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Noises in the Dark

By (November 1, 2007) No Comment

Uncanny Bodies: the Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre

Robert Spadoni
University of California Press, 2007

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”
from Dracula (1931)

“Hello. This is a demonstration of a talking picture. Notice, it is a picture of me and I am talking. Note how my lips and the sound issuing from them are synchronized together in perfect unison.”
from Singing in the Rain (1952)

Film has never been silent. The first motion picture camera, invented by Thomas Edison’s lab assistant William Dickson in 1891, was named “Kinetograph,” to pair it in the minds of consumers with Edison’s popular phonograph. Dickson never perfected synchronization—the fault of the audio technology available to him. Still, there was sound. Actors were hired to provide live narrations, sound effects were employed, pianists and orchestras were hired to improvise musical accompaniments or to perform loosely scored soundtracks. Even without such intentional music, the mechanics of film projection produced a sound, a sound that means film, the sound of film running through a projector.

Synchronization may have been achieved as early as 1895; in 1906 Eugene-August Lauste patented a machine that recorded sound and image simultaneously; since 1900, the ability to record sound directly onto film was developed; and throughout the period leading up to and including Don Juan (1926), films were shown with synchronized disks.

Yet, Don Juan — and more sensationally The Jazz Singer (1927)—marked the end of the so-called silent era, and the transition from silent-with-sound to all-sound was radical. Certainly, that switch-over—a gradual process that suddenly exploded—represents a moment when film-making was reinvented, and became, essentially, what we still think of as film.

Robert Spadoni’s Uncanny Bodies begins at the end of the silent era. Spadoni’s central argument, that the oddities produced by the transition from silent to sound were ideal for the birth of the Hollywood horror film, is fascinating. Horror fictions—I say “fictions” because I mean to include not just literature but film, television, radio, etc.—emphasize that which is unsettling. That the media used to tell a horror story is itself unsettling is unique.

Chapter one of Uncanny Bodies, “The Uncanny Body of Early Sound Film” (originally published as a stand-alone essay), thoroughly establishes that much about early sound films was unsettling to audiences grown accustomed to silent film. The use of sound emphasized that the images on the screen were not living, or even three-dimensional. At the time, sound caused critics to become aware of the shadow-aspect of film. Spadoni writes, “…the addition of synchronized sound triggered perceptions of ghostly figures in a shadowy world, just as the addition of movement had when, at the first Lumier screenings, the projected still photograph that opened the show was cranked suddenly to life.” The absurdity of a flat, movie-screen-sized head speaking was distracting—the viewer’s attention was lost in the grotesque movements of giant lips—visualize the lips that fill the screen at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and superimpose that image over an entire film. Volume and amplification were also a problem. No matter where a character stood, whether in the background or the foreground, the volume of their voice remained the same, and without the benefit of stereo, all the voices were projected from a single, central location. Add to that what’s left out—if a man in leather shoes speaks while walking across a gravel drive, audiences were aware enough to notice that the man’s shoes were noiseless upon the gravel. A man who walks without sound may as well be a ghost.

  Audience awareness is the crux of Spadoni’s argument. Spadoni takes the term “medium-sensitive viewer” from film historian Yuri Tsivan, who notes in his book, Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Revolution, that critics writing during the beginnings of film “write vividly about such seemingly mundane events in films… a bush trembling at a water’s edge, waves breaking and bursting into rivulets, and the faintest unsteadiness in a card player’s fingers.” Once the novelty of the motion picture diminished, so did the notability of such details. Spadoni argues—convincingly—that the addition of sound created a second period of medium-sensitive viewers, viewers who once again became keenly aware of the mechanics of film, aware of the illusion being perpetrated. Aware of the strangeness of moving pictures, and keen to the new strangeness of talking pictures.

Two genres, the musical (obviously) and horror, were ideally suited to incorporate the strangeness sound introduced to film. Spadoni writes:

Both genres seized the abrupt tonal shifts that early sound filmmakers sometimes effected in their films unintentionally. Consider movie musicals, in which musical numbers stand apart stylistically from the sequences that proceed and follow them. A film shifts gears when a number starts, then shifts back again after it is over.

This tonal shift is described by Katie Trumpener (an English professor at Yale), as “weather.” Though she is referring to musicals, the concept of weather works well for horror film, as there is often a discernable change in the atmosphere of a horror film just before a horrific event occurs.

Generally, when Spadoni writes about horror, his ideas get thin. My assumption is that he likes horror films, but it’s hard to tell. In the introduction he writes that as a boy, Dracula (1931) both “awestruck” and “disappointed” him, and that Frankenstein (1931) “…exuded an ancient quality that set it a world apart from the other horror films I loved.” What other films? He doesn’t have to love either Dracula or Frankenstein in order to be a horror fan, but his passion for horror films—if indeed he has such a passion—never comes across. Perhaps Spadoni’s passion is hidden somewhere in his tedious introduction—what a missed opportunity! His introduction is never engaging or natural. When he writes, “to me, all black-and-white films swam in the same ocean of undifferentiated oldness (except for silent films, which came from another planet)…” he is trying hard to be personal, maybe even funny, but all is lost among those tired expressions—“swam in the same ocean” and “from another planet.” That’s machine-writing. Sentences assembled with stock phrases attached to other stock phrases.

In spite of the book’s subtitle, which indicates that Uncanny Bodies will be in part about the origins of the horror genre, it’s not at all about that. Spadoni acknowledges that horror cinema predates sound film. Edison’s studio shot a version of Frankenstein for the Kinetoscope (an machine that allowed a single viewer to watch a short film), but more notable are the two Expressionist films, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). And so Spadoni has to argue that sound brought about the birth of the horror genre in Hollywood with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein.

Spadoni falls prey to the misconception that a horror film (or any horror fiction) must, by definition, be frightening, and so he takes it upon himself to, “recover some of the lost original power, and strangeness, of Browning’s film.” Fear is the subject of all horror fictions; horror fictions are often frightening because fear is their subject; but what frightens is subjective, and so not a good criteria for a definition of horror. Dracula may not frighten you, or anyone, but a horror film it remains. He adds, a few pages later, this vague claim: “Just as [Dracula] falls short when, today, we place it alongside other horror films.” What “other” horror films? Spadoni never says. Does he mean all other horror films, does he mean great horror films (if so, what horror films does he consider to be great), or does he mean current horror films?

Horror films other than Dracula and Frankenstein are discussed in Uncanny Bodies, some only in passing, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Carnival of Souls (1962), and others more thoroughly, such as Svengali (1931) and White Zombie (1932). Much that is said about these films, and Dracula, and Frankenstein, is worthwhile; the argument at the center of Uncanny Bodies is, as I said, fascinating; but all that is excellent about Uncanny Bodies is buried under awkward, boring prose that makes reading the book an onerous task. Occasionally, his writing provides unintentional laughs: “Synchronization in this context suggests something extratextual pieced onto the whole for effect rather than something intrinsic to the profilmic world that has been drawn out of it and captured on film or disc.” That line reads like a parody of what it is: the worst kind of academic writing. Even his best prose is ponderous: “According to the latter view, cinema was less a window that had always been transparent—and now had been opened to let the sounds through—than it was a noisy attraction busily cranking out sensory delights before a house of astonished patrons.”  

Spadoni made the odd decision to occasionally introduce block quotes with an all-capped, bold heading. These headings are clearly meant to be witty or funny, but in all but one case they are just distracting. And that single exception was funny only because Spadoni’s heading, coupled with the quote, accidentally produced a poem:


Modern Methods by Undertakers, With Actors
as Demonstrators

Eat your heart out, Bill Knott.

Uncanny Bodies should have been a long essay, not a book. A shorter form would have forced Spadoni to focus his writing on his main argument, and Spadoni’s prose can’t sustain a reader’s interest for much more than forty pages. I wondered, at times, if his prose was the result of a kind of defensiveness, an amateur film historian (Spadoni is an English professor) attempting to sound like the film historians he admires.

By the time Singing in the Rain was made, sound had been a part of film for twenty plus years, an element essentially taken for granted, easy to mythologize. Many who went to see Singing in the Rain likely remembered the first sound pictures, likely remembered going to see movies during the silent era. And so they might have recognized that Singing in the Rain presents a compact, fantasy version of the introduction of sound to cinema: a perfectly synched demonstration film screened at a Hollywood party, Hollywood bigwigs worrying over the success of The Jazz Singer, scenes from an attempted sound film that go comically awry, and, ultimately, that same film, sound track perfected, shrill, silent actress dubbed by the lovable Debbie Reynolds—a big, box-office success!

We have a remarkable capacity for becoming blasé about technology—imagine, a little phone in everyone’s pocket!—and by 1952 the technology behind sound pictures seemed unremarkable. That second period of medium-sensitive viewers gone. We are currently in the midst of another ongoing and radical transition in film, as film itself is replaced by digital media. Movies shot, edited, and shown digitally cannot be called films; they are something else. Capable of doing what film did, but, ideally, destined to promote new ideas.

Adam Golaski edits New Genre, a journal of science and horror fiction, and edits at Flim Forum, a press for experimental contemporary poetry. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Sleepingfish, LVNG, Essays & Fictions, Spinning Jenny, and Absent. He teaches writing at the Univesrity of Connecticut and literature at The New England Institute of Art.