unfortunately, his apparent fearlessness did not last. Eventually he "cracked", as his predecessor had, and was likewise relieved of the post. From then on a new policy was put in place: that the night shift would always be worked by two people at a time.

These photographs are of the RAF Ringstead Radar Station after its closure in 1970. From grandad's description, I'd guess that this bunker is the one from his story. The surrounding area seems to have been partially deforested, and the bunker itself is stripped. However, with a little imagination it is easy to envisage how unnerving a night alone there could be.

(photographs courtesy of Shaun Churchill at

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

In his 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's narrator describes a first impression of an infamous ivory trader named Kurtz:
I could not hear a sound, but through my glasses I saw the thin arm extended commandingly, the lower jaw moving, the eyes of that apparition shining darkly far in its bony head that nodded with grotesque jerks. Kurtz - Kurtz - that means 'short' in German - don't it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life - and death. He looked at least seven feet long. His covering had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding-sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth wide - it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.

Kurtz's gaping mouth recalls H. G. Wells' description of a momentary impression Mrs Hall has of the title character in The Invisible Man:

... for a second it seemed to her that the man she looked at had an enormous mouth wide open, - a vast and incredible mouth that swallowed the whole of the lower portion of his face. It was the sensation of a moment: the white-bound head, the monstrous goggle eyes, and this huge yawn below it.

Similarly, Edvard Munch's painting The Scream (1893) shows a contorted face with a gaping mouth.

Inspired by Munch's The Scream, Wes Craven's 1996 movie Scream features a killer wearing a halloween mask that also has a gaping mouth.

Scream (1996) Dir. Wes Craven

Another screaming mouth can be found in Francis Bacon's 1953 Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) Francis Bacon

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man

In his 1897 novella The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells creates uncanny effects with his descriptions of the title character's appearance. Heavily disguised, and often lurking in darkness, Wells' invention is a forerunner to the masked villains of 1970s-90s horror movies such as Jason Voorhees in Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) and Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

Here are some excerpts from Wells' novella:

... carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand. He was wrapped up from head to foot, and the brim of his soft felt hat hid every inch of his face but the shiny tip of his nose; ... he wore big blue spectacles with sidelights, and had a bushy side-whisker over his coat-collar that completely hid his cheeks and face. ... standing there like a man of stone, his back hunched, his collar turned up, his dripping hat-brim turned down, hiding his face and ears completely.

Image: The Invisible Man (1933) Dir. James Whale

For a moment she stood gaping at him, too surprised to speak.
He held a white cloth - it was a serviette he had brought with him - over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason of his muffled voice. ... all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose. It was bright pink, and shiny just as it had been at first. ... The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable. This muffled, and bandaged head was so unlike what she had anticipated, that for a moment she was rigid.

The only light in the room was the red glow from the fire - which lit his eyes like adverse railway signals, but left his downcast face in darkness - and the scanty vestiges of the day that came in through the open door. Everything was ruddy, shadowy, and indistinct to her ... for a second it seemed to her that the man she looked at had an enormous mouth wide open, - a vast and incredible mouth that swallowed the whole of the lower portion of his face. It was the sensation of a moment: the white-bound head, the monstrous goggle eyes, and this huge yawn below it.

He felt alone in the room and looked up , and there, grey and dim, was the bandaged head and huge blue lenses staring fixedly, ... It was so uncanny-looking to Henfrey that for a minute they remained staring blankly at one another.

Image: The Invisible Man Returns (1940) Dir. Joe May

... the stranger was undoubtedly an unusually strange sort of stranger, and she was by no means assured about him in her own mind. In the middle of the night she woke up dreaming of huge white heads like turnips, that came trailing after her at the end of interminable necks, and with vast black eyes.

The blind was down and the room dim. He caught a glimpse of a most singular thing, what seemed a handless arm waving towards him, and a face of three huge indeterminate spots on white, very like the face of a pale pansy. Then he was struck violently in the chest, hurled back, and the door slammed in his face and locked all so rapidly that he had no time to observe.

... at twilight he would go out muffled up enormously, whether the weather were cold or not, and he chose the loneliest paths and those most over-shadowed by trees and banks. His goggling spectacles and ghastly bandaged face under the penthouse of his hat, came with a disagreeable suddenness out of the darkness upon one or two home-going labourers; and Teddy Henfrey, tumbling out of the Scarlet Coat one night at half-past nine, was scared shamefully by the stranger's skull-like head (he was walking hat in hand) lit by the sudden light of the opened inn door. Such children as saw him at nightfall dreamt of bogies ...

Below, a clip from James Whale's 1933 film adaption of The Invisible Man.

Attic Basement Garage video

A video of Attic Basement Garage on display at Central St Martin's College in London, June 2006.

Matt Lippiatt Attic Basement Garage uncanny

Mark Seltzer Serial Killers

Mark Seltzer makes frequent reference to the uncanny in his 1998 book Serial Killers. Here are some excerpts:

There is something uncanny about how these killers are so much alike, living composites, how easily they blend in. The serial killer, as one prosecutor of these cases expressed it, is "abnormally normal": "just like you or me."

An embodiment of an uncanny spatial relation, the stranger's "strangeness means that he, who is also far, is actually near". ... The stranger, if not (quite) yet the statistical person, begins to make visible the uncanny stranger-intimacy that defines the serial killer: the "deliberate stranger" or "the stranger beside me".

There is, in the experience of serial killing, a compulsive location of the scene of the crime in such homes away from home - hotel and motel spaces as murdering places. This is one indication of the radical redefinition of "the homelike" on the American scene: not exactly "no place like home," but rather only places "like" home. If stranger-killing is premised on a fundamental typicality, then the making of what came to be called, at the turn of the century, American "hotel-civilization" is premised on the mass replication of ideal-typical domestic spaces. It is premised, that is, on the uncanniness (unhomelikeness) of the domestic as such (an uncanniness perhaps inseperable from the psychic shocks of the machine culture of mass-reproducibility). Hence the repeated location of American serial violence in hotel and motel hells: the murder motel in Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, for example, or the even more lethal tourist hotel in his subsequent novel, American Gothic.

What I mean to consider here are the relays progressively articulated between bodies and places such that the home, or, more exactly, the homelike, emerges again and again as the scene of the crime.

There is no doubt always something outmoded about the domestic and its constructed nostalgias - what might be called its uncanniness, if the notion of "the uncanny" (the unhomelike) itself had not by now become an all too homey way of naming that belatedness, its ambiguous causalities and periodizations (in effect, a way of endorsing a sort of better living through ambiguity). It is the vexed status of the homelike itself that I mean to define here. More exactly, it is the way in which the public spectacle or exhibition of "the private" in machine culture - museums or replicas of home as tourist site, for instance - seems to have become inseperable from the exhibition of bodily violence or atrocity that I mean to examine. These haunted homelike places - hotel and motel hells, for example - set in high relief the "gothic" rapport between persons and spaces, the distribution of degrees of aliveness across constructed spaces, the assimilation of the animate to the inanimate and mechanic.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Hanging Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz

The scene from The Wizard of Oz in which one of the 'munchkin' actors is rumoured to be visible hanging himself from a tree in the background.

The hanging munchkin was actually the wing of a large live bird. More information about this urban legend here.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


Sketches for an artwork for The Unheimlich exhibition.

Matt Lippiatt uncannyMatt Lippiatt uncanny

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Ghost boy in Three Men and a Baby

Here is a link to the scene from Three Men and a Baby (1987) supposedly showing a ghostly boy. Below is Jan Harold Brunvand's account of this rumour, published in The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2001).

The Ghostly Videotape

In 1990, when the 1987 film Three Men and a Baby was released on videotape, people began to notice for the first time a "ghost" image, apparently of a young boy, in the background of one scene. Stories developed explaining that the son of the owners of the New York apartment used for the film had committed suicide there and had returned as a ghostly presence that could be seen only in the film. Some viewers thought they could also see the rifle he had used to kill himself alongside the spirit; others claimed that the supposed ghost was merely a young relative of the film's director, Leonard Nimoy, who had been promised an appearance in it.
Debunking these stories, the film's producers explained that the New York "apartment" was really a soundstage in Toronto and that the image was an out-of-focus view of a cardboard cutout of actor Ted Danson, who stars in the film, used as part of the apartment decor. Rumors then began to circulate that the film's distributors themselves had started the stories in order to promote video rentals and to draw attention to their sequel Three Men and a Little Lady (1990). Unmentioned in most of the discussion of this short-lived legend was the fact that supposed spectral images of dead persons in photographs have long been a part of folk tradition. Most commonly, such images were claimed to be visible in photographs of groups of miners or other workers who had lost one or more companions in occupational accidents.
Jan Harold Brunvand (2001) The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends

Porn Shoot Off Cuts

Dead Bodies and Cardboard is an art exhibition running from 9th - 23rd February 2008 at Elevator Gallery, London. I'm exhibiting a new video titled Porn Shoot Off-Cuts in this show.

The video is made from footage shot by cameramen at porn-shoots, using the sequences that would usually be cut out during editing. This gives a fragmentary impression of the events taking place, directing our attention to the surrounding environment, and the mood of the participants.

For me, some parts of this video evoke an uncanny atmosphere.

Matt Lippiatt Liam Cole Porn Shoot Off Cuts