This uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. This reference to the factor of repression enables us, furthermore, to understand… the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.
-Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
Through the living room window at the front of my house, I’m watching Pete. I’m watching him circle something at the border of the concrete sidewalk and his front yard. Between his legs is a shape I cannot make out: a small, brown, tangled mass. Pete makes another circle around it, nudging the mass with his toe, leaning down on one knee to inspect it closely.
The first step of the horror movie is to disconnect us from the environment that we feel comfortable in. The character is severed from all modes of communication—starting with the social, then the technological, then the physical, and finally the psychological. Reality obscures with doubt, with unease. The world shrinks to the space before our eyes. Time shortens to the immediate future. Only the moment after is important.
From my spot at the window, I can sense an urgency to Pete’s behavior, something that is not right, but I cannot say what that something is. At twelve years old, I have no language for this feeling. I only know that to watch him is to feel my body tense, my eyes narrow, my shoulders draw in towards my spine. I know that to watch him is wrong, a violation. But I do not know why. And so I watch him still as he stands up, walks back to his driveway, and disappears into the dark mouth of his garage.
The second step of the horror movie is opportunity. The character will often find a guide, a mentor, a stranger, in which to place his or her trust. This guide will provide a way in which we can distinguish between the real and the imagined, the fact and the myth, often through the method of a narrative.
The first memory I have of Pete is this: he is sitting on the beige couch perpendicular to my sister and me, scrolling through the channels on our parents’ television. Our usual babysitter was unavailable for the night, so, after scouring the neighborhood for substitutes, my parents reluctantly asked Pete, the second oldest son our neighbors across the street, to fill in.
He enters our house amid the flurry of my mother’s neurotic pre-night-out rundown of emergency services, neighbors to call, hospitals that accept our insurance, and places to find shelter—that is, the garage—in case of an act of God.
Then, just as quickly, my parents are gone. Pete is our guardian, our protector, for the next six hours.
Settling into the couch, he stops scrolling and turns to my sister and me. His hair, perpetually gelled into the hardened form of a wave cresting his forehead, catches the light from the television screen. The light comes from a channel we are not allowed to watch, a channel that I sneak out of my room at midnight for when my parents are asleep. And in this hazy blue light, Pete seems to glow.
“So, what kind of movies can you guys watch?” he asks.
My sister and I look to each other. To us, Pete represents all things cool, all things mature. He attends a prestigious Christian school far away, where he is a football and basketball star. He is buff, square-jawed. He comes home with pretty blonde girls on the weekends. Girls who drive cars though he does not. Girls I watch longingly, for years after this, from the same window we sit by now.
My sister and I, on the other hand, are PG kids, Disney movie kids, Sunday morning cartoon kids. We have no reference point for Pete’s life. All we know is that he is our eyes: we see ourselves through him. He is our gravity. Around him, we revolve.
But we don’t say any of this. Instead, we lie. We say, “We can watch anything.”
He cocks his head at us. “Ok, listen,” he says. “If you don’t ever tell your parents, you can watch this movie with me.” He nods toward the television screen.
“What is it?” my sister asks.
He answers by turning up the volume, and the movie we watch for the next two hours is called Natural Born Killers, which is about two serial killers who drive around the country slaughtering people for kicks. The movie concludes with the couple escaping from jail; in the final scene, they murder the reporter who documents their escape.
I am too young to know it then, but I will learn later that the movie is a commentary on violence in the media. Our love of it. Our obsession with it. Our ceaseless struggle to artificially implant the accused, the monster, the killer into our lives.
It is a love that is encoded in our cultural DNA. We watch because we cannot help but watch.
The third step of the horror movie is discovery. The character, stumbling into the unknown, realizes the significance, the danger, of the situation at hand. Often, this occurs in a moment of silence, darkness, solitude—a journey in which we watch the character navigate through an abnormal environment and, in doing so, reconfigure conceptions of the self, the other.
I am out the front door by the time Pete returns from inside the garage. In his hand is an aluminum bat, luminous in the afternoon sun, dangling like a wet toothpick held between teeth. He returns to the spot, the brown mass. He prods it with his toe. He circles it again.
I make my way across the street towards him. He spots me, nods, and looks back down.
I don’t know what the mass is until I’m close enough to see it moving. I think it has limbs at first, but then I see the brambles and twigs winding into a circular pattern. The baby birds inside are pink, featherless, their dark pupils hidden behind a thin layer of blue flesh. They wriggle limply in their container, struggling for or against something, but I’m not sure which. Shivering, they arch their necks up to the sky, to Pete. The twigs around them shiver. The nest is its own body struggling for life.
The fourth step of the horror movie is transformation. The character’s self or environment changes in a tangible, alarming way—a way beyond our or the character’s control. We watch as the body becomes the animal, as the dead become alive, as the reality becomes the fear, and the fear becomes reality.
One night, a few months after Pete babysits us, my sister and I are across the street at Pete’s house. We walk into Pete’s room upstairs. We find him huddled in a blue recliner, the wires for his computer and television and Xbox encircling him like black serpents. He is playing a video game, and he invites us into the room without turning his head from the screen. “Keep the lights off,” he says. He likes to play in the dark, he says. The game is better that way.
The game he is playing is called Resident Evil. On the screen, gashed, bloody creatures crawl out of swamps and emerge from shadowy corners. Pete dispatches them with crowbars, with pistols, with his bare hands.
“Watch this,” he says to us again and again, as if we do not see what he is seeing, as if the moment is not as real to us as it is to him. And right then I cannot tell what Pete enjoys more: the fact that his fear, his horror, is at the edge of his fingertips; or the fact that he knows that our fear resides there too.
The game is eerily absent of sound. For minutes at a time, only the characters’ footsteps can be heard. Silence—in the room, on the screen—intensifies with each consecutive moment, each disembodied cry, until the sounds of the room and the sounds of the game are indistinguishable.
“Do you want to play?” he asks us after a while. Without turning around, without looking, he raises the controller above his head to hand it back to one of us. My sister and I decline.
We do not want to play. We are content, we tell him, with watching.
The fifth step of the horror movie is adaptation. The character, forced to act within the restrictions of his or her new environment, must overcome fear for the sake of survival. We realize mortality is no longer the conclusion to a life, but the potential or probable conclusion to the moment at hand. In order to persevere, we must incorporate ourselves into the darkness, the unknown. We must suffer.
I will be told years later that birds that have fallen will never be touched by their mothers again. They have been disturbed. The scent of another creature is on them. The fingertip, the breath: even the smallest traces are toxic to their fledgling bodies.
When I learn this, I will remember the moment, try to believe that Pete thought he was being humane. That he was somehow saving these creatures who had had the sorry luck of falling onto the sidewalk out front of his house. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the nearest tree was twenty feet away, far enough that someone or something would have had to drag the nest to where it ended up. Perhaps he only saw the birds from his window. Perhaps he knew that, once fallen, and so young, they would never survive beyond the branches that had once cradled their nest. Perhaps he was showing me the sacrifices we all must sometimes make to—
Or perhaps not.
The problem is I will never ask him, because I will never say anything. I will never ask how the nest arrived at the spot it did, or how long he waited after finding it to decide that it needed to be destroyed.
Instead, I will simply watch him raise the bat over his head. I will watch him swing down. I will watch silently, and the only sound between us is the hollow ping of metal as it meets concrete.
The final step of the horror movie is escape, revenge, redemption, death. The death of the self. The death of the other. Although this death can take place in a literal sense, many times the character undergoes the emotional, the psychological, the social death instead. We return to our familiar environment only to find it warped, alien, uncanny.
This is the point when the horror movie ends. The character will walk off into the sunset, or into the darkness, and the screen will turn black. The credits will roll. We will stand up from our theater seats and leave in single file lines.
But fear has a way of building itself into us, growing with time.
In my memory, I carry Pete forever. The bat above his head. The way it moves so effortlessly through the birds’ bodies, through the nest, scattering flesh and twigs and pockets of blood beneath it. I can close my eyes and see the moment like a reel of film, looping itself over and over again. The film is silent. I am silent. Pete is silent as he raises his arms, the bat still shivering in his hands.