“What is weird?” is a question I’m sometimes asked. I don’t like to answer the question, because I think we’re all familiar with that “weird” feeling, and I’m more interested in seeing what other people think is weird than in defining it myself. In some ways, the problem we have identifying a weird movie is like the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had identifying obscenity: “it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The weird is what makes you feel… well, weird.
Still, we can see trends of movies that tend to be recurrently weird. Of these, the one species that comes to mind is the horror film. Of all the popular film genres, horror films are the ones that most consistently give us that “weird” feeling. If we’re looking for a word to describe the subclass of the weird that horror films exploit, I suggest the term “uncanny.”
The Wikipedia dictionary defines uncanny as “strange, and mysteriously unsettling (as if supernatural); weird,” which perfectly describes the feeling that the best horror movies seek to evoke. I believe “uncanny” has more of a strict supernatural connotation than “weird,” which is often used simply to describe anything that deviates from the norm. You might speak of a boy as being a “weird kid” if he insisted on wearing a tie to school and was obsessed with Bigfoot, but you probably wouldn’t call him an “uncanny kid” unless his eyes glowed like one of the tykes from Village of the Damned (1960).
For a long time, “weird” and “supernatural horror” were almost synonyms. The pulp magazine “Weird Tales” was founded in 1923, focusing mostly on horror but also including fantasy fiction (such as Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories). In 1938 H.P. Lovecraft wrote Supernatural Horror in Literature and used “weird” essentially as a synonym for “supernatural horror,” devoting chapters to “The Weird Tradition in America” and “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles.” In his Introduction, Lovecraft wrote, “[t]he one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” There’s something religious in that description of the weird, with its focus on the “unknown” and “awe” and the suggestion of something that exists past the limits of our everyday reality, simultaneously intriguing and terrifying us from the Beyond.
Increasingly, however, our idea of the weird has come to encompass the surreal, the absurd, and other forms of psychological strangeness that don’t depend on the supernatural for their weird effect. For this reason, I think it’s better to use the term “uncanny” to describe the species of weird that results from an encounter with eldritch forces.
There’s also another, possibly more important reason, for introducing different term to describe horrific weirdness: the word “horror” has become terribly debased and diluted in modern times, and when someone today thinks of a “horror movie” they’re at least as likely to picture something bloody and gruesome as something weird and uncanny. Lovecraft wrote that “[t]he true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones…” but considering the endless teen-oriented slasher “reboots” that pass for modern day horror films, “horror” today often consists of little more than open murders and bloody viscera.
It wasn’t always this way. When they first began, horror films were very often art films. Some of the greatest early works of German expressionism were “weird” horror films (in Lovecraft’s sense) and are now regarded as movie classics: The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Nosferatu (1922). The Universal horror cycle of the 1930s and 1940s—Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941)—being Hollywood products, were aimed more at the popular audience. There was still an unusual degree of artistic merit and a hint of real weirdness to these films, however, partially because many of the crew that worked on them were Germans schooled in expressionist techniques who had fled Germany with the rise of the Nazis. Most notable among these was Karl Freund, who worked as a cinematographer on Dracula and directed The Mummy. The classic Universal films were not often what we would today term “weird,” especially since they always focused on the victory of the rational order over the irrational monster, but they always included scenes, sets and costumes that at least toyed with weirdness.
The popularity of the Universal cycle was the shovel with which the horror movie dug its own grave. Hollywood began to copy itself and the once uncanny horror film, which dealt with dread and awe, turned into the “monster” film, often a hastily written formula adventure story aimed at the young with a vampire or werewolf serving as the villain. With the characters of the monsters and their lore well established—Dracula is killed by a stake through the heart, the Wolf Man by a silver bullet—the aura of mystery was drained from these characters. So, we had numerous sequels to Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy which gradually grew worse and worse, more and more comical and cartoonish, until the studio, running out of ideas, began to match their monsters up against each other as if in cage matches: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944). When the suits at the studio finally dredged up the idea of Frankenstein Meets Abbot and Costello (1948), it was clear that the Universal horror cycle had run its course.
This is not to say that horror movies stopped exploring darker, psychological realms of the uncanny altogether. Off to the side of the main Hollywood system, producers like Val Lewton were making weirder movies like Cat People (1942), with its story of sexual repression drenched in ambiguity. In all eras, some artists have used the idea of the uncanny to explore the subconscious and bring the audience an encounter with something genuinely, soul-shakingly strange. The point of this genealogy is to show how, in a mere 25 years, something weird and arty like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could degrade into something silly like The House of Frankenstein.
The more important degradation suffered by the horror movie is the one we see today: the shift from the uncanny to the merely terrifying, from monsters to maniacs. None less a giant than Hitchcock was responsible for this unfortunate move, since his suspense movie Psycho (1960) was improperly classified as a horror movie simply because it’s psycho killer was so damn scary. By the 1970s, barely supernatural killers like Micheal Myers (from Halloween, 1978) and Jason (from Friday the 13th, 1980) were stalking horny teens in the cinemas. Soon, the uncanny elements of the horror movie were done away with altogether in the stalker craze of the 1980s, and “horror” movies increasingly became about body counts, carnage and the visceral thrill of violence rather than an encounter with the mysterious Unknown. Things got worse and worse until we reach today’s torture porn, which achieves its effect by exploiting nothing deeper or more meaningful than our literal fear of physical pain.
Nothing could be less like Lovecraft’s prescription for the weird. At the time the shift was occurring, some argued that these non-supernatural “horror” movies should be reclassified as “terror” movies, since they were really about something altogether different than the uncanny. Terror played off people’s realistic (if exaggerated) fear of the known—a sadistic or unbalanced person killing another, innocent person—rather than their fear of (and secret attraction towards) the unknown, the mysterious, the unreal and the irrational. Unfortunately, the distinction never gained any traction. In the public mind, whatever scared you was “horror,” and that was that.
This essay isn’t meant to imply that supernatural horror, even good supernatural horror, is always weird, but it’s certainly more closely related to the weird than any other genre. There’s a reason the word “horror” is so large on the tag cloud in the right column. When you start your movie by making a ghostly undead power the antagonist, your already predisposed towards going weird. Some uncanny stories follow the standard horror formula of a protagonist meeting and defeating (or rarely, losing to) a supernatural power and do not really ever get much weirder than this. These movies always end with rationality triumphing, either by literally defeating the evil invader, or at least by completely explaining the threat so that our concept of what’s real temporarily stretches to encompass the monster. Such movies can be very good indeed: see Viy, which I consider an unacknowledged horror classic but not an extremely weird movie; it’s a standard folkloric ghost story that completely explains and resolves the menace by the end. Other horror movies can be less polished but far weirder, such as the recently reviewed Phantasm, which focuses on a supernatural power that is never explained, that retains its mystery until the final shot. These are the kinds of movies that honor the weird and can be blessed with the term “uncanny.”
Horror movies which evoke the uncanny and have made the List already include Don’t Look Now, Eyes Without a Face, Carnival of Souls, and Phantasm. Readers can explore horror movies further by looking at entries tagged horror.
2 thoughts on “WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY”
Hey, cool — I tried to theorize the horror genre a while back, and the result has some similarities to your analysis of the Uncanny.
I have a soft spot for nerdy graphs of fiction. Robert McKee has some great ones in his book Story.