I’ve always had a miserable time telling scary stories. I don’t know exactly why this is, but I believe it may have something to do with being avoidant and flighty. I’m not good at staring into the abyss. If I found myself in a haunted house, I’d get out. I’d go do something else, like avoid writing my newsletter until more than two weeks have passed since I last wrote one.
(Sorry about that—I might skip a few more of these between now and the end of my final semester. I have a thesis to write.)
The closest I can get to concocting a story that would scare someone are stories of the uncanny. I’m good at writing about situations in which you could feel significant vibes thrumming through the universe but didn’t know how to interpret them, and struggled to describe them. Rather than staring at the abyss, I like to ponder whether we even know where this abyss is, or what it is. In fact, today I had a Zoom call with an instructor in which we discussed my latest project, which you might describe as Elegiac Uncanny. Or something—it’s early days on this one.
So anyway, I promised you I’d talk about a movie. I picked Moon (2009).
Moon is about Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) talking to himself on a moon base. A prologue-via-advertisement alerts us that humanity has alleviated its energy crisis by mining moon rocks and firing them back at the earth. Sam is running a one-man mining operation, with only a robot named GERTY (creepily voiced by arch-creep Kevin Spacey) and some old videos of his family as company. To pass the time, he builds an elaborate balsa wood model town and tends to potted plants to which he’s given human names. His living quarters are spacious and well-equipped, albeit sterilely institutional. He believes his real-time comms with earth are broken, and he believes he’s going home soon.
He’s not exactly right about these latter points. Early on, there are ghostly moments where Sam… sees things. Is that a ghostly child? Is that woman in the living area a hallucination? Surely we’re on our way to getting some disturbing answers. We start to feel like we might be in a Haunted Space Station movie, one of the most respectable movie genres. How dark will this get…
As it turns out, none too dark [spoilers ahead]. Sam has an accident in his moon rover, and appears to awaken in the station’s infirmary. Only now there’s another Sam there, a healthier, sprier version of himself. They fight and play ping-pong. It’s more farcically disorienting, like something out of Tom Stoppard, than it is disturbing.
There is indeed a nefarious corporate plot at the heart of Moon. Lunar Industries, the company that owns the moon base, has been cycling through clones of a real man indeed named Sam. Each Sam lives only three years, only to be replaced by another, thawed-out Sam. Each clone has memories implanted, and watches videos of what he believes to be his family.
With an assist from the creepy yet sympathetic GERTY, the two Sams collaborate on a feel-good takedown of their foes. There’s ingenuity and derring-do, a brave escape, and a comeuppance for Lunar Industries. A movie that might have been scary, might have dragged us into the abyss, turns out to be heartwarming. It becomes about the power of an unlikely—and uncanny—set of friendships.
There’s a good essay to be written about how Moon figures labor relations, and what it says about Late Capitalism in Our Society. Being on Left Twitter has fried the part of my brain that can do those takes, so forgive me for not writing that essay.
I’m more interested in the turn away from horror that Moon makes as it moves into the second act. Duncan Jones’ movie stops playing (incoherently, I’d say) with scaring us and leans into disorienting us. Thus we enter the realm of the uncanny. Meeting your own clone under isolating, menacing conditions maps to at least one of Freud’s types of the uncanny (paraphrased via an instructor): The experience of a foreign body inside our own, or ourselves as a foreign body. At least one more Freudian example of the uncanny also fits: That which should have remained hidden has come out into the open.
There’s a plot to move us through this encounter with what should have remained hidden, but as is often the case in the best stories, the plot is mostly an alibi for making us feel complicated things. Moon is literally about re-encountering yourself, which is more broadly and less literally what narrative art intimately focused on a single protagonist is often about. In fact, that may be a good definition for the goals of what we might call a gentle, non-scary uncanny in narrative: De-familiarizing the self.
I’ll likely circle back to this topic as I work on my own would-be uncanny project. What interests me about Moon is how it enacts precisely what interests me right now: An uncanny that doesn’t prioritize terror. Reality is scary enough. Unreality doesn’t need to be anti-scary, exactly, but it can take us to another place. A place not easily mapped using our usual fight-or-flight compasses. That strange place is worth visiting, if only because I’d rather be there than sitting anxiously in my tiny apartment.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
As much as anything else, Calvin and Hobbes is about grandiosity and its fallout. Calvin seeks to bestride the world, which never works, so he ends up fleeing into the woods with Hobbes and his imagination. Here we’ve caught him doing something like the inverse: He had to go to the woods to scramble to finish his homework (the infamous leaf collection).
Yet lo and behold! After a seemingly endless succession of strips in which nothing happens—as Watterson forces us to feel the excruciating accretion of all the nothing that’s happening—something has finally happened. A UFO has landed in the woods behind Calvin’s suburban Ohio home! So what else is there to do, for our grandiose hero, than pretend to be the world-bestrider.
Let’s talk for a second about the hats on those aliens. Everything else about them—the single eye, the tentacles, the Lovecraftian barrel bodies, the stock-image spaceship—is generic. The hats are… Dumbledorian? A moon wizard hat and a star wizard hat? Not sure what Watterson was going for in this arc, but it’s one of his weirder ones.
Carl Sandburg watches cat-fog
Another great piece. On the subject of your upcoming thesis, and not knowing any further details, I'm wondering if you've encountered Mark Fisher's work on The Weird and the Eerie. He makes use of much of what you outlined above concerning Freud's theory of the 'unheimlich' or the uncanny. Fisher uses examples from literature and contemporary film to attempt a "folding of the weird and the eerie into the unheimlich [as something] symptomatic of a secular retreat from the outside." Fisher argues that Freud's conception of the uncanny "operates by always processing the outside through the gaps and impasses of the inside." Modes of the weird and the eerie make the opposite move by allowing "us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside." In this view, the weird is manifested in presence, in "things which do not belong" or "two or more things which do not belong together." Conversely, the eerie concerns questions of agency and arises in spaces where the absence of the human is felt and curiously pronounced. I bring this up because the tension you identified in Moon is a perfect example (I think) of the film successfully manipulating the interplay between these modes: the clones and surreal hallucinations (the weird) and the cold, clinical station environment contrasted with the austere, unforgiving lunar landscape (the eerie).
I suppose that when your real world home is the source of such anxiety, the appeal of the un-homelike will begin to grow.
This was a pleasure to read, in part because it helped me remember more of a film that had survived in my memory only as a few disconnected images and the deeply creepy smiley face robot who ended up being nothing but friendly and helpful (madeleine : Marcel's childhood in Combray :: this post : movie I watched a decade ago). I wonder if there's something to the way the film telegraphs and subverts its genre hallmarks and its ability to inhabit the uncanny, as if it relates to the abandoned space station genre in the way one Sam does to another: both same and other, the outer inside and the inner outside, etc. Maybe there isn't, but that's the thought that this post provoked.
I'm just glad that the symbols on their hats match their tunics. They might get confused as to which goes with which, otherwise.