Lucidity and The X-Files

Lucidity and The X-Files

According to David Punter, gothic works such as the episode of The X-Files entitled “Chimera” remain ambiguous in their attempt to make lucid comments on our culture and the society in which we live. “Chimera” exhibits attributes of paranoia, barbarism, and taboo that are typical of a work of gothic literature. These elements combine to highlight inconsistencies within social structure, and bring to light what is collectively feared by the human race. It is not the practice of Gothicism to leave much of anything satisfactorily resolved and neatly explained; Gothicism’s uneasiness thrives on the practice of forcing its audience to engage in the entertainment of complex and fearsome comparisons while leaving enough to ruminate over long afterwards. The show certainly leaves open ended many questions that arise within the course of the story; the elements of the supernatural, the subtle challenging of reality, and the uneasy representations of the characters all leave the viewer with more than enough to turn over and analyze. However, this practice does not necessarily mean “Chimera” is incapable of creating a lucid commentary on society to the comparison of the suburbs and the dark workings of the underworld.

Through the use of symbolism, the episode successfully compares both the underworld and the suburban community in order to allow the viewer to understand that although the cultures of the underworld and of the suburban utopia are different in appearance, what lies beneath both is ultimately human nature. Therefore, both are equally vulnerable to evil. The only difference between them is the type of evil, and the presentation. The most significant elements of symbolism through which the episode operates are that of the ravens, the mirrors, and the chimera creature; each is used to depict themes of barbarism, taboo, and paranoia through the scope of the paranormal. Nevertheless, despite the lucid commentary these symbols create, they reserve the final scene to once again promote ambiguity and maintain their complexity.

The complex symbol of the raven is left broadly open-ended, save for Mulder’s over-simplified summary of its connotations; he merely states their association with deception, evil, and companionship to evildoers. This, in turn, translates to Punter’s idea of paranoia. “Chimera” allows the viewer to share in “a situation of ambiguity . . . in which the attribution of persecution remains uncertain and the [viewer] is invited to share in the doubts and uncertainties which pervade the” characters (Punter 405). Paranoia is defined as “a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance”. It is often linked to personality disorders, such as the anomaly present in Ellen.

The RavenThe ravens seem to act as Ellen’s companions, being present at any significant emotional state throughout her life. They also act as a symbol of her cognitive process in which her transformation into the chimera is triggered. They appear in connection with Martha, Jenny, the skeleton key, and finally the mental hospital. Each of these entities is a direct source of jealousy, persecution, and is an enemy to what is most important to Ellen. Directly after Ellen’s discovery of the skeleton key, the raven ushers in the chimera’s image behind Ellen’s human reflection in the mirror. The image of the chimera is only available to her through reflections, and previously had completely replaced her own image in Martha’s mirror and in the car window. By presenting the creature as a separate entity in the mirror and portraying Ellen as an object of the creature’s pursuit, this scene solidifies Ellen’s belief of her victimized state and serves as a visual manifestation of her paranoia.

This inward evil, created by Ellen’s growing paranoia, can be linked to a single source: the taboo nature of her society. It is the “presence of highly stereotypical characters” (Punter 1) that allow questions “of relations between sexes” to mingle with “taboos associated with man’s supposed place in the hierarchy of natural and divine life” to be so thoroughly explored throughout the episode (Punter 405). The second symbol to be explored is linked to this concept, as mirrors embody connotations of inward perception among other things. Mulder offers an even more sparse explanation for the phenomenon of the broken mirrors as he supplied for the significance of the ravens. However, he does not overlook their importance. He urges Phil to understand that “mirrors are considered items of enchantment; a broken one means something.” Phil goes to the mirror and stares deeply into his reflection right after his affair is revealed. It is as though he is confronting all of his sins merely by beholding the mirror’s reflection. There is a sense that a mirror sees private events that no one else is able to witness.

The mirrors in “Chimera” could have told the entire story without need for investigation, had they been granted the ability to talk. Mulder makes reference to the idea that mirrors are doorways used to summon evil, but the conclusion reveals that he is wrong; the mirrors act not as doors, but as windows to the taboos of suburbia. First of all, Phil’s affair with Martha and Jenny is what causes the turmoil from the beginning. Interestingly, the rooms in which the affair is conducted are decorated with mirrored ceilings. This lends to the function of sight that the mirrors fulfill. Secondly, “Chimera” upsets the notion that the man is the head of the household.

It appears as though the women exercise a significant amount of control over the suburban men in a manner that is degrading and eerie. However, they try to hide behind the appearance that their men are in control the entire time. Early on, Howard refuses to return home and to take part in the family structure at all. When Martha is taken out of the picture, it is obvious that her husband is no significant part of his household. He seems out of place among the decoration of the house, and he is at a complete loss as to how to care for his child in the absence of her mother. Ellen makes elaborate meals, noting that it is because sharing those meals is the only time she is allotted with her husband. Philip even claims coldly that his wife’s pregnancy deliberately “locked [him] up good”. Furthermore, when Phil tells Jenny that they can no longer see each other, Jenny thinks nothing of it. She effortlessly convinces him to continue the affair.

All of this is suppressed for the sake of appearance, and this suppression is made manifest in the chimera creature. The creature is a product of the community’s suppressed taboo. She is well aware of the affair, keeping it repressed into her subconscious, and tells Mulder that she even immerses herself into perfecting her home because the housework gives her the illusion of being in control. Ellen does not wish to see the truth; therefore the mirrors break upon revealing it. It isn’t until she looks into a mirror that cannot break (the water into which she submerges the FBI agent) that she is able to experience and come to terms with the chimera and to control her suppressed fears and desires.

The ChimeraThe juxtaposition between Ellen and her chimera is an excellent metaphor for Punter’s idea of barbarism. Centered on the theme of barbarism is the “fear of aristocracy, which provides the basis for “monsters with aristocratic qualities (Punter 405). Gothic literature employs these monsters in order to compare and contrast “good” and “evil”. Gothicism brings its audience to the fine line between the civilized and the barbaric to “demonstrate . . . the relative nature of ethical and behavioral codes” and brings it to a place “in which these codes do not operate, or operate only in distorted forms” (Punter 405). The innocent Ellen provides the monster with the aristocratic connotations found in most gothic literature. The blending also allows for the comparison and subversion of elements regarding the upper class and the “underworld” of society. Agents Mulder and Scully act as patrons of each.

Scully complains constantly about her degraded condition while Mulder visits the seemingly perfect town in the suburbs. However, Mulder soon begins to understand that something even ranker that what Scully is experiencing is going on within this small community. Despite Martha’s “perfect” home, the beautiful Easter celebration, and the close friendship between Martha and Ellen, the chimera proves to turn suburbia into something more terrible than the underworld can muster for Scully. Mulder even assures his partner that the view in suburbia is not any different than the one she sees through her telescope; it’s just dressed up a little nicer. Even the beautiful Easter egg hunt is tainted with the presence of evil, and a member of the underworld wrecks Ellen’s home. Furthermore, it is not a member of the underworld who taints Martha’s home, though Phil certainly acts identically to one. Jenny reminds Ellen that they all have more in common than they realize.

"Ellen"Although Martha vehemently attempts to separate herself from Jenny, it cannot be denied that their sins are transparently identical. Ellen, too, is not blameless in the murders she has committed in reaction to those sins. The chimera goes as far as to plant Martha’s body in her own rose garden, further mingling the horrid sins of the underworld with the placidity of utopia by stating literally “you’ve made your bed; now lie in it”. This blurs the lines between the two worlds and emphasizes the evil in Ellen’s. When the murderer’s identity is realized, Ellen is revealed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The transformation of suburbia into the underworld is complete, and the evil residing there cannot be hidden any longer. Ironically, at the same time as Mulder uncovers the truth about utopia, Scully realizes the opposite in her own case. Rather than a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she discovers that her case is that of a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”.

This complete reversal of underworld to utopia gives the impression that it was the underworld all along that was good and suburbia that was evil. However, when further analyzed, the implications of good are still present in the suburban environment while the implications of evil remain as well within the world of Scully’s stakeout. Mulder had been warmly received and cared for by Ellen, while Scully experienced sights that would forever leave an unpleasant scar on her memory. There still existed a genuine love between Martha and Ellen before the affairs, and there was still a need for Scully’s suspect to use deception in order to bestow kindness upon the prostitutes to whom he was ministering. Therefore, the show implies neither that the two worlds are exactly the same, nor that they are two opposing ends of a pole. However, it does imply that the two worlds exist atop the same underlying plane of human nature.

Just as most of the literature of the genre, “Chimera” only resolves what is necessary in order for the audience to have sufficient material to consider possible implications derived from the ambiguity of the text. Having paved the way for lucid commentary up to a certain point, the raven is reintroduced into the final scene for a fresh dose of gothic ambiguity. As the now-enlightened Ellen looks upon her dark companion with acceptance in her eyes and the absence of fear, no explanation of this scene is provided. Ellen’s strange final encounter with the raven and her own paranoia seem to symbolize something far deeper than the previously lucid implications of the show. It deals with the definition of evil, and poses questions as to how that evil is somehow connected to human nature in a way that it becomes almost synonymous with a society built around humanity. The cage out of which Ellen gazes seems to both trap and free her simultaneously, and the raven remains out of her reach yet perfectly accessible. It seems as though all of the symbolism has converged into this final scene, and that now only two remaining symbols are the raven and the cage. The raven now seems to embody evil, and the cage society. However, the implications are unnerving and unclear.

Though the show is far more complex than can be wrapped up and completely explained after this final encounter, lucid commentary is present throughout and can be clearly seen through its symbolism. Punter may have been correct about the three areas of taboo, barbarism, and paranoia, but he was not entirely correct about Gothicism’s inability to make lucid commentary about objects of fear. As demonstrated by “Chimera”, Gothicism possesses a wonderful ability to both clarify and subvert. Punter was correct in his assertion that Gothicism thrives on the ambiguous, but he underestimated the genre’s ability to also provide equally lucid material. Although “Chimera” leaves with the viewer a final scene pregnant with ambiguous meaning, the symbolism throughout the show does well to clearly define lucid commentary that reveals much about society and collective fear.

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Is What you Perceive Actually What Is?

Is What you Perceive Actually What Is?

               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.

Works Cited

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>.

Thoughts on “Perfection”

Thoughts on “Perfection”

One of my favorite Gothic short stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”. If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you follow the link and do so. It’s a worthwhile read. Also, this post will contain spoilers; so if you haven’t read this story, come back later after you have.

Disclaimer:
(I know that this short story can be interpreted in many different ways. There are endless possible explanations to any good work of fiction, especially with Dark Romanticism. I am not claiming that this point of view is the right one, and I am definitely not implying that it is the only one. It’s just my perspective.)

The entire idea of this short story is interesting to me. It is mentioned time and time again that Georgiana’s beauty is perfect, save for the birthmark on her cheek. It is implied that without the birthmark, her beauty would be absolutely flawless. Aylmer tells Georgiana “you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect . . .  shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection”. Aylmer views the mark as something hindering his bride from being perfect, and becomes obsessed with the idea of removing it. It’s as though he found the most perfect woman on earth, and it bothers him that even she comes with a defect. Small as it is, the birthmark is the only thing that stands between Georgiana and flawlessness. I can understand his obsession to a point. If something was so close to being perfect, it almost seems a waste to not remove the imperfection if possible. Especially if you are a scientific mastermind (or almost a mastermind) such as Aylmer. However, his own imperfections are a whole other subject.

It seems to me that the death of Georgiana speaks volumes of perfection itself. It’s as if humanity is not allowed to be perfect. No sooner than the birthmark disappeared from her cheek did Georgiana die, and she faded at the same rate as the mark. There is also mention that the birthmark symbolizes every sin and evil contained within Georgiana; as if her every flaw was imprisoned within the birthmark. It is implied that Georgiana was far too near to perfection, and that because of it she could not exist without that small imperfection on her cheek.

This idea could even be taken from examples of real-life. Nearly every virtuoso, every prodigy, every artist had one fatal flaw whether within their art or within their very being. One of my favorite examples of this is Ludwig Van Beethoven. Beethoven became deaf; although he was a genius, one can’t help but wonder what his peak of artistry would have looked like had he been able to hear his work.

Having said all this, what is perfection, exactly? Where does the definition begin and end? Does human perfection exist? And finally, if human perfection does exist, is it separate from the idea of perfection in general?

These are just my thoughts on the subject. I would love to hear your ideas as well.

-Rae