Animism/Automata

Animism and automata is the concept concerned with “doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate.” This fear concerns the soul, or rather, the idea that inanimate objects possess a soul or can become possessed by one. This belief stems from the superstition, or belief, that the earth is populated by souls, those of the departed, and that these lost souls can seek reanimation in objects, machines or toys. Freud notes Jentschs’ observation that:

One of the surest devices for producing slightly uncanny effects…is to leave the reader wondering whether a particular figure is a real person or an automaton, and to do so in such a way that his attention is not focused directly on the uncertainty, lest he should be prompted to examine and settle the matter at once, for…the special emotional effect can easily be dissipated.”

This fear, one of intellectual uncertainty, has grounds in our early childhood, where it is commonplace for us to pretend our toys are alive. At this point in our lives, though, it is not frightening, it is a happy fantasy constructed by active imagination. As an adult, we know that toys and dolls are not alive, they don’t have souls. These constructed worlds of childish fantasies are just that, fantasy. But we are frightened when we are confronted with evidence that says otherwise. For example; it is certainly true that many very competent adults have a severe distaste for porcelain dolls because they make them feel uneasy. They may not be able to explain it, but the essential fear is that the inanimate doll will come to life. “Here, then, the sense of the uncanny would derive not from an infantile fear, but from an infantile wish, or simply from an infantile belief.” (Freud, 1919) It is also worth noting that the uncanny feeling produced by dolls and automaton become stronger the more realistic the object looks. The better it imitates life, the more likely that the fear will arise.

Fig.4 'Jabberwocky'

Fig.4 ‘Jabberwocky’

In Jan Svankmajers films he uses a wide range of everyday objects, especially toys and dolls. A fine example of this in which he creates an uncanny atmosphere using automaton is Jabberwocky (1971). Here we see a nursery coming to life, the furniture and toys alike. One particularly uncanny scene is one in which a group of dolls sat at a table are taking tea, in the form of other, smaller, amputated doll parts. The scene evokes the observation of the differing perspective of a child and adult on the same material. To a child, exploring though play and meaning no malicious intent, this would not be a fearful experience, instead a fantasy realised. To an adult, however, we read into a scene and project our own fears and interpretations onto the content. For some, this is the fear of automaton, a fear realised through the art of stop motion, which physically allows the dolls to appear animate and emotive
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