The Comfort and Disquiet of Transmedia Horror in Higurashi: When They Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) – Brian Ruh

It has been common in recent years for a Japanese entertainment property to encompass multiple forms of media. In fact, it has become unusual for a media product to not exist in more than one format. There are many different paths that this media progression can take – a manga (comics) series can be adapted into a TV anime (animation) series, a video game can receive a manga spinoff, a television drama can be adapted from a novel, as well as countless other permutations and extensions. In this regard, the case of the Japanese property Higurashi: When they Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) is an intriguing one. The media franchise began as a series of visual novels[1], which are computer software produced by the intersection of text, static illustrated characters, and background images. Some visual novels may have a degree of interactivity, in which the user makes choices that determine the outcome, although Higurashi did not. These visual novels wetrre sold at Comiket, a large biannual gathering in Tokyo for fans to buy amateur-produced goods, particularly comics. The popularity of Higurashi led to the development of the story being retold in multiple media – comics, animation, live-action film, and additional computer games. These subsequent media not only took the stories from the original visual novels and adapted them in different formats, but they expanded upon the narratives, sometimes showing different events or different aspects of the characters.

Figure 1: Menu screen of Higurashi: When They Cry visual novel, and the introductory screen to the Onikakushi-hen (‘Abducted by Demons Arc’), 07th Expansion, 2002

Figure 1. Menu screen of Higurashi: When They Cry visual novel, and the introductory screen to the Onikakushi-hen (‘Abducted by Demons Arc’), 07th Expansion, 2002.

Marc Steinberg proposes a specific approach to contemporary media properties in Japan that he calls the “anime media mix” that can help to explain what is occurring within the Higurashi property. Steinberg asserts that the media mix (media mikkusu in Japanese) in general is “the Japanese term for what is known in North America as media convergence.”[2] In the book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses this phenomenon at some length. By this term, he means “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.”[3] One of the results of media convergence is the growth in “transmedia storytelling,” in which individual (and sometimes self-contained) narratives are communicated in different ways through multiple media that all contribute to an overarching story. According to Jenkins, this is “the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.”[4] In other words, transmedia storytelling is the idea of using multiple media to tell a single cohesive story through various means, be it film, television, comics, online websites, and the like, all of which contribute to the singular “fictional world.” It should be noted that although Jenkins’s examples and the cases like Higurashi both involve a kind of storytelling across various media, there are some key differences. The examples that Jenkins describes, which are primarily American and in English, seem to fit what Steinberg would term the “marketing media mix,” which “aims to use the synergetic effect of multiple media in concert to focus the consumer toward a particular goal—the purchase of the advertiser’s product as the final endgame.”[5] In contrast, Steinberg describes the “anime media mix” as having “no single goal or teleological end; the general consumption of any of the media mix’s products will grow the entire enterprise.”[6] Since Higurashi as a media property has multiple points of entry, it has developed into a good example of the anime media mix, although as we will see it did not initially begin that way.

This article analyzes Higurashi as an example of contemporary transmedia horror, paying attention to how its horror elements are explicated across different media. In order to understand this, I begin by explaining in detail how the worlds of Higurashi are structured and the various media in which it participates. From these examples, I demonstrate that the function of the Higurashi media is twofold – through their use of the horror genre, the media both reassure and disturb the viewer. In order to analyze the dual functioning of horror in this manner, I proceed with an investigation of Kunio Yanagita’s early twentieth century ethnographic study Tōno monogatari.[7] Finally, I examine the theories of critics Hiroki Azuma and Eiji Ōtsuka and what they say about Japanese transmedia properties in order to explain how people interact with and consume a series like Higurashi. Through my analysis I will demonstrate that the transmedia horror of Higurashi is effective not only because of the tension between its familiar and unfamiliar elements, placing comforting nostalgia and isolating dread at odds with each other, but also because its multiple media forms allow the consumer to alternately experience enjoyment being around the characters and the shocks and gruesomeness of the deadly mysteries at the heart of the series.

The Structure of Higurashi

The story of Higurashi is intentionally complex and intricate, and its structure is worth analyzing in some detail. It was originally released as a series of eight visual novels from 2002 through 2006. Each visual novel was called a hen, or arc, and told part of the events that happened in the rural Japanese town of Hinamizawa in June 1983. There are certain plot elements common to all eight of the arcs. For example, in each one a teenaged boy named Keiichi has recently moved with his family to Hinamizawa and has begun making friends with four girls in his class – Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. There is an annual event in the village called the Watanagashi (or “cotton-drifting”) festival, around which has swirled mystery and whispered rumor. For the past few years, following the Watanagashi festival, one person in the village has been killed and one person has mysteriously disappeared. These events are said to stem from the curse of Oyashiro-sama, the local deity who protects the town. It is said the god is still angry that years ago there was a plan to build a dam in the area, which would have submerged all of Hinamizawa. (It is also said that the villagers are descendants of demons who originally rose up from a local “bottomless” swamp and were subsequently pacified and given human form by Oyashiro-sama.) All of the people who have suffered the curse were involved, either directly or indirectly, with the dam project. In June 1983, the curse strikes again when two people – Takano, a nurse from the local clinic, and Tomitake, a photographer who regularly visits the town – are both mysteriously killed.  While these narrative conditions are set, the arcs of the eight original stories that make up Higurashi take divergent paths.

For example, in the first arc, Onikakushi-hen (or Abducted by Demons Arc), Keiichi is tentatively beginning to become accustomed to village life. He seems to be good at making friends with Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. However, he begins perceiving that his friends and the rest of the town are keeping secrets from him regarding the Watanagashi festival, and his suspicions only increase when he finds a sewing needle in some rice balls his friends have made for him. In the end, driven by paranoia, he bludgeons Rena and Mion to death with a baseball bat in his room. Soon after, Keiichi dies from blood loss after feeling compelled to claw out his own throat.

In the second arc, Watanagashi-hen (or Cotton Drifting Arc), the events set up in the previous arc play out in a different manner. For example, in this arc Keiichi meets Shion, Mion’s twin sister, who goes along with Keiichi, Takano, and Tomitake to sneak into a sealed building containing sacred ceremonial instruments during the Watanagashi festival. (These instruments all happen to be sharp, nasty-looking implements of torture.) However, when Takano and Tomitake end up dead after the festival, Keiichi and Shion are fearful that they will both mysteriously disappear like the others who have run afoul of Oyashiro-sama’s curse. In the end, Mion confesses to being involved in the murders, after Keiichi discovers she has abducted and imprisoned her sister. Shion is rescued by the police, but Mion escapes custody. She later seeks Keiichi out to talk with him, but ends up stabbing him. Although Keiichi survives, he finds out from the police that they had found Mion’s dead body on her family estate before she met with him. That same night, Shion is found dead, having fallen from the balcony of the apartment where she was staying. The story ends with a ghastly Mion clawing her way onto Keiichi’s hospital bed to kill him.

A full account of the remaining Higurashi arcs would be beyond the scope of this article, but they all involve a combination of comforting friendship (the bonds being forged between Keiichi and his classmates) and the horrors of one or more character eventually killing some of the others in often gruesome ways. Although the arcs seem to reiterate ongoing cycles of paranoia and murder, toward the end of the sixth arc, Tsumihoroboshi-hen (Atonement Arc), Keiichi seems to remember some of what happened in the Abducted by Demons Arc, even though it does not make sense to him and does not reconcile with the fact that he knows he did not kill Rena and Mion in his current world.

It is not until the penultimate arc of the visual novel series, Minagoroshi-hen (Massacre Arc), that the overall structure of Higurashi is presented to the reader in full. We learn that Keiichi’s friend Rika has been repeating her life in Hinamizawa in June 1983 for over a hundred years, remembering everything that happens each time around. There is always some variation to the repetition, and the various arcs that have been presented so far are reflections of how Rika has organized her knowledge. She had been despairing that she no longer had the will to keep repeating the worlds alongside Hanyuu, a young female god who is the actual Oyashiro-sama and whom only Rika can see. However, Keiichi’s ability to see across the worlds in the Atonement Arc bolstered her confidence that she could effect change and end the cycle of repetition. The remainder of the Massacre Arc as well as the final Matsuribayashi-hen (Festival Accompanying Arc) consist of the group of friends trying to figure out how they can all escape the endless loop of June 1983.

The openness of the Higurashi text has allowed for a wide range of adaptations and expansions through multiple media. The original eight visual novel arcs were adapted into manga as well as an anime television series that ran for 50 episodes in 2006-7. These new media also expanded on the original themes of the visual novels by introducing new story arcs along with the adaptation. Additional story arcs were later introduced in later visual novels that could be played on systems like the Nintendo DS.[8] The fact that Keiichi and his friends often get together and play competitive games (card games, board games, word games, sports) has enabled further spin offs that are thematically related to the original Higurashi property, such as Higurashi no naku koro ni jan (a mahjong game)[9] and Higurashi Daybreak (a third-person shooting game),[10] both for the PlayStation Portable. Such properties prominently featured the Higurashi characters while often downplaying the horror elements.

However, it could be argued that the horrific elements of Higurashi stem from the lengthy depictions of Keiichi’s everyday life and the close interactions among his friends juxtaposed with a creeping sense of dread, as well as the brutality of the acts of assault and murder that often happen later in the story arcs. This violence is expressed in different ways across various media. Since Higurashi began as a visual novel, its composition presents an intriguing challenge for the construction and sustainment of horror effects, and the genre is not typically associated with the medium. As mentioned previously, visual novels in general communicate their narratives  through a combination of onscreen text, background images, manga-style character images, sound effects, and music. There is generally little to no onscreen movement, as well as infrequent choices to direct the course of the story. In Higurashi, however, the user is not presented with the opportunity to branch or deviate from the story. In his analysis of the visual novel, John Wheeler asserts, “The most important function of the algorithm in Higurashi is the lack of freedom it affords the player within the game-space. In this way, Higurashi is nothing like a print or digital novel, which offers the reader freedom to peruse the text and search within it either via an index or by using a digital search function.”[11] Indeed, the only options one is given in terms of interaction are where to save your place in the story and the speed at which the text appears onscreen. Unlike a traditional novel, it is not even possible to skip ahead. (I unfortunately encountered the consequences of this when one of my saved files became corrupted. Even though I knew my location in the story, I had to start the visual novel from the beginning.)

In contrast to the limitations of the visual novel, both the manga[12] and the anime adaptations[13] of Higurashi are able to be more expressive due to their greater use of framing and distinct approaches to characters and backgrounds. Although the manga format is generally constituted of black-and-white line drawings on paper (with the occasional color plate), there can be great variation in things like angle and panel composition from page to page. While an anime television series gains elements like color, movement, and sound, it can be constrained by a budget that may limit the number of shots or drawings per second, resulting in a product that may appear flat or static in places. However, each medium of adaptation provides its own unique pleasures. According to Wheeler, “As few of the background story elements and characters change fundamentally from iteration to iteration, part of the appeal of Higurashi as a property becomes the medium-to-medium translation itself, seeing changes in the perspective and style used to essentially tell the same stories.”[14] He goes on to argue that the anime “retains some of the static qualities of the visual novel, and a degree of continuity of visual aesthetic is established across adaptations” yet it is with the manga that the series “gains a true visual depth that reflects both the psychological states of its characters and the striking horror of its storyline.”[15] However, what is most important to realize is that all of the various Higurashi media serve as valid entry points to the series. Although it is not necessary to, say, read the manga after one has watched the anime in order to understand the characters or grasp the series’ mysteries, the fact that the various media emphasize different elements of the series encourages fans to seek out and experience the franchise in multiple forms. Unlike the Jenkins’s conception of convergence culture, this is not to “fill in the blanks” of missing elements and to make a single storyline more coherent, but rather to experience multiple, yet similar, storylines that occur in subtly separate narrative worlds. It also allows the viewer to spend more time with the characters as well as see how the different media depict the tension and horror of the story. As we will see with Tōno monogatari, the twin effects of comforting and disturbing the viewer are rooted in an approach to Japanese folklore and ethnography.

Figure 2: Shion comes for Keiichi in his hospital bed in the Higurashi manga version, Ryukishi07, 2008.

Figure 2. Shion comes for Keiichi in his hospital bed in the Higurashi manga version, Ryukishi07, 2008.

Transmedia and Japanese Horror – Nostalgia and Technological Advancement

Another key aspect of the horror of Higurashi is cultural, relating to concepts of technological representation and the role that the rural Japanese village plays in conceptions of “Japaneseness.” As alluded to above, many of the plot points in Higurashi rely on the idea of the curse of Oyashiro-sama. At various times throughout the story, different characters believe that they have been cursed by Hinamizawa’s guardian deity. Such curses are far from uncommon in Japanese film and comics. As Jay McRoy states, “the onryou, or ‘avenging spirit’ motif, remains an exceedingly popular and vital component of contemporary Japanese horror cinema.”[16] As McRoy points out in his chapter on contemporary Japanese horror directors Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu, a great deal of current horror is intimately related to structures that are both comforting and confining (such as the family). For example, he identifies Shimizu’s film Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) as both conservative and progressive, saying that while “the film’s articulation of an apparent nostalgia for disappearing ‘traditions’ in the face of an emerging ‘modern’ socio-economic climate resonates with a conservative ideology that borders on the reactionary” it is also true that “the film advances a critique of a Japan still very much steeped in patriarchal conventions.”[17] Higurashi similarly walks the line between conservatism and progressivism. There is an emphasis on traditions, along with a fight to keep things the way they are in the village. For example, the Hinamizawa villagers are loath to have outside investigators looking too deeply into the Watanagashi incidents for fear it may either drive people away or may expose the people in power they think are responsible. Similarly, in one arc Keiichi has to stridently oppose the school and municipal systems in order to try to protect Satoko from her abusive uncle. He is continually told that he is being too much of a nuisance and that he should stop making waves. However, the solutions to problems in the Higurashi arcs often emphasize the need to rely on others and the power that comes from group action, emphasizing the power of love and acceptance, sometimes to an almost radical degree. For example, through persistence and hard work, Keiichi is finally able to rally the town to his cause and they are able to help Satoko escape from her uncle. Even though all of the characters of Higurashi have dark histories in one way or another, they are able to stand up for one another and brave seemingly insurmountable odds because they have acceptance and love for each other Such a scenario emphasizes the potential inherent in the “traditional” rural Japanese village that can occur when everyone is able to strive toward a common good. However, at other parts in Higurashi, the power of the village is suspect when Keiichi is trying to solve the mysterious deaths and he perceives himself as an outsider and that everyone is out to get him.

The fact that Higurashi was originally received on a computer screen as a kind of a “game” that required interaction puts it in good company with the themes of many other horror video games. (Although, as mentioned above, its interactivity was rather limited, the experience of the graphics, text and sound is probably closer to a game than it is to a book, comic, or animation.) Although the pairing of the video game medium and the horror genre is not unique to Japan, many such games are Japanese. As Chris Pruett writes, in games the “horror genre is home to a wide range of styles, including first-person games, third-person games, action oriented games, puzzle games, and even text-based games. Whatever the style of play, one fact cannot be ignored: the vast majority of horror video games come from Japan.”[18] Higurashi also shares commonalities of setting and subject matter with other Japanese horror video games. For example, Higurashi’s setting of an isolated Japanese village and the power and persistence of a local religion are similar to the Japanese game Siren, which was released in November 2003, shortly after the release of the first Higurashi visual novels. Pruett locates part of the source of the antagonistic horror of Siren in a tale from Japanese folklore: “The story of Yaobikuni involves a woman who eats the flesh of a mermaid and becomes immortal only to find that everlasting life is full of pain.”[19] However, in the case of Siren, it is the flesh of an alien creature that is eaten, rather than that of a mermaid. Interestingly, in the Atonement Arc of Higurashi, Rena has delusions that the Hinamizawa syndrome is due to an alien invasion, and that Oyashiro-sama is an alien, too. Similarly, Pruett argues, Siren demonstrates a contemporary Japanese discomfort with “cults and splinter religions.”[20] In Higurashi, Oyashiro-sama is, for the most part, discussed as something to be both respected and feared as a matter of precautionary common sense. However, characters who want to reinvigorate the widespread popular worship of Oyashiro-sama as a major deity are often depicted as antagonists. In many ways, this coincides with Jolyon Baraka Thomas’s analysis of representations of religions in anime and manga in which they have come “to be popularly associated with violence, brainwashing, and fraud.”[21] As demonstrated through these examples, references to mythology, folklore, and religion often play a strong negative role in Japanese media culture, and this is often the case throughout much of Higurashi.

In addition to religion playing a major role throughout Higurashi, the story makes specific references that situate the visual novels as specifically Japanese products. For example, in the second arc of the Higurashi visual novel, the group has a curry cooking competition at their school. They all fight their hardest, sometimes even resorting to trickery. In the end, Keiichi’s curry gets knocked over, and he ends up serving the judges rice balls with tea. Keiichi tries to convince the judges that “curry and the rice ball is virtually the same thing [sic]” He goes on to argue that “The Japanese have come up with many different dishes, but they all had one common theme: we are always looking for the best way to eat rice! … Both curry and rice balls are…the fruit of our precious culture!!” Mion then relates the story of a French chef who came to Japan and refused to use imported French ingredients, instead using what he could find locally. She says, “There should be no rules in the culture of food. It’s simply culture. If it comes to Japan, it blends with the Japanese culture and becomes something new. Therefore curry and rice balls are both part of Japanese culture.” Such references highlight Higurashi’s conceptualization as a Japanese product, but the franchise’s incorporation of Japanese folklore provides an even stronger emphasis.

In spite of its modern nature, Higurashi engages with a strain of Japanese folklore of the type seen in Kunio Yanagita’s famous Tōno monogatari  (The Legends of Tōno). This literary account of the oral folk tales found in the Japanese city of Tōno related to Yanagita by local informant and collaborator Kizen Sasaki, published in 1910, is often acclaimed as the starting point for Japanese folklore studies. In it, “Sasaki offers the vision of a typical Japanese villager who grows up in a world fraught with dangers from invisible forces and malevolent creatures shuttling between the human and animal kingdoms.”[22] As Ronald A. Morse points out in his introduction to the English translation, Yanagita’s account begins and ends with depictions of a festival, indicating the centrality of such events to village life.[23] The book details accounts of local gods who get jealous, people who mysteriously disappear without warning, villagers who violently kill other villagers, the behavior and worship of other local deities, and mysterious deaths as well as the return of people from the dead.

In Higurashi, one can see how these folkloric elements have been incorporated into a contemporary horror scenario. The life of the village of Hinamizawa depicted across various media still centers on a festival that celebrates the local guardian deity. Even the people in the village who are not active worshippers of Oyashiro-sama in their daily lives are shown according respect to such beliefs. Additionally, across the many Higurashi arcs, the line between the human world and the supernatural is shown to be thought of as being fluid. Even though many of the incidents depicted in Higurashi are later shown to be either delusion or the work of human actors, it is important that the belief persists that such events could occur. This is similar to Yanagita’s work in Tōno monogatari – the tales were related as factual not because the ethnographer necessarily believed they occurred, but because these were the stories that circulated in and around Tōno.

Not only are the stories in Tōno monogatari often seen as foundational for the field of Japanese ethnology, they are closely tied to concepts of the Japanese nation. Anthropologist Marilyn Ivy discusses that Tōno monogatari was written “at a time when regional beliefs and practices were being threatened by the comprehensive state ideology of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika).”[24] It was around this same time in the early twentieth century that saw the building of communication and transportation infrastructure, as well as mass emigration from the countryside to the cities (particularly Tokyo). This increasingly technologized nation created official policies that extolled “’traditional’ agrarian lifeways all the more effusively the more its policies destroyed those lifeways.”[25] Stories like those in Tōno monogatari were held up as being quintessentially Japanese, even as the irrationality of the stories served as a counterpoint to the government’s emphasis on reason and rationality. Ivy relates Yanagita’s tales to Freud’s ideas of the uncanny, noting that the fact that they had been generated around the same time was not coincidental.[26] According to one translation of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” “the nearest semantic equivalents in English” of the German word unheimlich “are ‘uncanny’ and ‘eerie’, but [it] etymologically corresponds to ‘unhomely.’”[27] Therefore, such stories are intimately related to a sense of comfort or home. Similarly, throughout the 1960s and 70s, Tōno and its stories became explicitly associated with the cultural idea of furusato or hometown. (This furusato concept can be applied in a general sense – it does not have to be one’s personal hometown.) Ivy writes, “Precisely because of the eerie character of its tales, Tōno became a particularly haunting and complex example of a generalized ideal.”[28]

In this analysis, we can further see in Higurashi that the horrifying allusions to Tōno monogatari and the sense of belonging Keiichi feels in the Hinamizawa as he makes new friends are in fact two sides of the same coin. The depiction of the rural Japanese town as both frightening and welcoming is not accidental. In fact, the two aspects necessarily coexist within contemporary concepts of the Japanese hometown. According to Ivy:

With the idea of Tōno as a furusato, then, there is a fusion of two horizons of desire. First, the desire to encounter the unexpected, the peripheral unknown, even (and even especially) the frightening–a desire that repeatedly reveals itself under the controlled and predictible conditions of everyday life in advanced consumer capitalism (in Japan as elsewhere); and second, a countervailing desire, pushed by an opposite longing, to return to a stable point of origin, to discover an authentically Japanese Japan that is disappearing yet still present, to encounter the always already known as coincident with one’s (Japanese) self. The desire for the different and unknown…is framed within the boundaries of a return to pastoral hominess, security, and (not the least significant) identity.[29]

In Tōno monogatari and its contemporary reception, elements of longing for home, horror, and identity exist in necessary tension with one another. These aspects also may be key elements that contribute to the attractiveness of Higurashi among consumers, as well as its longevity as a media franchise. Since the original visual novel was released in 2002, there has been a fairly steady stream of Higurashi-related media products and spinoffs. As befits Higurashi’s genesis as a product produced by a small team and sold at Comiket, this includes a significant number of amateur comics, many of which, but not all, involved portrayals of the characters in a sexual manner. This highlights the fact that, in spite of the fact that Higurashi is at its core a horror series, users will take the characters and appropriate them to fulfill their own desires.

Transmedia, Horror, and Desire

Due to the multi-arc structure of Higurashi, there are two aspects to the ways that the horror in the franchise is depicted – the narrative and the characters. In terms of the narrative, there are two levels. The first is the arc-level narrative, which encompasses everything that happens within a particular arc in the story. As mentioned previously, there were eight original arcs in the Higurashi visual novel series, but this has since been greatly expanded with additional arcs in anime, manga, and video games. Encompassing all of these arc-level narratives is a second, franchise-level narrative. Although the arc-level narratives have internal consistency, the larger franchise-level narrative cannot and does not reconcile the arc-level narratives. The number of arc-level permutations is near infinite, which means that the characters may undergo any number of horrific ordeals. However, these would not mean much to the viewer if they had become attached to the characters. The primacy of the Higurashi characters over narrative is particularly noticeable in some of the series’ recent incarnations. A four-episode direct-to-video anime series released in 2011-12 called Higurashi no naku koro ni Kira (dir. Hideki Tachibana) shifts the overall tone from horror to what might be called “erotic slapstick.” For example, the first episode is called Batsukoishi-hen (Penalty Love Arc) and is adapted from the epilogue of one of the original visual novels. It consists mainly of Keiichi and some of the other male characters fantasizing about the female characters dressed up in a variety of fetishized outfits. It has little to do with the plot of many of the other narrative arcs, but allows the viewer to spend more time with the characters and fantasize along with Keiichi. In this way, Higurashi points to the tension between two approaches to contemporary Japanese media properties – the theory of “narrative consumption” as put forth by Eiji Ōtsuka and the theory of “database consumption” put forth by Hiroki Azuma.

In his 1989 book A Theory of Narrative Consumption (Monogatari shōhiron), Ōtsuka analyzes how viewers interact with media properties. He asserts that such media succeed by “setting up their grand narrative or order in the background in advance and by tying the sales of concrete things to consumers’ awareness of this grand narrative.”[30] This grand narrative lies at the heart of a particular worldview, but is not something that can be directly sold and marketed itself. Therefore, “consumers are tricked into consuming a single cross-section of the system in the form of one episode of the drama, or a single fragment of the system in the form of a thing.[31] In other words, what is ultimately promised as the pinnacle of consumption in this media system – the grand narrative – can never be obtained by consumers. They can, however, access and purchase slivers of the narrative. In the case of Higurashi, Ōtsuka’s concept of the grand narrative is the overarching franchise-level narrative. However, in order to be able to access pieces of this narrative, consumers have to purchase a game, read a manga, or watch an anime episode. It must be said that the grand narrative in Higurashi is more fragmented than most Ōtsuka has in mind because is it not possible to reconcile all of the individual narrative arcs, due to the fact that they are permutations of possible worlds. This makes the grand narrative of Higurashi even more distant and difficult to access – not only are the fragments that the consumer can obtain pieces of a larger story, each larger story in Higurashi is an arc in an even bigger overarching narrative.

In his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: otaku kara mita Nihon shakai) originally published in 2001, theorist Hiroki Azuma says that with the advent of postmodernity (a term he uses to “refer broadly to cultural conditions since the 1970s”[32]), Ōtsuka’s modern model of media consumption collapsed. Instead of a “tree” model, in which texts are derived from a deeper source with meaning, Azuma proposed a “database” model that solely works at the level of surface and does not point to a deeper meaning. According to Azuma, “As a result [of this shift], instead of narratives creating characters, it has become a general strategy to create character settings first, followed by works and projects, including the stories. Given this situation, the attractiveness of characters is more important than the degree of perfection of individual works.”[33] In such a model, “individual projects are the simulacra and behind them is the database of characters and settings.”[34] We can see that without Azuma’s theory of database consumption, some of the adaptations of Higurashi would not necessarily make any sense. For example, the Penalty Love Arc does not serve to advance the narrative of Higurashi in any way. The viewer does not discover anything new about the world or the characters. In the narrative consumption model, it is rather superfluous. However, in the database consumption model it makes perfect sense. Dedicated viewers have presumably spent many hours before the Penalty Love Arc watching and thinking about the characters, and perhaps fantasizing about them. Rather than presenting a part of a larger narrative world to consume, such texts present familiar and easily consumable characters.

Although Azuma presents his database consumption theory as a historical successor to Ōtsuka’s narrative consumption theory, it seems to fall prey to the assumption that the two models are in binary opposition. It seems more likely that, even in postmodernity, the two models can coexist. Higurashi is an excellent example of these two ways of theorizing media texts working simultaneously. There is certainly a narrative model at work in Higurashi, as the main emphasis of the original visual novel arcs is to try to figure out a way out of the curse of the repeating years and the gruesome deaths of the characters. The drive to solve this overarching mystery is at the heart of the consumption of Higurashi products. However, plenty of time is also spent with the characters as they interact with each other and help one another out with their problems. This then simultaneously emphasizes the characters, laying the groundwork for additional Higurashi products and adaptations that are divorced from the horror roots of the original visual novels.


As a franchise, Higurashi evolved from a small series of amateur-produced visual novels into a multimedia franchise in just a few years. As we have seen there are a number of elements that may have contributed to this rapid growth. Structurally, Higurashi uses the horror genre to constantly create a degree of threat to the characters the viewer is growing increasingly familiar with and attached to. By evoking the milieu of a rural Japanese village, Higurashi uses folklore to create a space that is both exciting and comfortable, unsettling yet familiar. Additionally, its multi-arc structure allows for near-unlimited narrative expansion, providing countless opportunities for fandom and consumptive practices. Within such expansive narrative spaces, though, there are definite constraints. Although some arcs in Higurashi take place before or after the events of June 1983, it is really only in that particular time period that all of the main characters are in the same place. This means that the majority of the narratives, both official and fan-created, will take place in this narrow strip of time, creating a kind of utopian space within the overall horror of the tragic events that the story is built around.

Existing in such paradoxical utopian spaces is not necessarily unique to the Higurashi franchise. In her analysis of the background art in Japanese games and anime, Kumiko Saito discusses the use of regional representations in the background art of Japanese anime and games, writing, “With the rapid introduction of digital technology to animation and game productions, the visibility of regional representation quickly grew with the success of anime / game works that feature background art by background art specialists.”[35] The emphasis on pastoral settings in so many games and anime “suggests an imagined locus of ‘middle ground,’ between urban and rural, or present and past” which “presents strong nostalgia toward suburban or rural everyday life, often presupposing the viewer’s non-diegetic knowledge that this happiness of mediocrity is ending soon.”[36] According to Saito, this is often associated with how such narratives play with concepts of temporality, including time travel, amnesia, and the ability to stop or delay time. Although Saito does not mention Higurashi specifically, it is clear that the franchise participates in these larger trends.

Even though Higurashi has its horrors, it still reliably provides the viewer with a comfortable space to which they can return and reunite with their favorite characters. As Saito asserts, “With multiple endings already tailored for repetitive gameplay, games and their anime adaptations, especially, invite the player to stay in the time loop between the beginning and the end, or between amnesia and recollection.”[37] Such contemporary media properties provide a way of remaining in a rarified space that exists outside of larger economic or geopolitical concerns. In the case of Higurashi, the perpetual June 1983 takes place before the bubble economy of the late 1980s, but still at a time of optimistic economic prosperity. However, as Saito puts it, continual engagement with such texts and franchises can have a negative impact on the perception of history, writing, “The regionalist narrative in popular visual media helps reestablish national pride in Japanese particularity, but only within the safe range of the personal and emotional without recovering the memory of Showa’s war and postwar periods or the nation’s geo-ethnic varieties. The inaccessible nature of background art as beautiful tableaus of Japan[‘s] paradoxical nature securely freezes the image of Japan.”[38] Perhaps it is this refusal to accept history and adapt, and a subsequent preference for continual states of play and the consumption of counterfactual worlds, that is the real horror.

Works Cited

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Dorson, Richard M. Foreword to the 1975 edition of The Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita, xv-xix. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Ivy, Marilyn. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2008.

Ōtsuka, Eiji. “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative.” Translated by Marc Steinberg. Mechademia 5 (2010): 99-116.

Pruett, Chris. “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading 4, no. 6 (2010):

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Onikakushi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Watanagashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Tatarigoroshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2003.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Meakashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Tsumihoroboshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Minagoroshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Matsuribayashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2006.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ichi Kan Tatari. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ni Kan Sō. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai San Kan Rasen. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2009.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Yon Kan Kizuna. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2010.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi: When They Cry: Abducted by Demons Arc, Vol 1. New York: Yen Press, 2008.

Saito, Kumiko. “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism: Japanese Landscape in the Background Art of Games and Anime from the Late-1990s to the Present.” In Asian Popular Culture: New, Hybrid, and Alternate Media, edited by John A. Lent and Lorna Fitzsimmons, 35-58. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.

Sims, Higurashi no naku koro ni Jan. Tokyo: AQ Interactive, 2009.

Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Thomas, Jolyon Baraka. Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

Twilight Frontier. Higurashi Daybreak. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Wheeler, John. “The Higurashi Code: Algorithm and Adaptation in the Otaku Industry and Beyond.” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2011): 25-29.

When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni). Directed by Chiaki Kon. 2006. Long Beach, CA: Geneon Entertainment, 2007. DVD.

Yanagita, Kunio. The Legends of Tōno. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

[1] Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Onikakushi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Watanagashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Tatarigoroshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2003); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Meakashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Tsumihoroboshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Minagoroshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005); and Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Matsuribayashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2006).

[2] Marc Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 135.

[3] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

[4] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 21.

[5] Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix, 141.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kunio Yanagita. The Legends of Tōno. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[8] Such as the Kizuna series of visual novels for the DS, each of which included a new arc. Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ichi Kan “Tatari” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ni Kan “Sō” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai San Kan “Rasen” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2009); and Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Yon Kan “Kizuna” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2010).

[9] Sims, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Jan (Tokyo: AQ Interactive, 2009).

[10] Twilight Frontier, Higurashi Daybreak (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008).

[11] John Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code: Algorithm and Adaptation in the Otaku Industry and Beyond,” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2011): 27.

[12] Beginning with Ryukishi07, Higurashi: When They Cry: Abducted by Demons Arc, Vol 1 (New York: Yen Press, 2008).

[13] Beginning with When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni), directed by Chiaki Kon (2006; Long Beach, CA: Geneon Entertainment, 2007), DVD.

[14] Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code,” 28.

[15] Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code,” 29.

[16] Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2008): 75.

[17] McRoy, Nightmare Japan, 96.

[18] Chris Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading… 4, no. 6 (2010): 2.

[19] Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear,” 8.

[20] Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear,” 9.

[21] Jolyon Baraka Thomas, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012): 125.

[22] Richard M. Dorson, Foreword to the 1975 edition of The Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008): xviii.

[23] Kunio Yanagita, The Legends of Tōno (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[24] Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995): 70.

[25] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 71.

[26] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 85.

[27] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny. (New York: Penguin Books, 2003): 124.

[28] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 105.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Eiji Ōtsuka, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” Mechademia 5 (2010): 107.

[31] Ōtsuka, “World and Variation,” 109.

[32] Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009): 16.

[33] Azuma, Otaku, 48.

[34] Azuma, Otaku, 53.

[35] Kumiko Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism: Japanese Landscape in the Background Art of Games and Anime from the Late-1990s to the Present,” in Asian Popular Culture: New, Hybrid, and Alternate Media, ed. John A. Lent and Lorna Fitzsimmons (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013): 40.

[36] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 41.

[37] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 49.

[38] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 48.


Bio: Brian Ruh earned his PhD in Communication and Culture from Indiana University in 2012 with his dissertation “Adapting Anime: Transnational Media between Japan and the United States.” He has contributed articles and chapters to journals such as Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and the Fan Arts and Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media as well as books like Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese AnimationEast Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, and The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Spirited Away. A second edition of his first book, Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2014.

“Fear is a Place”: The Asylum as Transgressive Haunted House in Brad Anderson’s Session 9 – Jessica Balanzategui


Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001) features a gothic, abandoned mental asylum, a decaying relic of the past whose uncanny power is reinforced through the extra-diegetic fact that the Danvers Asylum of the film was a real abandoned asylum in Boston until its demolition in 2006.  In the decaying space of the Danvers Asylum the supernatural and the unconscious realms are united through the (invisible) figure of Simon who, as the malignant genius loci of the asylum, assumes a position of duality between supernatural and psychological realms, internal and external worlds. This essay examines how Session 9 binds the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum to the construction of madness and the eerie return of the repressed.

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The figure of the mental asylum looms as an unsavoury cultural emblem of oppressive and sometimes violent confinement, typified by the semi-legendary institution, Bedlam. Asylums metonymise the sinister power of madness, which is frequently represented in popular culture as an inherently uncanny and abject condition. The human potentiality for madness is a dark shadow lurking in the social unconscious, the acknowledgement of which is repressed in the quest to present a rational and coherent identity. This domain of repressed social otherness — represented by madness and symbolised by the asylum — often re-emerges in dramatic fashion in the horror film. As J.P. Telotte suggests, the horror genre typically expresses fears that “the otherness in ourselves lurks just beneath the normal human veneer and threatens to resurface some day with all its horrors” (1985, 34). This notion evokes Freud’s concept of the uncanny, a cognitive dissonance induced by the re-emergence of something once familiar to conscious thought that has been estranged through repression.

Madness represents a central source of the uncanny; Freud asserts that “the layman sees [in madness] a manifestation of forces that he did not suspect in a fellow human being, but whose stirrings he can dimly perceive in remote corners of his own being” (2003, 150). Julia Kristeva’s (1982) theorisation of the abject can be used in tandem with Freud’s notion of the uncanny to elucidate the symbolic power of madness. Abjection involves the cognitive exclusion of elements that threaten or subvert conceptions of the self as a unified, distinct entity. It details the nightmarish emergence of these excluded thoughts, feelings or images, both personally and culturally.  More specifically, the abject assists in providing a ‘visual’ evocation of the uncanny, in that the abject does not “respect borders, positions or rules”, it is an “in-between  …  which disturbs identity, system and order” (Kristeva, 4). Ultimately, the spectacle of madness in others is an inherently uncanny and abject experience which is frequently exploited in horror cinema, especially those films that centralise an asylum as a setting. The construction of the asylum in many horror films both centralises and fetishises repression and the chaotic power of the unconscious, implanting the abject and uncanny condition of madness into the space of the asylum.

These “asylum horror films” constitute a long-standing and persistent subgenre of horror film; one of the earliest horror films, the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), is a formative representation of the subgenre. Recent incarnations include Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010). The focus of this essay is Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001) which centres on the abandoned Danvers Asylum — an asylum that actually existed in Boston until its demolition in 2006 to make way for an apartment complex. The Danvers State Asylum opened in 1878 and officially closed down for the final time in 1992, standing abandoned for over ten years (John Gray, 2009, n.p.). In its abandoned, decaying form the asylum represents a dark symbol and metonym of the violently oppressive past of mental illness treatment. This is highlighted by the various decaying implements of ‘treatment’ and oppression which linger in the hospital, and by the allusions to histories of treatment and de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill in the dialogue[1]. Through an uncanny fetishisation of its past, the abandoned asylum stands as a variation of the haunted or, to use Robin Wood’s broader term, “terrible house” figure (1985, 188). The contemporary symbol of the haunted house is a precise reflection of the uncanny, dramatising the unhomely qualities central to the German unheimlich. Like a haunted or terrible house, the abandoned asylum in Session 9 is inhabited by a ghostly presence named “Simon”, which exists as the malignant genius loci of the gothic building. The assimilating of the asylum with the haunted house is also underscored by the ways in which Session 9 echoes the qualities of another paradigmatic “terrible house” film, The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)[2].

In Session 9, Anderson centralises sound in his construction of madness and the uncanny. The sounds of the asylum, in particular the sinister voice of Simon, evoke the experience of auditory hallucination. Simon’s disembodied voice represents what Michel Chion (1994) has termed an “acousmetre”: a “character whose relationship to the screen involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation” (129). This oscillation, fostered from the character’s visual absence, enforces Simon’s transgressive existence between supernatural and psychological realms. In addition his status as an acousmetre ensures that the spectator shares in the sensory and mental disorientation of delusion. Through the disorientating duality embedded in the soundscape, the entire figure of the abandoned asylum comes to represent the mythical space of madness, repression and the unconscious.

Unlike many asylum horror films, such as the aforementioned Shutter Island, the diegetic world of Session 9 is not entirely contained within the confined space of the asylum. Instead, the protagonist, Gordon (Peter Mullan), is a functioning member of society who has come with a team of workmates to clear asbestos from its decaying walls. Gordon and his colleagues appear to be everyday working men, concerned with getting their work finished on time, acquiring enough money to care for their families, and fantasising about being prosperous and successful members of society. Gordon struggles with the pressure of family life, having just become a father. On arriving at the abandoned asylum to start working on the hazardous asbestos, he is spoken to by a mysterious voice (later identified as “Simon”). Simon, who is never visually represented, is not given clear borders of definition — he seems to exist as a disembodied incarnation of the malignant genius loci of the abandoned asylum, and also as an agent of repressed memories and thoughts. Simon has the power to vanquish the controlling forces of the ego, which leads to the disastrous release of Gordon’s repressed aggressive drives. The audience is forced to follow Gordon’s perception of events so that the spectator, like Gordon himself, is unaware of the extent of his actions until the final scene. Thus, the spectator shares Gordon’s destabilising experience of madness and the uncanny return of the repressed. While the audience becomes aware of Gordon’s ongoing cycle of violence and repression towards the end of the film, it seems that Gordon does not. In the final scene he occupies the room of a former inmate of the asylum, Mary Hobbes (Jurian Hughes), and is found speaking to his dead wife on a phone with no battery in it — Gordon has become a ‘patient’ in the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum.

The decaying implements which litter the abandoned asylum serve as silent but potent spectres of oppressive authority. A decrepit wheelchair sitting in a hall of the asylum becomes one of Session 9’s recurring images: the film opens with an inverted shot of this lone wheelchair. Through being framed upside-down the image is immediately imbued with a jarring, uncanny quality which underscores the way in which perception imposes meaning upon visual stimuli. The camera slowly rotates upright, accompanied by the ever increasing sound of dripping water, suggesting that something intangible has been roused within the asylums mouldering walls. This opening image introduces the mysterious genius loci of the abandoned building, as it is upon Gordon’s sighting of this wheelchair that Simon’s voice first emerges. Thus, the lingering power of these decaying implements of oppression is foregrounded from the opening shot of the film.

Figure 1: The opening image of the sinister wheelchair.

In addition to the eerie wheelchair, the asylum’s hydro-baths remain decayed but intact, still filled with murky water. The guide (Paul Guifoyle) explains that these were used to “soak the nut-job in water”, an act which evokes Michel Foucault’s discussion of the various “water therapies” that have existed throughout history as treatment for madness, which he argues functioned as a symbolic “christening” into the world of reason (2001, 164). The guide further explains that “if that didn’t work, [patients] were given a pre-frontal lobotomy”, which was “perfected at Danvers”. The lobotomy is another of the film’s recurring motifs, symbolising the ultimate form of oppression which reduces the human to a ‘zombie’ robbed of his conscious will, similar to somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The image of the empty wheelchair condenses these anxieties, standing in for a human who — through madness, oppression and ultimately death — is no longer ‘fully’ present, yet whose uncanny affects are still sensed; thus signifying an abject non-presence.  As well as the wheelchair and hydro-baths, the camera lingers on an electro-shock machine attached to a gurney and strait-jacket.

All these implements, like the overbearing asylum itself, compose a sordid spectacle of the oppressive past, symbols of humanity’s attempts to control the powerfully uncanny otherness of madness. The decaying asylum and its implements are ultimately a representation of repression on a cultural scale. Standing cordoned off from the present ‘normal’, functioning society of Danvers, protected by security guards and gates and hidden by forests on the outskirts of the city, the asylum stands as a concealed reminder of a long-stretching history of violent treatment of mental illness. The asylum’s metonymic position as an uncanny, culturally repressed space which threatens to nightmarishly re-emerge and intrude upon the present is further underscored by recurring aerial pans over the asylum’s sharp and sprawling rooves and steeples, in which the roads and houses of Danvers can be seen beyond the asylum’s menacingly jagged topography.

Figure 2: Danvers Asylum and the town beyond its bounds.


This menacing and decaying asylum is akin to the haunted or “terrible house” horror topos —a horrific, engulfing space, which represents the “dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future” (Wood, 188). The overbearing asylum with its rusted, decaying exterior provides a powerful visual evocation of this “dead weight of the past”.  The ambience of decay is often echoed in the filtering of rust-hued lighting throughout the mise-en-scene. The film fetishises a horrific past by dramatising the symbolic link between cultural and personal repression, utilising the asylum itself as a symbol of the unyielding power of the repressed past and unconscious drives. As Carlo Cavagna points out, in Session 9 “the past comments on the present, colouring the atmosphere and everything that transpires” (2001, n.p.).  This effect can be seen in the way in which the cells of past patients, known in the fiction of the film as “seclusions”, are presented.  The pictures and cut-outs that patients have stuck to the walls of their rooms remain intact, albeit in the faded, time-tainted form that characterises the asylum itself. Gordon becomes transfixed by the images on the walls of these seclusions, and the spectator follows his slowly panning gaze as he scrutinises them.

The pastiche of images and quotes on the wall comment on and hint at the future trajectory of Gordon and his workmates. One clip-out reads “Suddenly it’s going to dawn on you”, foreshadowing both Gordon and the audience’s sudden revelation at the film’s climax that Gordon himself is the violent monster of the film. This clip-out also prefigures the game the film plays with its audience, a device common to asylum horror films, in which the audience’s alliance with the mad protagonist’s point of view results in a sudden jolt at the climax when the ‘real’ framing story — and what has been repressed by the central character — is revealed. That this clip-out is accompanied by an image of a smiling mother and child is a further taunt to both Gordon and the audience, as the realisation that occurs at the film’s denouement involves the gruesome undermining of the myth of blissful motherhood and family life.

The other cut-outs on the wall play a similar role in using the sordid spectacle of the past to comment on the future and the present. For instance, one tattered clipping reads, “A man of peace, an act of violence”, a prediction and comment upon Gordon’s soon to be committed “act of violence”. A black and white image of five men lying in coffins presages Gordon’s murderous violence against his five workmates within the asylum’s walls. Thus, these creepy relics of the asylum’s past exude an uncanny yet powerful relationship with the present, just as Gordon’s repressed memories influence his present actions and perception. Through these images, there is an uncanny repetition embedded in the film’s narrative and imagery. The first clipping on the wall that is made clearly visible reads, “No one will leave feeling neutral”. Like the ambiguous voice of Simon himself, this clip-out reads like a menacing threat from the genius loci of the asylum, implying that the characters (and the audience) have entered an uncanny domain from which there can be no return to a life bound by the normal order.

Figure 3: The asylum’s past threatens to engulf Gordon in the “seclusion” room.

It is revealed to the audience at the close of the film that Gordon has constructed his own “seclusion”, which symbolically acts as psychological seclusion from truth and his repressed memories. He has occupied the room of former patient Mary Hobbes, sticking photos of his own family all over the walls of the cell, making himself a part of this “terrible house” which represents a sordid, culturally repressed past. As S.S. Prawer argues of horror film:

The cinematic tale of terror has played on apprehensions connected with the mystery of time as well as space. It likes to remind the viewer of the ‘I have been here before’ feeling, a feeling which we all know and which powerfully  suggests that the future is something determined, something that in a way is already here, already in the present. (1980, 79)

This effect replicates déjà vu, one of Freud’s central examples of the uncanny. The abandoned asylum becomes not just a symbol of the specific past of mental illness treatment, but of a disorientating and uncanny intrusion of the past in general upon the present. This inescapable intrusion of the past constructs a world in which “the past piles up”, ensuring that the future and present are crushed “by the ever increasing weight of the past” (Foucault, 1987, 85). The audio tapes which hold the psychological sessions of former patient, Mary Hobbes, underscore the ever mounting intrusion of the past upon the present throughout the film. Initially, these tapes exist as a mere relic of the past, as Mike (Stephen Gevedon) listens to them momentarily before turning them off and resuming his work. But as the film progresses, the tapes continue to play as Mike leaves the room — even after his death — eventually invading, merging with, and overtaking the diegetic sound. In fact the playing of these tapes is overlaid upon the entire climax of the film, as it is Simon’s voice, as recorded on Mary’s Session Tapes, that concludes the film, leaving the viewer trapped with Gordon inside the asylum’s past. This echoes Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) own merging with the past of the “terrible house” of The Shining, in which the final shot shows Jack’s face in one of the black and white photos which adorn the hotel’s walls.

As is common to the asylum horror film, the viewer does not become entirely aware of the nature or content of Gordon’s repression until the end of the film, sharing his confused perception of events. However unlike in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Shutter Island the viewer is not entirely trapped inside Gordon’s delusional world, as the cinema audience is offered observations on Gordon through the voices of other characters. Early in the film, Hank (Josh Lucas) remarks that “Gordo is the Zen-master of calm, I’ve never seen old Gordo lose it”. The fact that Gordon is established as so in control of his repressed drives renders Gordon’s susceptibility to Simon’s demands more unexpected and confronting. As the film progresses, Gordon’s ‘self-control’ appears to entirely erode. He is often shown wandering around the grounds of the asylum with a vacant facial expression, as though he is sleepwalking or a zombie. His pronounced limp further symbolises his deteriorating stability, while echoing the limping gait of Jack in The Shining. The loss of control of the rational self is further likened to sleepwalking at the end of the film, as Gordon is shown attacking Hank with a blank expression and closed eyes. Furthermore, in the final scenes an imaginary incarnation of Gordon’s best friend, Phil (David Caruso), tells him continuously to “wake up” — to regain control of his self and consciously acknowledge his repressed memories.

Gordon’s ‘sleepwalking’ and his blind following of Simon’s instructions also render him analogous to the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As Prawer says of Cesare “he is a human being robbed of an essential part of his humanity: his consciousness and his will. He is a human dreamer forced, by a malevolent agency, to lose himself in his dream” (180). These aspects become a large component of Gordon’s emergence as an uncanny figure, a source of fear for the viewer. At certain moments throughout the film, his limbs seem to move independently of his body, as if he is a puppet being controlled by a malicious puppet-master. In one scene at the climax of the film, Gordon’s blood-covered hand slowly emerges from out of shot and smears blood across his eye. It is as if Gordon is not in control of his own limbs, as if Simon (whose laughter accompanies the shot) is confronting Gordon with the monstrous violence of his actions. This fear of the human as an agent of chaos and violence when robbed of his consciousness emerges as a central purveyor of the uncanny in a number of horror subgenres, particularly the zombie and possession film[3]. As well as revealing anxieties about the subversive danger of repressed drives, the depiction of Gordon as a puppet-like sleepwalker encodes abject transgressions of the borders of humanity — like Cesare, Gordon comes to exist in a space of hesitation and duality between living and dead, subject and object.

As the ambiguous entity which possesses both Mary and Gordon is named Simon, madness is characterised in the film as a sinister game of Simon Says, in which the power of the malignant Simon is absolute when cracks in the unity of the rational self appear in those he possesses. As Simon tells the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes, “I live in the weak and the wounded”. Simon seems to assume control when Gordon and Mary experience moments of acute physical pain; their violence erupts after Simon’s voice is heard saying, “Do it, do it now.” Simon crystallises the ambiguous power which underlies many asylum horror films: an uncanny force that blurs subject and object boundaries, and which transgresses the borders between the psychological and the supernatural. When the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes asks who he is, Simon simply replies, “You know who I am”, words he has also said to Gordon in one of the film’s early scenes. Thus, Simon becomes associated with a dark and primal force inherent to human experience — his contradictory (non)presence fetishises the unknowable depths of the unconscious. Simon’s transgression of boundaries evokes a realisation that “the deepest level of the psyche  …  is the point at which we enter a completely different reality operating outside the conventional laws of the known world” (Victoria Nelson, 2004, 114). Through the juxtaposition of his disembodied voice with the decaying images of the asylum, Simon becomes the sinister soul of the abandoned asylum, and the asylum itself becomes a symbol of the uncanny.

Sound plays a central role in representing the uncanny genius loci of the abandoned Danvers State Asylum. Diegetic sound such as birds chirping and the ticking of car indicators are electronically distorted to render the film’s soundscape uncanny and destabilising, encoding a blurring of boundaries between subject and object, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, so that the spectator experiences mental and sensory disorientation. The uncanny distortion of supposedly ‘normal’ diegetic sound merges with the non-diegetic soundtrack, usually made up of a sparse chromatic piano line and a long electronic monotone.  This ambiguity of sound categories forces the viewer to share Gordon’s destabilising perceptions, as supposed ‘reality’ is increasingly rendered uncanny and the borders of the filmic real and Gordon’s interior perceptions become inseparable.  As Foucault explains, madness is defined by an inability to see beyond the limits of selfhood, that “in his delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage” (1987, 23).

Through a soundscape which blurs the boundaries of what is diegetic and non-diegetic, the Danvers Asylum comes to represent the disorientating mirage of madness for the spectator as well as Gordon. The film opens with a flurry of distorted, high pitched sounds which merge a number of the film’s sound motifs: bird sounds, vague electronic noise and dripping water. These sounds give way to the cavernous electronic monotone which can be heard often throughout the film, a sound imprinted upon the abandoned walls, halls and wheelchair of the decaying asylum, accompanied by dripping water. The opening shot abruptly cuts to Gordon waiting in his car, bombarded by the electronic static and disembodied sounds of the car radio. The radio noise closely resembles the curious sounds which opened the film; the distinctly unnatural and unfamiliar sounds of the opening have been jarringly assimilated with noises which should be comfortingly familiar. Thus for the audience, the space of the abandoned asylum has already rendered uncanny the everyday sounds outside of the asylum’s gates. This uncanniness is connected in particular to Gordon himself, as the wheelchair shot promptly cuts to a close-up of the back of his head. Eventually, among the convoluted sounds of the car radio, another character’s voice, Phil’s, is heard out of shot. Phil’s voice is initially almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the radio. In addition, because Phil is out of shot and there is instead a close-up on Gordon’s face, it is as if Phil’s voice exists inside Gordon’s mind. Gordon’s ear takes up the centre of the shot, and the camera slowly tracks around his ear to a profile shot of his face. The centralising of the ear in the shot further underscores the importance of interpreting and distinguishing these convoluted auditory sensations.

This problematising of perceiving and filtering the auditory world foreshadows the uncanny emergence of Simon.  Simon exists as what Chion calls an “acousmetre”, a term coined by Chion to describe a voice with no visually represented source which is “neither inside nor outside the image” (129). Chion elaborates that “it is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source … is not included. Nor is it outside since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary ‘wing’ …  and it is implicated in the action” (129). The acousmetre assumes a position of hesitation between offscreen and onscreen which mirrors Simon’s dual existence between the internal and external, psychological and supernatural worlds. Simon’s position as an acousmetre evokes an experience of auditory hallucination for the spectator. Foucault points out that those experiencing an auditory hallucination “hear voices in mythical space  …  in which axes of reference are fluid and mobile: they hear next to them, around them, within them, the voices of persecutors, which at the same time, they situate beyond the walls, beyond the city, beyond all frontiers” (55).

For both Gordon and the audience, the voice of Simon does indeed seem to arise from some sinister “mythical space”. As Gordon is transfixed by the wheelchair, a sourceless, flickering electronic sound gradually crescendos, overtaking the sounds of dripping water. As the sound grows, Gordon’s face becomes shrouded in shadow, until finally a disembodied voice — rendered particularly uncanny by its vaguely lingering electronic quality — emerges from the metallic drone, and remarks “Hello Gordon”. The sound does not seem to arise from any particular source; there are no visual cues connecting the sound with any specific area or object. This menacing auditory invasion, accompanied by the still images of the decaying asylum, combine to emit an uncanny and disorientating ambience which evokes the mythical space of madness. The mysterious locale of the abandoned asylum has produced an uncanny voice that seems to emanate from some shadowy dimension of the asylum itself, which, as in the auditory hallucination, neither Gordon nor the audience can pin down to a specific person, entity or space. This untraceable voice signifies an incarnation of the intangible “Elsewhere” outlined by Gilles Deleuze — a “disturbing presence … a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogenous space and time” (2005, 18).

Chion asserts that the acousmetre “draws its very force from the opposition and the way it transgresses [boundaries of onscreen and offscreen]” (131). This powerful transgression of coherent borders is also evident in the connections which arise between the dead Mary Hobbes’s “dissociative personality disorder” and Gordon’s own experience of madness, and the way in which these connections are structured and represented. Throughout much of the film,  “Simon” is merely the name of Mary Hobbes’ mysterious, unheard third “alternate personality”, the mention of which provokes extreme fear, anger or avoidance responses from Mary’s other personalities. He finally reveals himself on the Session Tapes at the climax of the film, a time when all pretence of solidarity is finally lost among the work-crew. Because the audience is already familiar with this voice, when it finally emerges on the Session Tape under the guise of Simon it is immediately imbued with a further layer of uncanniness. The nameless, ambiguous voice that both the audience and Gordon have been struggling to position within the context of the Danvers Asylum and Gordon’s descent into madness is now associated with a dead patient who was once confined at the asylum.

The voice of Simon within Mary Hobbes provides an example of what Peter Hutchings describes as “monstrous ventriloquism” (2004, 132), as the deep, metallic voice of Simon clearly does not match the photos of the mousy, middle-aged woman, Mary Hobbes. This disconcerting mismatching of the sound to its source denotes that Mary’s mental illness “is not bound by the natural order” (Hutchings, 132) but is an abject transgression of femininity and identity. This abject affect is heightened for the viewer by the fact that the performer who voiced Simon is not listed in the film’s credits, suggesting (but not confirming) that female actress Jurian Hughes did in fact produce this deep, menacing timbre. The appearance of Simon in Mary Hobbes’s Session Tapes complicates his relation to Gordon even more, further blurring boundaries between self and other, and the internal and the external world. Vague connections between the deceased Mary Hobbes and Gordon are suggested throughout the film: in one scene Gordon sits above the broken headstone of Mary Hobbes’s grave (marked merely by a patient number); in another, the wheelchair that transfixes him on arriving at the asylum sits outside the door of Mary Hobbes’s cell; and finally, during a climactic scene, an image of Mary’s face is overlaid on a close-up of Gordon’s own visage[4]. Thus, it becomes particularly difficult for the audience to situate Simon as either an entirely supernatural or psychological force. The asylum comes to represent an abject space between supernatural and psychological realms, thus evoking Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of ontological hesitation as central to the subject’s experience of the uncanny in acts of readership or (in this case) spectatorship (1975, 46).  The disorientation is emphasised by Simon’s acousmatic qualities. The spectator is thus placed in a disorientating position of hesitation, and the asylum houses, and ultimately represents, transgressive forces that breach the boundaries between subject and object, supernatural and psychological, and onscreen and offscreen.

Figure 4: Gordon, Mary, Simon or something in-between? An abject transgression of the borders selfhood.

Ultimately in Session 9, the figure of the abandoned, decaying asylum is utilised as a metonym for both personal and collective repression. The rust-coloured, corroded building is presented as a menacing spectre of the past invading the normality of the present. The past itself becomes an intrusive and eerie figure in Session 9, represented in solid form by the asylum but also in the stories of repressed pasts and memories central to the narrative. Before its destruction in 2006, the ‘real’ abandoned Danvers Asylum was a source of fascination and fear among the community of Danvers. Prior to its demolition, Danvers local Michael Puffer explains that “the massive red-brick gothic landmark that stands atop Hathorne Hill has been given many names during the past 129 years” and that “[t]hese names stand as evidence of the special place the building, and Danvers State Hospital, holds in the minds and mythology of the people of Danvers, the North Shore and beyond” (2003, n.p.). Director Brad Anderson has revealed that he was driven to make Session 9 because of the eerie lure of the abandoned asylum building, which he saw often while living in Boston. The asbestos which lingers in the walls of the asylum in the film invokes the powerful, corruptive impact of the asylum’s past upon the present. As Gordon’s work-mate Hank explains early in the film, “already a piece of [asbestos] might have got into your lungs; it incubates in your lungs and tissue … like a ticking time-bomb”. The asbestos which imperceptibly drifts throughout the asylum in Session 9 metaphorises the abandoned asylum’s ongoing powers of corruption and infectious taint.  As the promotional tagline for Session 9 suggests, “Fear is a place”: the abandoned asylum literalises the intangible depths of the unconscious, the blurred boundaries of time and space, and figures a realm in which the uncanny reigns.


[1]Discussions about the history of the asylum litter the film, including therapy methods and the period of de-institutionalisation stretching from the 1960s to the early ’90s. The guide proclaims that “nearly all these places were closed down in the ’80s, you know, budget-cuts – feds called it de-institutionalisation.” Hank adds, “the loonies are outside in the real world and we have the keys to the loony bin, boys”, delineating the asylum itself as the domain of otherness.

[2] Though technically a hotel, The Overlook functions as a large-scale “terrible house” in The Shining, adapting and embellishing haunted house tropes.

[3] Simon, like the demon in seminal possession film The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) “is an expression of the fear that beneath the self we present to others are forces that can erupt to obliterate every vestige of self-control and personal identity” (Noel Carroll, 1981, 18). As in possession and zombie films, Simon’s power over Gordon fetishises and dramatises a fear that lurking beneath the human veneer is a dangerous otherness which may one day disastrously erupt. The Exorcist (while not an asylum horror film) also features a scene in a ‘house of horror’ asylum, and represents psychiatric tools of treatment as sinisterly invasive.

[4] This effect echoes the final shot in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), in which the skull of Norman’s mother is overlaid upon a close-up of Norman’s face. Both shots conflate ‘madness’ with an abject blurring of boundaries between the dead and the living, male and female, supernatural and psychological.




 Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The. Dir. Robert Wiene. Decla-Bioscop AG, 1920.

Exorcist, The. Dir. William Friedkin. Hoya Productions, 1973.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Session 9. Dir. Brad Anderson. USA Films, 2001.

Shining, The. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1980.

Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Ward, The. Dir. John Carpenter. FilmNation Entertainment, 2010

Works Cited

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34.3 (1981): 16-25.

Cavagna, Carlo. “Session 9”. Aboutfilm. August, 2001. 12 July, 2010. <>

Chion, Michel. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. Ed and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Trans. David Cooper. Great Britain: Routledge Classics, 2001.

—. Mental Illness and Psychology. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Gray, John. “Chronicles: Constructing a New Danvers.” The Danvers State Asylum. 2009.   30 Sep. 2010 <>

Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Puffer, Michael. “The lore, and lure, of the Danvers State Hospital”. Danvers Herald.October 2003. Accessed through the Haunted Salem Website, 12 July 2010. <>

Telotte, J.P. “Faith and Idolatry in the Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 20-35.

Todorov, Tzvetzan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western University Press, 1975.

Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 164-200.


Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate in the department of Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films originating from America, Spain and Japan.

‘Out wiv the old ay plumma?’ The Uncanny Marginalized Wastelands of Memory and Matter in David Cronenberg’s Spider – Samantha Lindop

Abstract: The shift of economic focus from industrial production to consumption in contemporary Western Society has meant that once booming factories and their surrounding infrastructure are now redundant. Left to decay, the places and spaces of yesteryear are now derelict wastelands that intrude upon the present as a fractured semblance of the past. Hauntingly familiar yet disturbingly unfamiliar they embody the uncanny, evoking a sense of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but that has come to light. Just as unwelcome memories that exist at the core of the uncanny are repressed, confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places and buildings, resonating messages of a failed past, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated to the status of unwanted waste, left to decompose over time. I argue that the film Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) represents a powerful journey through the marginalized wastelands of memory and matter. Both the memories of the film’s central protagonist Spider (Ralf Fiennes) and the decomposing landscape surrounding him are inextricably bound in the uncanny, both become disjointed from the sequential structure of time, returning as a fragmented ruin of the past, imposing their disturbing presence on the present, causing the fragile web of Spider’s mind to disintegrate like the decaying wasteland around him. 


German Intellectual Walter Benjamin famously writes: “the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (1999, 82). Abandoned, decaying urban wastelands such as those depicted in Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) may be rendered useless in contemporary consumer society but it does not mean that their history has ceased. The rags and the refuse that are post-industrial wastelands form an unconscious backdrop to contemporary life, they come back from the past, enforcing their presence on the present as a haunting and subversive symbol of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but has come to light. As such, urban wastelands embody Freud’s description of the uncanny in the same way that disturbing memories – buried deep in the mental wasteland of the unconsciousness embody the uncanny when they re-emerge.

I contend that not only are the derelict wastelands of Spider the physical embodiment of the uncanny, but the memories of the film’s central protagonist, Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralf Fiennes) also possess an uncanny quality. Memory and matter interact and amalgamate, both becoming disjointed in time; the past, now fragmented, fragile and decaying, returns to haunt the present with disastrous consequences for the future as the frail web of Spider’s mind falls apart like the dilapidated wastelands around him.

From its inception psychoanalysis has been used to explore representations in cultural texts. Whilst Freud examined art and literature from a psychoanalytic perspective, many contemporary theorists apply psychoanalytic theory to film in order to study unresolved cultural anxieties. To begin I shall explore the way deserted, obsolete remnants of a once thriving industrial age embody a powerful sense of uncanny. I will then discuss the psychological origins of the uncanny from a Freudian perspective and how this links in with contemporary Western society and the post-World War II shift from production to consumption as the primary economic activity. Finally I shall look at how marginalized, neglected places and spaces interact with the deserted, shadowy content of repressed memories in the film Spider.

Released from a psychiatric institution after thirty years of incarceration Spider is sent to live in a dingy, decrepit half way house run by an officious woman called Mrs. Wilkins (Lynn Redgrave). His new home is in the same neighborhood that he grew up in and although it is now run down and derelict, all the old places of his childhood still exist. However, the return to the landscape of his youth begins to undermine the fragile stability of his psyche. Disturbing memories that have remained deeply repressed start to emerge, intruding on the present. Time becomes disjointed as he watches the past playing out before him. As memory and contemporary reality intermingle, the film reveals that Spider, an only child, and his mother have a close, loving bond but the relationship between Spider’s parents is strained. His father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) is volatile, intolerant and resentful of his familial responsibilities. Preferring to spend his time at the local pub, Bill begins an affair with Yvonne Wilkinson (Miranda Richardson), a “cheap tart” who frequents the same bar.

One night Spider’s mother (also played by Miranda Richardson) finds Bill and Yvonne having sex in the allotment shed. Bill murders Spider’s mum with a shovel and buries her in the vegetable patch while Yvonne watches on. Yvonne then moves into the family home replacing Spider’s mother, much to his disgust. Spider knows that they murdered his mother and formulates a plan to murder Yvonne. He attaches string from his bedroom down to the kitchen, affixing it to the gas oven. As Yvonne sleeps in a chair next to the stove he pulls the string that turns on the gas. However, as Bill pulls her dead body from the gas filled house she turns back into Spider’s mother whom she really had been all along.  Her transformation into Yvonne was all in Spider’s psychotic mind.

Uncanny Post-Industrial Wastelands

Around the early twentieth century there was a shift from industrial production to consumption as the central economic activity of Western society. This movement away from production meant that many factories and their surrounding infrastructure became redundant and were abandoned. With no function they transformed into decaying, derelict urban wastelands like the setting depicted in Spider. In the opening scenes of the film, Spider makes his way through the desolate urban wasteland of post-industrial East London. The streets are lined with disused, bricked up Victorian terrace houses that would have once been animate with factory employees and their families. A canal, in the past vital for the transportation of goods, now sits obsolete. Devoid of human activity, organic life comprises solely of weeds, poking up through cracks in the pavement. The only stir comes from the methodical heaving and thudding of a monolithic gas works that dominates the landscape like an enormous steel monster from the Jurassic era.

The ruined and dilapidated places and spaces of post-industrial urban wastelands generate a strangely unsettling feeling that can best be described as uncanny. For Freud the uncanny is a feeling that is “undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror” (The Uncanny 1919, 218), but it is also unique and somehow different; a type of feeling that deserves a special conceptual term because it produces a disturbing dreamlike feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. The uncanny is uncanny specifically because of its familiarity being “that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud , The Uncanny 1919, 218) the familiar and the unfamiliar always inhabit each other. The German word for the uncanny is “unheimlich”, which translates directly as “unhomely” in English. When Spider returns to the neighborhood that was once his home he finds that although it is the same place he grew up in it is also very different. Now a wasteland of neglected ruins it exists in the present as a haunting residue of the past. Both familiar and unfamiliar, it has become an alienating unhomely place that Spider does not quite fit into. Philosopher and academic Dylan Trigg describes the ruin as something which:

 Intrudes upon the seamless present, disordering the unmarked line of time by invoking a spatial plane of uncanniness […] It retains the shadow of its old self, but simultaneously radically destabilizes the present (Trigg 2006, 131).

For Trigg, the way that the wasteland, in a sense, returns from the past, “enforcing its presence in the present” (2006, 131) corresponds with Freud’s account of the uncanny. As Freud asserts: “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (1919, 227). According to Trigg:

This coming to light materializes in the untimely quality of the ruin. Having fallen from (active) time, the ruin becomes disjointed from time. The untimeliness is evident in how past, present and future conspires to converge in the ruin. Having outlawed its functional existence, the ruin’s persistence in time disproves outright extinction, so compels an unexpected return (Trigg 2006, 131).

Confined to the status of waste, obsolete structures sit suspended in time, displacing its linear continuity. As they gradually crumble and decay they retain a semblance of what they once were but grow increasingly distant from their original form. Just like Spider’s memories, the ruins of the urban wasteland embody the feeling of uncanniness, transcending time they come from the past but appear in the present as a fragmented, ghostly revelation that informs and shapes the future.

The Origins of the Uncanny

Freud argues that the psychological origins of the uncanny stem from repressed infantile anxieties that ought to remain hidden in the deep recesses of the mind but as the result of external triggers make an unexpected return (The Uncanny 1919, 227). Freud concludes that the uncanny is directly attached to the mythical figure of the Sand-Man, and to the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes. Freud refers centrally to the story of ‘The Sand-Man’ by E.T.A Hoffmann where the Sand-Man is described as:

A wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes so that they jump out of their heads bleeding. Then he puts the eyes into a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children (Freud, The Uncanny 1919, 227)

Through psychoanalytic experience, Freud has found that incidents about the eyes and fear of going blind are a substitute for the dread of being castrated which arises in the Oedipal phase of development where the male infant’s desire for his mother gives rise to an overwhelming fear that the jealous and cruel father, a bitter rival for the mother’s affections, will castrate the child as punishment for his intense cravings (The Uncanny 1919, 241). Freud argues that the self-blinding of the mythical Oedipus was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration and this is why the predominant characteristic of the uncanny is something that is familiar and long-established in the mind. It has become forgotten only through the process of repression, concealed in the catacombs of the unconsciousness which serves as a mental wasteland, reserved for things that we would rather pretend do not exist. According to Freud, in Hoffmann’s tale the Sand-Man always appears as a disturber of love, taking the place of the dreaded father, at whose hands castration is expected (The Uncanny 1919, 230).

In traditional Freudian expression the traumatic threat of castration forces the boy to give up his mother as a love object and instead identify with the castrating father who plays a role in the formation of the superego. The task of the superego is to repress aggressive impulses that stem from the infant’s Oedipal desires to take the place of the father. In order to render hostile impulses towards the father innocuous, the child internalizes its violence, sending it back to where it came from in the outset – one’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself up against the rest of the ego as the superego. Retaining the castigatory character of the cruel and jealous father the superego functions as an overwhelmingly cruel agency that torments the ego with guilt (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents 1930, 132-135). Feminist theorist Christina Wieland contends that while the successful working through of the Oedipal stage of development involves the elevation of the father to the superego the deep trauma resulting from the essential rejection of the child’s mother as an object of affection and desire necessitates her banishment into the unconscious (2002, 36).

Just as Freud draws on the ancient Greek drama of Oedipus by Sophocles in order to contextualize this particular stage of psychical development, Wieland refers to the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon form the trilogy The Oresteia to provide a schema for the distressing removal of the revered mother from the consciousness. According to the legend, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek fleet had been in Troy fighting the Trojan War for many years. Upon his eventual return he bought with him a mistress named Cassandra whom he had captured in Troy. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, angry that he had acquired a mistress and wanting revenge for his earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, murders both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus rule the kingdom until Clytemnestra’s son Orestes, prompted by the God Apollo, avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother and her lover. However, Orestes is immediately hounded by the Furies; ancient maternal Goddesses who seek revenge for matricide. Orestes is punished for his dreadful deed with insanity. Just as Orestes commits a physical act of matricide, the total repression of the mother is tantamount to psychical matricide (Wieland 2002, 36-38).

The young Spider is undoubtedly in the midst of Oedipal conflict. He clearly adores his loving, gentle mother, cherishing the time they spend alone together. His brooding, ill-tempered father functions as a disturber of love, an unwelcome intrusion who appears to have very little tolerance or regard for his young son. When Spider observes his parent’s being physically affectionate towards each other he becomes enraged, an emotion that is intensified when a moment of blissful admiration for his mother as she models some new lingerie is shattered when she asks Spider if he thinks his father will like it. However, just as Orestes is mentally unable to deal with the horror of his matricidal actions so too is young Spider unable to cope with the reality that he has murdered his beloved mother, his punishment, like the ancient Greek character before him is insanity. Wieland identifies that the manic solution to intense distress is to deny reality. She argues that the manic responds to the act of matricide by constructing a false belief that the mother is not their true parent (Wieland 2002, 39-40). Thus, Spider’s psychotic reaction is to deny reality by instead constructing an alternative where it is not his mother that he has murdered but Yvonne.

Another example of the expression of matricide in the creative medium of film is the Australian black comedy Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993). Bad Boy Bubby is set in a derelict post-industrial wasteland that not entirely dissimilar to the mise-en-scene of Spider. Mentally retarded Bubby (Nicolas Hope) has lived in complete isolation in a dark, filthy, windowless, cockroach ridden concrete box with his abusive, dominating mother Flo (Claire Benito) for thirty five years. His mother uses him for sex and tricks him into believing that the outside air is poisonous. To back up the lie she wears a gas mask whenever she leaves their squalid home. The unexpected arrival of Bubby’s Pop (Ralph Cotterill) triggers a jealous Oedipal response in Bubby as well as leading him to question if the outside air really is poisonous. He murders both his mother and pop, asphyxiating them with cling wrap before venturing out into a strange, inhospitable world where his experiences with other people are complicated by the fact that he cannot communicate on any level other than mimicry.

Memory and Matter in a Changing World

Social theorists Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs identify that whilst Freud’s primary concern was certainly with the psyche, his exploration of the uncanny is also about one’s sense of place in the modern, changing environment and it attends to anxieties which are symptomatic of an ongoing process or realignment in post-war society (Gelder and Jacobs 1995, 174). Sociologist John Carroll explains that the shift away from industrialization towards consumption has had a destabilizing effect on traditional societal structures in both the private and public sphere, particularly in relation to patriarchal hegemony. Consumer culture meant that for the first time the wife/mother became psychologically central to the family, taking the lead role in spending decisions (Carroll 1985, 173).

Additionally, active challenges to the time-honored order of female subordination and male domination initiated by the rise of feminism, the entrance of women into the labor market, the collapse of the nuclear family and gradual elevation of women to positions of real power within government and industry over the decades has led to the popular presumption that masculinity is in crisis; that there is a general feeling among men that they are no longer capable of fully controlling the world, and that their power and authority can no longer be taken for granted (Brittan 1989, 183).  As famous psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan states:

Whatever its future this decline [of the paternal imago] constitutes a psychological crisis. It may even be that the emergence of psychoanalysis itself is linked to this very crisis (Lacan 1938, 45).

Not all contemporary thinkers agree that the psychological crisis referred to by Lacan is entirely inclusive, for example, sociologist Tim Edwards argues that whilst there is conceptual and theoretical support for the argument of a crisis of masculinity, the actual effects of this crisis undoubtedly vary according to class, ethnicity, age, geography, and sexuality, constituting what Edwards refers to as a “partial crisis” as opposed to an overall catastrophe (Edwards 2006, 16). Similarly, academic Arthur Brittan argues “it is problematic to assume that all men are in crisis given that not all men have the same interests, nor do they share the same collective identities” (1989, 183). However, whilst the extent of a crisis of masculinity is a debated topic, there is some consensus that the male identity has been destabilized by cultural shifts creating a profound effect on the psyche by triggering deep feelings of anxiety that originate in the Oedipal phase of development.

These anxieties reveal themselves in the form of the uncanny in the sense that the derelict wastelands of former factory sites serve as a catalyst, as remnants of the past when gender roles were clearly defined. Similarly, the exclusively masculine domain of the factory serves as an emblem for patriarchal hegemony. Just as unwelcome memories are repressed and confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places that resonate with troubling messages of failure, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated the status of unwanted waste, left to gradually decompose over time.

Memory, Matter and the Wastelands of Spider

The marginalized wastelands of memory and matter form a powerful alliance in Spider, embodying the uncanny. Both become disjointed from time, disrupting its continuity, both generate a lurking feeling of unease as something that ought to remain secret and hidden reveals itself. The places from Spider’s past; the streets, the canal, the allotment, Spider’s childhood home, the local pub, and the gas works, all conspire to exhume Spider’s interred memories. The vegetable garden at the allotment is where his mother was buried after being brutally murdered, under the bridge alongside the canal Spider’s father received sexual favors from Yvonne, the local pub is where Bill preferred to spend his free time and also where he met Yvonne, Spider’s old home is where his mother lovingly indulged his obsession with spiders (as well as being the place where she met her real death). All these places still exist, but like the ruin they are shadows of past that threaten to subvert the present.

As Spider explores the landscape of his youth the past, present and future conspire to converge in his mind just as they do in the ruin. His childhood memories resurface from history, imposing their uncanny presence on the present. Spider becomes lost in time as his surroundings return to their original manifestation and the events of the past play out before his eyes. But as Trigg describes, when we encounter objects from our background a change takes place when we recall their origin:

They return to their original spontaneity, and yet are wholly decaying, rotting, and fragile to the touch. The return of the “thing” thus instills a warped time scale. What remains in the ruin is the trace of a past, fragmented and unable to be situated in an overarching narrative, fusing with the ruin’s decay in the present (Trigg 2006, 31).

As the narrative of Spider’s childhood comes to life cracks begin to appear, revealing the fragility of its construction and the fragility of Spider’s mind. Things are not quite right; Yvonne looks disturbingly like Spider’s mother, although she behaves very differently. No one else seems to notice that Spider’s mother is missing and when Spider accuses Bill and Yvonne of murdering his mother Bill, appearing shocked and concerned, asks him if he is daft.

Just as the fragmented traces of the past fuse with the ruin’s decay in the present, the repressed memories from Spider’s past emerge and combine with the present; as the prologue for the movie articulates: “The only thing worse than losing your mind is finding it again” ( Spider is no longer able to contain the fact that it was he who murdered his beloved mother; that she was actually Yvonne all along. As Trigg asserts: “In spite of the temporal closure of the past, the same past reconfigures and reappears, circumventing the attempt to rationalize it into submission” (2006, 31).

Spider’s psychotic attempt to rationalize his act of matricide “into submission” by denying that it is his mother that he has murdered, instead displacing culpability for his mother’s death onto his father is thwarted by the return of the truth, which, in response to the external triggers of the post-industrial wasteland around him, has reconfigured and reappeared. Like the string that connects the oven door to the murder’s hand, the memory connects the past to the present. Spider’s recollections reactivate his psychosis, which returns with all the vigor and intensity of its original manifestation.  Mrs. Wilkins morphs into Yvonne Wilkinson, looking and behaving exactly as she did when Spider was a young child. The past and the present become trapped in the tangled web of Spider’s mind, just like living become ensnared in the sticky tendrils of the web of his namesake taking their place alongside decaying corpses that linger as a ghoulish testimony of past consumption. In an uncanny act of repetition he sets about murdering Yvonne again (only this time he fails to complete the deed) and is taken away to the asylum, just as he was thirty years ago, as much a fragmented ruin from the past, conflated with the present as the decaying wasteland around him.


No longer of material value, waste is the stuff we discard, the rags and the refuse that is confined to the outskirts of society, forming an unconscious backdrop that despite its marginalization defies outright extinction. Wasted places and spaces, remnant from another era become disjointed from time, transcending its sequential structure. They retain a semblance of their past life but, now distant from their original form, take on a disturbing, haunting quality that embodies the uncanny; a dream like feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. In David Cronenberg’s Spider the wasted debris of the landscape forms a powerful coalition with disturbing memories that have been impounded in the mental wasteland of Spider’s unconsciousness, each providing the other with substance and epistemological value. Like a hurriedly covered corpse in a shallow grave, memory and matter do not remain buried for long, instead they reemerge, tainting the present with their fetid presence, a presence that in turn contaminates the future. Thus, whether it is in the form of disturbing and traumatic memories or architectural constructions that resonate with outmoded ideologies waste becomes a pseudonym for the things we would prefer to forget; the objects and events that are stifled in the shadow recesses of the unconscious. However, as Walter Benjamin succinctly asserts “by their waste shall you know them” (1999, 82), hence, the unconscious is also a place where narratives of truth, unmediated by the ego reside. As a form of cultural expression Spider provides a compelling commentary on the powerful interaction between matter and memory and the hidden anxieties that embody them both.


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Carroll, John. 1985. Guilt: The Grey Eminence Behind Character, History, and Culture. London: Routledge.

Edwards, Tim. 2006. Cultures and Masculinity. London: Routledge.

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__________. 1930. Civilization and its Discontents. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XXI: The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 59-148.

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Spider the Movie Official Web Site. 2003. (Accessed October 3rd 2010).

Trigg, Dylan. 2006. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. New York: Peter Lang.

Vider, Anthony. 1994. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. London and New York: MIT Press.

Wieland, Christina. 2002. The Undead Mother: Psychoanalytic Explorations of Masculinity, Femininity, and Matricide. London: Rebus Press.



Samantha Lindop holds a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies from Deakin University and is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies, and Art History. She is researching the fatale figure in postmillennial neo-noir North American cinema.  Email: