Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Nature Attacks

I think over the past year or so what has fascinated me most about the object-oriented project is its reliance upon the uncanny. However, this reliance is also what is most unnerving for me at the same time, since the uncanny has become a tool seemingly not worth studying for the object-oriented philosopher. In other words, the uncanny is simply invoked, mentioned, or even alluded to with little to no discussion about it as an object – even if it is an object of study.

Yet, in a recent post by Levi over at Larval Subjects he uses alien invasion science fiction films to discuss the ontological de-centering that takes place in such films. At one point, though, he makes the following point:

Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there's even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center.

So given this (rare) opportunity to discuss the uncanny in and of itself, I would like to expand Levi's argument that at the heart of horror films is the invocation of the uncanny.

A while back I argued that the object-oriented philosopher would have to take on the zombie as an ontological problem, for the zombie represents our fear of humans-as-objects, but also our desire to overcome nature, to live beyond death. And for this last reason (but not this reason alone) the zombie becomes the perfect manifestation of this aforementioned uncanniness. Unlike Levi, though, I find the most horribly uncanny movies to be ones where humans are de-centered not by some invading alien race, but the films where humans become de-centered by way of the everyday. In other words, the most unsettling films are those that place the human "in-the-world" and alongside other objects.

At one point in my academic career, I argued that the best example of these types of films were the "nature-run-amok" films. Not unique to a single time period, these types of films often use animals to turn the ontological tables on the humans in the films. So, for example, in Cujo (1983) a familiar domesticated family dog becomes a ruthless killer. The reason why Cujo is so horribly unsettling is that unlike the alien invaders, or even some extinct creature of the past (the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, for example), is that most if not all of us had a dog at one time in our lives. Therefore, the familiar non-human becomes a moment of the uncanny, of confronting the everyday presentation of humanity as over and above nature.

What I hope to do in some later posts is to discuss this uncanniness in terms of Heidegger's "everydayness". But, as for now, I wish only to point out that what is great about the uncanniness of horror films is that they are not dependent upon an Other world – for our world can be just as uncanny.


  1. What about, to combine both the utterly in-human aliens and the everyday, Spielburg's "Close Encounters"? The scene where the remote control toys move of their own accord always struck me as just brilliant. And then Poltergeist in a similar vein, there's an obvious parallel in the TVs turning themselves on. The problem with Close Encounters is that it ultimately falls prey to human exceptionalism: the aliens are there just for us, just to return our abductees. So it loses that element of utter indifference to the human that LS talks about.

  2. Ejypt,

    I'm wondering, too, if a better example might be Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive. Aside from its campiness, it's a very unsettling movie in that these people are being held captive by the objects they have taken for granted. But, to add to your point about the ending of some of these movies, I think most of them return us to the ordinary, regardless of their villains - so, aliens get vanquished, and killer animals get killed. Everything goes back to normal.

  3. Glad you're posting again.

    I think it's very right to point out how those films ultimately return to humanity as the keystone - survival is its own salvation. The usual circular existential schema for horror films (something unsettles everyday existence, some notice and/or survive, they prepare themselves to confront the unsettling thing, some succeed [whatever that means in the context of the plot], and they return to the vestiges of the everyday) is particularly pronounced in the case of disaster films and alien invasions I think.

    The films where none survive are limited in number, and seem always to be those where the antagonist is human(-ish, at least).

  4. Thanks for the comment Joshua. I was out because I was finishing up my Comprehensive Exams for my PhD. But your comment got me thinking, what (if there are any) are some films in which all humans die off? The closest example I can think of is "Planet of the Apes" - but even then we have our human representatives. Any thoughts or suggestions?