On: “Looking For The Quintessential Scary Moment: Hughes’ Tiger, The Uncanny Valley and the Eye of Yamamura Sadako” by Adrian Bott (aka “Cavalorn”). 03/28/2004
The very first concrete thing I wanted to do with this weblog is call attention to one of my favorite weblogs — Stephanie Gray’s wonderful doctoral research project, “Exploring the Uncanny Valley”. On her home page she mentions the above livejournal article by Adrian Bott as the original source for her interest in all things Uncanny (especially zombies, clowns, and “real baby dolls”), so I read it today and wanted to post my reactions. But Gray’s livejournal and her “gallery of the uncanny valley” are must-sees and I recommend them highly for anyone reading this who is interested in Das Unheimliche in popular culture.
But on to The Ring. Bott’s conversational essay on “The Quintessential Scary Moment” is a good informal inquiry into the “mechanics of horror” that was prompted by his viewing of this classic of J-Horror cinema. Bott effectively describes what film theorists have called “the return of the gaze” when he discusses the film in detail. I particularly like how he describes the infamous climactic moment from The Ring, when the ‘ghost’ of the well steps out of the television screen to attack:
…the most frightening part…is not that Sadako emerges through the television screen. It is the moment when you suddenly know she is going to. This is literally nightmarish. Everyone is familiar with the nightmare when you suddenly know what is going to happen and you still cannot take your eyes away…..
And then, with a nerve-jangling screech on the soundtrack, the screen is filled with a clearly human-but-not-human eye, grotesquely distorted, reminiscent of a face pulled by a child. (What the rest of her face is like, we can only guess.) The effect is staggering. The faceless enigma of Sadako, which the film has steadily and subtly built up, is replaced by something horribly actual, which is looking at us. It is the one and only time that we look through the mask of hair and see Sadako clearly, and although what we see is the briefest of glimpses, it shows us all we need to know. There is nothing more quintessentially alive than an eye, and yet we know that Sadako is dead.
He goes on to describe how facial distortion generates fear, and touches up on research into what critics call “the uncanny valley” — roboticist Masahiro Mori’s assertion (back in 1970) that the closer that androids, robots, dolls, and other “nearly human” entities come to looking human, the more repulsive they become (primarily, because they appear as something like living dead corpses).
I intend to post more on the “uncanny valley” another time, particularly as it relates to prosthetic hands. (If you’re fascinated by the topic, do go to Stephanie Gray’s website for more). For now, I want to briefly note one other element that might be relevant to Bott’s ideas: the status of The Ring (Verbinski, 2002) as an American remake of a popular Japanese cultural artifact, (Ringu (Nakata, 1998)).
While I believe Bott may be discussing the original version, his point reminded me that the film gained popularity as a remake featuring Naomi Watts here in the USA, perhaps single-handedly launching the “J-Horror” craze (which, as my old friend Nicholas Rucka suggests, may be on the wane). Cinematic remakes, as I see them, always carry the potential for the uncanny by virtue of their status as “double” texts: that is, they are the “same” text, yet “different” — much like the embodied Self-as-Other of the doppelganger. Could not the “eye” that returns the gaze in the remake also be a return of the gaze of the Other — not the ghost of Sadako, but the spectatorial guilt of the violence that has been done to the original text — the repressed appropriation of another country’s popular culture — that is done in the name of profiting off the original? In other words, does the remade “eye” confront the American spectator with his own guilt over enjoying and reinforcing this cultural appropriation by Hollywood with his ticket?
These are the sort of questions I raise in my book, The Popular Uncanny (Guide Dog Books, 2009), and which I hope to expand in this weblog. I’m only getting started, but comments, feedback, discussion, and other links will always be most welcome.