What are your strange childhood beliefs

Mark Fisher: The Weird and the Spooky

Thinking about horror and fantasy is still overshadowed by Sigmund Freud's 1919 work Das Unheimlichen. As great as this essay is, its psychoanalytic superstructure may no longer really fit into the 21st century. Shortly before his suicide in 2017, the English author and cultural theorist Mark Fisher provided a new interpretation scheme with his book The Strange and the Spooky.

Freud's essay "The Unheimliche"

Sigmund Freud understands the uncanny in his literal sense as the unfamiliar in the familiar, as the negation of the homely in the familiar. The uncanny is "that kind of frightful that goes back to the well-known, long-familiar."

The uncanny brings things that have long been buried back to light: repressed memories and the magical thinking of our childhood. And what has been repressed creates fear.

  1. Return of the repressed. In E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Sandman" interprets Freud's tearing out his eyes as a repressed fear of castration and the Sandman as a demonized father. So the story evokes the horrors of childhood, which - repressed into the unconscious - still have a ghostly effect in us and are called up while reading.
  2. Relics of an animistic worldview. Animistic, for example, is the idea that the "evil look" or a mere wish could kill. We have overcome this children's belief, but sometimes it still seems to be confirmed. One of Freud's patients, for example, wished his enemy might be hit, and he actually suffered a stroke a few days later. The patient's wishes seemed to have an uncanny power.

Freud gives a lot of exciting examples and plausible explanations for the feeling of the uncanny. His essay is still required reading, especially for suspense authors. But Freud's theory remains embedded in his entire thought structure - that is, psychoanalysis. Mark Fisher interprets the uncanny in a more contemporary and differentiated way.

Mark Fisher "The Strange and the Spooky"

Fisher divides the uncanny into the "strange" (The Weird) and the "ghostly" (The Eerie). Perhaps the most important innovation: Fisher sets the fascination of the foreign as the core stimulus of eerie stories and thus frees reception from the focus on fear. “The attraction of the strange and eerie does not come from the fact that we“ enjoy what we fear ”. Rather, it is about a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond the usual perception, knowledge or experience. "

Escapist fantasies make us love horror, not fearfulness. "It is this release from everyday life, this escape from what we usually take to be reality, which explains to a certain extent the peculiar charm of the ghostly."

For Fisher, horror and fantasy gain a positive, even utopian quality: the foreign is certainly unsettling (“there are more than enough horrors out there”). But it is also fascinating - because it promises a way out of everyday life (for Fisher: poisoned by late capitalism). Strange and spooky places are places of longing.

The tension between the normal and the fantastic world forms the core of the best stories in the genre, for example in H.P. Lovecraft: "The power of Lovecraft's stories depends on the difference between the earthly-empirical and the outside." A special role is therefore - not only with Lovecraft - images of thresholds, doors, tunnels and the like. Eerie Fantastik deals obsessively with everything that promises a transition or passage into the hereafter.

The Weird by Mark Fisher

A feeling of the strange always arises when something does not fit together - due to the “presence of that which does not belong”, does not fit into our usual frame of reference.

Prime examples are works of assembly technology and the grotesque: Here things are combined that do not go together. If, for example, a human head is enthroned on a plant stem in a painting, then “it doesn't belong” and creates the feeling that something is wrong. It disrupts the symbolic order of things.

The strange becomes particularly drastic when fiction and reality cannot be clearly distinguished, as in David Lynch's Inland Empire or Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Welt am Draht.

The Eerie after Mark Fisher

The ghostly is the opposite of the strange: “The ghostly arises through the Failure to attend or the Failure of the absence: The feeling of the ghostly arises when either something is there where nothing should be, or when nothing is there where something should be. "

Unlike the strange, the ghost always contains a certain speculative tension. This is exemplified by the English phrase “Eerie Cry” - the ghostly cry of an animal, where you don't know where and what the animal is.

It can also be an absence of reasons or motivations, as in Daphne Du Maurier's story The Birds - there it remains unclear why the birds attack people in the first place. Or about the absence of people: abandoned landscapes, ruins or even Stonehenge.

Ghostly powers

According to Fisher, the real riddle of the ghostly is not the mere presence / absence of something, but rather its actual "power to act and trade".

If there is no absence, it is about the nature of the subject: Why was Stonehenge built? Who were the builders? And what did they want to achieve?

If there is no presence, it is not even clear whether a subject is actually acting in a targeted manner. Things move (apparently) by themselves, such as curtains that are billowing a breeze.

For Fisher, one of these phenomena is the “ghost of capital”, whose invisible power creates new production facilities, buildings or infrastructures out of nothing.


Also interesting:

Uncanny Valley: On the psychology of the uncanny

Love horror. Part 1: Desire for night and fear

Love horror. Part 2: Rebels Against Reason