Primal Screen is listed on IMDB as a horror TV series from 2017, however there is only one episode. It’s a Shudder original presentation that, while short in length (27 min.), is highly engaging and keeps you wanting more.
This documentary asks, “Why are we simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the things that scare us the most?”
Primal Screen (episode 1, entitled The Wooden Boy) attempts to explore some of the more haunting imagery of pop culture influences that children have been exposed to and examines how it affected their growing minds. By focusing on a couple of very specific pop culture references experienced by three individuals growing up in the 70’s, the documentary persuades the viewer to look back into their own pasts and examine the pop culture artifacts that may have left some dark impressions on their youth.
The 1978 movie entitled Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins, is heavily concentrated upon throughout the feature, as its television aired preview was something that stuck out in the minds of the young people who saw it. Specifically, the experiences of three individuals are shared with us through the narrative and visual reenactments. Ventriloquist dummies, and dolls in general, provide some of the narrative focus in addition to the movie, Magic. Ascher then parallels the movie’s ultimate psychological premise with the inferences made throughout the documentary, leaving us with a chilling conclusion that only begs further contemplation.
If you’ve never seen the movie Magic, I highly recommend that you do. Anthony Hopkins is brilliant in his portrayal of a shy, lonely, and disturbed young ventriloquist who tends to be withdrawn, keeps parts of himself very private, and has some real trouble connecting with people. Also starring in this film: Ann Margret and Burgess Meredith.
What I personally found most interesting about this Primal Screen short is the commonality of experience for children of the late 70s. What the narrators describe in their personal accounts is sharply similar to my own, which only adds to the overall impact for me. The main focal element of this brief study is the creeping fear associated with insentient human forms. It even highlights the phenomenon as it is represented in terms of psychology and sociocultural concepts.
The concepts touched upon here include automatonophobia and what is referred to in the field of aesthetics as the uncanny valley.
Automatonophobia is the morbid fear of replicated humanoid forms, such as ventriloquist dummies, animatronic creatures, wax statues, or any inanimate object that simulates a sentient being.
Automatonophobia is what is known as a specific phobia in that it presents in relation to an exposure to specific objects, places, or events. It is said that specific phobias can often be traced back to a certain triggering event or traumatic experience in a person’s youth.
The Uncanny Valley is a translated term coined from an article study of the human-like features of robots and their effect on the human perception, published in 1970 by Japanese Roboticist, Masahiro Mori.
What the uncanny valley refers to is that eerie, uneasy feeling that occurs in a person at the moment a humanoid figure is perceived to be unreal by its observer. It is presumed through Mori’s original hypothesis that the more human an object appears, the more likely we are to have an empathetic response to it, but that inevitably our emotional connection or affinity with it will drop as it is revealed in some way to be less realistic through our recognition of its unnatural motions and features.
The uncanniness is the unease and feelings of dread that builds in a person when they notice the strangeness of an object that is all at once both familiar and detached. The valley refers to that moment between recognition of a thing that seems familiar and the understanding that it is somehow not right, which leads to a dip in positive emotional response.
While taking us into the the three narrators’ own experiences with the onset of this specific phobic reaction through the perceptive point of the uncanny valley, we are drawn into a better understanding of how pop culture and social interactions through childhood can affect our lives in very formative ways. It is therefore, a vivid psychological and sociocultural observation of how fear may shape us.
I think so much more could be touched on and explored on this topic, so I do hope that Shudder decides to make more episodes – though I don’t hold out much hope for this since the one and only episode was released in 2017.
Of Further Note:
The writer of this documentary short, Rodney Ascher , is also the writer and director of the 2012 documentary Room 237, which explores various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s horror film, The Shining (1980). This is another extremely well made production that I highly recommend to fans of Kubrick films and the horror genre in general. Ascher is also the director behind The Nightmare (2015), a documentary about sleep paralysis.
Broadcasting stations took down the original trailer for the Movie Magic after parents complained of it being too scary for children. Anthony Hopkins actually took a “crash course” in ventriloquism and sleight of hand to prepare fore his role as Corky in the movie Magic. The dummy, Fats, is said to have been created to look like Anthony Hopkins. He was given the opportunity to keep the dummy with him at home, but became so unnerved by it he had it taken out of his home. Both Gene Wilder and Jack Nicholson were considered for the part of Corky. The producer didn’t want a comedian playing the character of Corky, though Gene Wilder later said he thought it would’ve worked better. Jack Nicholson actually turned down the role because he didn’t want to wear a toupee.
It has been said that Hopkins’ characterization of Corky in the movie Magic was a contributing factor to him being cast in the role of Hannibal Lecter. The “Blockbuster Guide to Movies and DVDs” states that this movie is “a fine opportunity to see Hopkins being scary thirteen years before The Silence of the Lambs (1991).” Being that The Silence of the Lambs is one of my all time favorite films, I’m certainly glad that Hopkins played Corky.