"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 28 March 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Unheimlich Manuever



There you are, clicking drearily

around the dial, when it

happens: TV performs the

unheimlich maneuver on you.

Without warning, the REM trance

of channel-surfing is shattered

by the creepy, clammy sensation

Freud called the "unheimlich"

(the uncanny).


The Home Shopping Network's

Gallery of Dolls is an

infomercial for Freud's uncanny,

transfixing the unsuspecting

grazer with misbegotten moppets

like little Ginny, her bovine

eyes flesh-crawlingly lifelike,

her tongue thrust obscenely

between glistening lips. The

host, a blond with a Steinway

smile named Alice Cleveland,

keeps up a ceaseless stream of

patter as she preens the US$229

doll, who is "full-body

porcelain," "highly

collectible," and "absolutely

adorable," to boot. To

unbelievers, little Ginny looks

like a garroted cherub, her

goggle-eyed last gasp fixed for

all time by the embalmer's art -

the Hummel figurine meets the

prenatal nightmare floating in



In his famous essay on the

uncanny, Freud singles out the

doll for special consideration.

Whereas children live in an

animistic universe where the

boundary between living things

and lifeless toys is fuzzily

drawn, the adult mind is

unsettled by such ambiguities.



Children treat their dolls as if

they were alive, says Freud,

while adults are often unnerved

by waxworks, mannequins, and

other inanimate objects that

seem to follow us with their

eyes or stir behind our backs.

Hence the perennial theme of the

evil effigy, from Twilight Zone

episodes such as "Living Doll,"

in which Talky Tina makes good

on her threat to kill a little

girl's hateful stepfather, to

the Child's Play movies. With

its weird combination of

kaffeeklatch bonhomie and

Felliniesque repulsiveness,

HSN's Gallery of Dolls never

fails to unnerve. While many of

the dolls on sale are

standard-issue faux Victorians,

each show features at least one

truly grotesque offering: FayZah

Spanos's Bonnie Boo Boo, a

doe-eyed heartbreaker with more

streaming plastic tears than a

Madonna doloroso; Juan Perez's

Robby, a pug-nosed tyke whose

protruding tongue gives him the

impish charm of a child being

throttled. Gallery of Dolls is

our mass culture in miniature, a

dollhouse version of the queasy

mix of sentimentality and

sideshow grotesquery that

transformed The Hunchback of

Notre Dame into a cartoon face

on a McDonald's Happy Meal. At

the same time, the show

encapsulates what Umberto Eco

called the "America of furious



We are a nation obsessed with

simulation and suspended

animation, from the bronzed baby

shoe to the open-casketed Loved

One "revamped ... to look like a

living doll," as Jessica

Mitford put it in The American

Way of Death. Infancy, as every

Hallmark card-giver knows, is a

time of heartwarming innocence,

so it must be memorialized in

the "remarkably realistic and

anatomically correct" vinyl

features of HSN's Newborn

Preemies. Likewise, Ms.

Cleveland must impersonate her

high school yearbook self

through the judicious

application of makeup and

hairspray, and the show's

hard-sell spiel must be swaddled

in the domestic coziness of a

set whose window looks out on

artificial flowers and an ersatz




The cumulative effect of all this

sugary fakery is the nagging

suspicion that it protests too

much; HSN's Gallery of Dolls

hints at the Gallery of

Grotesques behind the relentless

cuteness of mainstream America -

the hair-chewing monster lurking

in every Cabbage Patch Snack

Time Kid, so to speak. It's

impossible to look at the show's

precocious coquettes without

mentally replaying news footage

of murdered six-year-old beauty

queen JonBenet Ramsey in her

showgirl get-up, or pondering

the Jekyll-Hyde hypocrisy of a

society that cries out for the

castration of child-molesters

even as it subsists on a steady

diet of pop pedophilia: kiddie

beauty pageants, Calvin Klein

ads, Jock Sturges photos, and

virtually any movie featuring

Juliette Lewis. HSN's wide-eyed

innocents also suggest a

collective denial of the death

of childhood in a world where

poverty, broken homes, and easy

access to guns have triggered an

upward spiral in violent crime

by juveniles. According to The

New York Times, the arrest rate

for 14-to-17-year-old killers

has tripled in the past decade,

and prepubescent sociopaths like

the boys who hurled a

five-year-old off a building

because he refused to steal

candy for them are routinely

featured on the nightly news.



To Freud, the doll is a double -

a magical attempt to insure

ourselves against death, sprung

from the "narcissism which holds

sway in the mind of the child as

in that of the primitive man."

But stumbling on cobwebbed

childhood fantasies in the harsh

light of adult reality can be a

creepy experience, suggests

Freud. "From having been an

assurance of immortality," he

writes, the doll becomes a

"ghastly harbinger of death."

Welcome to the dollhouse.

courtesy of Howard Beale

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The Fish

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Barrel Image

The Barrel
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Gun Image
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