The Onion’s AV Club ran a great list of “23 Ridiculous Horror Movies” called “Night of the Killer Lamp” back in 2007. It’s actually a great list of films that would make for a fun marathon night of creepy-kookie horror films. What it proves, too, is that a) the horror genre is rife with “uncanny” objects at the center of their narratives (e.g. possessed dolls, plants and animals that have human agency, inanimate objects that move of their own accord, etc.), and that, b) the uncanny is often funny…especially when it fails.
One of many on the list is Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, which is hilarious but in my view also a very important film in the pantheon of the uncanny (see my essay in the book, The Films of Stephen King). For a quick example, here’s the soda machine scene, from youtube.
So how does it fail? Is a killer soda machine not scary? If not, what makes it inherently goofy?
I won’t go into a close reading of this particular scene. It’s easy enough to understand through the theory of the uncanny itself. One answer might be that the uncanny — like all fiction — requires a willing suspension of disbelief…but that the ideas here are so ludicrous that we are unwilling to do so. If our mental mastery remains in charge of our experience, keeping the “belief” in animistic actions at bay, then we invest no autonomous power or agency into the object.
In other words, we know they are puppets on a string. We must genuinely believe that the string has been cut when the puppet starts to dance in order to truly experience the uncanny.
Special effects are always attempting to cut that string. The low budget nature of these films (or simply their datedness, as effects have evolved) may prevent us from believing in their magic.
Even so, it may not be fair to entirely dismiss all the “killer lamp” films as simply “ridiculous.” There are moments in each of them — some more than others — where the uncanny can be experienced due mostly to the power of cinema technology to animate inanimate objects and thereby bring them to life. Hardcore realists might be too steeled up against the ludicrous to really suspend disbelief, but there remains something regressive about these films that might account for their sense of being ludicrous in the first place. They are aggressively regressive. They force us to engage in a childlike belief in the worlds they project. They work hard to resurrect our childish (or as Freud put it, “surmounted”) beliefs in a world where anything can potentially hold life and move on its own. Our laughter may very well be a defense mechanism against this return to our earlier beliefs — an attempt to affirm that our adult selves have surmounted them, in collective laughter.
Freud: “…a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and…there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.”