Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Michael Gould’s Surrealism and the Cinema (Open-Eyed Screening) offers several insights concerning surrealism that apply not only to movies, but also to products of the horror genre, whether in print or on film. He says, “The image is the basic element of surrealism for it is an image-conscious sensibility (21).”
Seeing represents consciousness; to be is to be perceived, and to see is to perceive. However, surrealism is interested in challenging accepted perceptions, interpretations, understandings, and meanings. To do so, it must dissociate or expunge familiar readings and views, that it might make the familiar strange and novel again; it is only by alienating the viewer from the things that he or she views that the surrealist can renew the objects of perception. For this reason, surrealists are generally more concerned with the representative, or the type, rather than with the individual, because the type is a distillation of individuals which stands for the essence, as it were, of the group that the type represents. In this sense, types are symbols, and symbols obliterate the perception of new truths, or understandings, of the things that, collectively, constitute the world or “reality.” This seems to be Gould’s meaning, when he writes:
For Rene Magritte. . . the bowler hat is the symbol of the bourgeois European man, and Magritte’s men in bowlers are all types, without individual personalities. It is the man-in-the-bowler-hat image that excites Magritte, not the man himself (21).Surrealists deal with types because the artists want to subvert their meaning in order to make them potentially meaningful again, to make them, as it were, pregnant with meaning. Flannery O’Connor suggested something similar, in a different context, when she wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures,” as did Walker Percy, in his use of a dung beetle, in The Moviegoer, to awaken his protagonist Binx Bolling to the wonder of things when they are no longer taken for granted and overlooked. When the world becomes too familiar to us, it is as if it is lost to sight. We have eyes, but we do not see. To be is to be perceived, but we have forgotten how to perceive; therefore, much of the world’s being is lost to us. Surrealists attempt to restore our sight by making the familiar world appear strange again to us, as it is to a young child who lacks adults’ experience:
Surrealism. . . seeks always the. . . revelatory. . . . This calls for a child-like sense of wonderment. Children are so easily surprised because they have so little experience in life. . . (28-29).How does horror serve the same end? How does horror renew our perceptions of the things of this world, so that we see again that which has become invisible to our jaded eyes? It does so in at least three ways, by offering readers (or viewers) a parade of the bizarre, by confronting them with the monstrous Other, and by whisking them off to a remote, often confining, unfamiliar place.
As we have remarked in previous posts, most horror stories start with a series of apparently unrelated, bizarre incidents. This series comprises a break with the ordinary and the everyday, immersing the reader in a topsy-turvy world in which he or she, along with the protagonist, is alienated from the mundane and the familiar. Everyday objects, scenes, and experiences are juxtaposed to the wild, the incongruous, and the bizarre, which shakes up one’s world--or, at least, one’s experience of the world. The alien alienates; the strange estranges; the weird cuts one off from the familiar and the complacency that often derives from an immersion in the ordinary. The world is no longer safe; it has become dangerous, because, suddenly, the old rules don’t apply, and anything is possible. In a previous post, we cited, as an example of the opening parade of the bizarre, the incidents that comprise the beginning of Stephen King’s novel, Desperation, which we repeat here:
In Nevada, a dead cat is seen nailed to a highway sign. An abandoned recreation vehicle (RV) sits alongside a lonely stretch of highway, its door flapping in the breeze. A sheriff, acting crazy, arrests a couple on trumped-up drug charges, threatening to kill them on their way to jail. The nearest town, Desperation, seems abandoned, except for the corpses that litter the streets. The sheriff has arrested several other individuals, also on false charges; among his prisoners are the members of the RV family, whom he supposedly rescued from (non-existent) gunmen. Vultures, scorpions, wolves, and other animals, under the sheriff’s telepathic control, attack people. A preteen prisoner, David Carver, miraculously escapes from jail, afterward performing additional miracles (using a cell phone with a dead battery and multiplying a supply of sardines and crackers). The demon Tak, who is behind the series of bizarre incidents, serially possessing the sheriff and others as he wears out their bodies, fears the preteen. Strange idols cause sexually perverse thoughts and feelings in those who touch them.
This parade of the bizarre--this freak show, comprised of incidents as well as performers--takes us as fully out of the normal, everyday world as the tornado removed Dorothy Gale from the comforts of home, dropping her in Oz. King lets us know, by exposing us to the uncanny and the eerie, apparently unrelated events that have begun, for no apparent reason, that, in having entered Desperation, we are no more in Nevada than Dorothy was in Kansas after she landed in Oz. In other words, the series of bizarre incidents that begin his story alienate us from our ordinary lives and estrange us from our everyday selves. As if we were inside a gigantic existential kaleidoscope, reality has shifted and sifted, and the mundane world is fragmented and redistributed into unrecognizable shards that are no longer known and familiar. Reality, as we have understood it, has become unreal; therefore, it has become pregnant with the possibilities that result from a renewal--or a newness--of perception.
If a confrontation with a series of bizarre incidents reawakens us to the things of the world by shocking us into awareness as a result of a transformation of the familiar into the strange, a confrontation with the monstrous Other reawakens us to the astonishment of things--or of some things--in themselves, without first making them strange. We tend to ignore most of the sensations and perceptions that our bodies and senses relay to our minds. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed by the experience of life that inundates us from every direction at every waking moment. We become not only selective, but highly selective. Therefore, our chances of survival may be heightened, but at the cost of losing sight and sound and scent and taste and touch of many of the things that comprise our environment. We reduce the size of our perceived world so that we can deal with it; in doing so, we obliterate from our consciousness most of existence. However, certain things are undeniable; they have presence, even when other things are absent, and they demand to be perceived and, therefore, to be (to be is to be perceived). No one ignores the sight or sound of a rattlesnake, for example, or a bear or a shark. Threats have immediate and vivid presence, a quality that Emily Dickinson captures well in her poem about a snake; the narrator’s shock is evident in her twisted syntax:
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
You may have met Him--
did you not
His notice sudden is--
The Grass divides as with a Comb--
A spotted shaft is seen--
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on--
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn--
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot--
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone--
Several of Nature's People
I know, and they know me--
I feel for them a transport
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone--
Whatever its shape, the monster is always the snake; it is insistently and undeniably present, demanding to be seen and heard (and, possibly, to be smelled and touched or even tasted). Threats stand out to us when nothing else does. By associating the monster with the Other (who is always some rejected aspect of the Self), horror writers confront readers (or viewers) with repressed aspects of their inner selves, with the inner demons of injurious attitudes, self-destructive beliefs, and harmful behaviors. We do not want to look, afraid of what we may see; by embodying those aspects of our inner beings in the forms of monsters that will not be denied, we are confronted with our inner demons; we see them again, and, face to face with the ghost of childhood trauma or a guilty past, with the beast of adulterous desire, or with the vampiric lust for others’ blood, we have the opportunity to see ourselves anew and, perhaps, to overcome the monster within.
The horror film, like surrealist art, breaks the world into fragments in order to make it present and visible to us as something strange and wonderful (or terrible). A series of bizarre incidents leading to a monstrous Other are two ways by which writers of such stories accomplish this feat. The third is the use of a remote, usually confining, setting, which has the effect of cutting the protagonist off from the security of his or her greater community, whether this community is represented by the character’s home, neighborhood, region, nation, or even planet. The protagonist is alone (or possibly with members of a small group), cut off from the police, from military forces, from medical personnel, from fire and rescue teams, from supplies of food and utility services, from communication equipment. He or she is on his or her own, with no one to advise, assist, or intercede. Whether the protagonist lives or dies depends exclusively upon what he or she believes, chooses, thinks, knows, learns, and, in short, does. Moreover, if the isolated space is also sparsely furnished, it may represent a state of existence akin to death, for “clutter,” according to Gould, suggests the opposite state, that of the abundance that is associated with life. In this context, the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, in “Parega und Paralipomena,” as quoted in Surrealism and the Cinema, are extremely evocative:
To have original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence (36).
According to Gould’s assessment, the effects of such isolation will result in the isolated surrealist’s attempt to “fill” the resulting “void” in his or her knowledge with his or her own “subject-being”:
Once our old attitudes to the reality around us are removed, the confronting pablum of their presence is also gone, leaving us with new fears, which appear in the form of a lack of definitive answers (a fear of the unknown). It is with his own subject-being that the surrealist tries to fill that void. . . (37).
The fragmentation of, and estrangement from, ordinary, everyday “reality” that surrealism accomplishes is only its first, preliminary work; its task, like that of horror fiction, is completed when it then allows the reader or the viewer to synthesize his or her experience, creating a new interpretation, a new impression, or a new understanding of his or her world and of his or her place in the world, or, as Gould puts it:
Because surrealism makes the mind puzzle and search, it is basically a constructive sensibility, which is bent on tearing down old values and opening up new horizons, and as such, it is a political sensibility (38).
Surrealism and the Cinema (Open-Eyed Screening) by Michael Gould, A. S. Barnes and Company, New York, 1976.