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The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher

October 5, 2018

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I picked this book as part of my dive into the dark world of David Lynch for a particular essay: “Curtains and Holes: David Lynch.” But overall, the book is a very interesting—if sometimes academic—examination of various elements and structures in horror and suspense film and literature. Specifically, Fisher breaks down why certain varieties of the strange, namely the weird and the eerie, can be so unsettling for an audience, even when the audience is well aware that the art is fiction.

Fisher defines the weird as that which does not belong: a thing that does not belong in this world or two things that do not belong together. A monster prowls the woods. A robot lives among us. An animal talks. A dead soul haunts a home. A girl can start a fire with her mind. A clown in a circus is not weird; a clown in your closet it weird (and terrifying).

The weird juxtaposes our “normal” world with something that does not belong there under “normal” circumstances. It challenges our fundamental beliefs about the world in which we live by acutely breaking one of the rules. By doing so, it proves to us that one of our fundamental presuppositions (e.g. monsters do not exist) is not true. The weird thereby questions our entire belief system. If this weird thing is possible, what else that we thought to be true could be wrong? What other rules might not hold?

The eerie, on the other hand, is defined by absence. A complete absence of sound is eerie. A city with no people. Ancient ruins. These things are unsettling because we feel there should be something there, and the absence of that thing requires an explanation. The understanding we crave isn’t “why is this unexpected thing here?” (weird), it’s “why isn’t the expected thing here?”

Fisher examines these themes through the work of various artists: H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan and others. The disjointedness of the weird and eerie are, in slightly different contexts, the same tension that can resolve with humor. The fish-out-of-water story is just the weird to different effect—Mork from Ork vs the Predator. But either way, understanding the construct is very useful for storytelling, not just analysis.

As for why I came to the book in the first place, the section on David Lynch’s work is really interesting. To me, Lynch’s films, which often involve an intersection of worlds, have an architectural structure to them. In “Curtains and Holes,” Fisher examines the doors that link Lynch’s worlds in his stories, where characters slip through to parallel realities. Fisher focuses on Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, but the same is true of Twin Peaks, perhaps Lynch’s most famous use of curtains to symbolize a pass-through point.

This short essay was insightful, but the entire book is worth the read if you are in any way trying to understand or construct stories.

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