Uncanny Spectacle as a Catalyst for Gnosis in The Haunting of Hill House, Solaris and Videodrome
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome all manifest otherness as visual confrontations that destabilizes the characters’ understanding of reality and opening up the possibility of self-awareness and insight. In The Haunting of Hill House, the characters are brought face to face with Hill House, whose architecture is visibly disturbing and potentially both physically and psychologically disorienting. The odd angles at which the house was built, which defy geometrical rules, as well as its abject appearance create a sense of uneasiness and confusion among its visitors, who are faced with a house that seems not to have been built to be lived in. Similarly, the Ocean in Solaris confronts humans with the limitations of their knowledge and arouses certain emotions in those who witness it. The ocean on Earth, familiar to humans, is radically different from the one on Solaris. The latter possesses physical characteristics that are indescribable with the use of human concepts and terms, while it simultaneously recreates imagery—the shape-shifting column-like symmetriads, for example—that is familiar to humans, uncannily so. Furthermore, the Ocean brings the crew members of the Prometheus directly into contact with their most troubling memories, leading them to question the reality of the environment that surrounds them, and thus skewing their visual perception of their surroundings. In Videodrome, Max Renn’s reality is shattered when he becomes infected by the Videodrome signal which causes him to see and experience things considered unnatural by society’s norms, such as the collapse of media and flesh. The line between what he experiences and what occurs because of Videodrome is blurred to an extent that leaves Max stranded between the two. Alien or supernaturally extreme as they may seem, all of these instances trigger paradoxical, deeply held feelings within the characters, causing them to question the very foundations of what they know about themselves and their world. This confrontation of uncanny knowledge as spectacle blurs the line between reality and delusion causing them to doubt their perceptions. As a result of this destabilization, the characters in Lem’s and Jackson’s novels are led toward a new form of truth and self-awareness, whereas in Cronenberg’s film, the character’s failure to achieve such insight leads to his annihilation by political forces using him as a pawn.
In all three works, the main characters, Eleanor Vance, Kris Kelvin, and Max Renn, seek to understand themselves and search for a remedy to their sense of emptiness throughout the stories. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor has spent most of her young adulthood—the period in life when one is most actively discovering oneself—taking care of her sick mother. This has caused her to harbor an intense desire to form relationships and to belong to someone or something, a desire that is signified by her recurrent references to the phrase “Journeys end in lovers meeting” (Jackson 66). Like Eleanor, Max Renn in Videodrome wants to explore new interactions. His aim, however, is to expand his repertoire of sexual pleasures and to offer a more violent and intense experience to his viewers. He is “[looking] for something [that will] break through … something tough” (Videodrome 00:05:44-00:05:49). Furthermore, he wants to understand what his real sexual desires are and what kind of person this portrays him as. Unlike the other two characters, Kris Kelvin’s goal in Solaris is unclear at the beginning of the story. Like the previous Solarists before him, he has studied Solaris his entire life to try and understand the mystery behind it. However, his desire to understand himself only becomes apparent after he is subjected to uncanny occurrences on Solaris for the first time.
The main characters in both novels and in the movie are confronted with uncanny manifestations that lead them to reflect on themselves and what they desire. These visual confrontations manifest themselves in different manners. For instance, in The Haunting of Hill House, the first words that Eleanor uses to describe the house are “vile” and “diseased” (Jackson 23). However, she chooses to enter in the hopes of perhaps finding a lover. The second day of their stay at Hill House, the visitors comment on the fact that the house is quite disorienting and are confused about why it is so difficult to orient themselves in something as simple as a house. Doctor Montague, who has been waiting for this remark, explains that every angle in the house is slightly off centre. This is the first uncanny manifestation that the characters are confronted with. As Doctor Montague explains it: “‘angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another’” (Jackson 77). As a result of this unsettling discovery, Eleanor starts to question herself and whether she can blindly trust her senses, and this questioning of her physical reality leads her to also question her general conception of reality. As Eleanor develops an altered sense of reality, we will begin to see that she is still caught up in her past.
In Solaris, the characters are also faced with uncanny confrontations. Shortly upon his arrival on the Prometheus, Kelvin meets a person that appears to be Rheya, his wife who committed suicide 10 years prior, an act which he feels responsible for, and this causes him to rethink his past. Kelvin’s process of discovery, like Eleanor’s, is linked to his past. This entity is in fact not Rheya, but a creation of the ocean on Solaris. The ocean also causes Kelvin to have strange dreams that he can barely describe in human terms. They are terrifying and yet positive experiences for him, as he seems to be experiencing a foreign consciousness. Lastly, when Kelvin explores the ocean and the symmetriads—which are produced by the ocean in response to the new presence of humans—at the end of the book, he describes his experience of contacting this strange dirty green viscous substance and observing the waves of the mimoid displaying some sort of curiosity towards him, wrapping themselves around his hand. This confrontation with what seems to be an ocean with waves and shores, but is simultaneously something he has never seen before, is uncanny and greatly destabilizes Kelvin.
Like the others, Max also experiences strange occurrences that seem to defy empirical rules. Once infected by the Videodrome syndrome, his television and cassettes seem to come alive and to breathe, while acquiring an outside texture like human flesh. A yonic hole appears in Max’s stomach allowing him to store things in it. As the movie progresses more uncanny manifestations appear. For instance, Max’s hand becomes a handgun made of flesh and he somehow manages to kill Masha through his television in what appears to be a dream. His visual perspective of life is utterly distorted as the creators of the Videodrome signal take control of his mind until he can no longer think for himself.
In The Haunting of Hill House and Solaris the disturbance of the environment paves the way to a gnostic quest. Gnosis is secret, mystical and unreachable knowledge through which one seeks to gain insight. For Eleanor, this gnostic quest, fueled by the uncanniness of the house, allows her to discover herself and to find somewhere she belongs. She realizes that she still longs for a maternal figure in her life and that the house can provide this. When Theodora calls her because she hears knocking on the door, Eleanor responds with “‘Coming, mother, coming’” and then realizes that she is at Hill House (Jackson 93). This reflection demonstrates that Eleanor is still somewhat stuck in the past even though she wants to believe the contrary. Eleanor sees the house as an opportunity to find herself. Despite being frightened and making a fool of herself, she strangely finds herself very happy. The house has allowed her to “[abandon] a lifelong belief that to name happiness is to dissipate it” (Jackson 100). Although Jackson leaves the ending of her novel somewhat ambiguous and it can be argued that Eleanor’s tragic suicide is a symbol of her failure to gain some insight, I would argue the contrary. I see her death as her way to become one with Hill House. It is important to keep in mind that her ultimate goal was to find a place where she belonged and to learn about herself and find an identity. Not only did she find what she was looking for, by killing herself, Eleanor sealed herself inside it forever.
Kris Kelvin’s quest for knowledge is similar but slightly different. As previously stated, unlike the other two protagonists, his intentions and desires at the beginning of the book are unclear. However, the reappearance of Rheya allows him to reflect on his past actions and on how he wants to grow as person. Kelvin realizes, without overtly thinking it, that he is waiting for something and that he “[hopes] for nothing. And yet [he lives] in expectation” (Lem 214). Upon connecting with the ocean, he acknowledges the fact that even the power of his feelings cannot defy “the laws of physiology and physics” (Lem 213) and bring back Rheya. He no longer hopes to see Rheya, but rather decides to stay where his last memories with her were shared. Kelvin’s experiences on Solaris continue to expand his consciousness. Because of his exposure to the mimoids, uncanny entities within the ocean which act as a mirror to new stimuli, Kelvin develops different theories about the universe and his place within it. For instance, he discusses with Snow, a fellow solarist, the idea of an imperfect god, “‘a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfils no purpose—a god who simply is’” which is the only god he could believe in (Lem 208). He compares this god to a childlike god and suggests that the ideas that the books on Solaris contain could be in fact the “teething troubles” of this god and that the Solarists were its baby toys (Lem 208). Both Snow and Kelvin conclude that this god could be a very old mimoid. He further describes it as a god who continuously grows but is conscious of its powerlessness. Similarly, Kelvin also has grown a lot in the past months but knows that he is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Despite this, he sees staying on Solaris as an “infinitesimal” opportunity to discover himself and realizes that what he truly desires is to explore the huge unknown within himself.
In Videodrome, the opposite occurs, and the material change of Max Renn’s environment leads to a loss of such insight. Instead of gaining knowledge and learning about his own desires, Max finds himself further confused. He can no longer discern the difference between reality and what he is seeing because of the Videodrome signal. Furthermore, he is controlled by multiple people, notably Barry Convex and later in the movie, Bianca O’blivion, which supports the argument that despite going on a gnostic quest, Max does not deepen his understanding of himself. In the case of Videodrome, it is not the main character, but rather the viewer who gains some sort of insight by the end of the movie. By observing how Max’s world falls apart when his visual perception of it is shattered and how everything he knows is invalidated, the viewer, through Max, can question their own existence and desires. Moreover, the way Max is manipulated and used by others through his desires can lead the audience to question how vulnerable they are and how much their desires can blind them to the truth. Max Renn’s failure to gain something positive through gnosis is a warning for those who wish to embark on such a quest.
An analysis of how the characters’ beliefs are destabilized by a confrontation with the material world around them, or through the visualization of unusual dreams, points to the conclusion that the uncanny in The Haunting of Hill House, Solaris and Videodrome disrupts accepted reality, which can lead to a new form of insight, but also to a potentially dangerous relationship to an altered reality. This danger is explicitly shown by the suicide of two of these three characters. Nevertheless, through their visual confrontations, the characters’ and readers’/viewers’ unconscious lead them to discover unknown desires and, as Snow puts it in Solaris:
… perhaps something, a phantasm, rose up from something within [them], … something which [they] suppressed and then forgot about, which [they do not] fear since [they] know [they] will never allow it to develop and so lead to any action on [their] part. And now, suddenly, in broad daylight, [they] come across this thing … this thought, embodied, riveted to [them], indestructible. [They] wonder where [they] are … (Lem 74)
This passage perfectly embodies how in the three works the uncanny allows a form of gnosis to materialize and drastically change the characters’ lives. It describes an awakening of oneself which leads to either a positive or a negative outcome depending on the individuals’ situations or their response to those situations. Snow seems to be cautioning the reader and telling them to be wary of any similar suppressed feeling that they think they have under control because it may resurface when they least expect it to, and forever change their lives.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin, 2006.
Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, Faber and Faber Limited, 2016.
Videodrome. Directed by David Cronenberg, performances by James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorský, and Leslie Carlson, Universal Pictures, 1983.