What is it that makes the genre of horror and fantasy so compelling and frightful? One could argue that paraxis is the cause for fear in such a genre, as it penetrates deeply into the minds of its audience. This phenomenon is experienced repeatedly by viewers of the TV show The Twilight Zone, and is especially prominent in the episode “Spur of the Moment”. The doubling of both the future and past manifestations of the protagonist in “Spur of the Moment” act as the two opposing mirrors of mise en abyme, subverting any and all values to which it can be applied and acting as the source of the episode’s paraxis.
“Spur of the Moment” is an excellent manifestation of doubling in order to create paraxis within fantasy. The story is elegant in its simplicity, and wildly complex when examined to any depth. During this episode, Anne encounters herself as a double, which succeeds in “break[ing] the boundaries separating self from other”, and leaves Anne prey to a “radical open-endedness of being (Jackson 86). As Anne encounters her future self, and vice versa, one is forced to wonder which representation of the protagonist is the “real” one. Is Anne chasing her past, or being chased by her future? Both manifestations are absolutely convinced that she is the one experiencing the phenomenon, but logic dictates that only one is real and the other must be a ghost. However, the mere idea of the existence of a ghost defies all logic in the first place. The very existence of the doubles is illogical, and yet we desperately work to apply some form of logic upon them in attempt to make sense of the uncanny episode. How are these doubles able to interact? How are they able to exist within the constant loop in which they seem to be trapped? When did this loop begin, how does it end, and where does it exist? There is an empty gap where these questions are formed, and this space only grows as logic attempts to fill it.
Paraxis is the undefinable and empty space between a perceived image and the object from where the image came (Jackson 19). This idea of paraxis can also be described in a work of fantasy as the “uncanny” or the “strange”. Jackson claims that “by attempting to make visible that which is culturally invisible . . . [fantasy] introduces absences” (Jackson 69) in order to subvert cultural ideas. Paraxis exists in spaces that become nothing, and is defined as “undefinable”. Just as déjà vu can never be truly deemed as real or imagined, paraxis exists somewhere between real and unreal. The viewer of “Spur of the Moment” is sent through an ongoing loop of logic in attempt to understand the curious events centered on Anne. Paraxis is created as the viewer attempts to organize the cause-and-effect relationships between Anne’s actions. The young woman first chose to run away and to ruin her life. However, she then returned to warn herself of the consequences of running and caused herself to make the life-ruining decision in the first place. This, in turn, caused her to attempt the warning all over again, only to repeatedly embrace the same decision. It is this constant loop that keeps the viewer as far from a conclusion as possible. This constant grasping for an answer that does not exist begins to wear on the mind of the viewer, and creates a potently unsettling string of questions that lead to equally unsettling absences of answers. It is this lack of finality, this lack of knowing, and this idea of the unknowable that is paraxis. Since the inception of the popular TV series, the title of The Twilight Zone itself has become a term that is commonly used to refer to the same ideas from which paraxis is created. It is for this reason that, often times, one will hum the theme song of this television show in the midst of an unsettling and sometimes mildly laughable situation.
Anne’s life is both completed and destroyed by this loop created from the meeting of her doubles. The future holds Anne’s real fears, while the past holds her unconscious desires. The 40-year-old Anne embodies her unconscious fears, while the 18-year-old Anne hints at her repressed desires. Anne’s life is simultaneously made complete and broken down by the meeting of these doubled and contradictory symbols. Her life is completed in the sense that her past and her future come together as two pieces of a horrifying puzzle. However, setting Anne on a repeated loop for eternity simultaneously destroys it. Since the past and the future cannot exist within the same dimension, they consume each other after completing one another. This can similarly be represented by a simple math equation: negative one plus positive one equals zero. “Spur of the Moment” succeeds in the “replacing of presence by absence”, creating the motif of “signifier without signified” (Jackson 69). This motif of “signifier without signified” is the very source of subversion, and also the idea of death. Ultimately, “Spur of the Moment” forces its viewers to ask the daunting question: “Does Anne even exist at all?” It is a question not easily answered, and one that leads down a dark path. Eventually, the reader is forced to confront the ultimate question: “Do I even exist?” Logically, the intermingling of past and future cannot take place at all, and so they are both subverted and destroyed.
The heavy foundations of paraxis laid down by Anne’s double are essential to the systematic subversion that this episode achieves. The uncanny loop that the viewer is forced to sort through paired with the ultimate question of existence is employed for the purpose of unsettling the viewer. If subversion is to be achieved, “the presentation of impossibility is not by itself a radical activity” enough to uphold it, and the text will “subvert only if the reader is disturbed” by the content (Jackson 23). Ultimately, the doubling of the protagonist will subvert all cultural values with which this story comes into contact. This is because “Spur of the Moment” successfully “subverts dominant philosophical assumptions which uphold as ‘reality’” (Jackson 48). The two most prominent cultural ideas that can be ascribed to this tale contradict one another, and yet they still deconstruct upon being applied to the story. The first is the idea of marrying for love, which has been a highly romanticized and praised notion since the inception of Romanticism itself. The second is the idea of marriage as a business transaction, which has generally been viewed as the most logical and most levelheaded decision a person could make when it comes to choosing a life partner. Both ideas are deeply embedded into the culture of this episode, and both are simultaneously praised and scorned in their own ways. Anne did choose to marry for love, and the future of that decision clearly shows that it was a mistake. Though her fate seems to warn against the value of choosing love over money, one must wonder whether or not Anne would have been any happier with the wealthier man. He certainly would have taken better care of the estate, but who can argue that Bob would have acted as a better husband figure than David proved to be? He behaves just the same as Anne’s manipulative father, and even has the audacity to treat Anne’s mother as if she were a child. Furthermore, Anne was unhappy enough with Bob that she was wildly compelled to run away with David instead. This suggests that Bob was poisonous to her already, before the marriage had a chance to begin. If Anne’s future was so seemingly secure with Bob, why does she become so aggressively defensive when he jokingly suggests that the woman in black was warning her against marrying him? If both men prove to be disastrous to the fate of our protagonist, what value does the episode uphold? “Spur of the Moment” certainly cannot uphold the idea of marrying for love with such a fate as Anne’s. However, the episode suggests an equally dark fate as a result of marrying for money. Ascribe any cultural value to this tale in the same manner, and the result will always end in the subversion of that value.
These final questions, forged from the destructive qualities of subversion, are exactly what feeds the unnerving phenomenon of paraxis and consumes “Spur of the Moment” until there is nothing left to analyze. The doubling of the protagonist both defies logic and yet upholds it in strange ways. This simultaneous support and destruction of logic allows that empty space to become a black hole of subversion, and that is the source of the unsettling nature of The Twilight Zone.
Jackson, R. Fantasy, the literature of subversion. London, England: Psychology Press, 1981. Print.
“Spur of the Moment.” Writ. Richard Matheson, and Dir. Elliot Silverstein. The Twilight Zone. 1964. Television. <http://www.hulu.com/watch/440890>.