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.
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.
My favorite Bizarro comic of recent days involves Mr. Peanut — that dapper mascot of Planter’s nuts — in a scenario that makes plain the inherent contradiction of advertisements that employ cartoon mascots to represent the very same products they sell.
What IS the appeal of these imaginary spokespeanuts and mascots and similar characters in mass advertising that embody the very same product that their companies would have us consume? How does our brain respond to the cognitive dissonance of a cartoon tunafish selling us tunafish to eat? How does the child’s brain process the implied relationship between, say, the character of Mayor McCheese in the Playland and the Quarter Pounder available at the nearby counter at the local McDonald’s restaurant? How do we disavow the “unnatural” and “disturbing” undercurrent to advertising mascots, as expressed by this surprisingly frank commercial for M&M candies from the early 2000s?
I find this advertisement — featuring Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld’s “Putty”) vastly interesting. Beyond the “unnatural” situation — which I’ll focus on in a moment — the setting of this exchange is very telling. It is located in a convenience store that seems a nostalgic throwback to the general “candy stores” of an unidentifiable past. Why does this matter? For one, it situates the story of the ad in the context of economic exchange, but one where no exchange is really happening, save for the actor’s parental scolding and taking away of the candy. The commentary feels realistic in its dark commentary, but the story is still situated in a fantasyland, and it is one which is aligned — dreamily, hazily — with the past for the viewer. The Ms are like “kids in a candyshop” and Warburton plays the adult parent who comes into the shop to scold them.
It matters quite a bit, I think, that the proprietor behind the register is not minding the store, has his back turned when Warburton walks in, and disappears quickly from the image. This allows a situation to transpire that is odd, because normally the clerk would be the one chiding the candy to stop eating the goods he is trying to sell. Instead, we have candy doing nothing at all but hungrily eating more candy, implying a scenario where “the cat is away, so the mice must play” but also providing a parody of the consumer who merely induges his desire to consume without much thought. The M&M characters are not just cannibalistically, but hedonistically indulging themselves in the store, but doing so in a way that is represented as juvenile and childish, allowing the shopper (Warburton) to take on the role of both consumer and parental authority figure, who speaks, ironically, with the voice of reason. It is as though his consumption is valid, but there’s is not an acceptable display of it. The world without consumerism — the theater of the store prior to Warburton’s arrival — is uncivilized, or as animalistic and bestial as it is cannibalistic. The consumer’s exchange — Warburton’s chiding — employs a civilizing effect on the scenario, with the “natural law” (“you don’t eat your own kind…it’s unnatural”) being applied by the consumer’s authority.
This is not the book of Deuteronomy; this is an M&Ms commercial. Commerce is the operative word. The M&M’s try to swap their “colors” but this mutual exchange is not acceptable to the consumer, because it is not a “real” exchange with any symbolic gain. There needs to be some semblance of gain: thus, the consumer takes the candy bags away — getting it all to himself in the process. The popping of an M&M on the way out the door is a symbolic reward, but it also suggests quite clearly: you don’t eat your own kind, but a superior being is free to eat the lower forms…like the juvenile, animalistic, cannibalistic, uncivilized candy. In other words, a hierarchy between parent/child and consumer/product is reaffirmed here and that is the key lesson of the commercial’s “story”: you are not free to gobble up the goods of capitalism — you need to pay for the privilege, and paying makes consumption of ANOTHER KIND perfectly okay.
In other words, it rationalizes the exploitation of the other, in a very self-congratulatory and superior way.
Perhaps I am over-analyzing what amounts to a darkly comedic joke, but often such jokes do relate to unconscious desires, and one of the lessons of the Uncanny is that laughter is just as much a response to the return of the repressed as is a scream. As this commercial and the Bizarro comic up above make clear, there is a cannibalistic undercurrent to the funny and comedic world where animated icons and product spokesmen are normalized. Why else does the Pillsbury Doughboy giggle when we put his brethren children in the oven? Why else does the Michelin Man smile when he asks us to drive on the very rubber flesh that constructs him?
Advertisers employ the literary conceit of personification and the technologies of animation (or costuming) to lend their product an aura of “life” — this, preposterously, gives these icons the implied power “beyond nature” that comes with their status. But it is not so much the living-dead commodities that are embued with this power. It is the manufacturer — the magic machinery of the dough factory, the tire factory — that are attributed with some “secret” power in the process. This is what is meant by “commodity fetishism”; we begin to treat the products of the factory as if they were created by a god or a token of a higher being, instead of something created by the hands of man. Advertising, as Raymond Williams has put it, is a magic system that perpetuates this fetishism of commodities. This may sound like a lot of weight to put onto the back of Mr. Peanut or an M&M candy, but one of the lessons of studying the popular uncanny is that the more unnecessary and empty a consumer good, the more the supernatural is drawn into its marketing and advertising to sell us on its value. If one colored bag of candy is the same as any other, then perhaps the claim that “you don’t eat your own kind” is really betraying a secret fear that this economic system really is a form of self-cannibalism, after all, by trying to disavow it through an imaginary alternative universe, where what we eat is not us, and is not ours, but something magically Other altogether.
The Sultan’s Elephant is a giant marionette parade that is so artfully done, it strikes one as uncanny. As I wrote in November, most parade floats have an uncanny appeal, but in this case the doll’s appearance seems much less mechanical (ergo, more organic) than all the visible equipment and support needed to operate it. The eyes are what do it for me: on the elephant, especially, who’s segmented metallic trunk is a monstrosity. There is a backstory here, about an elephant who travels in a time machine, and it is inspired by the work of Jules Verne.
The video below reveals just how scary-yet-magical this all is. It’s a great instance of the uncanny in popular culture — and also a beautiful example of social/collective art.
[Thanks to writer Steve Vernon for calling my attention to this.]
[Images below have been removed from site, 9/2014. The new website for totally looks like" is at http://memebase.cheezburger.com/totallylookslike ]
If you don’t already know, LOLcats are artfully captioned photographs of animals, as in the image above. They’re pretty funny, entirely created by the visitors to icanhascheezburger.com (whose domain name refers to one of the first LOLcat images that got widely distributed online and started this whole thing). Like many online “sharing” sites, I consider LOLcats a fantastic form of new media folk art that attests to the popular draw of the uncanny.
How can a cute little kitten be “uncanny”? The given framework for these captioned photos imbues the subject of the image (the cat) with a language it does not speak (a regressive, childlike “kitten” language of its own invention that gives the cat a distinctive “voice”), blurring the boundary between human and animal. Freud calls this “the omnipotence of thoughts” in his article on “The Uncanny” — a psychological projection inherent to animistic beliefs and anthropomorphic fantasies. Thus, it is quite normal that this unnatural and imaginary language of the LOLCAT is the equivalent of “baby speak”: the animals are really like children more than they are like cats. The language in the caption, moreover, matches the human-like expressions and gestures in the image so well that a spectator may be struck by the synchronicity at play, and perhaps feels the uncanny affect because reality (these are actual photos) and fantasy (the imagined/joke situation identified by the caption) become blurred, if only for a moment, springing us into laughter. Not all the LOLcat images are about danger and death (as the one above — “nositz!”), and rarely are they “dark” or “scary” in their affect, but the humor can be intellectually unsettling because there is often a “secret” desire that the cat seems to be expressing in its caption which also reminds us of Freud’s discussion of the Uncanny as an expression of that which was to remain a secret (for him, the Repressed), suddenly returned and revealed. Our childhood wishes (for a pet, like a doll, that can talk) seem actualized.
Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the group responsible for “LOLCats” would build on their popularity by hosting a similar “photoshopping” site in the form of a “doppelganger” maker: totallylookslike.com.
The pictures that users upload speak for themselves, by displaying side by side graphic associations. Most users upload pictures of celebrities and film characters that look alike, as if they were unintentional “doubles” for one another by virture of their physical features and poses.
What makes this “uncanny” is not simply that they look like long-lost-twins, but they also provide the sort of “a-ha!” moment of recognition that Freud talks about in his essay on “Das Unheimliche” — the click of comprehending a “secret” correspondence, as if — with the image above, for instance — the unspoken inspiration behind Tim Burton’s artistic treatment of The Penguin was suddenly unveiled.
Of course, there are also “natural” lookalikes, or body doubles in the popular imagination. More common on totallylookslike.com are jokester post that bend the rules a bit to generate humor in ways that touch on uncanny similarities to make a point.
Here we have “New York” — a realiTV personality — matched up with Janice, a character from The Muppet Show. Yes, they both wear too much mascara and lip gloss. Is that a sufficient condition for them to be lookalikes? Or is this simply a photographic slur?
What makes this “uncanny” is not simply the unexpected correspondence between the appearances of these TV “celebrities,” but the momentary confusion that opens up between puppet and human being when first glancing at the images side-by-side. Consciously or not, there is a degree to which the person who is making this visual pun is calling “New York” no more than a media puppet. The aggression “revealed” by the uncanny logic of this joke could betray a racist or sexist hostility, as well. But beyond this hostility, perhaps there lurks a suggestion that this form of folk art has the ability to disempower the dominance of mass marketed artforms, such as the “manufactured” celebrities and characters of popular TV, through uncanny expressions of mockery and parody.
The site, at its most brilliant, can be revelatory of how forms of new media folk art perform populist expressions of resistance to (if not an outright subversion of) dominant discourses, by taking familiar images of power and status (often embodied by celebrities) and employing them in unintended ways to make a counterpoint. Above, the Vogue magazine cover is taken to task for not only suggesting something racist in its treatment of an African American basketball star as an animal (its “King Kong” reference — which is similar to the Muppet joke above), but also by lowering the ‘high fashion/high art’ status of Vogue down to the level of mere propaganda (the Army poster that originally intertextually borrowed from Kong).
Of course, the comparison attempted in the ‘totallylookslike’ image above is a bit of a stretch on behalf of the person who posted it, because they could have easily just paired the Vogue cover with an image from the King Kong film itself, which it clearly alludes to. Thus, we feel the critic, rather than the creator, at play, being highly selective, and the joke therefore doesn’t quite succeed on the level of the uncanny. Anything smacking of a critical human agency at play — a mediator — reduces the uncanny affect to a mere joke. The person who is making the comparison cannot be present for the uncanny response to “work” — it is like spotting the zipper on the monster’s back in a horror film: it betrays artifice and it’s “magic” is therefore disempowered.
In the above, a rock band’s album cover is equated to a familiar popular photograph that tabloid journalists famously proclaimed to be proof of an alien landscape or the “face of god” on Mars. The supernatural “face” is apparent in the accidental cast of shadow, itself an uncanny appearance. But anyone looking at the image of Queen next to it recognizes the latter as a carefully posed and purposely abstract work of photographic art, if not also a nostalgic memory of something they may have forgotten in their record collection. It is a clever comparison. And it’s quite funny. But it’s not quite uncanny. What we have, actually, is art referring to art — photos referring to other photos — and ultimately this is true of the entire site.
What the site really shows us is consumers of popular culture trying to make sense out of the infinite stream of messages and images that circulate in the media. That sense can only be an allusion or a visual pun — the associative logic of the dreamwork. What is the dream of icanhascheezburger.com? Perhaps it is about what its namesake reveals: an inner child crying for junk food. Only here we have the commodification of art into something resembling a cheesburger. The dream-wish expressed by the site depends on a withdrawal from reason and a repression of our awareness that popular art is a commodity, a manufactured experience that substitutes for the authentic. By pointing out the “doppelgangers” of mass culture through visual puns and pop culture allusions, the site is like a church of the popular uncanny, its posters bearing witness to “miracles” of fantastic correspondence.
Wow! This image from the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation’s (UK) anti-second hand smoke campaign stunned me for a moment, with its visual echo of my recent post about the website, Photoshop Disasters. (Via the excellent advertising watchblog, AdGoodness).
In that original post, I wrote: “We always already understand that advertising is manipulative and fake, and yet when the flaw appears, the optical illusion is shattered — the collision of consumerist fantasy against marketing reality is sometimes felt as a return of a repressed desire.”
My thinking presupposed that such freakish bodily anomalies as the giant hand image above were accidental, like Freudian slips. Here the freak skewing is intentional and inherently artistic. Why might it still strike one as uncanny?
Perhaps it is the various contradictions embodied in the image: the smoker’s fantasy (smoking makes one look younger, feel relaxed, sophisticated, etc.) is at once contradicted by the way smoking “stunts” growth and can lead to birth defects. And it’s not just the body anomaly that triggers these feelings and negative affect. Note the empty coat hanger dangling from the knob, right beside the smoking girl, dressed in an outfit that calls attention to itself with its bold color in a sparse white room. She herself is positioned in a mirror image of that dead white space, where another knob would be (behind her head). Her shadow seems to be peeling away from the hanger. The implied idea is a sort of before-and-after effect: if the smoking continues, the narrative suggests, she will soon be “out of the picture” (reinforced by the absent mother off screen who the kid is implicitly glaring at). The empty room with its bare wire hanger is a harbinger of death.
Here in the USA, it’s Thanksgiving morning. The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC is just getting started, and while I’ve never been a fan of parades, one can’t deny their significance in both small town culture and in big city holiday fests, alike. The news media treat them like spectator sports. For the event in NYC, millions attend – and millions more watch on television.
The spectacle of the parade “float” has always amused me. There are many variations and technologies put into practice for these objects, from novelty floats to “balloonicles” — and many of them are fictional characters from animation history, appealing to children; chief among them are animal figures, simulacra of the actual animals which used to be carted down the street (ala circus parade). The aesthetic of “balloon animals” sends us back to our childhood, here returned larger than life and, often, animistically empowered.
Which is another way of saying that these moving platforms and inflated creatures don’t merely “parade” down the street: they spectrally float, seemingly on their own accord, and their creators do all they can to hide the mechanics that move them. Parade floats and balloons glide down main street, like stages built upon magic carpets or gigantic ghosts. The spectrality of the parade float is what lurks behind the laughable logic of the possessed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (pictured above) who attacks Dan Ackroyd and crew in the horror-comedy, Ghostbusters (1984). Parades command attention because of the communal fascination with public spectacles, and the human feats of greatness (from celebrities to heroes to marching bands) compete against spectacles of technological wonder and art. Parade floats are in every way an exhibition of the popular uncanny.
I first began thinking seriously about this notion during an ad I witnessed at the movie theater last week: a rerun of the following Coca Cola Ad aired during the 2008 Super Bowl:
In this advertisement, cartoon characters (Stewie Griffin and Underdog) virtually fistfight over a Coke bottle, careening against buildings and bouncing off one another in ways that look “realistic” — yet also impossibly conscious of what they are doing. It is a neat trick of camera work and choreography (even if one assumes CGI is involved, the trickery is pretty savvy), lending the floats a sense of autonomy in their motivated quest to beat each other to the prize: a bottle of coke. A more peaceful and happy Charlie Brown comes almost out of nowhere to steal the bottle away from the distracted pair, his permanent grin expressing his glee. In the final frame, the Charlie “has a Coke and a smile.”
There’s a lot more going on here than first meets the eye. For instance, the ad uses a lot of “reaction shots” of human beings looking up to the sky or out of their skyscraper windows, which makes the constructed scene appear to be “really happening” in the city. One might even miss, in all of these reaction shots, the inside joke to fans of the Peanuts comic: right before Charlie Brown wins the day, a little brown-haired girl walks in the city park, looking up to the sky while holding a football, as if she was Lucy (known for pulling the ball away from Charlie just as he kicked at it — sending him flying in the air and landing flat on his back. This joke doesn’t just give give Charlie his wings — it elides the difference between human and non-human, real and imaginary, in the few seconds it appears on air. Film, of course, does this anyway: actors are not “really” there before us, but trace images, recorded in light and rendered larger than life.
Even more puzzling: the Coke bottle itself, a float, a commodity as big as the characters who seek it. Clearly it is far too much to consume in reality — yet they are driven to drink it. Unlike the other balloon creatures, it does not act in human ways, but instead seems to function more like a symbol that is preordained to magically find its way to Charlie’s hands. That is, it is a transcendent signifier for the commodity itself that they all represent.
This is all fantasy, framed to pitch a product by processing cultural icons that include not only the floats, but also the “larger than life” setting of the city itself. There may be an uncanny echo of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks operating in the political unconscious beneath this Coke advertisement. The “soft” bounce of these objects from childhood against skyscrapers may reflect a repressed fear of air attack on the city, here returned to the television screen as something akin to a childhood memory, a flight of animated fancy. The only people “threatened” by the horror of the giant balloons are those who aren’t paying attention to the spectacle in the streets, caught off guard. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the simple ad, but the imagery is striking.
The above image — appearing only for a second on the screen — seems to align Coke with the majesty of the city’s greatest icons. But it also implies so much more than that, especially given the context of “fighting” that it is embedded within. And in the image above, what are we to make of the clouds — the two lines like tracers of exhaust from two airplanes — arcing behind (or toward?) the Chrysler Building, while the shot as a whole is uncannily framed by two other “twin tower”-like buildings? I think it is patently obvious that this image is about fear as much as it is about fantasy.
One must wonder what the narrative of this ad might be saying about consumerism in relation to such cultural anxieties as global terrorism. Does it suggest something about competition, world trade, and terrorism? Is America the Charlie Brown, fooled by so many Lucies, so many wars? I’m not sure what it means, exactly, but I think there is some bottled up anxiety in this advertisement, felt as uncanny when it is uncapped and released.
Dr. Rob McMinn (the UK teacher behind the We Study Media edublog) gives a succinct overview of Freud’s work on the uncanny (das Unheimliche) in relation to horror texts and the media, in the following slideshow (formerly a “slideshare”, now a google document) related to one of his courses:
I particularly liked this slide by Dr. McMinn, because it serves up the way that oppositional binaries structure the theory, especially in terms of the role of “secrets” in the private and the public (un-private?) spheres.
Today I stumbled onto Oobject — a weird multiuser “curations collection” that exhibits photos that members spot online, organized by offbeat themes. One of the most uncanny exhibits of them all is a collection of “medical manikins”. The above shot by Tomer Ganihar (a shot taken as part of a series he did in an Israeli hospital in which detailed mannequins of men, women and children maimed by war and terror are used to train doctors and medics) is my favorite. This doll — head back, mouth agape, eyes askew, probed with wires and tubes — does not merely trigger an orthodox response of the “uncanny” because it is a doll that seems human, but more specifically, it looks like a dead or dying human, expressing suffering. Indeed, it appears to either be crying out for help or having expired doing so. The well-chosen angle of Ganihar‘s shot, the pose, and so forth drive the image of helplessness home. And the fact that it is actually an instrument used by doctors as a substitute for a living body makes it all the more disturbing, perhaps because it is as if the real world practice has “magically” caused the doll itself to suffer!
On a related note, here’s an uncanny photograph that my friend Bruce Siskawicz sent me awhile ago. It has haunted me for some time, and I have mused over what sort of odd person would collect such dolls or have them “mooning” out the window:
On Oobject, I discovered that those creepy “things” in the window are most likely infant manikins that the Red Cross uses to teach CPR! This knowledge does nothing to change my reaction to the image: it looks like they are trapped inside the window, darkly askew. The “twinning” of the dolls in a virtual shot-reverse shot symmetry only makes it more Unheimlich!
[Related link: Here you can see a funny gag from a German TV show that uses CPR dummies in uncanny ways.]