Sunday, 4 December 2011

Familiar, Unfamiliar, Uncanny




Fear and curiosity are so intricately interwoven in my poor rattletrap psyche that sometimes it's hard for me to separate them at all.

When faced with uncertainty, the unusual, or the unexpected, who hasn't experienced that odd combination of repulsion and fascination? All of us live our lives in a flow of sorts.When something happens that jars us, that forces us out of our routine, it resets our perception in a way.

Hereby hangs a tale.

I'm a juvenile-onset diabetic (meaning I have diabetes mellitus type 1). That's the diabetes you get from having a treacherous autoimmune system and an unlucky gene, not the type you get from being old, obese, or sick (that would be diabetes mellitus type 2).

I was diagnosed when I was a toddler, which is very early for someone with type 1 diabetes - it usually manifests itself like the lamest X-man power imaginable around age 11 or so. I have spent a goodly portion of my decades as a diabetic here in Utah.

Many of the high points of my younger days took place at special camps offered for diabetic kids. My stomping grounds were "Camp UTADA," as it was and still is known (for more information on camps for kids with diabetes, UTADA's website is  here  ). Camp UTADA's summer camp was offered in an appropriately woodsy and distant area, and we did the usual camp things - hiking being one such activity.

UTADA now - image from the Froggy Bottom Quilting blog

I was probably eight or nine - the prime age for nature hikes and an abiding fascination with bugs &c. - when I had an experience that shaped my views on both fear and curiosity quite deeply.

UTADA's hikes were a great chance to get out and burn some calories in the fresh air. We also got the chance to learn a lot about the natural environment that kids and counselors alike sauntered through.

In the spirit of encouraging any budding naturalists in the group, the appointed leader of this particular hike was a biologist from some university or another. He certainly looked the part, with that weird disdain for normal fashion that becomes a sort of narcissistic fashion in and of itself among some academics.

I had a great time. The trail wound through the woods, and the air smelled clear and alive. The sun was out, but the temperature was mild. As we rounded a switchback, a few kids noticed a fairly big-ass grasshopper lying prone in the dust on the trail. Ordinarily, a dried-out grasshopper husk would be quite a trophy, but unfortunately our appraisal of its condition was somewhat off the mark.

The damn thing was obviously dead. It's limbs were frozen in that stately Pharaoh pose that deceased insects favor and its wings were partially extended and dry. But it jumped.

Our little band of naturalists stepped back and formed a circle around this weird phenomenon. The grasshopper carcass was, indeed, hopping jerkily, almost like a popcorn kernel trying in vain to pop on a griddle, or like a Mexican jumping bean.

Then, with no further ado, one side of the grasshopper's abdomen burst outward, and a Horror from Beyond came writhing and wriggling out - a black thread, legless, unlike a centipede or larva or anything I'd ever seen.


As the insect carcass twitched like a small malfunctioning toy, a seemingly endless rope of black, writhing life came pouring out. It was sickening and mesmerizing. Here's an additional photo to give you a sense of the scale of the infestation and resulting hatch:


As the size of the thing became apparent, our brave Naturalist-In-Chief quickly shooed us back, obviously quite shaken by the spectacle. "Get back, kids," he said a little too loudly. A few moments later he herded us well clear of the revolting spectacle and we were on our way.

Like a lingerie insert in the Sunday paper or a particularly grisly bit of news on TV, though, the otherworldly black thread had a strange hold on my mind. It repulsed me and attracted me in equal measure - the feeling was that of wanting to see, because that which I would see was so far from ordinary.

Regarding our friend the black, writhing thread, don't worry about him. Only recently did I bother to track him down and figure out his habits. He is the humble horsehair worm (phylum Nematomorpha), and is perfectly harmless to humans. The horsehair worm is also known as the Gordian worm for his habit of curling his very long, very thin body into a dense knot in water or damp soil.

I think that my inability to look away from Agent Horsehair as he finished his infiltration mission was born of a part of me that thrives on the uncanny.

The Great Gazoogle defines uncanny thusly: "Strange or mysterious, esp. in an unsettling way; 'an uncanny feeling that she was being watched.'" Synonyms are listed as "weird," "eerie," or "mysterious."

painting by Carl Jung
The uncanny, and a plethora of attempts to explain our reaction to it, constitute a rich and deeply-drawn-from well. Freud summarized E. Jentsch's definition of the uncanny as Das Unheimliche; 

...The "uncanny" is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar...The German word unheimliche is obviously the opposite of heimlich, heimish, meaning "familiar," "native," "belonging to the home"...

Freud goes on to say that a better definition of uncanny is that which simultaneously has the properties of being familiar (a big, fat grasshopper) and utterly unfamiliar (a featureless whipsawing nightmare hatching out of the dead). From my (admittedly limited) understanding, this same familiar/unfamiliar tension underlies Otto Rank's Doppelgänger .

painting by Holbein

What all this means to me is that in pondering my experience with the horsehair worm, I think I've figured out my longstanding love of novels, movies, and other art that dwells on the bizarre, the unsettling, and the unusual. That moment when the parasite first broke free of its victim - the moment of suspended reality when your reflection in the mirror slowly moves its hand even though you are standing stock still - the moment that freezes your limbs and your lips and renders you a pair of clear, cold eyeballs that must see what is so un-homelike, so familiar but so lethally strange - that's the moment that drives my love of the uncanny.

It's a moment of pure clarity, uncluttered and fresh, when the old becomes new and the new pushes you further than you ever thought you could go.

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