The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “Nightmare as a Child”

April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

CM Capture 14See also the four preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone, season one.

I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out.  It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.

Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham.  The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door.  She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.

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Older Helen “meets” younger Helen.

But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.

1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery.  The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue.  (It starts at 19:00.)

I'm you Helen

“I’m you, Helen.”

The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business.  Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately.  It gives you chills.  It’s a stroke of genius.  And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director.  Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?

CM Capture 9crop2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks.  The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.

LelandPalmerFWWMThe best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham.  Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power.  It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode.  However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children.  Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.

We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality.  We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger.  Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode.  It disturbs and disorients Helen.

Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind.  He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone.  This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”

And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.

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The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?”  One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror.  The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day.  She does not think of the past.  She does not even recognize herself as a child.  She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.

Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable.  “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says.  “And you look so like your mother.”  Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed.  The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.

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We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now.  I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.

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Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.”  He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement.  But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here?  Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?

Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of.  Its very existence could be denied.  Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.”  The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.

Nabokov’s Mysterious Chess Problem

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Speak, Memory.

Reading now: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.

One short note before leaving Nabokov for a while: there’s a baffling passage at the end of chapter 14 concerning a chess problem, which Nabokov imbues with strange import.  Anyone who’s read him knows to be on their guard for this sort of thing — he’s a trickster — so I went to MLA Bibliography and tried to look it up, but came up more or less empty.

And then I saw this.

Now, this is an anonymous piece, the original URL for which has been redirected to a list of porny sites, and which has been rescued and remounted by a plucky enthusiast.  But it’s a mind-blower, and it strikes me as fairly convincing, solving a lot of the mysteries I felt surrounding the riddle when I first read it: why the pawn is turned into a knight instead of a queen, the bizarre hints about censorship, the allusions to Alice in Wonderland that pop up here and there in the book.  (The fact that Nabokov translated that book into Russian may be one of the bits of evidence against this interpretation, but then again, the intensive engagement with the text that translation entails may have led Nabokov to his response via chess problem.)

I plan to delve into some biographies to see if this has already been covered, and the anonymous Internet posting is just rehashing previously established scholarship.  I’ll plan to update this post thereafter with what I find.

UPDATE, 5/15/11: A quick-and-dirty literature review shows that the major scholarly article about this chess problem is David Sheidlower’s “Reading Between the Lines and the Squares,” published in Modern Fiction Studies way back in 1979.  Sheidlower sees this problem as pointing towards the conclusion of the novel Bend Sinister, and makes a convincing case.  His argument also pegs the problem to the problem in Alice in Wonderland.  The Freudian interpretation of the anonymous online interpreter and Sheidlower’s interpretation seem to work at the problem from opposite angles: one uses the evidence in Bend Sinister to interpret the chess problem as an independent part of Nabokov’s overall oeuvre, the other sees the chess problem as primarily important for interpreting the meaning of Bend Sinister.

Nabokov’s notorious declared hatred of Freudian ideas and symbols may have been a case of protesting too much, or a stance that guides the reader toward an attempt to understand his own ideas about sex which differ from Freud’s.  (The end of Speak, Memory, with its allusions toward his and his wife’s vigilance in protecting their son from sexual predators, certainly does lead one to think that the topic was much on his mind.)  And I think he’d certainly be pleased at the idea of a problem that could be interpreted on narrative, thematic, and societal levels.

Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

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