“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” – Clive Barker
Automatism: The performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.
This fifth example of Freud’s uncanny makes me think of hypnotism because, even when done for fun, any form of mind control inspires feelings of nervous trepidation. There’s the thrill and fear of the unknown, that the man with the pocket watch and smug, guylinered eyes in the hotel’s cabaret room might indeed be able to turn a bunch of audience participants into his minions after a few selective words and a click of his fingers.
Personally, I can’t imagine why anyone would volunteer to have their mind tampered with for the sake of entertainment. Permitting a mentalist to mess with your head, to me, is like downloading dodgy software onto your computer. Why would you do it? There are too many risks and negative implications involved for my liking. The mind has no reset button. You can’t do a reboot if all goes tits up. I mean, if a hypnotist can, supposedly, make you do silly things just like that *snaps fingers*, then imagine what else he might be capable of doing if he was a sociopathic maniac with the same credentials as Derren Brown. Doesn’t bear thinking about does it?
Of course, we’re told that hypnotism only works on certain types of people, which would make a vast portion of the population immune to its devilry. But then, hypnosis is very subjective. Is it really real or just a performance trick?
Here’s where I sit on the matter…
I don’t think a hypnotist could make someone flap their arms up and down and bawk like a chicken – at least not without conscious effort on the participant’s behalf where they ‘play along’. Sure, it makes for great entertainment (and fictional story-creating opportunities), but I tend to think that onstage acts of that ilk are exactly that – acts. I just don’t believe a person’s mind can be tapped into to the extent that their actions can be controlled as though they were some sort of automaton. That’s not to say I’m discrediting the hypnotist/mentalist in any way though, because I do believe in the power of suggestion. I think everyone is vulnerable to more subtle forms of subliminal trickery, and I do think a person’s mind can be tapped into and their thoughts and emotions manipulated.
Power of suggestion and subliminal communication, for me, is where the true uncanny of automatism lies. I find it dispiriting that we’re so predictable, and alarming that our thought processes are evidently so easy to alter. Just watch any decent mentalist at work and see how they’re able to shape a person’s thoughts – a classic example being the old: ‘draw me a picture, anything you like, but don’t let me see’ trick, where the mentalist goes on to match the picture line for line, like for like, without so much as a sneaky peek. It’s awe-inspiring in one sense, but depressing in another. Depressing that our subconscious mind can be manipulated in such a way. That what we think of as being our own original thoughts might have been put into our heads by some external source that we weren’t even aware of. The picture you drew, the image that popped into your head which you thought was really original, well, the mentalist planted it there. You drew exactly what he wanted you to draw. With the clever use of imagery and props, key words and body language, he most likely communicated with your subconscious way before handing you the pen and piece of paper. And, to me, that’s the key difference: he didn’t control your hand, he shaped your thoughts.
In a similar way, companies use television commercials, billboards and magazine advertisements to their advantage. In order to sell their products and services to the consumer, they make the most of the fact we’re so easily influenced. If an image flashes up so quickly on screen that our eyes don’t really ‘see’ it, or if there’s a hidden image within a logo or poster that we don’t ‘see’, that’s not to say our subconscious won’t register and process those things anyway. The human subconscious is what this month’s uncanny is all about, because our subconscious notices stuff that we aren’t necessarily aware that we’re aware of. And how freaky is that?
Here’s some examples of some subliminal advertisements:
It’s widely speculated as to whether the ice cubes in the glass intentionally spell out the word ‘SEX’ (it runs vertically, in case you can’t make it out).
Is it coincidence or intentional that the ice on top of the can looks like the form of a naked woman lying on her side with her hair spilling over the edge?
American fast-food company Wendy’s incorporated the word ‘MOM’ into the girl’s collar. I presume this was to identify itself as being a family-orientated restaurant.
And here’s a one that’s so blatant it needs no explanation.
Okay, so what else?
Sleep-walking; another perfect example of automatism. I’ve never been a sleepwalker myself, but I can imagine it must be unnerving to go to bed at night and not know if you’ll wake up in the same place. A friend of mine once got up and went on a middle-of-the-night jaunt wearing nothing but his underpants. He walked a good few streets away from his house, like some extra from Dawn of the Dead in his Calvin Kleins, before waking up outside of his local pub. Lucky for him it was way after closing time. But, even so, the story could have been a whole lot worse – I bet he’s eternally grateful he hadn’t gone to bed in the buff that night.
In my mind sleepwalking is a bit zombie-ish; the sleepwalker is often portrayed with arms outstretched and a vacant stare. They don’t exhibit signs of having communicative skills, as they normally would – they merely run on some level of low consciousness. A dreamlike autopilot. The only difference, I suppose, is that the sleepwalker doesn’t want to eat your brains. Unless their subconscious has cannibalistic tendencies, of course. Then there could be trouble.
Addiction might also be classed as automatism. Being controlled by an external source in such a way that perhaps at first you don’t realise. For instance, when a person who likes to have a drink crosses the border into alcoholism, I’m pretty sure they made no conscious decision to become an alcoholic. They were driven by something beyond their control and the end result of their actions was never intentional.
Obsession might also tie in. Being obsessed by something or someone isn’t always a conscious effort. Certainly, someone who’s obsessed by something must consciously think about what it is that makes them tick, yet they may be obsessed without realising to what extent. Or they may well realise, but fail to see how damaging the obsession is to themselves or to others.
As a fan of dark fiction, the kind that explores the darker side of human nature, this month’s example of the uncanny strikes a chord with me.
Automatism is about losing contact with consciousness. It’s the act of breathing. It’s the mentalist asking you to think of a word and you not realising that the word that pops into your head was emblazoned across a poster in the foyer, which your subconscious mind picked up on but failed to let you know about. It’s Dracula’s call as he lures Lucy into the night. It’s the harmless crush that unwittingly spirals into an obsession. It’s the next hit. It’s the gambler’s finger-biting. It’s the sleepwalker’s turmoil of not knowing where they’ve been. And it’s the inner demons that you might not be aware of, yet.
Automatism can be spurred by the showmanship of any great mentalist, but most of all it’s the showmanship of your very own subconscious.
How well do you know yourself?