Halloween is a time to watch horror movies, and I’ve been thinking about the film that terrified me the most ever. THE HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price. A morbid tale of a disfigured sculptor murdering people, to pass-off their wax-dipped corpses as his own sculptures.
A baby sitter allowed 7 year old me to stay up to see it on telly, reducing me to a quivering puddle. My parents had difficulty getting me to sleep when they returned, and for several nights thereafter, as I feared melty face murder man lurking in every shadow. The impression stayed with me for years. Fast forward a decade: Coworkers wanted to go see a 3D movie from the 1950s during a brief revival of 3D films. I balked on hearing it would be a screening of this film that haunted my childhood. Gaahh! I cannot remember what induced me to actually go watch this movie again, risking a pants-wetting terror-meltdown in front of my friends, but go I did.
Choosing an aisle seat, I steeled myself for a scaredy-cat skedaddle out the door, but was mystified to discover that even specific shots that had terrified 7 year old me were.. ‘quaint’ at best. Vincent Price’s mask of a normal-seeming face falling away to reveal melted hideousness underneath scared the beejeezuss out of me as a nipper, but as adult it didn’t even make sense. How had he fooled everyone that he was unscathed with a rigid wax mask?
I’ve often thought about the failings & exaggerations of memory (and written about it) but here I want to explore why that film got under my skin at all. Horror movies work by activating anxieties already present in the viewer, which animate the monster better than film craft ever can. Clearly I was haunted by the idea in this film – that something apparently normal & benign concealed the malformed & malignant. Upon reflection, there were many such ideas & images that unsettled me in childhood.
At around the same age I was rattled by the atom bomb worshipping cultists in BENEATH PLANET OF THE APES. They likewise appeared ’normal’ but removed masks to show mutated faces beneath. The doppelgänger robots in the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN/BIONIC WOMAN TV shows (the ‘fembots’, lampooned by Mike Myers) unnerved me too, as did robot Yul Brynner in WESTWORLD.
I chuckle now at naff imagery that scared me as a child, but can still be unsettled by films using similar ideas. Films such as THE THING or ALIEN – where a teammate is actually an eldritch shape shifter or incubating an alien xenomorph. Here too, the apparently ‘normal’ masks the sinister, and deception is part of the horror. Maybe all horror films dramatise the anxiety that all is not what it seems. In countless DRACULA movies too, the Immortal Count has transformed a hero’s beloved. Even though they seem to be the person, they are actually undead. Humanness itself has been hacked.
When something is near believably human, but not quite, it creates an uncomfortable feeling that may be instinctual. The so-called “Uncanny Valley”, first documented in research about human reactions to humanoid robots. We are not disturbed when humanoid robot design makes no attempt to look exactly human (a C3PO). However when the android looks more real, we can be repulsed by the deepfake human. Realdolls not withstanding, most people find almost lifelike human replicas to be off-putting.
Why do we have the fear of the almost human doppelgänger? Other animals don’t seem to have that instinct. After all, hunters have long duped animals with crude decoys of themselves, luring them to their deaths.. Clearly ducks have no fear of the doppelgänger duck, but humans have an aversion to the doppelgänger human. Why? It has been suggested that this is an instinctual fear of the human corpse, which kept us away from decay & disease. Others say this doppelgänger phobia may have developed a time long ago when homo sapiens was not the only hominid on Earth.
Maybe we have the instinct for sniffing out fake humans because we needed it.. Perhaps fake were humans used to lure us, as human hunters now use decoys to lure real the real thing? Or.. perhaps this instinct developed at a time in our history when we humans had to spot doppelgänger, shape shifters trying to pass as human? Are those deep-fake non-humans still amongst us, even now? Running the world we live in perhaps.. It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it..
Mu ha ha HARGH!