Regardless of parental efforts to protect their children, we’re introduced to monsters disturbingly early in life. For those that are fortunate, monsters are little more than fantastical apparitions conjured up from the fertile soil of boundless childlike imagination. However, it’s an inevitability that at some point in our lives, we either encounter real monsters, monsters capable of unfathomable cruelty, creatures that cause us to question our faith in our own humanity when we bear witness, whether directly or indirectly, to great acts of atrocity.
What is a monster? You’d be hard pressed to find a single, all encompassing definition. What might come to mind is a fantastical creature that is ugly and unnatural, frightening in some way. It can also refer to an inhumanly wicked or cruel person. Or it can describe something that is unnaturally large. What’s common among these definitions is the suggestion of an overwhelming size or capacity, and something that is unnatural and overwhelmingly large and fear-inspiring.
Monsters–at least the imaginary, terrifying fiends–are the bread and butter of horror and dystopia narratives. Unsurprisingly, dystopian and apocalyptic narratives are popular. Why? Because there’s something viscerally poignant about humanity struggling to survive when the odds aren’t stacked in them and they are for, to put simply, truly f*cked.
One reason why apocalyptic-dystopian-horror narratives do very well–besides invoking fear in the audience—lies in their potential to offer nuanced commentary on the nature of monsters. As chilling as the tentacled, poisonous, many legged, man-eating beast under the bed is, true monsters, as these narratives seem to suggest, are less exotic than we might assume. Monsters, demonic apparitions dubbed as creature of “Other”, are present in every species possible (and then some).
Of course, man is no exception. Perhaps the reason why monsters are so frightening to us is not so much how they are alien but how they are familiar. In other words, what Sigmund Freud might call an encounter with the uncanny.
What is ‘The Uncanny’? A Crash Course on Freudian Psychoanalysis
Although Freud is often credited with the theory of the Uncanny, the “uncanny” was first defined by German psychologist Ernst Jentsch in his essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906), where he defines the uncanny as sensation generated from the state of “intellectual uncertainty.” It’s the unsettled feeling one gets when faced with something unfamiliar. An example Jentsch uses is the creepiness of human dolls–which generate a cognitive dissonance between life and not-life, between automaton and human. The “uncanny” is what we feel when we look at something like a human doll, noting on a rational level that the doll is nothing more than an inanimate automaton but on a more primal level recognizing that it is something that is mimicking life.
Freud expands on Jentsch’s theory of the uncanny in his essay “The Uncanny”. It’s a quirky and moderately short essay where he attempts to unpack what exactly the uncanny is from a variety of approaches. Unsurprisingly, he manages to take the creepy horror that is the uncanny and connects it back to his Oedipal-castration-complex schtick. While we can spend all day talking about Freud’s fixations with sexual organs (a worthy discussion in of itself), I’ll refrain from opening that can of worms. There are a few interesting points he makes about the uncanny that he makes in the essay that are relevant to our exploration of what makes monsters so frightening, which I’ll briefly list and explain here:
- First, the uncanny, translated from the German adjective “unheimlich“, which itself has many multiple definitions, can be summed up as the opposite of “heimlich” which describes what is “familiar”, “native”, or “belonging to the home.” In essence, the uncanny causes that alienating feeling of discomfort that we get when we recognize something familiar in the unfamiliar.
- Next, the sensation of recognizing something familiar in the unfamiliar creates a cognitive dissonance that results in discomfort, a feeling generated by the paradoxical blend of simultaneous attraction to the familiar and repulsion by the unfamiliar.
- The phenomenon of the uncanny is shaped by a primal process (which Freud links back to man’s innate fear of castration) that causes us to experience fear because the uncanny brings the taboo to light. The uncanny reminds us of our own dark impulses, originating from our id (the unrestrained, sex-crazed, selfish part of our identity, according to Freud’s id/ego/superego paradigm), bringing to light fears and dark thoughts that are usually censored by our superegos.
Freud’s theory of the uncanny, while it certainly has its limitations, provides a useful model on which to map monsters presented in anime. Three monsters I want to focus on in particular are the Gauna from Knights of Sidonia, the Titans from Attack on Titan, and the vampires from Shiki. While these monsters are all very different from each other in physiological makeup, origin, and goal, Freud’s theory of the uncanny yields some interesting insights into why they are both compelling and frightening.
Literally Alien: Gauna Mimicry in Knights of Sidonia
I start off with the Gauna in Knights of Sidonia because they fit your stereotypical image of monster quite easily. (And I’m a sucker–pun intended–for extraterrestrial lifeforms).
Gauna (奇居子, roughly translated individually into “Odd home child”) are mysterious, large alien life forms. It’s hard to describe their physical appearance beyond floating things with lots of tentacles, but hey have the ability shape-shift anything from spaceships, rocket thrusters to even human features. They vaguely resemble enormous placentas (Freud would have a field day with this). No one really knows where these Gauna came from or what their goals are. All we are given is that these Gauna are pretty hostile towards humans.
What elements of the uncanny do we see in the Gauna? We’re certainly repulsed by them–they’re not very friendly and are quite ugly. But as we learn more about the Gauna, what’s uncanny about them is the sophistication of their mimicry. Granted I admit that I spent more time laughing at Kunato sh*tting himself when he hears Benisuzume mimicking Hoshijiro Shizuka’s voice during their second confrontation, but Kunato’s comeuppance aside, the mimicry bit was chilling, uncannily so.
Benisuzume’s mimicry of Hoshijiro is a textbook example of Freud’s examples of the uncanny, namely the “haunting” effect of the uncertainty over whether something is alive or dead. It’s the reason why zombies freak us out. We’re drawn to the animated movements of the undead just as we are repulsed by…well, the festering rot of their corpses.
For Kunato, Benisuzume’s assumption of Hoshijiro’s form (and mannerisms!) attacks him psychologically as it serves a physical reminder of his dark secret–that Hoshijiro’s death was directly (though perhaps not intentionally) caused by his sabotage of Tanikaze during their last mission. This fits into Freud’s conjecture that the frightening aspect of the uncanny originates from our awareness and acknowledgement of our id’s thanatos, or “death drive”. The irony behind Kunato facing the consequences of his self-centered attempts to live and glorify himself (what Freud would call humanity’s fixation with self-immortalization) actually leads him to look at death straight in the face.
Benisuzume’s mimicry of Hoshijiro is arguably the peak of the “uncanny” moment in Knights of Sidonia. Though less obvious, the piece of placenta that they retrieve, which immediately shifts itself into Hoshijiro’s human form, is perhaps, just as uncanny, if not more so.
For one thing, Beni-Hoshijiro does an eerily credible imitation of Hoshijiro, not only in terms of appearance but also in terms of behavior. Not that we ever make the mistake that she’s actually Hoshijiro (I mean, the red placental exoskeleton thing kind of gives her away), but her mannerisms, are hardly monstrous. On the contrary, her actions are infantile, child-like, lacking any form of malice. Beni-Hoshijiro, much like the original Hoshijiro has a special affinity for Sidonia’s ace pilot, who in turn returns her fixation. There’s even a cute moment where Nagate coos like a proud parent when Beni-Hoshijiro works hard to spell out his name. It’s a scene that should come off as sweet and endearing but there’s no denying the everpresent undercurrent of unease that everyone save for Tanikaze seems to be feeling.
One question that Knights of Sidonia does well in posing is defining what it means to be human. The Gauna are monstrous precisely because of their shape shifting ability and following this logic, they’re feared because they have the potential to become something like humans, not just in appearance, but in temperament and cognitive ability. The beasts are terrifying enough as they are–the last thing humanity needs is not only a powerful enemy but an intelligent one as well.
Nagate: What if the Gauna didn’t just take human form, but also perfectly replicated personality and memories? What would be the difference between that placenta and the real human being?
Tahiro: From the perspective of a scientist, I would be forced to answer that the person at the core of both beings would be the same. However, as a crew member of Sidonia, I cannot accept that.
The sophistication of the mimicry challenges us to question the boundaries what is human and what is other. Nagate’s conversation with the scientist Tahiro Numi illustrates this notion well. While perfect cloning, in theory, would not create any distinction between the original and the clone, Tahiro admits that despite knowing this, she still rejects the idea. While replicating bodies is definitely within the technology of Sidonia, replicating identity is a whole other matter. Her resistance to acknowledge a perfect copy as “perfect” suggests our resistance to familiarizing the uncanny–Gauna might look and act like the humans they absorb, but we cannot override our initial expectations of them as “other” and “monstrous.”
Because such a thought would force us to accept that Gauna and humans are not fundamentally different and in the world of Sidonia, this is a fact that they can’t afford to accept if they wish to survive.
Distorting Doubles in Attack on Titan
In contrast to the near perfect human mimicry of Gauna, the Titans in Attack on Titan, though clearly humanoid, are hardly mistaken for humans. Similarly to Gauna, Titans are monstrously large (no where near planet-size, though) bipedal creatures that move similarly to humans. Their distorted and deformed human features impede us from identifying ourselves with them.
Through Eren’s (and the people of Shiganshima’s eyes), we are immediately alienated from the Titans. Titans, like the uncanny, are very much unfamiliar (unheimlich) in every sense of the word. Their origins are unknown, they’re wild and are literal invaders that break down the walls of humanity’s home and devour their families, friends, and sense of comfort and safety.
It’s not until much later when we even have some breather room to even consider the idea of Titans having human-like qualities. This idea is brought to the forefront with the introduction of Hange Zoe, one of Survey Corp’s squad leaders, who incidentally has an unhealthy obsession with studying Titans. An eccentric scientist hungry for new knowledge, Hange poses a fresh, albeit dangerous question: What are Titans and are they more than just monsters?
“If there’s something you don’t understand, learn to understand it. It’s well worth any risk to our lives.” -Hange Zoe
Don’t mistake Hange’s statement to mean that humanity should go along like she does, sympathizing and cooing over how “cute” the Titans are, trying to kill us with those chilling, vacant leers. What she means is that while we can’t help but fear the Titans, we shouldn’t let our fears swallow us (you should know by that all puns are totally intended). Instead, we should try to understand, to question, to really look at the demons we face. Because the closer we look at them, the closer we may come to the truth–that the demons aren’t just part of the “Other”–they’re connected to ourselves.
*Manga spoilers ahead* Proceed with caution.
“Everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” -Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
A sentiment that seems to go against Hange’s maxim to relentlessly pursue knowledge at all costs. The light truth sheds illuminates, making unknown fears known. But sometimes knowing the source of the fear creates a level of dread far worse than when the fear was shrouded in ignorance.
In a war of attrition, the battle against the Titans is a countdown to humanity’s destruction. Finding out what Titans are is the key to stopping them. But knowledge is a double-edged sword and the truth it cuts into is rarely pleasant.
As the existence of Titan-Shifters suggests, all Titans, including the ones that mindlessly eat humans, were once human themselves. By some mysterious process yet to be explained, the Beast Titan transformed the villagers of Ragako (Connie Springer’s village) into Titans.
We’ve established that perfect mimicry contributes greatly to the uncanny characteristic of monsters (Gauna) in Knights of Sidonia. No such perfect mimicry exists in Attack on Titan but Connie’s reaction to the Titan resembling his mother shows that we don’t need perfect doubles to experience the uncanny. Just a semblance, a small familiar quirk or feature, a shadow of the familiar in the monstrous and the unfamiliar, is enough to chill the marrow of our bones.
While Freud might conclude that the fear of being eaten by Titans all connects back to sexual desire (given that the Titans themselves lack genitalia, Freud would have a field day with his uncanny-castration-sexual-repression theories), I’m more interested in looking at how the Titans serve as the uncanny “doubles” that Freud also talks about. Titans are hardly doppelgangers, but the gruesome combination of humanoid features and eerily human-like actions (especially in the Aberrants) fits the doubling effect Freud describes to a tee.
Doubles are frightening precisely because they remind us of our mortality in several ways. The doppelganger’s existence is a harbinger of death in the sense that its existence threatens ours–that our own identity and paradigms of self and other are compromised. This breaking of boundaries parallels and is symbolized in the breaking of the walls of Rose and Maria. The Titans, previously defined as clearly “Other”, break in and as our heroes rush to mitigate the damage they cause, their adventures and discoveries take them to discover that it is already too late–what is “other” and what is “self” has been compromised long before any of them realized it. Though imperfect “doppelgangers”, the formerly-human Titans serve as humanity’s mirrors and reflect our fear of losing said humanity when descending into mindless bestiality and monstrous potential. The Titan and the human are not as far apart as we’re comfortable with (and Attack on Titan takes this quite literally with their Titans).
*manga spoilers end*
The Laconian Gaze in Shiki
Freud has a thing for eyes. Not surprisingly, so does Shiki. Not that fixation on eyes is an especially novel concept. Arguably the physical sense that we as humans rely on the most, it’s natural for us to pay a lot of attention to our eyes. As visual creatures, we depend on our eyes for facial recognition, nonverbal communication, and for sensing danger.
Funny how though we like looking at things, we get uncomfortable when we’re being looked at. Freud would say our discomfort at being looked at is a product of our inherent narcissism, which is reminiscent of our ego being watched by our super-ego (essentially the moralistic, law-abiding, principled part of you). In other words, we’re so self-centered that we’re willing to freak ourselves out by imagining that we have someone stalking us.
“The fact that an agency of this kind [the super-ego] exists, which is able to treat the rest of the ego like an object–the fact, that is, that man is capable of self-observation–renders it possible to invest the old idea of a ‘double’ with a new meaning and to ascribe many things to it–above all, those things which seem to self-criticism to belong to the old surmounted narcissism of earlier times. But it is not only this latter material, offensive as it is to the criticism of the ego, which may be incorporated in the idea of a double. There are also all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse circumstances have crushed [. . .].” “The Uncanny”
For our benefit, the Shiki are drawn as either lacking eyes or having their scleras blackened and pupils rimmed with red, gold, or other inhuman hues. Such a contrast makes it easy for us–the viewers–to tell apart the Shiki from the townspeople. This dramatic irony distances us immediately from the Shiki. Rather than cast us in Dr. Ozaki’s fog of ambiguity and self-doubt as he struggles to unravel the mystery behind the sudden deaths of the villagers, we occupy a space outside of the story.
Not that this is an exclusive position that we, as the audience occupy. Shiki is a world of eyes and scrutinizing gazes. Everyone’s looking at something or someone. In a small village like Sotoba, rumors are the bread and butter of the town’s life. You have everyone judging each other, everyone separating the normal from the abnormal, and a hive-like mentality when it comes to scapegoat selection.
Unfriendly and suspicious gazes are par for the course for the characters of Shiki. It’s small wonder that the younger generation is feeling suffocated and want out. But as the narrative plays out, detecting unwanted gazes becomes an important survival skill. It’s funny how the townspeople are so self-absorbed with their own and their neighbors’ lives that they don’t think about how they’re being watched.
And believe me, they are being watched.
Yuuki Natsuno, one of the main protagonists in Shiki, was the first person to catch on and discover the truth about the Shiki’s killings. Given his city-slicker background, he has the advantages of being an outsider in your country town. He’s keenly observant, emotionally reserved, and very intelligent.
I’ll pull in a little of Jacques Lacan (French psychoanalyst who was heavily influenced by Freud) since he has some interesting things to say about the uncanny gaze in particular. For Lacan, the gaze is not so much an action but a state of mind when experiencing the uncanny. It’s the state of mind where you experience anxiety when you become aware of being watched.
Why do we become anxious when we’re being watched? Lacan argues that our awareness necessitates the epiphany of the loss of our autonomy because we realize that we’re the target, the visible object of the gazer. This fits into his whole theory of the mirror stage, which basically states that the awareness of any object can cause an awareness of one’s state as “being” an object.
While the actual presence of watching eyes isn’t required for the uncanny phenomenon of being observed (for Freud, even just a self-generated, psychic, self-stalking, is enough), Shiki plays this straight by having actual watching eyes. Despite knowing that Megumi is dead, Natsuno feels uneasy about keeping his window open. Logically, he realizes that there should be no one there, but the prickling discomfort lingers and he puts up a physical barrier between himself and the outside. As we see later on, physical barriers become the de facto defense people have to protect themselves from the Shiki.
You can’t discuss monsters without discussing the drawing of boundaries. Monsters are scary because they cross the boundary between other and self, turning safe spaces into danger zones. In Knights of Sidonia, the boundary is the Sidonian spaceship. Which also becomes a makeshift deathtrap for any hapless citizens when the spaceship is trying to outrun giant space monsters. In Attack on Titan, you have three stonewalls. In Shiki, the boundaries shrink from the town itself, to the villagers’ very own homes.
And in all three situations, boundaries are broken or crossed. Of the secret council’s own volition, Gauna bits are brought into the heart of Sidonia for testing and research development. In Attack on Titan, you not only have enemy Titan-shifters breaching and slipping past walls but the walls themselves house actual sleeping Titans!
In Shiki, the walls and thresholds of the villagers’ homes are the barriers protecting them from the shiki that hunt them.
Just as Natsuno instinctively closes his window to shield himself from unwelcome eyes, it doesn’t take Dr. Ozaki too long to realize that there are certain boundaries that the shiki can’t cross. The myth of vampires not being able to enter a private home without an invitation is an old one. Although the origins of the exact myth are dubious, the rule within the Shiki-verse does have a spiritual justification. Shiki are implied to be cursed beings outside of God’s protection (Kirishiki Sunako eloquently speaks of her despair of God abandoning her), so it makes sense that they fear holy objects (of any denomination) and can’t enter a house unless invited.
The vampire invitation trope, however, also fits into the framework of sacred hospitality, a human-society developed artifice that exists to combat the uncanny. Another definition of heimlich, the opposite of unheimlich, describes the familiar and that which belongs to the home. As far as the villagers are concerned, shiki who violate this principle don’t deserve to live.
“There is a sense of good and evil in this world! Got it? There’s always been a set of rules decided long ago in this world. Outsiders come to our village and find friends and homes. Young people should never die before those older than them! These precious rules protect tiny villages like Sotoba! You destroyed all of that!”
We like feeling safe and should feel safe in our own homes. The Shiki’s existence and way of life (a la a quiet takeover of the entire village) threatens that lifestyle. But what’s great (and horrifying) about Shiki is that they aren’t heartless monsters. They’re people and for the most part, act exactly like their human selves. Natsuno, for instance, confronts a Shiki-fied Tohru and to his dismay, Tohru (aside from his new appetite for human blood) hasn’t changed. In fact, Natsuno observes that the undead Tohru resembles his old friend more than his corpse ever did, a realization that brings him to his knees.
The doubling effect that Freud describes as arising from the instinct for self-immortality (survival) and being later perceived as a harbinger of death aptly describes the shiki. Called “okiagari” or “the risen”, the shiki are the unfortunate souls who rise to “live” again but their existence comes with the price of bringing death to their loved ones.
Shiki doesn’t give us much time to contemplate the idea of shiki and humans coexisting, as a desperately hopeful Natsuno proposes. In fact, the narrative tries its hardest to reject it. Why? Is it because the shiki are monsters? While the story does present the existence of the shiki as a curse, it never sweepingly declares that they are all monsters that ought to be exterminated.
In the end, it comes down to choice. Being a monster is not a pure physical state–it is ultimately a state of mind–it is a choice. And as our brave nurse, Ritsuko-chan, declares to Tohru, as humans, we have the power to choose. We have the power to define what is monstrous to us and what is not. It is an oft-overlooked but incredible power.
Most appropriately, the story of boundary breaking ends in gruesome, gory genocide. While the narrative sets up the shiki as complicated, haunted beings, at the end, it’s hard to label the human survivors themselves as the pristine heroes. You see townsfolk mercilessly taking down neighbors, old friends, daughters and sons. It’s a bloodbath and while the participants can take some grim sense of closure in wiping out the shiki, there is no victory or joy. They do their best to get the job done quickly with as little emotional investment as possible. Why? To minimize the uncanny sensation of looking at the shiki in the eyes and seeing something resembling themselves–something other than Other.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Why are we so interested in monsters? As our discussion of three monster cases shows, we’re interested because we see ourselves in them, whether unconsciously or consciously. We’re narcissistic creatures and our self-centered nature affects how we perceive the world around us. We can’t help but draw boundaries between others and ourselves. The very process of differentiating between what is self and what is other is integral to our identity formation.
Though psychoanalysis is hardly the only means to look at monsters, it’s an interesting approach because it allows us to look at monsters in a more nuanced light. Though Freud doesn’t say much about actual monsters (he focuses more on the phantasmal monsters that are psychically generated/hallucinated), much of what he has to say about the uncanny and fear of the supernatural applies. Our perception plays a significant role in not only defining monsters but characterizing them as well. The most chilling monsters are the ones that are not necessarily the most alien but the ones that succeed in having us questioning their strangeness by showing us there’s something in them that we recognize.
Whether it’s the eerie adaptability of the Gauna to mimic human pilots, the creepy, knowing gaze of an aberrant Titan, or the smile of a dead husband, the moment of recognition in what we perceive as alien is an unsettling one that contributes to our horror. We have difficulty coping with something that’s both familiar and unfamiliar. It’s something that’s hardwired into our biological instincts of self-preservation. We fear monsters because they’ll wear our faces and look like us. They might even act like us.
Sometimes, they are us. And we are them.
If that didn’t freak you and you’re interested in learning more about psychoanalytic theories of the uncanny, check out the following links. I drew mostly from Freud’s essay “The Uncanny”, which is a pretty good introduction but some other essays of interest are also listed below.
Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (1919)
Ernst Jentsch’s “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906)
Otto Rank’s “The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study” (1971)
“The narcissus in all of us” (short article about the staring phenomenon)