Since this piece is technically categorized as a review, let’s get this out of the way first: Mark Fisher’s short critical essay “The Weird and the Eerie” is insightful, unique, and well worth your time. Fisher is (almost) the only writer to attempt a critical analysis of the literary concept of the “weird” (which he considers a “mode” rather than a genre). That alone makes this slim volume (which could be finished in an evening) a worthwhile addition to your library.
With the praise out of the way, the remainder of this essay will be devoted to explaining why Fisher’s definition of the weird doesn’t quite harmonize with way we use the term on this site. Basically, Fisher’s usage is too restrictive for our purposes. Defining the weird, paradoxically, makes it into a rational category, whereas the essence of the weird is its irrationality. Like love or porn, the weird has an “I-know-it-when-I-feel-it” quality; it’s better intuited than analyzed. This observation, I must stress again, is not meant to take anything away from Fisher’s achievement. It’s just that rigid critical analysis, while a fun supplement to your journey into the weird, cannot substitute for that know-it-when-you-feel-it chill in your spine that you get when confronted with an oatmeal-cheeked girl stomping on spermatozoa inside a radiator theater.
Early in this site’s existence, I wrote a series of two articles on various “species” of the weird: the “uncanny” and the “surreal.” (A third planned article, on the “absurd,” remains uncompleted to this day.) So I’m not above bringing analytics into the weird game. But generally, we at 366 Weird Movies prefer the intuitive approach. To this day, the definition of the weird I rely on most is the “grandmother test”: I imagine my conservative grandmother watching a movie, and if she turns to me and mutters, “well, that was weird,” I know I’m onto something.
Still, I admire Fisher for attempting to nail down what, in essence, amounts to nothing more than a vague feeling. I think his test, as we will see, inevitably creates both false positives and false negatives. But the impulse is a noble one.
So how does Fisher define the weird? He gets it out of the way quickly in the introductory chapter, concluding that “the weird is that which does not belong” [emphasis in original]. To elaborate:
The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely”1 (even as its negation). The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage—the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.
Of course, merely conjoining things that don’t belong together isn’t enough to make something weird. Centaurs, for example, combine men and horses in an impossible, wrong way, but whatever weirdness these beings may have once possessed has faded away through the centuries, as the concept of such fantastic beings has become familiar. The weird requires, in addition to mere incompatibility, a mysterious element, which Fisher describes as “a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience.” This also explains why, despite their wrongness, sharknadoes aren’t authentically weird; there’s no element of mysterious fascination, nothing beyond a cheap joke.
In contrast, Fisher defines the “eerie” as “constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence“; in other words, something is in a place which should be missing, or something is missing that should be there. As opposed to the weird, Fisher stresses that the failure he’s speaking of in the eerie is one of agency. Prime examples of the eerie are an “eerie calm” (silence when we expect noise) and an “eerie call” (a noise when we expect silence). In both cases, what is missing or present in the scene is an entity. As a discrete feeling, the eerie is easy to imagine: imagine yourself in a city in early morning with none of the expected hubbub, or hearing a distant animal call in an otherwise deserted landscape. As a feeling, eeriness is easily grasped; but as an extended mode of literature, it’s a bit harder to define.
After the introductory chapter, Fisher spends the bulk of his essay examining a series of examples from literature and the other arts to explain how they fit his definition of either “weird” or “eerie.” For the weird, we get chapters on World on a Wire; ‘s novel “Time out of Joint”; and David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE. He illustrates the eerie with discussions of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and Don’t Look Now (discussing both book and movie versions); Christopher Priest’s novels “The Affirmation” and “The Glamour”; M.R. James’ ghost story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”; the album “Ambient 4: On Land” by Brian Eno; the Quatermass movies (especially Quatermass and the Pit); Alan Garner’s novel “Red Shift”; Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing”; ‘s film adaptation of Under the Skin; an omnibus chapter with short reflections on the movies of Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and , notably highlighting 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Stalker; and Picnic at Hanging Rock (focusing on Joan Lindsay’s original novel, not the film adaptation)., the first writer to advocate an aesthetic of the weird; the short story “The Door in the Wall” by H.G. Wells; the album “Grotesque (After the Gramme)” by The Fall; Tim Powers’ novel “The Anubis Gates”; ‘s
You may notice from that list that we here at 366 Weird Movies appear to have a higher hit rate with Fisher’s “eerie” than with his “weird.” This is, perhaps, one reason I was unsatisfied with Fisher’s definition, or perhaps more accurately, with the usefulness of distinguishing the weird from the eerie. Fisher admits a significant overlap between the two (“Clearly, there is something in common between [the eerie] and this feeling of ‘something which does not belong’ that we have said constitutes the weird.”) I think that, while the distinction he proposes can clearly be made, even in his conception the weird and the eerie are too closely interwoven to be usefully separated.
We could scrunch Fisher’s weird and eerie together with a formulation like “the weird is a sensation of wrongness: either things that do not belong together, or something usually present that is missing, or something usually absent that is present.” (We should ideallly throw the uncanny into the mix, too; and make room for unaddressed adjacent concepts like “the absurd”). But a key insight is supplied by another term Fisher mentions in passing: “alterity.” He defines alterity as involving an “enigma [that] might involve forms of knowledge, subjectivity and sensation that lie beyond common experience.” This sounds an awful lot like a quote you may recall from earlier in this review describing an essential feature of the weird: that it necessarily includes “a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience.”
It is that pointing to an outside form of knowledge, something esoteric that creeps into the scene through a metaphor that seems equally profound and slippery, that we see as the hallmark of the weird. Perhaps alterity is the blanket concept that envelops 366’s concept of the weird and encompasses both Fisher’s weird and his eerie.
We’ll continue using the term “weird” in a loose, know-it-when-you-see-it sense, though; don’t expect us to change the name of the site to “366 Alteritous Movies” anytime soon.
- Fisher uses this word because he considers Freud’s unheimlich—usually translated as “uncanny”—better rendered as “unhomely.”