Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
Boing Boing recently posted a great link to another vampire oddity that not only appropriates the popular uncanny icon of the vampire, but also that subgenre of “dolls” that for some are beautiful little darlings and for others are just too disturbingly close to real living babies — those uncanny valley dolls known as ‘reborns’. See Spooky’s article, “Vampire and Zombie Reborn Babies” at Oddity Central for coverage, or head directly to the source: The Twisted Bean Stalk Nursery, where artist Bean Shanine’s “Babies Grow on Their own Twisted Little Vines”.
This may be uncanny or creepy, but I really admire Shanine’s art!
While such matters might be termed “uncanny” in the most orthodox sense of that term, one of the interesting elements of these particular reborns is the artistic inspiration drawn from the Twilight series of books. Vampire kids are not an invention of the 21st century — we’ve had them in The Vampire Lestat, and in cinema one is reminded of creatures like the infant monsters from Cohen’s film, It’s Alive! and even Rosemary’s Baby. In the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, there is a classic scene where Lucy herself consumes infants for their blood, in a dark reversal of maternal symbolism. Here we have something of a re-reversal of this anxiety in a representation related to the child that must be nurtured by literally feeding off its mother — here made safe — and inorganic — both dead and yet newly born — through reassuring plastic.
I think this one — a photo of “Gummy Vampires” candy that I took at the grocery store the other day — speaks for itself. I don’t associate gushing or oozing or even “gumminess” with vampires…but with their victims. Indeed, the first thing I think of when I think of vampirism is “teeth” not gums. Although this product is clearly targeting children, it still reflects the typical transference we see in uncanny packaging, where the act of consumerism is projected into the product, fraught with contradictions and fantasy.
This has been in the back of my mind lately. Inspired a creepy twitter poem, even:
“Vampire Gums”: he looked down with strange relief and terror — / a loose tooth left behind / weirdly twitching / still gnawing in her neck
— Michael Arnzen (@MikeArnzen) January 20, 2013
Pop culture is so saturated with zombies that it seems quite silly. Or is it?
Take, for instance, the new (free) add on “Halloween” theme for the iOs GPS app, CoPilot Live. The opening screen transforms the colors to an autumnal trick-or-treaters fantasy with a goofy spiderweb on top (making its opening message — “Buckle Up!” seem far more ominous than it otherwise would)… and it also includes a clever zombie icon for the “Walk” GPS option, as well as funny green dismembered hands as pointers to locations.
It’s probably easy to dismiss this kind of thing as yet another goofy appropriation of horror genre tropes for pure marketing. I prefer to think that anytime you see a “zombified” commodity — perhaps most of all when the object seems ephemeral and totally unrelated to the horror genre — that there is still some true expression of fear there, lurking beneath the kitsch. Something repressed, that threatens to return…
GPS devices are used as maps that synchronize your position on a map through satellite technology. They’re highly scientific, yet I think most consumers treat these devices more like “the magic of everyday life” than as the technology they really are. The “knowingness” of the device comes “from beyond” to not only indicate where you are, but also to direct you on your way. In fact, most of these things SPEAK to us, like some kind of robotic backseat driver. It’s uncanny. Especially when they know more than we do about our location and how to save us from getting lost. A GPS literally enacts the “omnipotence of thoughts” that Freud describes in his foundational theory on Das Unheimlich.
This is why zombies make sense when used as a ‘skin’ for a GPS. It slyly suggests that when we follow the directions automatically, unthinkingly, that we are akin to robots following the programming, driving our cars, virtually on “autopilot.” Underscoring this is the fear of being lost in a strange land. The world of strangers. The place outside of our safe car bubbles, where Others roam.
Sometimes that fear may be warranted, but where there is anxiety there is always a market. And it’s not just GPS skins. Take trick-or-tracker, for instance — an iPhone app designed to help worried parents locate their children while trick-or-treating using their phone’s GPS. Sounds like a useful application of GPS if you’re a helicopter parent, I suppose. Or howabout the GPS Halloween Adventure held in Ewing, VA‘s Wilderness Road State Park? Both use GPS as talisman-like device for survival. Sounds ingenious! But also further proof of how the ‘magic’ we put into these technological divining rods are structures reflecting our fears and wishes rather than an application of science.
“Eyebombing” is the art of sticking “googly eyes” (a.k.a. “wiggly eyes” — the glue-on sort of craft store kind) onto an inanimate object in the public sphere in a way that cleverly lends the object the appearance of a living creature.
The purpose? According to eyebombing.com, it’s “humanizing the world, one googly eye at a time.” A wee bit subversive in nature, like drawing a mustache on a billboard celebrity. Take a snapshot of this public (de-?)facement, post it to eyebombing.com, link to it on a facebook group or flickr group or some other social network, and you have a mounting trend that — while nothing new, really — is emerging as a cute internet “meme.” We could possibly also call this meme an instance of the popular uncanny. But maybe not in the way you might, at first, suspect.
Sure, it’s just anthropomorphizing. Such gestures — which give the attributes of life to an inorganic object — often are “uncanny” because they confuse the assumed boundary between what makes something an object and what makes something — anything — a subject, capable of “returning the gaze.” We might feel an aura of weirdness for just the first moment we look at the object and see that it is “looking back” when it’s not supposed to. This reaction harkens back to what Freud once termed the “surmounted” childhood beliefs in an animistic world, in this case rendering everyday urban life as fantastic as the trees that talk in fairy tales or the Muppets of television childhood. Only now Oscar the Grouch doesn’t live a trashcan — he IS the trashcan. From guard rails to postal boxes, as the result of eyebombing, the objects of everyday life become doll-like with those cheap stick-on “googly” eyes so familiar to us from craft stores.
But googly eyes are plastic simulacra to begin with. They do not “move of their own accord” per se — in fact, it would probably be far more uncanny and disturbing to see human beings with plastic eyes like these on their faces instead. In other words, this is a representation of the gaze, a plastic staging of the uncanny, rather than a genuinely haunting act of defamiliarization.
Yet it is still — at least at first glance — a little uncanny. Indeed, it is the eyes themselves, far more than the objects they transform, which I would say are the harbingers of the popular uncanny. Is it not the familiarity of the googly eyes — not of the defamiliarized postal box, but the plastic eyes themselves — used in such a strange way, that makes them seem so odd, if not haunting? The googly eyes themselves are displaced from the faces of dolls and other crafts and are now potentially looking at us from anywhere, especially places where we would not expect to encounter them. The “bombed” site — a guard rail, a trash can, a light switch — is surprisingly looking at us when we turn around, precisely like those eyes on the GEICO dollar bill stack from advertising (“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”)
Of course, this is not really scaring anyone. Disturbing a few, momentarily, perhaps. But we remain “surmounted” because we are not fooled by the eyes — they are not realistic the way that, say, fantastically customized contact lenses or the eyeballs from a “reborn doll” are. No — these “craft” items are virtually two-dimensional in all their clitter-clatter spinning disc glory, and are located more in the realm of concepts than animals. Indeed, they seem to make a statement more than talk for themselves. The subversive act of rendering a public, hard object as a personalized and personified object is still potent; it can defamiliarize in a very palpable manner, like all good art — but it does so in a way that is not felt as threatening. Its unreality is domesticated — which, while seemingly lacking in the haunting power of the uncanny is nonetheless a a defining element of many items of the “popular” uncanny, which sublimates but never entirely buries repressed desire in its attempt to make the unfamiliar more familiar — often by employing the tactics of childhood fantasy.
Eyebombing is the Fozzie-Bearification of the community property — the Jim Hensoning of the public square. There is a return of the repressed invoked here, but it very well may a repressed belief in the power of folk art, which has been increasingly “surmounted” by technology — or even just a psychological reawakening of some relationship to a children’s puppet from days gone by — which here returns with a twinge of uncanny recognition.