A deep dive into the uncanny valley
Fans of the surreal side of British comedy may not recognize Matthew Holness’s name at first, but they may know the name of his TV alter ego—Garth Marenghi. The “author, visionary, dream weaver, plus actor” wrote, directed, and starred in the vanity paranormal hospital drama Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. We the audience see its entire six-episode run, intercut with modern-day interviews from the cast.
Of course, the show itself is all modern, created by Holness and Richard Ayoade—best known stateside as Moss in The IT Crowd—based on characters they portrayed twice at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The cast is largely composed of IT Crowd and Mighty Boosh alums, who bring their distinct style of surreal, over-the-top humor to the halls of Darkplace Hospital.
Marenghi claims to have written more books than he’s read—and, frankly, I believe him—but Holness is far more versed in the art of writing. He wrote and directed the film Possum, based on his short story of the same name, taking his inspiration from an unusual source—Sigmund Freud’s pamphlet on the uncanny, itself inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman.”
Let’s see just how far down this rabbit hole goes, shall we?
In 1919, Freud attempted to define what exactly “the uncanny” is. This was made difficult by the fact that the German word for the phenomenon, unheimlich, literally translates to “unfamiliar.” However, anyone who’s played a modern video game or watched a Japanese horror movie knows about the Uncanny Valley.
Defined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, nearly 50 years after Freud wrote on the subject, the Uncanny Valley thesis states that our comfort with a given entityincreases as it approaches perfect human likeness. Right before we get to literal humans on the graph, though, there is a dip that goes even further down on the comfort scale than something with no human likeness whatsoever. Corpses, extremely lifelike dolls, and Tom Hanks in The Polar Express all fall into this category.
CG animators and video game designers do their best to avoid the uncanny, for obvious reasons. But in the realm of horror, it’s another tool in the toolbox: something to unsettle us and make us question ourselves.
Possum draws on imagery from Hoffman’s aforementioned short story “The Sandman” in several places, but their prime similarity is in each story’s ever-present bogeyman. In “The Sandman” it’s the title character—not a kindly spirit who sends children to sleep with magic dust, but a wicked man who sprinkles hot sand on bad children’s faces to make their eyes pop out. He then gathers these eyes up and takes them back to the moon to feed to his own little ones. As you do.
The bogeyman of Possum is also its title character, a strange, leggy puppet built by lemon-faced puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris of The Borgias). The name has nothing to do with its appearance, but rather with its behavior. Possum plays dead, waiting for unloved children to come along, then steals them away. When we join Philip’s story, he’s fallen from favor in his career and is living with his stepfather, spending most of his spare time attempting to divest himself of Possum.
But like a bad penny, Possum just keeps coming back.
Freud’s pamphlet focuses on two types of things that can be uncanny: dolls and doubles. And it just so happens that Possum is both of these things—or as close as makes no difference, being a puppet. Its eerily human face seems to be almost a death mask of Philip, especially in those moments when creator and creation stare each other down.
Freud muses that the uncanniness of these things—an inanimate object coming to life or the discovery of our own doppelganger—comes about because these situations were once childish daydreams. We wanted our dolls to be alive, and we wished for a “spare us” as a safeguard against death—did we really, Sigmund?. Like a lot of things Freud says, this feels like a reach, but Possum does admittedly couch a lot of its horror in childhood feelings.
While we may play at “bringing our toys to life,” children tend to have an aversion to the idea that something could come to life without their direct influence. Just ask any parent who’s had to hide a piece of furniture because their toddler saw a “scary face” in the carving. A puppet like Possum hits that fear perfectly even for an adult: a puppeteer gifts the puppet with life on the puppeteer’s own terms. Anything beyond that is wrong—and is largely what Possum gets up to.
As for doubles, Edgar Allan Poe addressed that fear in his short story “William Wilson,” widely considered to be the first true piece of American horror fiction. The narrator is at odds with an old classmate, who happens to share his name. As time goes on, the other William Wilson begins to mimic the narrator to the point of becoming indistinguishable from him by society at large, which becomes especially troublesome when the doppelganger becomes a public nuisance. The narrator attempts to confront him at a party, but finds himself looking into a mirror—there had never been another William Wilson, and he himself had been destroying his own reputation.
The fear of a double works on several levels. On the most basic, seeing “ourselves” in the real world, outside of a mirror, is eerie. There could also be the fear that this double is doing bad things in our name—or, like poor William Wilson, the fear that what we’re seeing is the true version of ourselves.
It’s never said outright what Philip did that has cast him in such a negative light, but it is heavily hinted at. He’s seen watching a teenage boy on a train, only for that boy to disappear the next day, and the locals are quick to blame him. In a post-Jimmy Savile world, it is all too easy to equate children’s entertainers with indecent acts, and Possum does not attempt to dissuade us from following that line of logic. Bits of throwaway dialogue even hammer it home further: Philip’s stepfather, played by Shakespearean actor Alun Armstrong, comments, “You show that to children?” in disgust. The comment is in regards to Possum, but in the slow-moving dialogue of the scene, the phrase also drifts uncomfortably out of context.
How Holness ties up all these threads—Freud’s examples of the uncanny, a recent sex scandal that upended the nation’s view of a well-regarded entertainer, and childhood fears—finally turns our understanding of the film on its head in a matter of moments. What Possum truly is, and what it represents, can’t be defined in one easy sentence. The film deserves to be experienced so the viewer can put together the pieces in their own time.
Suffice to say, though, that Possum the puppet is very childish in its construction—a mish-mash of disconnected childhood fears and adult self-doubt. To the unsuspecting viewer, Possum is clearly symbolic of something very specific. But in the eyes of the frightened child that first created it, there is something much bigger, and much more sinister, at play.